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.

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.

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