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Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911)


Symphony No. 3 in D minor
Part 1
• Energetic; slow; in march time
Part 2
• Minuet
• Scherzo: not quick
Part 3
• “O man!”: slow, mysterious
• “Three angels sang”: jovial in tempo, cheeky in expression
• Slow, calm, deeply felt

Gustav Mahler dedicated his life to music, and worked so hard at it that the effort killed him by the age of 50. He spent most of his working life in charge of different opera houses – first at Budapest, then Hamburg, and finally at Vienna. He was a hard task-master, ruthlessly driving everyone to the highest possible standards, which made for many excellent performances but didn't make him very popular. This schedule kept him very busy during the winter season from September to May every year. He spent his summer vacations working just as hard in various remote country and mountain retreats, writing a series of huge symphonies which were mostly ridiculed during his life – if people took any notice of them at all. It was only during the latter part of the 20 th century that his music has come to be appreciated. Together with Shostakovich's symphonies, his works form the “mainstream” of 20 th century symphonies, in the same way that Beethoven and Brahms did in the 19 th century.

His music sounds very modern even today, mostly because he is so eclectic in what he includes. His view of the symphony was that it should include the whole of experience – not just its beauty and pleasantness, but also its ugliness and harshness. Hence the cow bells, the military bands and the country dances, as well as the lyrical tunes and great passionate climaxes. Some people find his music too over-the-top, but he was an over-the-top human being who experienced life more intensely than most of us.

Of Mahler's nine completed symphonies, the third is one of the “black sheep” of the family (the other is the seventh). It is not often performed and critics have sometimes called it “a magnificent failure”; magnificent in parts, but a failure none the less. I think those critics misunderstand what Mahler was attempting here, but I admit that Mahler did not make it easy for us to follow him.

The symphony is very long, lasting over an hour and a half, the longest symphony ever written by a major composer, and the first movement is out of all proportion to the rest – by itself it is longer than the whole of Beethoven's fifth! The symphony is in six movements, and no-one had written a symphony in six movements before. (Five, yes - Beethoven's Pastoral, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique - but not six.) It calls for two choirs – one of boys' and one of women's voices – which Mahler then uses for only five minutes, so choirs are hardly queuing up to perform the work. He asks for a contralto soloist for only the two shortest movements. And to guide the listener through this immense structure Mahler divides the work into two parts: part 1 is the first movement, and part 2 is the rest, which is really no help at all.

During the composition Mahler gave the six movements titles, though he later removed them from the score. These help us understand what was in Mahler's mind –

• Pan Awakes, Summer marches in
• What the flowers in the meadow tell me
• What the animals in the forest tell me
• What mankind tells me
• What the Angels tell me
• What love tells me

This is a quite phenomenal plan. Mahler is no longer depicting the world from the point of view of struggling, suffering man (as he did in the second symphony), but is going to the heart of existence itself, to complete awe of the world and of God. The ideology here is no orthodox Western view of the world, but a pantheistic view, strongly influenced by Eastern thought. He only comes close to this again in the Song of the Earth and the ninth symphony, when he was aware of his approaching death.

We have here a development from raw inanimate nature in the opening, through plants and animal life to man, then through the angels to God. (Mahler said once that he could have called the last movement “What God tells me”, claiming he was thinking of divine love rather than human love.) Mahler describes all this quite clearly in a letter of the time, saying “ nature hides within itself everything that is frightful, great, and also lovely (which is exactly what I wanted to express in the entire work, in a sort of evolutionary development) … It always strikes me as odd that most people, when they speak of ‘nature', think only of flowers, little birds and woodsy smells, no one knows the god Dionysus, the great Pan .” Pan, the terrifying goat-god, who gave his name to Pan-ic terror - that is what we should experience in the extraordinary first movement. Notice that Mahler only uses the human voices in movements four and five, the ones concerned with mankind and the angels.

While Mahler described the symphony as being in two parts, it makes a lot more sense to think of it in three parts. Part 1 is still the epic first movement by itself, lasting about 35 minutes. Part 2 is the next two movements, both of which are based on dance forms. The first is almost a classical minuet, and the scherzo is based on Mahler's favourite Austrian dance, the landler. These two take about 25 minutes. The third part comprises the last three movements, which Mahler asks to be played without a break, and between them last about 35 minutes – the same as the opening movement. The later movements are not classical in structure but are much simpler, based on song forms. After all, our attention may be beginning to flag by now, so Mahler makes it simpler for us to follow what's going on.

So now I hope it all makes rather more sense. We can understand why the first movement is so big – it is a picture of creation itself, bringing order out of the terror of chaos and nothingness. We can see why he uses the voices so sparingly – his view of man's place in creation is quite a small one. And most importantly we have a framework to understand the progress of the different styles and forms he uses, as well as the epic scale of the entire work.

Mahler wrote the third symphony during the summers of 1895 and 1896, during his vacations at Steinbach-am-Attersee, a village not far from Salzburg in the Austrian Alps, and a popular summer resort. He began with the second movement and worked forward from there, and had completed the last five movements by the time he had to go back to work at Hamburg in Autumn 1895. The first movement followed in the summer of 1896. This is why there are a number of pre-echoes of the later movements in the first – he had already written the later ones. The three simpler movements (2,3 and 6) were performed in Berlin Opera House in 1897, but the reception was very cool. The complete symphony had to wait until 1902 for a full performance, which was conducted by Mahler himself and was very successful.

Though very long, it is not hard to follow the progress of the first movement. Indeed in researching these notes, it seemed to get shorter every time I listened to it, and the ending is so abrupt as to be a surprise. After the bold opening horn call (all eight horns in unison) the music collapses into mutterings, some quiet and rumbling, some wild and loud, all of them chaotic. Notice the little trumpet fanfare, a pre-echo of the opening of his fifth symphony. An oboe and solo violin offer the prospect of light, but it doesn't last. A trombone solo gives us a stern lecture, solemn and serious. And eventually a real tune arrives, at first low down in the orchestra, and then it acquires clarity, energy and light. This is the first hint of “summer marching in”. But as usual with Mahler, it doesn't last – chaos breaks through again in a quite terrifying way. The trombone lectures us again, but this time less sternly, more sorrowful, as if consoling us for the loss of summer. Again there are hints of light with the violin solo, and a mist of string trills, as the violin solo and a horn solo seem to discuss how to move forward. Some heavy bass interjections lead into a march in the bottom of the orchestra, crude and grotesque. But the crude elements are overridden by the joyful ones, and the march gets big and brassy. But once more chaos breaks through, this time as hysterical manic energy that completely tears the march apart. (Truly a Pan-ic terror.) And now Mahler gives us a repeat of the opening horn calls. For a while it seems almost like a full recapitulation, as muttered chaos returns. But the trombone soon rebuke us for this, and becomes immediately more consoling. Quickly we recover, and the march returns for the third time, with swaggering confidence. And when Pan threatens disruption one last time, he is quickly shrugged off, and the gallop to the close is pure joy.

The second movement is quite simple, and is mostly in triple time. It starts as a delicate, slightly rustic minuet on the oboe with pizzicato strings, and then teasingly on violins. A faster section has three contrasting episodes in quick succession, before the opening minuet is suddenly restored. The faster section comes back again, varied and extended, and then the minuet is also varied by delightfully skittish music for the violins. The movement then unwinds peacefully.

The scherzo third movement is also a dance, but is in two-four time rather than the usual three beats in a bar. It is based on an earlier song of Mahler's about animals, which is constantly varied as the movement progresses, and some of the variations are quite savage and sinister. The animals are interrupted twice by a timeless, magical section, where a distant post-horn is heard. (Genuine post-horns are rare; it is often played on a flugel-horn, as in tonight's performance.) Mahler changed his mind several times about what instrument should play this solo, but by specifying a post-horn he suggests a poem by Nicholas Lenau in which the post coach stops every day when it passes a churchyard, and the postillion (coach driver) blows an elegy to his friend who lies buried there. In this symphony all the animals stop to listen, and to my ear this section is very empty – I can hear no humanity here, only the stillness and stifling heat of a summer's afternoon After the second appearance of the post-horn the animals are restless and there is a sudden panic-struck climax. This sounds like a reappearance of Pan from the first movement – or has awareness of mankind and mortality just come into the animals' world?

The words of the fourth movement are from Nietzsche, the “ Song of Midnight ” from his poetical / philosophical epic Also Sprach Zarathustra . While this movement is even more static than the post-horn section from the previous movement, it is worlds apart in feeling. There is a deep presence in this stillness, a consciousness and calmness that was totally missing in the world of the animals. “What does the deep midnight say? The world is deep, and deeper than the day imagined. Deep is its grief, but joy is deeper still than heartache. Grief says “die”, but all joy seeks eternity.” Notice how several times the voice of the singer is replied to by the oboe call of the night bird.

It is ironic that the shortest movement of all, and the most naively simple, calls for the most complex forces. The boys sing the bells while the women represent the angels, who sing a simple carol of the Last Supper. This reminds us that love of God will lead to His forgiveness of our sins, and our access to heavenly joy, as it did for the apostle Peter. The creed is orthodox Christian and undoubting, hence perhaps the simplicity of the setting. The soloist sings the middle verse, the voice of Peter.

The finale is a fitting counterpart to the epic first movement, and like that movement seems shorter than its 20-minute time span. “ In it” Mahler said, “ everything is resolved into peace and being; the wheel of appearances has at last been brought to a standstill ”. If you understand that, further explanation from me is superfluous! Structurally it is superbly skilful, being variations on two themes (the first in D major, the other in F# minor) that work through varied scorings and a subtle sequence of keys in their development. Emotionally it is simply four great waves, each building up from meditative calm to a blaze of splendour, each climax bigger and more sustained than the previous one. The final wave starts with a solo flute, then the trumpets sing serenely before allowing the entire orchestra to engulf us in the final apotheosis – a hymn to Divine love bathed in the light of eternity, and a conclusion like no other in Mahler's work.

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