640px-rasalk
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where We Have Been:

  • Movement I – What the Rocks and Mountains Told Me: a vast struggle between summer and winter
  • Movement II – What the Flowers Tell Me: a light, airy dance of the flowers in the field
  • Movement III – What the Animals Tell Me: a wild rumpus
  • Movement IV – What Man Tells Me: a haunting moment of stillness
  • Movement V – What the Angels Tell Me: an angelic children’s choir

And now we are at the top of Mahler’s chain of creation. And what is it like? Well, I think it is a love-it-or-hate-it movement. Some of you may find it a bit slow and anti-climactic after all the orchestral brilliance on the way up the chain. However, for me, it remains the most majestic slow movement of all time. This is what slow movements were invented for. To slow time down and to create an atmosphere of beauty that simply can’t be rushed.

Tune-wise, this movement is rather simple. I hummed the main theme many times to my kids when they were babies, just because it has the simplicity and comfort of a lullaby, but also something more powerful as well. The closest I can come to explaining it is that somehow Mahler is trying to portray Love as something much bigger than romantic love. This is Divine Love – God, in other words – and the sound of God is vast, majestic, beautiful and overcomes all obstacles.

The movement is built as a series of parts, each one like a wave. It starts with a beautiful major-key melody, which gradually descends into crisis but eventually overcomes in the end.

So find yourself a quiet place to be undisturbed for half an hour – and a good set of headphones – and immerse yourself.

Part 1

(CD2, Track 4, 0:00) Nothing but the strings, barely getting above a whisper. They play a looooong melody that stretches out and soars.

(Track 5, 0:00) A new type of theme; a chorale (i.e. you can imagine it being sung by a four-part choir). Again, still all on strings, still deathly quiet. But it marks a transition from the major key into the minor key. At the (0:48) mark, starting with the oboe and then the horns, the other instruments finally make themselves known. I find it breathtaking.

(2:14) The first minor-key interlude. Anguished tremolos (those shimmering repeated notes on the strings), with a mournful descending motif on the horns. But the struggle hasn’t yet broken out in full force.

(Track 6, 0:00) Transition – Back to the opening theme, but now tinged with sadness. Becomes more miserable.

Part 2

(1:59) At this point, the theme returns as we first heard it, but this time on the winds, with strings underneath.

(3:35) The chorale – this time on French horns, with a solo violin underneath. Quite haunting. Becomes gradually darker.

(Track 7, 0:00) At this point, things start to get more emotionally intense, leading to the first big climax of the movement. The build-up to it is extraordinary and it explodes at (3:09). Completely awe-inspiring passage of music (and I have never heard anyone do it with as much power as Litton and the Dallas Symphony). Also note how, at its most triumphant moment, Mahler brings back the dreaded winter winds from the first movement. (3:33)

Part 3

(Track 8, 0:00) Back to the strings,as in the beginning, but varied again. Builds to a huge brass climax. (1:57)

Which is quickly followed by another massive collapse. (2:14) It’s quite devastating after the beauty of the opening, but this is the last struggle. Love has broken through and on the other side of this last patch of turmoil is the greatest moment of all.

Part 4

(Track 9, 0:00) It begins with a lone flute over glistening strings, ushering in the final repeat of the main theme. But even though we know the tune, this rendition is amazing – it’s played by a quartet of trumpets, with horns providing harmony. But they’re playing quietly – which is what makes it so beautiful. (It’s also incredibly difficult for the musicians. I was chatting with a French horn player recently who said that this was his favourite piece of music – but that it was the hardest piece there was, there was nothing harder. I’ll take his word for it.)

I never fail to get cold shivers at this moment. For me, it will probably always be my favourite brass moment of all time.

The music continues and swells to a massively loud recap of the theme for the full orchestra, followed by the mother of all codas. All I can say is, this is the music I want played at my funeral.
Thus ends the mighty Mahler 3, one of the most moving and ambitious pieces of orchestral music ever created. I say “one of”, of course, because fantastic as this one is, there is one more Mahler symphony left on our tour. And that symphony, the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony is – never mind comparing it with other pieces of music – one of the greatest pieces of art ever created.

See you again soon.

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One thought on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3: Movement VI

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