NEC music history chair Katarina Markovic writes on Mahler's Symphony No. 3, a touchstone for the extremes of how audiences can experience and understand the composer through NEC's season of Mahler Unleashed programs. The symphony is performed in its entirety by the NEC Philharmonia under the direction of Hugh Wolff on November 2, and reinterpreted by improvisers in the November 29 Mahler in Chinatown concert.
Marching songs, Pan, Bacchus, funeral marches, posthorns, angels, birds of night, battle hymns and tectonic nature—all that, and much more, in one symphony? Surely, one can’t blame the music critic Robert Hirschfeld commenting after the work’s 1909 Vienna performance and describing the state of mind of a typical faithful “Mahlerian bacchante” as “deranged by such explosions, the mind thoroughly upset by the tumult.” The same critic was disturbed by what he describes as “the pitiable thematic catalogue, […] an indigestible assemblage of ideas that are variously banal and studiedly awkward; interminable trombone exercises, ironic funeral marches, […] instrumental jokes which reduce all serious discourse to nothingness in a few measures […] the joke-symphony.”
But even if we can recognize the different elements that the critic targets, what we hear, and what Mahler strived for was certainly not a joke. By 1896, this symphony was his most ambitious and most labored-over work to date, the conclusion to his “Passion Trilogy” of symphonies, and one which he endowed with his most memorable musical and aesthetic commentaries. He envisioned “such a great work, in which in fact the whole world is mirrored.”
When Bruno Walter gazed in amazement towards the awe-inspiring rocks of the Höllergebirge, which he saw for the first time when he came to visit Mahler at Steinbach am Attersee in the summer of 1897, Mahler discouraged him from looking any further, since “it’s all already in my music.” He called his work a symphony, following the Platonic definition of the term, since as he explained, “to me ‘symphony’ means constructing a world with all the available means at one’s disposal.”
If the plan was to mirror the entire world, and to use all available technical means, it is no wonder that Mahler could barely contain his symphony within 90 minutes. However, contrary to what the critics saw as “non-music, without form and content,” within these 90 minutes reigns a rigorous order, thought through by Mahler in every minute detail during the idyllic summers of 1895–96, when he escaped the dark seriousness and the frantic work pace of Hamburg and retreated into his newly built composition hut on the banks of the Attersee. The order—evolutionary, developmental yet highly structured—was something Mahler envisioned musically far before he started toying with the numerous and sometimes contradictory programmatic titles he attached to this piece.
The unique plethora of primary sources for this work (letters, sketches, autographs, contemporaneous commentaries) that we are blessed—and cursed—to have inherited from Mahler can easily throw us into a circular search through the surface layers of Mahler’s often revised and re-phrased programmatic pronouncements. His own written associations throughout the compositional process include: A Musical Vision of Nature, Nietzsche’s Die fröliche Wissenschaft, A Midsummer Morning Dream; The Happy Life: A Midsummer Night Dream; Awakening of Pan; Pan: A Symphonic Poem; Bacchic Procession; The Herald; The Rabble; Southern Storm; In Dolores; The Postilion; The Bird of Night; and a range of “What Flowers/ Forest/ Twilight/ Animals/ Cuckoo/ Man/ Midnight/ Child/ Angels/ God/ Love Tell Me,” referring to the succession of the movements.
While these titles do offer fascinating intellectual and emotional clues to his developing inspiration—from the fascination with Nietzsche, Wagner, Schopenhauer, and German nationalism in his student days in Vienna to organicist and evolutionary naturalist interests, they easily create a trap of over-specificity for a symphony whose ambition was to envelop in its fold the most abstract cosmic processes and human aspirations.
Regardless of the specific programmatic connotations, it is no accident that the musical materials of the first movement—tectonic, massive, inorganic—all circle around the idea of a march. The three types of marches—the “urban” march of the opening massive horn calls echoing a well-known German patriotic marching song, the disjoint motivic cells of the d-minor funeral march and the ensuing pastoral, fairy tale-like march in B-flat and D-flat—all inhabit the stark and brutal realities of a barren and rigid landscape, lacking human spirit. They are given in large brushstrokes, unrefined and solid, their orchestral timbres strictly kept apart.
Mahler is here the builder of the world’s foundations; he has no use for refinement and textural finesse since he is manipulating large building blocks, massive tectonic structures which need to be brought into some kind of cohesion. As the materials return in the re-exposition and development sections, they slowly expand, their rigid edges becoming more porous and gradually, through variation and motivic expansion they start creating interconnections. A human spirit clearly emerges first through the trombone solo lament emerging and raising above the massive brass chords and then again in the recapitulation, when the humanizing voice is taken over from the trombone by the cello.
The movement, however, also sets up the long-range dilemma: through the undermining of the tonic D major/minor tonal center by the F major that suddenly appears triumphant after the great Breakthrough of the recapitulation and usurps the expected resolution in the tonic key, Mahler, in yet another symphony, posits his eternal philosophical question: what is the outcome of human life? What is the road to transcendence and redemption? Surely not one that is won by trickery and force, as the F-major break-in seems to suggest.
Therefore, the road begins anew. From the lower life forms—flowers (second movement), animals (third movement)—Mahler casts a look back to the humorous and quasi-sentimental world of Aesop's fables and Wunderhorn animal parodies, where the human being is as distant and strange a phenomenon as is the melancholic and formulaic Posthorn solo, which interjects itself into the continual scurrying of forest beings.
Most of the third movement is based on the Wunderhorn song Ablösung im sommer (“Change-over in summer”), in which the death of a cuckoo is easily glossed over by Madame Nightingale’s gay songs. It is into this cruelly simple world that the seemingly noble and pastoral Posthorn solo makes its renewed unprepared appearance in the “wrong” key of F major, pointing to Mahler’s attitude towards the emblems of human civilization and convention which it represents.
The truth, Mahler seems to indicate, lies in the deep realms of night: the fourth movement, once named after Nietzsche’s poem “The Drunken Song of Midnight” from Also Sprach Zarathustra or “What night/man tells me” returns to the tonic key of D.
But its mode is the mystery here. The ever-suffering human, searching for answers in the dichotomy of night and day, dreaming and wakefulness, unconsciousness and rationality, life and death, incessantly oscillates between major and minor, each major hopeful moment immediately shaken by the symbolic oboe cry of the “bird of death” and a chromatic slip into the darkness of the minor.
The stark contrast of the next movement—another Wunderhorn poem of angels and naïveté—with its delightful bell-like children’s chorus, lack of string sonorities, and another intrusion of the F major, reinforces the struggle and paradox of the human spirit: the world of Angels (and we must remember that it was the Angel in the Resurrection Symphony who tried to deflect the “hero” from his road to redemption), seems to be one of artifice, ready-made children's Christmas carols and cheery dotted march rhythms. In its midst, the contralto brings up the sorrowful and dramatic D minor with her weeping, questioning plea for redemption.
And redemption is what comes in the tonally stable, gradually expanding developmental variations of the utterly human Finale. Mahler wrote the following quotation from Des Knaben Wunderhorn on top of this movement in his manuscript: “Father look upon my wounds, let no creature be lost!”
The same tone of supplication from the contralto solo of the previous movement makes it all about the human voice here: from the euphony of the chorale-like opening melody, to the limitless unfolding of its recitative-like, Parsifal-inspired themes to the powerful, yet harmonious Breakthrough which brings about the great apotheosis in D major.
As Mahler wrote to Natalie Bauer Lechner: “in the adagio, all is resolved in peace and existence. The Ixion wheel of appearances is at last brought to a standstill.” The rumble, paradoxes, and the overwhelming varieties of existential conditions—all that finally becomes part of the highest form of spiritual awareness: eternal, all-embracing Love, which as Mahler elaborated “acts within us—as the rays come together in a focal point.”