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Celestial Sound: Thoughts on Mahler’s Third Symphony

To listen to Mahler is to claim your soul hasn’t been splintered by postmodernity -- even if you hate Mahler and disbelieve in the soul.

Must enormity be expressed with enormity? Can gentle intimacy alone conjure a cosmos or ensconce a worldview? Can a solo flute or noble oboe or humming throat give voice to human striving as powerfully as a hundred thunderous drums? Can an artist evince the cosmos by revealing only its numinous origins, without swelling those origins into a turbulence that, splitting apart present conventions, sees far into the future?

Such questions unavoidably attend a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony (1896), perhaps Western music’s first truly “cosmic” work — cosmic not only for its sheer size but for its willful transcendence of mundane musical categories. (It was not performed in full until 1902.) Neither strictly romantic nor post-romantic, the Third Symphony is a metaphysical experiment, suffused with then-modish Nietzscheanism and venturing beyond romanticism’s obsession with individual genius and preening charisma. Apart from his philosophizing, Mahler surely intended to exceed the usual perceptions of the Romantic sound-world, which, at its prior heights, had been tethered to erotic jubilance (Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth), rigorous craftsmanship (Johannes Brahms), bloated mythmaking (Richard Wagner), the delicate cult of genius (Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin), or the stormy cult of madness (Robert Schumann).

As a young opera conductor, Mahler understood the deficits of the old romanticism. He was thankful that he could slowly hone his talents on lesser romantics like Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose music he could mangle with impunity, and on stalwarts like Giuseppe Verdi, who cannot be conducted too badly. Mahler’s sensibilities as a composer, as everyone knows, arrived more or less fully formed: the aesthetic distances between his First and Tenth Symphonies are far shorter than those between Beethoven’s First and Ninth or between Brahms’ First and Fourth. Nevertheless, Mahler’s symphonic journey was alternately arduous and feverish and, like Anton Bruckner’s, punctuated by much self-correction.

Some contemporaries derided his symphonies as “conductor’s music”, the indulgent pastime of the greatest interpreter of Wagner. The judgment was not only parochial but a product of its era: the aesthetic spirit of the late 19th and early 20th centuries demanded that every reputable conductor also compose. Interpreting music and creating it were deemed ethically indivisible vocations, even if conductors’ symphonies were often vanity pieces or exertions in respectability. Today, no works of any conductor-composer of the first half of the 20th century form any part of the standard repertory except for Mahler’s. The symphonies of Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwängler are nearly (and perhaps deservedly) forgotten today, though in a highly praised 2002 Teldec recording, Daniel Barenboim mounted a lavish case for Furtwängler’s epic, if lumbering, Second Symphony, a work of Brucknerian dimensions.

If Furtwängler’s hour-plus compositions never outgrew over-thick romantic sludge, Mahler purged the more regressive of his romantic leanings by re-orchestrating various benchmarks of Schubert and Beethoven. After re-orchestrating Beethoven’s Ninth in 1896, the year he was finishing the Third Symphony, Mahler might have realized the dead ends of conventional romanticism, for his oversize, hyper-romantic rearrangement does nothing to improve his master. Indeed, Mahler nearly ruins the Ninth’s bony rhythms by dispersing French horns everywhere and stuffing the scherzo’s staccato spaces with windy remplissage. (Franz Liszt’s 1851 two-piano reduction of the Ninth is sharper, doubling Beethoven’s ivory spikiness).

With his Third, however, Mahler puts the orchestra to original, perhaps pioneering use, employing a vast instrumentation not for Germanic weightiness but to effect timbral and dynamic juxtapositions, placing the delicate songs of the fourth and fifth movements against the galactic march of the first and the spinning “nature waltz” of the second. Even in the 20th century, Mahler’s Third outstrips in size almost every work in the standard symphonic repertoire, save his own Eighth (which calls for six full choruses), Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, and the larger sacred works of Hector Berlioz.

A few rarer orchestral Goliaths, such as Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony (scored for over 200 players, four antiphonal military bands, and multiple choirs) or Hebert Howells’ gargantuan Missa Sabrinensis, are seldom performed, for reasons economic as much as aesthetic. Of other “cosmically” designed works, we might only guess. Charles Ives eventually abandoned his Universe Symphony (for six simultaneous orchestras), and Alexander Scriabin died before composing his projected Mysterium, a weeklong synaesthetic ceremony abetted by incandescent lights and aromatic censers; the present versions we have, finished by dedicated musicologists, give only an inkling of what might have been. Likewise, we may never know of the eccentric Kaikhosru Sorabji’s orchestral colossi; his piano works, many of which require five or more hours to play, still confound most pianists, and no major conductor apparently is intrepid enough to excavate his unpublished orchestral scores.

In building the “universal” architecture of his Third, Mahler had the precedent of Berlioz’s op. 5 Requiem, which premiered in 1837 with over 1,000 musicians. Yet Berlioz’s Latinate religiosity, bolstered by 16 unison kettledrums in the Dies irae, was decidedly backwards-looking, despite all his orchestral innovations. Mahler, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, went to lengths to infuse the Third with highfalutin philosophizing, filling the first movement with Apollonian and Dionysian oppositions and setting the fourth movement to Zarathustra’s “Midnight Song”, Musicologists have often debated what Mahler really knew of Nietzsche, who was then de rigueur reading for every freethinker, musical or otherwise.

With the Third’s airier moments, such as the light “flower music” of the second movement, Mahler does seem to channel Nietzsche’s The Gay Science and redress the chintzy, one-dimensional Nietzscheanism of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (also finished in 1896), which reduces Nietzsche’s superman to the triumphalism of unrelieved chordal thickness. On the other hand, Mahler’s faith, which suffuses so much of his output, is obviously contrary to the acerbic atheism of The Antichrist, Beyond Good and Evil, and so on and, like Strauss, Mahler engages little of Nietzsche’s peerless irony, which announces the negation of conventional spirituality through the mock-spiritual ascent of Zarathustra.

In any case, Mahler’s Third signifies a new step in that distinctly Austro-German strain of monumental progress, from the “heavenly length” of Schubert’s Great Symphony (to use Schumann’s famous description), to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, to Bruckner’s last three symphonies, to the crowded orchestral textures Richard Strauss developed between Don Juan (1890) and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1895). Recall that the rest of the musical West was still evolving, if not fumbling, through its modernist growing pains. The harmonic novelty of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, premiered in December of 1894, heralded a way to escape old forms, but by and large France remained in the hands of Vincent D’Indy, Gabriel Fauré, Emmanuel Chabrier, and others who hovered uneasily between characteristic nationalism and proto-impressionism.

In Russia, the death of Pyotr Tchaikovsky (in 1893) left Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in charge of a rigid conservatory culture that Scriabin had yet to fully undermine. Italy was still dominated by verismo opera, a genre predisposed to bourgeois hackery. England — then so backwards that Edward Elgar had yet to be called a progressive — was marked by bland symphonists like Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Stanford. American music of the era, still awaiting the arrival of Charles Griffes and Charles Ives, offered little beyond folkish color and bland imitations of continental romanticism.

Surveying the extant musical universe, Mahler likely turned inward as much as outward, eroding the old, tonally stable romanticism with a “true” romanticism — messy, ungainly, uncensored, and frequently lopsided. Of his Third, Mahler famously remarked, “My symphony is going to be something the likes of which the world has not yet heard,” asserting that “all nature is voiced therein…” Yet the “nature” to which Mahler gives voice is not merely the flutes’ twittering birdsong or the bassoons’ creeping invertebrates. Indeed, the mimicry of nature is so ubiquitous throughout Mahler’s work that Theodor W. Adorno once mused, “In the printed program descriptions one can often find those of [Mahler’s] Second and Third Symphony reversed, and never know quite exactly when nature is awakening from its wintry rigidity, and what the animals have to say to each other (Adorno, Theodor, “Mahler Today,” Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans., Susan H. Gillespie, University of California Press, 2002, 608) In fairness to Mahler, his twittering birds and gusts of nature become lighter and lighter from his bombastic Second Symphony to his (relatively) featherweight Fourth, as if, through these three successive work, he were sifting out nature’s unwanted fat and saccharine.

But more notable than technical mimeses of natural sounds was Mahler’s excavation of the psychological nature of the composer himself. Going beyond romantic breast-beating, Tchaikovskian fate, or Wagnerian predestinations, Mahler’s Third is a work of proto-existential flux, placing heroic brass motifs in the midst of what Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange called “an imposing fresco dedicated to the glory of creation, starting with inanimate nature and progressing step by step to its highest form — that is, God.”

We already know what Mahler had in mind, more or less, by the subtitles he appended to each movement. Ideating the first movement, Mahler eventually banished windy allusions to Dionysius in favor of the more explanatory tags “Pan awakens” and “Bacchic procession”. In any event, the 30-minute opening remains an amorphously evolutionary march, marked with unresolved and errant dissonances, stretching themes without conventionally developing them. When primal themes threaten to coalesce into evolving sound-worlds, they often break apart into spinning particles — at least before the movement’s great march begins. Perhaps this elemental, preternatural quality is what Adorno had in mind when he described the Third as exhibiting an “archaic banality” (ibid, 608) that exists prior to harmonic development, but which also positions itself to erode any potential development.

The Big Bang

The movement begins with unison horns, ominously low but not terribly loud — the germ of an opaque soundscape. Over terribly soft beats on the bass drum enter those famous piercing notes on muted trumpets — but the surging four-note motif, emerging from the ether, is not an insurmountable Beethovenian fate but an open-ended violence that will be challenged, absorbed, transformed. Then the solo trombone enters: gallant and brutal, it is hardly the ignoble ceremonial sackbut of the 17th century. It signifies some individual striving but is too great and deep in timbre to represent a mere human being, even the profound bass of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Signifying instead a blast of ominous will, its massive tone, spurring on the orchestra, crosses paths with the trumpets’ thrust; meanwhile, echoes of Siegfried’s forest murmurs evolve into a glockenspieled march tinged with a tragic tread that foreshadows the more ruthless opening of Mahler’s Sixth.

Is our aesthetic thinking so irredeemably redundant that we demand ambitious contents have grandiose forms?

Having recently seen Christoph Eschenbach conduct the Third with the National Symphony Orchestra (on 5 November 2015, at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center), I can better see why Mahler claimed the first trombonist was crucial to the whole work. The soloing trombone neither swallows up the lesser winds nor gets smothered by his fellow brass. His timbral “exceptionalism”, if you will, becomes clearer in live performance, where a solo trombone can be nearly as loud as massed horns (an effect spoiled by digitally compressed recordings, which, in a bit of false democracy, equalize instruments’ dynamics).

As much as the folk song is an organizing principle throughout Mahler, his orchestration transcends what the striving human voice might signify whenever he depends on the trombone’s cavernous sonorities. Yet Mahler’s tromboning is judicious: he’s careful not to overstretch the instrument’s imposing monologue, as does, for instance, Dmitri Shostakovich in his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, in which the monologue becomes an oppressive harangue justified by wartime suffering. Despite Shostakovich’s love of Mahler, Ernest Bloch’s concise Symphony for Trombone and Orchestra (1956) more thoughtfully inherits the Mahlerian bellow, conjuring through the trombone an “ancient” or “Hebraic” tone bereft of bombast.

As the trombone fades and the Bacchic revelry dissipates, the second movement begins its starlight minuet, allowing the first movement’s intercessions of Apollonian composure to take the spotlight. Structurally, the transition from the festal to the sober might make sense… but why must it be a bloated minuet? Though folksong was Mahler’s groundwork, he sometimes did defer, against his better judgment, to quaint pastiche that inhibited his more innovative tendencies. The coerced civility of a minuet juxtaposed with the first movement’s carousing Big Bang will seem either terribly ironic or terribly rushed, and I tend toward the latter. True, the minuet is also invaded by folksong, but insufficiently so.

Deferment to the folksong, which the young Nietzsche believed the font of Dionysian energies, works when the composer defers only superficially; that is, when the composer deranges and brutalizes the folk material, either excavating from the song a savagery denied by polite society or subjecting it to the inexorable and realistic torments of late modernity. (Without such torments, one winds up with Brahms.) In his Ninth Symphony’s rondo-burlesque, Mahler would realize his greatest grotesquerie, putting a petit-bourgeois waltz through a series of demented paces that prefigure the polystylist ruptures of Alfred Schnittke. In the Third, however, written 13 years earlier, he is still tangling with received forms rather than untangling them, and he allows a simple minuet to get the better of him, following its lead rather than the other way around.

Because my mind wanders when Mahler behaves too much, my eyes began to fix that day upon conductor Eschenbach, whose supple body movements comported with the symphony’s ideals of Apollonian grace. Smiling blithely and shaking his wings, he seemed to channel the third movement’s woodwinds birdcalls, buoyed by pizzicato strings. Imitating the violins’ staccato, he shook his jowls to provoke fortissimo and pressed his second finger to his thumb to elicit exactitude. Usually it is advisable to ignore a conductor’s dictatorial body language, much as one should avert one’s eyes from the manic eye-rolling or neck-twirling of an indulgent keyboardist. Yet the synchronous body language of Eschenbach, happily halfway between the shameless ebullience of Leonard Bernstein and the stoicism of Yevgeny Svetlanov and Herbert von Karajan, seemed to elicit perfectly the lightness and utter reserve of the fourth movement’s setting of the “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, sung ethereally in this performance by Anne Sophie von Otter.

Because Nietzsche was himself never able to musically approximate evolved enlightenment, he probably would’ve been thankful for Mahler’s Third. Those familiar with Nietzsche’s music know that his lieder are mostly bad, suspended somewhere between strained amateurism and willful naiveté. One assumes Nietzsche realized his limitations as a composer and dared not test them. His lack of formal compositional technique steered him toward music of necessary simplicity and away from virtuosic attempts at Dionysian revelry; nevertheless, his musical simplicity is a clumsy one, unable to capture Zarathustran lightness or the breath of the unburdened sage at the mountaintop.

In the symphony’s fifth movement, a setting of a Des Knaben Wunderhorn text for soprano and children’s chorus (which mimics the tolling of church bells), Mahler obviously parts company with Nietzsche, engaging in the sort of piety to which Wagner turned in Parsifal (much to Nietzsche’s disgust). The cherubic children’s chorus sings faithfully (“Three angels sang a sweet song… they shouted for joy that Peter was free from sin!”), then dissonantly as they relate violations of lordly commandments. The dissonance, reflecting only a fleeting fall from grace, is resolved in the closing’s falsetto peroration: “Heavenly joy was granted to Peter through Jesus… and to all mankind for eternal bliss.”

Whether or not Mahler, a doubting Jew who converted to Catholicism to secure his conductorship, actually believed in such routine or dogmatic redemptions is doubtful. Though its dissonances were unusual for 1896, the movement’s songlike reclamations of faith, only about ten minutes in length, falter before the opening movement’s half hour of agnostic pandemonium. Nevertheless, the movement’s philosophical lightness does mark an advance on Mahler’s more popular Second Symphony (“Resurrection”), which professes its faith through unforgivable bombast and orthodox musical associations (i.e., antiphonal brass to announce the unlocking of the heavens, etc.).

The final, sixth movement — a slow, grand recapitulation that never deigns to openly reminisce over past movements’ themes — is the symphony’s greatest trial, and I confess it tests my patience. Presumably, it intends to be a trial, though testing less Mahler’s faith in a gentile paradise than his faith in an audience’s toleration for a composer allergic to concision. Unlike the aching finalé of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, written three years earlier and generally considered the first symphony to climax with a slow movement, Mahler’s finalé (marked “tranquil”) avoids autobiography or pathos, and unlike the popular adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth, it cannot be digested in 11 or 12 minutes. It suffers, almost purposefully, from too many false endings — or, if you prefer, false mountaintops. Like the 30-minute adagio of his unfinished Tenth, its constant undulations and Wagnerian tremolo drag on, taunting us with a finalé — a paradise — that arrives sheepishly rather than inevitably. The “heavenly” length Schumann saw in Schubert’s Great Symphony could just as easily be called hellish — heaven and hell are equally timeless, after all. I know Mahler fanatics relish such distensions of time and suffer rapturously through his most trying, tortuous passages. Mahler surely intends to teach us understanding through patience, and vice versa, but the ostensible piety leaves a bad taste, even as the work’s belief in love, both natural and transcendent, reflects the optimism of a near-agnostic.

Schoenberg, not always the harsh intellectual, effused about the optimism of Mahler’s synthesis of natural sound-worlds and pagan faith: “Are ‘heaven and earth’ together lost here, or is there not, rather portrayed here, for the first time, an earth on which life is worth living, and is there not then praised a heaven, which is more than worth living for?” (Schoenberg, Arnold, Style and Idea: The Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black, University of California Press, 1984, 457) Temporarily putting aside Schoenberg’s heavenly conclusion, we might focus on the implicit, more universal premise: does Mahler “for the first time” present an earth worth living for precisely because he posits not a hierarchical universe but one that equalizes the human and the superhuman?

Those who posit the existence of supernatural hierarchies generally do so to diminish humanity; indeed, it’s difficult to recall myths, legends, philosophies, or artworks that express the existence of a towering super-nature only to relegate spiritualism to the bottom rung. While Mahler’s Third doesn’t present mankind triumphant — it is ultimately too pious for that — it does present a far more horizontal understanding of mankind’s position within a supernatural universe, for the first movement’s agnostic cum pagan Big Bang is never overshadowed or usurped by the latter movements’ Christian pathos. Further, the natural soundscapes of the second and third movements are on equal footing with the religiosity of the fourth and fifth, as if the final transcendence were facilitated by the mundane flesh of the symphony’s first, “natural” half. We now can better explain Schoenberg’s commentary: Mahler’s heavenly earth is the first worldly incarnation worth living because its spirit necessitates rather than negates organic, animalistic experience.

The Problem of Immensity

To place nature and metaphysics (and god and man) on equal ground is to recognize the supernatural as nothing more than artifice. Because the supernatural is a fanciful projection of a mind incapable of explaining the supernatural, it can never be more than a subjective (or neurotic) experience. Music, too, begins as subjective experience (that is, as a Platonic idea) before it is concretized (and concertized) into audible sound, at which point it is objectified into a commonly accessible phenomenon. The aesthetic or religious aspects of this new phenomenon may become subject to centuries of tradition, hierarchy, politics, and interpretation, but it can never cast off its subjective origin or fully conceal the fact that it — the artificial totem — has no life of its own.

Great meaning, whether cosmic or intensely personal, never demands to be expressed through magnitude itself.

This seems to be the position of Mahler, who in the Third equalizes the natural and supernatural by first artificially juxtaposing natural chaos and beatific chiming and then by climaxing the whole affair with the slow movement’s Apollonian resolve. While Le Grange believed the Third proceeds “step by step” to a hierarchically godly climax, in a purely aural sense Mahler’s innovation here is to begin with the climax (the Big Bang), in which case the latter godliness becomes a majestic epilogue rather than a totalizing culmination.

That nature should give birth to religion “out of the spirit of music” (to use Nietzsche’s subtitle from The Birth of Tragedy) is echoed in the words of the early American impressionist Edward MacDowell, a composer guilty of numerous tone poems and pianoforte pieces about misty forests, amorous shepherdesses, New England arcadias, and so forth:

[Before the invention of music,] it is reasonable to assume that primeval man looked upon the world purely subjectively. He considered himself merely a unit in the world, and felt on a plane with the other creatures inhabiting it. But from the moment he had invented the first musical instrument, the drum, he had created something outside of nature, a voice that to himself and to all other living creatures was intangible, an idol that spoke when it was touched, something that he could call into life, something that shared the supernatural in common with the elements. A God had come to live with man, and thus was unfolded the first leaf in that noble tree of life which we call religion. Man now began to feel himself something apart from the world, and to look at it objectively instead of subjectively. (MacDowell, Edward, “The Origin of Music,” Critical and Historical Essays, ed. W.J. Baltzell, Boston: Arthur P. Schmidt, 1912)

MacDowell’s observation that primordial music allowed God to “come to live with man” — not “live above man”, mind you, but “with” him — implies the ascent of a (musically) masterful humanity and a humbled god who retreats before disciples who know, on some level, that their aesthetics conjured the godhead. These primordial musicians, not yet realizing their smallness in the scheme of the cosmos, needed to remind God that he, too, was just another aesthetic, just another song.

Yet there still looms the structural problem of the Third’s physical enormity. Is our aesthetic thinking so irredeemably redundant that we demand ambitious contents have grandiose forms? If it is difficult to imagine a nature symphony not carved massively or ruthlessly from the elements, we likely suffer symptoms of an old romantic prejudice. At least the primordial musicians put God in his place; even animists were content to lock Him up in decorative or utilitarian bits of wood and stone, rather than insist upon a murky omnipresence and continual theistic surveillance.

Great meaning, whether cosmic or intensely personal, never demands to be expressed through magnitude itself. The first minute of Martinu’s Sixth Symphony and the minute-and-a-half it takes to perform the second of Prokofiev’s op. 31 Old Grandmother’s Tales are worth more than a thousand overinflated Odes to Nature or Paeans to His Majesty. Likewise, the greatest short stories seek not to condense novels to barebones but to transcend the novelistic form itself. In less than seven minutes, the last of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”), a funereal inversion of the immortal children’s chorus of the Third Symphony, contrasts personal devastation and chilling remorse as profoundly — perhaps more profoundly — than the Third juxtaposes natural chaos and Christian redemption. I imagine many would not call this claim ridiculous.

Compounding the problem of immensity, the Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache claimed that purposive slowness was needed to access the profoundest works. A devotee of Zen meditation and the unmediated immediacy of live performance, he argued that sedulous conductors must distend tempi, allowing listeners to hear at a “monadic” level and perceive audial structures otherwise muddied by a faster pace. Certainly, music must be allowed to breathe, much as the epic needs to sprawl or the road movie to amble. Yet one too many degrees of slowness can tip over the music into moribund plodding. Sergiu Celibidache once conducted a Prokofiev Sixth of 50-minutes, about 20 percent slower-longer than usual; the work does demands greater breadth than most conductors are willing to allow, but here the border between profundity and enervation grows perilously thin. In his organ concerts, Charlemagne Palestine would press down a chord or pedal for hours, attempting to fill eternity with piping vibrations.

The Zen aesthetic seeks to suspend the heartbeat before plumbing the mind, a pursuit doubtless more difficult when musical experience is increasingly fractured and quickened, ubiquitously disseminated to the public loudspeakers of offices, malls, waiting rooms, restaurants, corporate plazas, and so on.

The disillusionments wrought by WWI eventually made the longwinded symphony passé, and Stravinsky and the neoclassicists would see in crystalline forms what hyper-romantics sought in cosmic ones. A few late romantic anachronists (like Joseph Marx) would cling to the grand nature-symphony, but otherwise symphonic bigness would be colonized by the Soviets — first by great experimenters like Vladimir Shcherbachov and Gavriil Popov (whose apocalyptic First Symphony of 1935 so influenced Shostakovich) and then by a dreary procession of nationalists under the thumb of Joseph Stalin.

Mahler’s phoenix-like return in the ’60s was, of course, partly a reaction to the acridity of the postwar avant-garde and the intellectuality of the Pierre Boulez crowd. Today, Mahler’s prominence and prestige status at the top of concert programs stands as “proof” of this reaction’s prescience. Not only is Mahler’s profundity now needed to rebuff both the iciness of the avant-garde and the triviality of our daily travails, but it towers above countless postwar neoromantic composers reluctant or unable to scale Mahler’s heights. To listen to Mahler is to claim your soul hasn’t been splintered by postmodernity — even if you hate Mahler and disbelieve in the soul.

While Mahler’s soulfulness is embedded in symphonic length, we can realistically place this length in an appropriately cosmic context. The “great” length of Mahler’s Third is really nothing of the sort. It is absurd to think that in 100 minutes of performance time we can grasp the four years of imagination, labor, revision, worry, insecurity, and tremulous self-doubt Mahler invested in the composition. Certainly, we can re-experience the work, perhaps two or three hundred times over the course of four years, but because each new listening begets a new, disconnected mental narrative, we can never access the holism the undergirds the creative process.

Unable to understand the long holistic thread that births great artworks, yet undeniably moved by the art’s effects, we stumble awestruck into the sublime, an experience quite different from the serenity that Edward MacDowell believed could attend primitive man’s dual discovery of music and metaphysics. Sublimity, which Friedrich Schiller famously described (in “On the Sublime”) as simultaneously a “painful… shudder” and a “potentially… rapturous joy,” reveals a split between our “spiritual” and “sensuous” natures paralleled in Mahler’s juxtaposition of cosmic discharge and Christianity ascension. Logically, Mahler’s Third should fail in its attempt to bridge the rapturous joy of religiosity and the painful shudder of sensuous man, for even in art — perhaps especially in art — the two are irreconcilable. However, this irreconcilability only describes the content of Mahler’s symphony; in terms of form, the musical whole is literally “sensuous” (or at least aurally sensed), even if the beginning’s nature-music is more sensually arresting than its religious counterpart.

Schiller concludes that “nature herself has used a sensuous means to teach us that we are something more than sensuous natures”; that is, by experiencing the sublime through a sensuous means (here, music), we can realize the limits of sense and sensuality, for the transporting effect of music entirely outweighs the material, sensory cause. But the sublime, pointing to something outside ourselves, only hints at a transcendence we can never know. Listening to music, we cannot hear anything beyond sound, but we believe we can feel a “greatness” that transcends our sensory abilities to feel. This paradox cannot be resolved by religion, for we cannot take the sublime “into” ourselves as believers transubstantiate or unify with a godhead. An egoistic audience will attempt to solve the dilemma by positing the individual will over pathetic fallacy; the artist will attempt and fail at a reconciliation, and call the failure an aesthetic statement. Nevertheless, we do not envy the primitive, pre-theistic man, who — existing side-by-side with God and knowing nothing of his smallness in the universe — never had to sublimely tremble at all.