Sunday, April 17, 2011
Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3: Getting Behind the Music
A couple of years before Gustav Mahler composed his 3rd Symphony, a friend – or perhaps just a fan – wrote to him asking “whether it is necessary to employ such a large apparatus as the orchestra to express a great thought.”
Mahler responded that “the more music develops, the more complicated the apparatus becomes to express the composer's ideas.”
In Bach's day, a handful of musicians might suffice to play the orchestra parts in his Brandenburg Concertos. Haydn or Mozart might use 25 or so, Beethoven would have been quite happy with around 40. But 65 years after Beethoven's death, composers at the other end of the 19th Century like Mahler and Strauss would expect orchestras of 75 to 100 to play their works. In the 2nd Symphony, his “Resurrection” Symphony, Mahler called for at least 120 (as many strings as possible would leave this open-ended) in addition to two vocal soloists and a large choir. His Third Symphony would call for about 118 considering the largest possible contingent of string players and including additional reinforcements for several parts like the 1st Clarinet, 1st Trumpet, harps and off-stage snare-drums – then add the alto soloist and the rather modest size of the women's choir and boys' choir. Sometimes it's not just the budget that determines the size of this “apparatus,” but the available space on the stage.
Ten years after the 3rd, Mahler's 8th Symphony was dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand” by a marketing-minded manager at the world premiere in Munich – which involved an orchestra of 171 plus vocal soloists and choristers numbering 858 – in other words, 1,029, to be exact...
One could argue that the grander this “apparatus” is doesn't necessarily mean Mahler's idea in his “Resurrection” Symphony is any “grander” than Handel's idea in his oratorio, Messiah, which can get along with about 50 performers (though even in Handel's day, there were “gala performances” with a choir of hundreds and an orchestra to balance it).
The form of the piece – another aspect of presenting the composer's idea – also expanded, becoming more complex in the century since the death of Mozart.
As far as symphonies go, a typical symphony of four movements written at the end of the 18th Century might be about a half-hour long. By comparison, Mahler's 3rd Symphony, written at the end of the 19th Century, and was going to contain seven movements instead of the final six, lasts about an hour-and-a-half to an hour and 40 minutes...
And one could also argue whether or not sheer length makes Mahler's “idea” any more intense, more universal, more “grand” than Beethoven's? Except recall that Beethoven's 5th is around a half-hour long and Beethoven's 9th, written 20 years later, is about 70 minutes long...
Part of the problem with composers' ideas and the “apparatus” in which they present them, is how to get this across to the listeners. Music is an indirect language that can't be translated the same way a spoken or written language – like a novel or a poem – can be. A painting or a sculpture might represent something but it still leaves the viewer to interpret and react to it. Music, open to different interpretations, depends on what the listener brings to it, what the listener is able to take away from it.
In one sense, there are – basically – two kinds of music (aside from the “Good Music” and “Bad Music” response). Music can be abstract, a logical architecture built on pre-conceived forms doing more-or-less expected things. Think Beethoven's 1st Symphony. Or it can support a story, illustrating the events and characters, situations and emotions we find in a tale told in words, but here expressed in music. Think of tone-poems like Richard Strauss' Don Quixote or Paul Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice, with or without Mickey Mouse (Walt Disney's Fantasia is actually a very accurate rendering of the story the music is illustrating).
In between are varying degrees of that – for instance, music that implies a story which can be further subdivided into a story (and I use the term loosely, here) imposed on it by the listener or the critic or a story implied by the composer as a means of explaining the music or guiding the listener.
Here, Beethoven's 5th could be an example of the first, in which people listen to the struggle of the first movement, the dark uncertainty of the scherzo emerging into the sunlight of triumph in the finale and decide it is about Man's Struggle with Fate, though Beethoven said nothing about it beyond calling the opening motive “Fate Knocks at the Door.”
An example of the second would be Beethoven's 6th, called his “Pastoral,” in which Beethoven supplied illustrations by giving each movement titles – “Pleasant impressions upon arriving in the countryside,” “Scene by the brook,” complete with bird-calls, “Thunderstorm” (quite literal in its sound effects) and “Thanksgiving after the storm.”
In the late-19th Century, this “program” music was all the rage and anything that didn't have a program often frustrated listeners who had to know what a piece was “about” in order to understand it. Richard Strauss wrote tone-poems like Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) which suggested a story with explanatory titles about the hero's battles with his adversaries. He also set a philosophical work to music, Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra in which he tried to interpret Nietzsche's views in music, something that might have been familiar to an audience where most people had probably read the work – it had been published only 10 years earlier and was a best seller.
In the vast first movement – actually, the last to be composed – he even marked in the sketches things like “Pan Awakes,” “Summer Marches In,” “The Rabble,” “The Storm” and so on... The subsequent movements were given titles like “What the flowers in the field tell me,” “What the animals in the forest tell me,” “What Man tells me” – this is the “Midnight Song” with the text from Nietzsche (see illustration, right) – “What the angels tell me” and finally, “What Love tells me.”
If you're seeing a kind of ladder of awareness, here, we go from the calling forth of primordial matter in the opening – following this incantatory horn theme that begins the piece – through flowers to animals to mankind to the gates of Heaven and finally Love in a spiritual sense, the Love or Forgiveness from God.
Despite Nietzsche's poem, this symphony presents a very anti-Nietzsche viewpoint – Mahler originally thought he would call the whole symphony “A Summer Night's Dream” or “The Happy Life” or, “The Happy Science” after another of Nietzsche's books but then realizing it wasn't Nietzsche's viewpoint he was implying but his own, then maybe “MY Happy Science”... and then for good measure, “Dream of a Summer Morning,” “A Summer Noontime Dream” with a specific warning that it has nothing to do with Shakespeare.
Eventually, he rejected all of these and just called it his Third Symphony. However, while working on the middle movements – written that first summer – he told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, “calling it a symphony is actually incorrect because in no way does it adhere to the usual form. Creating a symphony means to construct a world with all manner of techniques available. The constantly new and changing content determines its own form.”
But since Mahler is full of contradictions, both as a musician and as a person, a year later, nearing completion of the work, he told her it's the same basic structure as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – Adagio, Rondo, Minuet, Sonata-Allegro Form – except, in his work, the sequence of movements was different with greater variety and complexity within the movements. So at first it wasn't a symphony but, if you really look at it, it was. Perhaps he could've called the whole symphony, “What Art Tells Me.”
But speaking of contradictions, by the time the entire symphony was ready for its world premiere six years later, this vast symphony built on these elaborate outlines – the music's “program” – he changed his mind and said he would forbid making these titles, these picturesque details, these comments and images public. The music stands on its own as an abstract work. “Down with programs,” he would write, setting himself in opposition to his friend and frequent musical adversary, Richard Strauss.
Oh, and he was recommending his new young wife, Alma, burn all her copies of Nietzsche.
Critics and many listeners, knowing there was a program behind the piece, clamored to be informed, complaining they couldn't make sense without it. If Mahler was concerned his music – or his “idea” – would be misinterpreted, he now ended up having people superimposing their own ideas on his music in order to “explain” it.
Arnold Schoenberg, the composer who had just completed his tone-poem Pelleas and Melisande and written his Transfigured Night five years earlier, heard the first performance of Mahler's 3rd in Vienna and wrote to the composer that “I felt the struggle for illusions; I felt the pain of one disillusioned; I saw the forces of evil and good contending; I saw a man in a torment of emotion exerting himself to gain inner harmony. I sensed a human being, a drama, truth, the most ruthless truth!”
So the modern-day argument is “do we mention this program or not?” Most writers agree that, since it was what Mahler was specifically using as the inspiration for the music when he was writing it, it has its place. But considering he changed his mind, then, perhaps it has no place. Just to make things more confusing, the last performance of it Mahler himself conducted, he allowed the titles of the movements to be used in the program-book after all (speaking of contradictions).
We tend to break Mahler's symphonies into biographical periods – the first four form one group because, composed between the ages of 28 and 40, are all inspired by or include earlier songs setting poems from the folk-collection, Des Knabens Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) – three of these symphonies include the voice and all of them were conceived with elaborate programs.
The next three – the 5th, 6th and 7th – are entirely instrumental and seemingly abstract, without programs – or at least without any commentary that Mahler made public. He would tell a friend something tantalizing about this or that detail, perhaps, but it's not enough to pin some story or “idea” underlying each movement much less the entire work. He wrote these in his early-to-mid-40s – so perhaps one could argue that the exuberance of youth has given way to Middle Age. One can infer the 5th is a Struggle-with-Fate Symphony and, after all, he had referred to the 6th as his “Tragic” Symphony (though the first one he had begun since his marriage to Alma).
The 8th Symphony – the one dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand” – setting the hymn Veni creator spiritus in the first half and the final scene of Faust in the second, was written when he was 46. And “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth) which he considered a symphony in all but name despite its being a vast song cycle, he described as his most personal, autobiographical work yet, written in his late 40s following the death of his daughter and his own diagnosis of a heart condition.
The 9th Symphony – essentially a farewell to life – was again purely instrumental, but it is impossible to listen to this work and not feel this too is a struggle-with-fate symphony, but without Beethoven's victorious ending (unlike Tchaikovsky's last symphony, the “Pathetique,” which ends with a requiem, Mahler's farewell is one of acceptance and transfiguration). The 10th Symphony, its sketches filled with personal comments in the margins following the revelation of Alma's infidelity, was left unfinished when Mahler died, burned out at the age of 50.
People often mock Mahler's later symphonies for being too personal, autobiographical and egotistical, a man leaning out the window shouting “Look at me! I'm dying!” But he did inscribe a motto at the beginning of the great Adagio that eventually concluded his 3rd Symphony, “What Love Tells Me”:
“Father, Look upon my wounds! Let no creature be lost!”
Autobiographical or not, he did entitle the movements “What the Flowers tell ME.”
Incidentally, this symphony was not supposed to end with an Adagio – a slow movement was originally the 3rd of 7 movements. This 7th movement was to be a song he had composed three years earlier. “Das Himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life) was, in one sense, the initial starting point for his 3rd Symphony – following the flowers and animals and more abstract ideas like love, it became “What the Child tells me.” This child-like innocence, a naïve view of life in Heaven – where the music is better than anything on Earth – infused much of the 3rd Symphony's inner movements: fragments of it can be heard in the scherzo but especially in the “Angels” movement – when the alto soloist admits to having broken the Ten Commandments and the angels tell her to pray to God, to love God.
It is also interesting to note, reading these folk-poems with their Christian connotations that Mahler – born and raised a Jew – did not officially convert to Catholicism until February, 1897, (two years after he outlined the 3rd and had completed all but its first movement) when he had been offered the post of music director at the Court Opera in the anti-Semitic imperial capital of Vienna, a career goal he had been working towards during those two years – if not exactly required by law, he was not going to gain the post if he was a Jew but he wasn't assured the appointment until a few months later. There were comments made at the time to Natalie Bauer-Lechner that, while on the one hand he hoped to gain “applause and money” with this new symphony he was working on, on the other he knew it would be beyond the typical concert-going audience to appreciate which might have imbued the 1st movement, completed only six months before his official conversion, with a different light on its struggle between the intellectual and populist elements, the movement ending with its evocations of town bands and a march designed to appeal to the popular taste.
But at some point, he decided this song, “The Heavenly Life” (or as the original Wunderhorn poem was called, “Heaven is Full of Violins”) needed its own symphony, so he excised it from the 3rd and outlined a plan for a 4th Symphony whose basic idea was “Life After Death,” a fitting sequel to his 2nd Symphony, “The Resurrection” where the idea of resurrection is about mankind's rebirth, not the Resurrection of Christ. And since Mahler said the opening of that 2nd Symphony was a vast funeral march for the hero of his 1st Symphony – which is sometimes referred to as “The Titan” – it makes the 3rd Symphony the transition between Death and Resurrection to Eternal Life in Heaven – a cycle of four more-or-less interrelated symphonies. There are several moments when I'm listening to the 3rd and I hear something that I think, “wait, didn't I hear that in the 1st Symphony?” or like the bird-calls and other sounds of nature heard in the 3rd Movement, harking back to the finale of the 2nd Symphony as well as various parts of the 1st Symphony? Is it just because they're “fingerprints” of Mahler's style, sounds that he fell back on (consciously or not) because they were all written within a span of 12 years?
After he completed the 4th, he told Natalie Bauer-Lechner, who was a frequent companion of his (along with his sister) during these summer composing holidays, that there was a close connection between all four symphonies – “the content and structure of the four are combined to create a definite unified tetralogy.” Whether this is coincidental – the composer looking back and seeing how his subconscious had been at work – or whether it was a conscious plan, at least as he began work on the 2nd, there's no other direct proof. Still, he finished the 2nd when he was 34 and had basically outlined the 4th when he was 37, so in a sense, they all share the same small time-frame for their conception. He was basically outlining the 3rd and 4th Symphonies even before he had begun serious creative work on the 3rd!
Mahler's career as a conductor – he was still located in Hamburg at the time: later, he would make the career move to Vienna – meant that he had only a few months during the summer to get away from everything so he could compose. He would sketch and draft things during these summers and then work them out on his “down-time” during the year.
Her hopes about marrying Mahler, however, met a sudden end when Mahler unexpectedly announced his engagement to Alma Schindler whom he'd met only a few weeks before. Mahler seemed surprised that Natalie had “feelings” for him – so perhaps there's something to be said that “Love” didn't tell him everything...
Another friend of Mahler's – and one who also figures in Natalie Bauer-Lechner's would-be Love Life – was the poet Siegfried Lipiner (see photograph, right) who was highly regarded as a young poet but published nothing after he was 24, yet he was highly regarded by both Wagner and Nietzsche.
The first movement abounds in Nature as much as the Flowers' & the Animals' movements do – “Pan awakens,” the great God of nature from Greek Mythology from whom we also get the word “panic” and sections Mahler marked “what the rocks and mountains tell me.” In fact, when Bruno Walter arrived that summer, walking up to the composing hut where Mahler spent much of his time composing, he saw Walter look up at the sheer cliffs of the mountains behind them and told his young friend, “No need to look up there any more – that's all been used up and set to music by me.”
That first summer, sketching out the symphony's plan and writing the middle-movements which he called, primarily, “humoresques” before settling down to the more serious movements – the Midnight Song from Nietzsche (which didn't exist in the original plan) and the Adagio which, only then became the finale. When he moved the “What the Child Tells Me” movement to the 4th Symphony's plan, he apparently moved what he'd been sketching as ITS “morning bells” movement to become the “Angels” movement with its children's voices imitating the pealing of bells. But it was too late in the summer to start on the 1st movement, so he had to put this off.
At some point during the winter, he wrote down a few pages of sketches for this movement which it turns out he forgot and left behind. He had to write to a friend of his to go to his apartment, find them and mail them to him. By June 21st, he wrote to this friend to thank him for having done this and then on July 11th (a few days after his 36th birthday), wrote back to him that he'd finished the 1st Movement – a half-hour's music in three weeks? Still, Natalie Bauer-Lechner mentions in her diary that he finished it on July 28th – revisions? the orchestration?
She also mentioned a few days later that Mahler told her he'd changed the ending of the slow movement, the final moments of the whole symphony, having completed the 1st movement. He said “it was not plain enough” but also mentioned “it now dies away in broad chords and only in the one key, D Major.” As you experience the ending, you'll probably be struck by the fact that, though it might seem simple – compared to what came before – it hardly “dies away.” Were there more changes to be made before it was officially “complete”?
The “Flower” movement was performed by itself a few times – even before the whole symphony was finished – and the 2nd, 3rd and 6th movements were performed as a unit a couple of times before the official world premiere of the complete symphony in 1902. But by then, Mahler was completely opposed to the whole program issue, suppressing the titles and the story about its composition, Nature and all. The audience was left on its own – and of course the argument for any work of art is that it transcends whatever initially inspired it to stand on ITS own. (You can read more about this first performance in a post on the Harrisburg Symphony Blog which can you can access through the symphony's web-site.)
So without a program telling you what to listen for, how do you grasp a 90-minute work? There are themes and fragments of themes – conflicts of mood or style just like you'd have in Beethoven – there is an over-all arch of direction from beginning to end with sounds and themes that recur, perhaps not literally but like reflections.
The opening horn theme – an incantation that, originally, is a call to awaken Nature – comes back in various guises: it may resemble the big theme in the last movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 which in itself sounds a lot like Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' theme. Sometimes it's a chorale, sometime it's swamped by a vulgar march (the most exciting parts of the movement, designed to appeal to the public taste) – in the end, it is transformed into the main theme of the finale, more chorale-like, and unfolds in long-spinning fragments.
In the 3rd Movement, there's an off-stage trumpet – imitating a post-horn – interrupting the animals' dance (almost a polka) – at one point, Mahler commented about how Nature, here, seems to be making faces at you, sticking out its tongue – with time suspended, they seem to listen as if hypnotized before resuming their dance.
The Nietzsche song takes us into a dark, deep place – midnight of the soul – which is then contrasted by the sudden brightness of the angels' chorus, like a door opening up and life bursting in – actually, heaven bursting in joyfully. Here, we might realize the symphony's opening call actually derives from a phrase in that song, “The Heavenly Life” now in the 4th Symphony, at the point where the Alto soloists weeps about breaking the Commandments but the Angels tell her to love God – essentially offering absolution and forgiveness. From this, we move to the consolation of the last movement, which, if it isn't exactly a “happy” ending to resolve the conflicts of the first movement, is a transcendent one.
When Mahler conducted the work in Amsterdam a year after its premiere (with a chorus of over 500 singers, 200 of them, children), a Dutch composer who hadn't thought much of him or his music, met him and changed his mind. He found there was “much that is ugly in the 1st Movement” but that after two or three hearings you know what he is intending to say and it all seems quite different.
“His music has the power of changing people, of initiating catharsis.” By comparison, Strauss' popular tone poems – he mentions Ein Heldenleben and Don Quixote with their detailed “programs” – which “make a sad showing beside Mahler's 3rd Symphony.”
Other composers had introduced folk music into their “classical” music language, but Mahler was perhaps the first “serious” composer to introduce popular music, music of the “lower class” – the town-band's marches in the first movement, the dances that form the basis of the 3rd movement as opposed to the “concert hall” minuet-like dance of the 2nd movement (flowers or not) – often placing “vulgar” music – considering “vulgar” as “pertaining to the people or popular element” rather than rude behavior or dirty jokes – up against music associated with a more elite class. This is something that often made Mahler's audiences uncomfortable – not just the dissonances of his harmony or the sound-effects of sliding trombones near the beginning.
This was all part of the symphony's potential universality – its ability to embrace the world, to create something that is a varied as the world itself.
As Mahler wrote to a friend four months after completing the 3rd Symphony, “No one will hear, of course, that nature encompasses everything that is eerie, great and even lovely (this is precisely what I wanted to express using the whole work as a kind of evolutionistic development).” He said that most people's image of Nature was only flowers, birds, forest fragrances – “nobody mentions the god Dionysus or the Great Pan,” who figure so prominently in the first movement, ideas he took from Nietzsche's “Birth of Tragedy.” “There,” he told his friend, “you have a kind of program, a sample of how I make music – always and everywhere only the sound of nature!” He goes on, “If I have now and then given them titles, I wanted to provide sign posts for the emotion, for the imagination. Here it is the world, nature as a whole, that is awakened out of unfathomable silence and sings and resounds.”
- Dick Strawser
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Bibliography: primarily from Henry-Louis de La Grange: Mahler (Vienna: The Years of Challenge) [Oxford 1995]; Constantin Floros: Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies [Amadeus Press 1993]; Bruno Walter: Gustav Mahler [Vienna House, Inc., 1973].