Friday, December 23, 2005


Mahler: Symphony No.3

Peter Laki writes:

Symphony No. 3 in D minor
by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt (now Kaliste) in Austrian Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911.

Mahler wrote his Third Symphony in the summers of 1895 and 1896 (movements 2 through 6 were written in 1895, the first movement in 1896). Two themes that eventually found their way into the first movement were sketched as early as 1893, however. The song "Ablösung im Sommer" ("Relief in Summer"), on which the third movement was based, was written about 1890.

Music from Mahler's Third Symphony was first heard in concert on November 9, 1896, when Arthur Nikisch conducted the second movement, under the title "Blumenstück" ("Flower Piece") with the Berlin Philharmonic. Movements 2, 3, and 6 were conducted by Felix Weingartner on March 9, 1897, also in Berlin. Mahler conducted the premiere of the complete work on June 9, 1902, at Krefeld. The score was first published in 1897 by Josef Weinberger in Vienna; two years later, Mahler made some revisions to the score. The United States premiere was on May 9, 1914, in Cincinnati, under the direction of Ernst Kunwald.
This symphony runs about 1 hour and 35 minutes in performance. Mahler scored the symphony for 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolos), 4 oboes (one doublinEnglishsh horn), 3 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 2 high clarinets in E flat, 4 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 8 horns, 4 trumpets, posthorn, 4 trombones, contrabass tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, bass drum, suspended cymbals, cymbal attached to the bass drum, tam-tam, birch brush), 2 harps, strings, contralto solo, women's chorus, and children's chorus.

One wonders whether it was pure coincidence that the two archrivals, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, wrote works inspired (at least in part) by Friedrich Nietzsche at exactly the same time. Strauss completed his tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra ("Thus Spake Zarathustra") in August 1896. The very same month, Mahler put the finishing touches on his Third Symphony, whose fourth movement is a song for contralto with words from the "Midnight Song" from Nietzsche's philosophical poem - an excerpt, moreover, that is also featured in Strauss's work.(1.)
The relationship between Nietzsche's book and the music of both Mahler and Strauss is an open - and extremely complicated - question. (In his autobiography, titled Ecce Homo, Nietzsche had said that Zarathustra was itself a musical composition.) It seems that despite the great - and obvious - differences between Also sprach Zarathustra and Mahler's Third, the reasons that caused both composers to turn to Nietzsche had something in common. Strauss found in Zarathustra a compelling image of human evolution through successive stages of spiritual development. (Those stages are indicated in the titles of the sections that compose Strauss's work: "Of the Great Longing," "Of Joys and Passions," "Of Science," etc.) Mahler, too, envisioned his work as some kind of evolution through successive stages (or, in the words of German musicologist Constantin Floros, a "musical cosmology"); the six movements of his symphony originally had titles that were couched in parallel grammatical structures, as were those of Strauss. This becomes immediately clear if we juxtapose some of the section headings in Strauss's tone poem with some of the provisional movement titles of Mahler's symphony (his last version before he did away with titles altogether):

[STRAUSS] "Of the Backworldsmen" - "Of the Great Longing" - "Of Joys and Passions" - "Of Science"

[MAHLER] "What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me" - "What the Animals in the Woods Tell Me" - "What Mankind Tells Me"- "What the Angels Tell Me" - "What Love Tells Me"

Mahler's case is, to be sure, more complicated: the movement titles changed several times during the composition process (with only the general formula, "what . . . tells me," remaining constant) and were finally eliminated altogether in the published score.
In his book on Mahler's symphonies, Constantin Floros concluded that the Third Symphony, although based in part on Nietzsche, is "diametrically opposed to Nietzsche's philosophy." Floros contrasts Nietzsche's anti-religious stance with Mahler's affirmation of faith in the fifth movement, and he asserts that the message of love in the last movement is also antithetical to Nietzsche's philosophy. Yet, in his great Mahler biography, Henry-Louis de La Grange writes that "Nietzsche's essential theme . . . the conflicting Apollonian and Dionysian principles . . . influenced Mahler all his life." These principles are certainly present in the Third Symphony; also, Mahler contemplates nature and humanity on a universal, "cosmological" scale, just as Nietzsche had done.
The planning of Mahler's Third Symphony began with a series of tentative movement titles that probably preceded any substantial compositional work. The earliest version of the plan was transmitted in slightly different forms by Paul Bekker and Alma Mahler in their respective books on the composer. This plan included the title Sommernachtstraum ("A Midsummer Night's Dream"), to which Mahler added in parentheses: "not after Shakespeare." According to Alma Mahler's version, the work at this point was supposed to consist of seven movements:

1. "Summer Marches In" (Fanfare and Merry March)
2. "What the Woods Tell Me"
3. "What Love Tells Me" (Adagio)
4. "What the Twilight Tells Me"
5. "What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me"
6. "What the Cuckoo Tells Me" (Scherzo)
7. "What the Child Tells Me"

At this stage, the work seems to have existed in Mahler's mind as a kind of "nature symphony," with flowers and animals but no humans or angels; the addition of human voices and sung texts was not yet part of the scheme. At the end of summer 1895 - he had now spent an entire summer working on the music - Mahler thought of adopting the title of another book by Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (variously translated as "The Happy Science" or "The Joyful Wisdom"), as the overall title of his symphony, either in its original form or changed to Meine fröhliche Wissenschaft ("My Happy Science"). He also changed "Midsummer Night's Dream" to "Midsummer Morning's Dream." New movement titles - night, morning bells - appeared, expanding the symphony's cosmology; also, the participation of an alto soloist and women's chorus became clearly established by this time. The symphony's cosmology was also influenced by a poem by Mahler's close friend Siegfried Lipiner, himself a follower of Nietzsche. Lipiner wrote a poem called "Genesis," which was, according to Constantin Floros, "conceived as a cosmogonic dream. It presents a poetic vision of the creation of the world from a large, resting cloud that begins to speak. In a language rich with images, Lipiner tells how out of the cloud the firmament, the earth, suns, the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, and mankind came into being."
Mahler first envisioned a seven-movement symphony, and, as of 1895, he planned to end it with his 1892 song Das himmlische Leben ("Heavenly Life"), an alternate title of which would have been "What the Child Tells Me." (This song eventually found its place as the last movement of Mahler's Fourth.)

The last decision to be made involved moving the Adagio, the "Love" movement, from third place to the end of the symphony (a rather unusual choice, coming only two years after Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" Symphony, which also ended with a slow movement). This decision had important philosophical consequences. As Mahler himself explained: "In the Adagio, everything is resolved in the calm of existence. The Ixion's wheel of appearances finally stops turning." (Ixion was a king in Greek mythology, punished by Zeus for his love for Hera by being bound on an eternally revolving wheel in the underworld.)

Except for this final movement, the structure of Mahler's Third Symphony shows definite parallels with that of the Second. According to British musicologist Peter Franklin, who devoted a whole volume to Mahler's Third (2.), the new symphony "was to celebrate the 'happy life' that the Second had inaugurated after dispelling apocalyptic horrors with its concluding choral hymn to the individual spirit." Franklin provided a useful chart comparing the two symphonies:

Symphony No. 2 (1890-94)

Part I:
1 (Extended dramatic sonata structure)
- Pause -

Part II:
2 Andante
3 Scherzo (based on Wunderhorn setting)
4 Alto solo (Wunderhorn)
5 Finale (orchestral apocalypse and resolving choral conclusion)

Symphony No. 3 (1893?-96)

Part I:
1 (Extended dramatic sonata structure)
- Pause -

Part II:
2 Minuet
3 Scherzo (based on Wunderhorn setting)
4 Alto solo (Nietzsche)
5 Short choral movement (Wunderhorn)
6 Finale (concluding Adagio)

THE FIRST MOVEMENT - which was actually written last - is, by size at least, almost a complete symphony in itself. Many critics, including admirers of Mahler, have found this movement rambling and diffuse, with its sections disconnected and incoherent. However, it is possible that the main idea behind the movement is precisely the creation of order out of chaos, the emergence of clear directions out of a state of aimlessness. This would be in keeping with the "Genesis" idea from Lipiner's above-mentioned poem.

There are four stages in the unfolding of this first movement. (Although the stages often share the same thematic material, they can be readily distinguished by ear.) (3.) The first is the fanfare for eight horns with which the symphony opens, the second, is a string of melodic fragments in a tragic mood in a low register, initially dominated by the brass instruments, and the third is a string of folk-like themes of an ethereal quality, played mainly by woodwinds or solo violin.

All of these materials are static and, in the words of analyst David B. Greene, "resist vital impulses." Motion is introduced eventually, as a monumental march - the fourth stage - develops, combining the "fanfare" and "folk-like" material with a lively rhythmic accompaniment. The first time, the march is unable to proceed for very long before being interrupted by the three static groups of themes. The second time, however, as the music starts once more from silence as it has so often before, the march grows triumphantly to the final climax.

THE SECOND MOVEMENT had the title "Blumenstück" ("Flower Piece") when it was performed separately - a holdover from Mahler's original program. Mahler described this movement to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner:

"It is the most carefree music I have ever written, as carefree as only flowers can be. It all sways and ripples like flowers on limber stems sway in the wind. Today I realized to my surprise that the basses have nothing but pizzicato, not one firm stroke, and that the low, heavy percussion is not used at all. On the other hand, the violins, again with a solo violin, have the most lively, flowing, and charming figures. . . . That this innocent flowery cheerfulness does not last but suddenly becomes serious and weighty, you can well imagine. A heavy storm sweeps across the meadow and shakes the flowers and leaves. They groan and whimper, as if pleading for redemption to a higher realm."

The movement is a (more or less) regular minuet with a highly irregular Trio section repeated twice in the form M-T-M-T-M. The "grazioso" tone of the minuet evokes the 18th century despite subtle touches in the orchestration (especially the harp writing) and in the phrase structure that betray the hand of a late Romantic composer. What makes the Trio so irregular is that it consists of three different sections, each in a different meter. In Peter Franklin's words: "Although [the Trio] . . . cuts some odd capers and seems intent upon a developmental life of its own, the graceful minuet is prepared to surprise us with a coquettish smile when it returns."

THE THIRD MOVEMENT is based on one of Mahler's early Wunderhorn songs, with the first line "Kuckuck hat sich zu Tode gefallen" ("Cuckoo has fallen to its death"). The song describes the cuckoo's death with irony and mock mourning, and then goes on to celebrate the nightingale who will replace the cuckoo as the preferred singer in the forest. The scherzo expands on this song in much the same way the scherzo of the Second Symphony did on "St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes." In the present work, the "cuckoo" song alternates between several contrasting episodes, including a memorable posthorn solo, which occurs twice in the course of the movement. The nostalgic melody of the posthorn brings on that typical Mahlerian moment when the fun is suddenly over and things become serious. The posthorn, which used to announce the arrival of the mail in small Austrian towns, has its own literary-musical tradition from Schubert's Winterreise ("The Winter Journey") to several poems about posthorns and stagecoaches by Nikolaus Lenau, a Romantic poet cherished by Mahler. At its return, the "cuckoo" scherzo evolves into a more boisterous ("grob!" - "rude!") section. A second hearing of the posthorn solo and a brief but very eventful coda close the movement.

THE FOURTH MOVEMENT brings an abrupt change of mood with a setting of Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" from Zarathustra, for contralto solo. Out of a mysterious background of muted strings, the soloist begins on a single repeated pitch. The vocal line gradually becomes more and more elaborate, but the harmonies remain static and the dynamics extremely soft throughout. The image of pain is emphasized by an expressive violin solo.

THE FIFTH MOVEMENT, which follows without a break, is another complete contrast in mood. The happy chiming of the bells, children's voices singing "bimm, bamm" provide the background to a cheerful, folk-like chorus on a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the German collection of folk poetry that inspired Mahler throughout the 1890s. This movement shares a characteristic motif with the last movement of the Fourth Symphony (which, as we have seen, was to have belonged to the Third). The choral interjectionsoloistsollst ja nicht weinen" ("No, you mustn't weep") are Mahler's addition to the folk text.

THE SIXTH MOVEMENT follows the fifth with no break. All the previous contrasts seem to be resolved in the peaceful calm of this, Mahler's first great symphonic Adagio. The opening theme quotes from the slow movement of Beethoven's last string quartet (Op. 135) - the resemblance is too great to be accidental. The continuation, however, is more in the spirit of Bruckner - one of the few times that Bruckner's and Mahler's styles are really close. The manuscript bears the following inscription, adapted from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:

Vater, sieh an die Wmienn mein!
Kein Wesen lass verloren sein!

Father, look upon my wounds,
Let no creature be lost!

The movement is based on two themes: a simple and soft D-major chorale melody and a more intense and dramatic minor-mode theme. The two themes and their variations alternate - and their developments include subtle recalls of fragments both from the first movement's tragic episodes and a comforting moment from the fifth. All these conflicting impulses are finally united in the powerful closing section, where the dynamics rise to fortissimo (Mahler warns: "not with raw force but with a saturated, noble tone") as the monumental symphony reaches its glorious and ecstatic conclusion.

(1.) Frederick Delius's setting of Zarathustra's Nightsong came only two years later, in 1898, followed in 1905 by A Mass of Life, also based on Nietzsche's work.

(2.) Cambridge Music Handbooks, published by Cambridge University Press in 1991.

(3.) This discussion is based on an extended technical analysis of Mahler's Third in David B. Greene's book, Mahler: Consciousness and Temporality, published by Gordon & Breach (New York, 1984).

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