Program Notes -
February 1 and 2, 2020
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor Gustav Mahler (1896)
What a beautiful face
I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
And when we meet on a cloud
I'll be laughing out loud
I'll be laughing with everyone I see
Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all.
The Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel
It’s pretty much impossible to make sense of this entire symphony, and I’m not sure it’s worth your time to try. It’s much too long, much too loud, much too messy, making promises it can’t possibly deliver on and trying our patience in a century where we’ve developed far more pleasurable and refined forms of entertainment.
So why bother writing about it at all?
Because this symphony literally attempts to sum up existence itselfin six movements and some hundred odd minutes. And while it may fall hilariously short of doing so, entering the universe of Mahler’s Third Symphony with an active mind, an open heart, and an aching soul is—at least in this author’s experience—a life-changing experience.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to be out on the open ocean on a clear day, you see nothing but the two-dimensional flatness of the water in all directions. But if you’re really, truly lucky, you might see the mast of a ship in the distance, before the rest of the hull comes into view. It’s one thing to know the earth is round, but it’s only now that you realize the dimensions of the planet on which you’ve spent your life secured but shackled is only a small part of the story. For a moment, just a hazy, indistinct moment, you see the bigger picture, and get a glimpse of the broader purpose of it all.
If you get lucky enough, the closing moments of the present collection of noises might just bring you there.
A Brief History of the Symphony
In his third symphony, Mahler reached the ultimate extension of the symphonic colossus. This is maximalism to the max. If his second symphony was an extra large order of fries, this represents the supersized version.
Ever since Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, composers in the Germanic Romantic tradition kept trying to one-up each other with totalizing experiences of redemption, triumph over adversity, societal uplift and enlightenment. None tried in a more gargantuan way than composer Richard Wagner, whose mammoth operas and megalomaniacal tendencies seemed unsurpassable in their heft, ambition, and tax of attention upon their listeners. Mahler was inspired by Wagner but also by the more introverted, poetic pedantry of Brahms’s instrumental music.
It is commonplace to say that Mahler’s symphonies contained a world, playfully stretching conventional forms and adding dozens of musicians and singers to grand secular cantatas.
After summing up death and resurrection in his groundbreaking second symphony, Mahler sought to broaden the scope and tackle the entire universe and the evolutionary chain of existence, from tectonic existence, to hapless vegetable matter, the merciless food chain of the animal kingdom, the midnight crises of the human soul, the incomprehensible jokes of angels, and finally, the highest form of being: love (or God, for many).
No small task.
I. Kräftig. Entschieden (Strong and decisive)
PanAwakes, Summer Marches In
The first movement is a symphony unto itself. Clocking in excess of 30 minutes, it is structured more like symphonic narrative than a traditional first movement. To Theodor Adorno, the Darmstadt school cultural critic, the movement even mocked the concept of traditional first movement, lampooning the need for outmoded structural cues with reluctant, even cheeky gestures.
The most accessible way to approach it is through the stark contrast of the early themes. The first is an uncompromising fit of tectonic violence, amidst magma earth, a world utterly devoid of life. The brass dominate the orchestral texture, with the trombones (as Richard Strauss warned against), highly encouraged to make noise. This is a world of rock, of ice, of volcanic hail, inhabitable to any living thing. Harmonies burst with unresolved tension, and the momentum seems both ruthless and aimless, evoking the geological time scale of the planet’s own genesis.
Suddenly, a secondary theme is introduced. This sound-world could not be more different. Trilling woodwinds serenade a euphoric solo violin. These are the sounds of spring in the forest.
The two starkly opposed ideas (one barren, the other fertile) continue to do battle throughout the 30-minute epic. Not that a first-time listener would ever notice, but the introduction yields to the exposition proper more than ten minutes through the movement.
One important motive to recognize is an agonizingly dissonant rising melody that surges up, only to fall short, only to fall back down in Sisyphean despair. This theme is the very lifeblood of the symphony, and the whole laddered trajectory of Mahler’s cosmology: the theme of “will,” or of unending striving and suffering. This Schopenhauerian tragedy of human existence can be described as thus: that we are built to strive and we are destined to fail.
In the cosmos Mahler built in his third symphony, this striving theme is only truly conquered and absorbed in the final movement, with love. Love, not the type of unfulfilled yearning coursing throughout the symphony, but divine love: the highest plane of existence.
After the ten-minute plus introduction, the rest of the movement can be grouped into two basic sections: 1.) An exuberant march based on the opening horn call (with 8 unison horns!) and 2.) Long passages of meandering trombone solos that hint at the desperate yearning of consciousness in the face of a lifeless, barbaric world. To liberate ourselves from these iron shackles, the trombones say, you must remember the cold cruelty of the planet we call home. It’s how we got here.
In its riveting coda, the march reaches its fullest expression, unified in glorious lockstep as the behemoth of a movement finally reaches its close. Trying to understand the organization and layout of this movement almost defeats the purpose. Just sit back and enjoy the intimacy of its grandeur.
II. Tempo di Menuetto (In the tempo of a minuet)
“What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”
An intermezzo of sorts, this breezy minuet provides one of the few opportunities for relaxed intensity in the symphony. The other five movements range from grandiose to gargantuan; this romp through a field of poppies is a much-needed respite.
The eponymous plants of the movement are radiant in beauty, but ultimately rendered powerless against even a modest breeze. Especially when set in relief with the implacably titanic forces of the previous movement, these daisies seem especially fragile and precious.
The energy and orchestration of this music would not be entirely out of place in a Tchaikovsky ballet, though Mahler cannot resist his characteristic instrumental perversions at times, evoking a field of fast-growing weeds who threaten to choke out the sunlight necessary for the survival of the other plants.
While certainly not the most impressive of the six movements, the mercurial harmonies and fleet-footed dance of the carefully-chaotic orchestration delight the senses and invite the listener to enjoy a sunny afternoon with a picnic in the fields, just as Mahler so loved to do.
III. Comodo (Scherzando) [Comfortable (Scherzo)]
"What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me"
This animal-kingdom scherzo is a quirky affair. Based on the melody of an earlier song he had written to a text about the cuckoo and the nightingale, the movement paints a sonic picture of the amoral code of the lawless jungle.
Heterogeneity of animal existence seems to be the focus here, since any one instrument rarely gets a chance to carry a tune interrupted for more than a few measures. There is a dogged freneticism to the movement, anxiously scurrying from branch to branch like a squirrel focused on nothing but its own survival.
Amidst the hurly burly, a distant voice emerges. This is the nostalgic hunting call of the post-horn, physically separated from the rest of the orchestra. At last, mankind has arrived on the scene. The animals are entranced for a timeless moment as the commotion ceases to a halt. Compared to the existential crisis that will follow in the next movement, the humanity of the post-horn is noble, grand, perhaps even idealized.
However, after being stunned for what felt like an eternal few minutes, the animals snap out of it, and resume their frantic activity of running in the messy fight for survival. A core tension at the heart of the movement seems to be the struggle for survival as dictated by the hierarchical exigencies of the food chain—for predators to survive, prey must die. At least until the universal solace of the final movement, we can never coexist in harmony while we are slaves to our own will to survive. Diversity of life is an inherently violent enterprise.
Before we hear from the perspective of humanity here, we experience it first from the simultaneously awed and frightened creatures of the forest. Following the scherzo form, we return to the scurrying of the animals, before landing on the call of the post-horn once more.
The movement ends in an earth-shaking breakthrough, an explosion of energy and a turning point in the symphony. From the maddeningly instinctual activity of the animal kingdom emerges a new force to be reckoned with: human consciousness.
IV. Sehr langsam—Misterioso (Very slowly, mysteriously)
"What Man Tells Me"
The fourth movement begins the second half of the symphony: whereas the first three movements had no knowledge of human consciousness, the fourth is steeped in it.
The oscillating tones from the symphony’s first measures are cast as an undulating undertow for the midnight crisis of the soul. The deep harp and low strings throb with restless anguish—until they renounce the striving of the will, we will never find rest. Even at the movement’s end, the tectonic oscillation never ceases, it merely is absorbed back into the background; on this earth, there is no release for humankind.
The music is some of Mahler’s sparsest. The textures are pared down to the intimacy of chamber music—clearly the bombastic brass of the first movement have no place in this late-night journal entry. The plucked harmonics of the suffocating strings puncture the sublime wash of the dulcet horns. A lone oboe cries plaintively into the night. Piquant harmonies punctuate the tapestry of our flawed consciousness.
In his setting of the “Midnight Song” from Frederich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, an alto voice reaches out to warn and comfort us. She tells us of the depth of existence, the chasm of pain associated with yearning, but the even deeper joy to be had in eternal love. For now, however, there is no solace. That can only take place far away from our earthly confines.
V. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck (Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression)
"What the Angels Tell Me"
This might be one of Mahler’s more quirky, inscrutable movements. Involving an alto soloist, a children’s choir who exist solely to imitate bells, and a women’s choir, there’s nearly one performer for every second of the movement. Clocking in at a comically short four minutes, the movement seems a dark sort of joke, one that us mere mortals could never deign to understand.
From the outset, the sound of real bells, with a choir making bell noises, with plodding pedantry of the woodwinds paints an odd timbral landscape of an unfamiliar afterlife. The instrumentation tells the story here: brass are abandoned (except for 4 horns), and even they are reserved for the movement’s darker moments—only the highest sounds preside.The texture is dominated by the angelic glockenspiel, harp, and bells: an angelic wall of sound that provides only a glimpse at the view past St. Peter’s gates.
The sheer audacity of requiring a full women’s and children’s choir for a mere 4 minutes of heavenly farce laughs in the face of Beethoven’s 9th. But this stage needed to be visited before the final fulfillment of the sixth movement could be entered.
VI. Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden (Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt)
"What Love Tells Me"
After an hour of working our way up the evolutionary ladder of existence, we finally land on the nearly thirty-minute hymn, a grand apotheosis of spiritual fulfillment, relief, and ecstasy.
This was the first true slow movement Mahler composed for a symphony, and the fifteenth in terms of chronological order. While Mahler’s earlier symphonies had always gravitated towards the Wagnerian Adagio, they only reach their full expression in this finale, the first movement he drafted of the symphony.
Here, the stentorian call in the wild of the first movement is transmogrified into a hymn of gentle longing. The edge of human striving and suffering is still present, but it has been neutralized by the caress of an even more powerful force: divine love. This music, much like the everlasting, defies the strictures of time, existing entirely within its own musical cosmos, taking nearly half an hour for 20 pages of score (compare this to the 100+ pages of the 1st movement!).
This is the music of a higher power: immense, unpredictable, mysterious, and yet undeniably, unerringly true. The hymn, as Mahler intended, transports us to a higher state of existence.
For such a long movement, not much happens. The opening chorale alternates with a darker, nearly funereal B section, with quicksilver harmonies that melt and regroup, like raindrops as they slide down a window.
Some fifteen or so minutes into the movement, the crisis music of the first theme threatens to unravel the whole celestial apparatus, rupturing the fabric of God’s unconditional love with the profanity of human striving. A lone flute tiptoes around as she attempts to pick up the pieces and put them back together; love is a resilient force after all.
Momentum builds as divinely layered trumpets signal a sea change. In its closing pages, the symphony finally begins to cohere. The yearning of the chromatic turns begin to point forward in one direction. After a journey through the wondrous and infinite complexities of the universe, we have reached our final destination, the ultimate plane of existence. By renouncing our individual urges, we have conquered our pain and isolation, allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the majestic fabric of eternal love.
It’s pretty powerful stuff. For a moment, just a hazy, indistinct moment, you see the bigger picture, and get a glimpse the broader purpose of it all. The universe, as it turns out, isn’t such a bad place to live.