Performing Arts

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.

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