So we begin the Mahler 3 with one of the longest and most ambitious opening movements ever. In some ways, the structure is really simple. It’s in sonata form, so it features an Exposition with two main themes (both marches), a Development that plays around with them, and a Recapitulation. But both of the themes run for minutes and are completely different sound worlds. So what you’re going to notice most is the huge contrast between the two ideas.
If you remember from the intro, Mahler was trying to do two things in this movement. First of all, he was bringing you the sound of the rocks and mountains at the bottom of his huge chain of creation leading up to Divine Love. But he is also telling the story of an epic struggle between winter and summer. (Thus why this movement also has another subtitle: “Summer Marches In”).
But it’s really a clash between two marches. Winter is portrayed by a Funeral March, featuring an epic tenor trombone solo, and summer is also a huge march – a cross between the Star Wars theme and a Sousa march. (Which sounds like this for non-Americans reading this who might be less familiar with Sousa.)
Exposition – Theme 1
(CD 1, Track 1 – 0:00) The mighty French horn opening. It sounds pretty epic in its own right, but music nerds out there love to point out the awesome piece of trivia, that it is actually a minor key variance of this awesome section from Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. And the Brahms itself is a riff on an even more famous theme by Beethoven. But you would never guess, hearing the Beethoven or the Brahms, exactly what that theme might sound like belted out on the brass like this, with those huge drum beats. It instantly announces to everyone in the room that Something Big Is About To Happen.
(1:16) A slow, draggy funeral march begins, complete with shivering strings, muffled drum beats and a sort of howling wind from the trumpet. It’s bleak and unrelenting. I’ve heard it explained in some places as being the sound of primal, undeveloped nature or the bleakness of winter. Either one works. The point is that it’s somewhat grim and – this is the best part – the more grim the orchestra makes it sounds, the more awesome the second theme is when it arrives.
(5:21) A fairy-style interlude from the woodwinds. This is Pan waking up, and the spirit of Summer starting to stir. The Summer March almost begins; you can hear it rumbling in the percussion (6:12), desperate to break free, but no …
(Track 2, 0:00) The Funeral March continues, more bleak than ever before. Everybody except trombonists are now feeling miserable. (Lest we just pick on that instrument, there’s also some spiteful-sounding trumpet work as well at 2:02 onwards.)
Exposition – Theme 2
(Track 3, 0:00) The Pan theme again. This time it succeeds and the Summer March begins. It starts quietly in the basses and works its way up through the whole orchestra. This is easily one of the greatest marches ever composed for orchestra, with all the instruments striding or walking (and in the case of the piccolo, scurrying) along, still sounding like individual characters, even though it’s a massive group effort.
It’s also great to hear live, because if you’re in the concert hall when this piece is played, you can feel a rising sense of joy in the audience as Summer well and truly Marches In. It’s almost like they start to unfreeze from the wintry opening.
(4:02) I also feel that this is possibly the moment where the Star Wars theme was invented. (But then I also say that about the Bruckner Symphony No 4, which is a conversation for another day.)
(4:11) But, just as things are about to get really good and the music is about to reach a climax … we get a typical Mahler collapse, where the theme falls apart. And then we’re into the development.
(Track 4, 0:00) The devastating sound of Winter again, howling in the French horns, with the shivering strings underneath. More spiteful trumpets. There has been no triumph of Summer here. We’re right back in the bleak sound world of Winter.
(1:03) Plaintive trumpet solo, almost like it’s begging for mercy. The wintry sounds die down with a bit of timpani and brass fanfare, but we’re not really sure what’s about to come next.
(Track 5, 0:00) A beautiful trombone solo. Like a cousin of the Winter music, but slightly more hopeful. Followed by a haunted oboe. The music keeps dying into silence after each episode, though, so you have a feeling of staticness – of things trying to change, but not being able to get anywhere.
(1:18) Low harps and then the Pan theme emerges again, this time with a beautiful violin solo mixed in.
(1:40) It gets cut short by a bit of a military operation (very quietly and stealthily) by the trumpets and piccolos. Summer looks like it’s gathering its troops.
(2:14) A quiet, almost chamber-music version of the march. (But then again, we’re in the middle of a Mahler movement. Of course he’s going to crop back over a hundred musicians to a small ensemble.) And may I say while I’m at it, that I love the bit at (3:17) for the cellos. Magical every time.
(Track 6, 0:00) A slightly comic (insofar as you can find any orchestral music to be comic) episode that Mahler describes as “The Rabble”. You’ll understand why when you hear it.
(1:46) The Summer March starts to come back, with a lot of military fanfares, pounding drums. But it’s deliberately not as epic as the full version from the exposition, because believe it or not, we’re still in the development section.
(2:28) I don’t care what Mahler calls this bit. I call it “Brass Band Chaos”. It dies down to a fading military drumbeat. (Track 7, 0:00)
Recapitulation – Theme 1
(0:18) More or less a straight recap of the way it was the first time. The opening French horns, and then the dark Winter theme.
Recapitulation – Theme 2
(Track 8, 0:00) The march fires up again, completely re-orchestrated, but this time it’s not headed for collapse. It’s a glorious 5 minutes of orchestral glory all the way to the end. Enjoy!