Movement I: What the Rocks and Mountains Tell Me (aka Summer Marches In)
Movement II: What the Flowers Tell Me
Movement III: What the Animals Tell Me
Movement IV: What Man Tells Me
And now we’re up to the second-last level of Mahler’s chain of creation – the angels. This is really simple. It’s another one of the songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Wonderhorn), that slightly bizarre set of folk poems that Mahler loved so much. It describes the joy of three angels in heaven.
The poem is arranged for (as in, written out to be performed by) a cute children’s choir (making “Bimm-Bamm” bell sounds), a female choir and the alto soloist again. And after assembling that many people, how long do they sing for? Yes, that’s right. Four minutes. Only in Mahler would you go to that much bother for something so short. But, it all adds to the magical levels of contrast we get to enjoy in this symphony.
(CD 2, Track 3)
Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang, mit Freuden es selig in dem Himmel klang. Sie jauchzten fröhlich auch dabei: daß Petrus sei von Sünden frei!
Und als der Herr Jesus zu Tische saß, mit seinen zwölf Jüngern das Abendmahl aß, da sprach der Herr Jesus: “Was stehst du denn hier? Wenn ich dich anseh’, so weinest du mir!”
“Und sollt’ ich nicht weinen, du gütiger Gott? Ich hab’ übertreten die zehn Gebot! Ich gehe und weine ja bitterlich! Ach komm und erbarme dich über mich!”
“Hast du denn übertreten die zehen Gebot, so fall auf die Knie und bete zu Gott! Liebe nur Gott in all Zeit! So wirst du erlangen die himmlische Freud’.”
Die himmlische Freud’ ist eine selige Stadt, die himmlische Freud’, die kein Ende mehr hat! Die himmlische Freude war Petro bereit’t, durch Jesum und allen zur Seligkeit.
Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: “Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!”
“And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!”
“If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy.”
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.
Where We’ve Been: Movement I: epic battle between winter and summer. Movement II: the delicate flowers. Movement III: a wild rumpus of animals.
But now we arrive at a moment of almost perfect stillness.
This movement is based on a very simple concept, but it’s beautifully executed. Mahler took some words by Nietzsche from Thus Spake Zarathustra. In particular, he latched onto some lines about the deep midnight talking. Then, by deliberate repetition of the word “deep” (tiefe) he creates music that sounds, well, deep and nocturnal.
Essentially, it is a call for man to emerge from darkness and pain and it starts to pave the way for the beauty of the last two movements.
(CD 2, Track 1, 0:00)
The whole movement is essentially a 10-minute long aria for alto based over gently rocking deep notes in the low basses. (If you’ve got a good memory, you might recognise this as a nod to the wintery music of the first movement.)
Every now and again, the oboe gives out a strange cry, like a bird at midnight (2:02, for instance). (And depending to what degree the oboist and conductor are adventurous, it can really start to sound like a long bird call.)
O Mensch! Gib acht! Was spricht, die tiefe Mitternacht? “Ich schlief, ich schlief -, Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht: – Die Welt ist tief, Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.
O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
“I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
(Track 2, 0:00)
Tief ist ihr Weh -, Lust – tiefer noch als Herzeleid: Weh spricht: Vergeh! Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit -, – Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!”
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
—seeks deep, deep eternity!”
(Translation courtesy of Wikipedia.)
The opening tune in this scherzo is based on a song that Mahler had written for voice and piano that describes some birds reacting to the death of the local cuckoo. But Mahler throws in a whole bunch of other animals in this version, and the original song tune grows more and more wild. But then, in the B section of this movement, we get an amazing surprise, but we can talk about that when we get there.
(CD 1, Track 12, 0:00) The cuckoo song. It starts very polite and delicate, almost like another version of the second movement.
(1:23) But, in keeping with the animal theme, the instrumental sound gradually becomes less and less polite and more rambunctious. You start to feel like the orchestra is a bit of a zoo. In fact, this wilder, stampeding bit reminds me a bit of the wild rumpus from Where The Wild Things Are. But what do you hear?
(Track 13, 0:00) Back to the cuckoo song again, but slightly more melancholy. It descends (even more quickly this time) into the Wild Rumpus. This music is totally unique in the orchestral world (at least I haven’t heard much else to compare with it) and pure awesome.
(2:22) And then … in one of the most amazing passages Mahler ever wrote (I feel like I say that all the time, but seriously, this is one of those moments) the music dwindles down to just very high strings …
(Track 14, 0:00) … and then, almost like it is floating on the breeze, the sound of an off-stage post-horn. (Or other similar small brass instrument. Though, just to be confusing in this case, it’s a trumpet. Orchestras often do sub in a trumpet for the part, so feel free to track down a few other recordings if you want to hear what it sounds like on a real post-horn.) It’s so beautiful, and seen live, the whole audience will be holding their breath listening to a brass player that they can’t see.
As to the meaning of this beautiful but strange moment, Mahler described it as the first time man appears in his chain of creation. But man is still in the distance, still far away. As time goes on, some of the other instruments start to join in a bit more, like the French horn (2:15). There are also some interludes that hearken back to Section A, but the solo mostly continues on by itself for several minutes.
(Track 15, 0:00) Then with a mischievous little fanfare from the trumpet, Section A comes back, this time with mysterious tremolo (the shimmering sound on the strings), and more of a chamber music texture. But it doesn’t take long before the music works back up to its over-the-top self again. The clever thing about this stuff is that it manages to sound totally spontaneous – as if all the instruments have a mind of their own (like wild animals, really!) and are running crazy, but the reality is that Mahler has managed, to perfect, every last sound detail to sound that way.
(Track 16, 0:00) A return to the world of the distant post-horn, now with some more syrup in the strings. (I still like it, though.) The French horn accompaniment at this point is particularly beautiful.
(2:56) The animals come back again, but this time with a big Mahlerian collapse which is followed by another huge Star Wars moment which all lovers of brass and percussion will be sure to love.
Where We’ve Been: Movement I was the first of six movements heading up Mahler’s vast chain of creation, and it covered off the rocks and the mountains (while also being a rather awe-inspiring battle between summer and winter). But now in the second movement, we come to the flowers of the field. This movement is the lightest and, dare I say it, fluffiest of the six movements and makes a nice break after the first movement. (This is part of the reason why the symphony never feels as long as its actual running time – the contrasts between movements are so interesting, you always feel like you’re going somewhere different.)
It has a very simple ABABA structure, so it’s easy to follow as well.
(CD1, Track 9, 0:00) Section A – The movement is marked as being a minuet (an old dance form with a one-two-three beat). Mahler drops all the heavy brass and uses much more delicate instrumentation. So, by complete contrast with the first movement, it opens with a light oboe melody, which expands out to the strings. The next couple of minutes are completely gentle.
(2:03) Section B – Things get a bit more crazy, with some pizzicato (plucked strings, which give that awesome “plinking” sound), and some fluttery flutes. Imagine, if you will, that the gentle flowers are now being blown about by the breeze. It’s a little bit like something out of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, to my mind.
(Track 10, 0:00) Section A – Back to the gentle minuet again. (0:51) In the middle, it drops almost to a chamber music ensemble, then (1:10) morphs into some big schmaltzy Viennese-sounding sweeps that André Rieu would be pretty proud of. Apparently, a lot of orchestras in the 1800s used to play this movement as a stand-alone piece because it was so cute. Which used to annoy Mahler because it completely gave audiences the wrong idea of what his music is meant to sound like …
(2:12) Section B – The anxious sound comes back again, with a bit of brass making an appearance, some weird clackety-clack sounds, and ends up whirling and spinning faster and faster.
(Track 11, 0:00) Section A – The minuet again, but now with a more skittish edge. Again, a beautiful chamber music passage in the middle.
(2:10) Coda – The coda (ending section) takes us right up to the top of the violins range, and fades out beautifully. I love the light, airy sounds of the Dallas Symphony violins in this section.
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.
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!
Two more Mahler symphonies to go! It’s a pretty close call for me between these last two (Symphony 3 and 2) as to which I like the best. Both symphonies are worth seeing live. The epic sound and spectacle of these two works are absolutely amazing. But I like Mahler 2 that fraction more, so here we are with the second last symphony being the might Mahler 3.
The first thing I need to warn you up front is that the Mahler 3 is the longest of all Mahler’s symphonies (and as you know,they’re all pretty long!). It runs for around 100 minutes, and it’s probably the longest symphony that is still regularly performed by orchestras to this day.
Which is quite a feat, because the length makes it incredibly difficult. I was speaking to a French horn player the other day who explained that the Mahler 3 is the hardest piece there is to play. (At least for horns!) There’s so much work to do, for so long, that it’s almost impossible to play the end. But at the same time, it was his favourite piece of music in the world. So that tells you something, right?
I’m happy to say, having seen it live a few times, it’s not anywhere near as difficult to sit through as it is to play. In fact, despite the length, it actually seems shorter than some of the other Mahler symphonies. I think it’s because there is so much interesting stuff going on all the time, and every movement is so different from the others, that you can’t help but get sucked into the whole experience.
What is does help to know, before we set out, is that the Mahler 3 is broken into six movements (which is unusual, given that most normal symphonies have four). And they don’t even correspond to normal movements. Unlike most symphonies where the fast movements are usually the first and last ones, this symphony begins and ends with two massive slow movements. (Which might sound familiar to readers of this blog, having just listened to the Mahler 9.)
The reason for this, though, is that Mahler had a particular scheme or idea in mind when he was creating the movements. He envisioned a vast chain of creation, starting with the lower-level elements and ending all the way up at God (or Divine Love, as he would describe it). So he once described the movements like this:
Movement I – What the Rocks and Mountains Tell Me
Movement II – What the Flowers Tell Me
Movement III – What the Animals Tell Me
Movement IV – What Mankind Tells Me
Movement V – What the Angels Tell Me
Movement VI – What Love Tells Me
And then, honing in on Movement I, as well as being about the static rocks and mountains, Mahler also wanted to capture in music an epic struggle between winter and summer, but we’ll talk more about that when we listen to the first movement.
I should also add that after a couple of premieres of the work, he decided to not tell people what it was about at all, and hid all his notes away. His main reason for this was that he didn’t want to give people something to criticise that might take them away from just listening to the music itself. But thankfully we have scholars nowadays who are quite okay with peeking in people’s diaries and notes after they’ve died, and now most people who know Mahler are familiar with what he is trying to do. And I’ve got to say, if you didn’t know that it was about a chain of creation, it would be a much more confusing piece to listen, so I’m glad that people have researched this one.
My choice on recordings is an unusual one, because it’s not particularly famous. I also apologise that it splits the movements up into lots of tracks – which is great if you’re skipping to the really good bits on CD, not so great if you’re trying to link to Spotify tracks, but we’ll see how we get on. But I love the sound engineering and balance on this recording by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. There are a number of sections where Mahler brings the full orchestra in and the clearer all the instruments sound and blend together, the more spectacular the result. There are plenty of others out there to choose from, so this is by no means definitive, but it’s the one I keep coming back to.