Today we talk about what Wikipedia describes as "the longest symphony in the standard repertoire." Mahler symphonies all tend to be very long, this one being about 100 minutes, if we were to cover all six movements, which I'm not even going to try to do. But I can focus on parts of it, such as the following, the very touching fourth movement with poetry text The Midnight Song by Fredrick Nietzsche from Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Mahler Symphony #3, 4th movement; Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting
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.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
—seeks deep, deep eternity!"
I have already written two diaries just about Mahler, this being the third. Hopefully, I was so exhaustive about it in our last Mahler diary, about the Symphony #9, that we don't have to again analyze Mahler the man so much and can focus on just music.
There is a huge difference between Mahler's early period symphonies and his late period works such as the Ninth. The third, in particular, is possibly his warmest and most relaxed.
And it's very long, so long that it was rarely played for fifty years, that is until Mahler's music underwent a revival in the sixties and became popular again. Mahler's early period music, especially, is more romantic, less edgy. Like all of his music, it is very narrative-driven. We can sense that there is a complete story being told by his symphonies, making them more like epic films than symphonies. Mahler provided programs for his first three symphonies to explicitly tell people what they were about, a move he later regretted because he thought it detracted from the music itself, and I think I agree with that. His written programs were actually kind of stupid, in my program. So I'm not going to bother with belaboring what Mahler tells us his music means, because we shouldn't give a shit and it doesn't help.
The Misterioso movement above, which you're probably still listening to, is only the fourth of the six movements, a calming and serious lull between two brighter and more active movements, almost transcendental in mood and in the text lyrics. If you can't hear the thrumming of the lower strings at the very beginning, you need to change your speakers or get a better recording. The music is ambiguous, wavering between major and minor, with the entrance of the soloist, singing, "O Mensch!" (Oh, man!) first in minor key, then major key. The steady thrum of the lower strings through all this creates a feeling of hushed awe and expectation.
And at 3:48, on the words "The world is deep, and deeper than the day has thought," the deep thrum vanishes, and a lighter, more passionate song emerges from the high strings, a beautiful soaring melody that takes flight, giving us a moment of crystal clarity. If that melody sounds familiar to you, it may be because Mahler uses variations on that theme and motifs in all of his symphonies! Mahler's symphonies contains these familiar friends, like a recurring ensemble cast.
After the soaring melody, the movement returns to the O mensch thrumming music theme. After the words, "Pain says pass away, pass away," the soaring theme returns, but now joined with the soloist who sings "But all joy seeks eternity! ..." And the music fades away, at the end, in primal thrumming.
It's a very powerful movement, filled with both tenderness, yearning and a sense of the spiritual, which probably describes the entire thrust of the Mahler 3rd Symphony.
I want to tell you about the first time I heard the Mahler 3rd in live concert outdoors at Hollywood Bowl, about thirty years ago, on a very hot summer night. Hollywood Bowl has gone to hell in recent years, its summer program replaced, mostly, with a pile of pops horseshit. Ah, but in the good ol' days! What a perfect way, time, and place to hear the Mahler Third.
Perhaps it is unfair of me to burden you with my image in your head, but maybe just for fun, envision yourself outside on that very hot summer night, you and your date sweat staining your clothes in the cheap seats way at the top of the Bowl, seats so sparsely populated you can lie down or sprawl as you like, getting drunk on a bottle of red wine which you both empty by the end of the symphony. And here you have this beautiful music which creates a sense of the transcendental while building towards the final climax. (Which we will hear last in this diary).
When I think of that night, what I remember most is the third movement, the Comodo Scherzando movement. I chose Leonard Bernstein again.
Mahler Symphony #3, 3rd movement (1 of 2); Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting
The movement begins as a light scherzo. And it is light enough to just enjoy without taking it seriously, at first. But this is where Mahler's music can sneak up on you. Enjoy the first few moments, this light music, this pretty music, which has a kind of Jewish klezmer sound in parts of it. But there are occasional dark undercurrents. And they emerge for the first time at 3:24. The same theme, acquiring a darker, more dissonant edge. Ah! but it returns again (4:10) to the lightness, with the strings as airy as helium balloons.
The music continues to alternate this way. And we might begin to think that this is all we will get. But there is yet another surprise, beginning around 6:39. The music slows, loses its propulsion. Something important is about to happen. An orchestra hushes and a new instrument speaks up, a solo posthorn, somewhere, but not on stage, echoey in its misplacement. If you look at the video clip above, you can see them using a cornet, instead, which is a posthorn with valves.
What is a posthorn? It's not even really an orchestral instrument, being a horn for announcing the arrival of the mail by stagecoach, and for announcing the beginning of races. A real posthorn (which the score calls for) has no valves and has to be played with just the lips.
I can't tell you whether they used a cornet or a posthorn when I heard this at Hollywood bowl, that very, very hot night. But I can tell you how eerie it was. As the orchestra hushes, a pedestal off stage lights up with a spotlight on the posthorn soloist, his solo echoing in such a different timbre from the orchestra in the bowl that it is spooky, ghost-like. Even the heads of the orchestra performers wanders from their page to see the soloist off stage. And on this very, very hot night, with the sweat staining your arm pits, and the bottle rolling at your feet, your mouth gapes open, and you both go, "Ooooooh..." And now, if you didn't know before, you know it has depths to it that you might not have suspected. Any inclination you had to just surrender to the night and tune out has vanished. A bittersweet dialogue develops between the lonely posthorn and the horn section on stage.
Third movement, second clip (2 of 2)
The orchestra tries to resume its light, airy scherzo theme, but it is interrupted, very gently, and must give way again to the posthorn with its enormous gravity.
At 1:50 the scherzo tries to resume and succeeds, but this time with more vigor, and with a gradually escalating level of tension as it mutates. The same theme which was so beautiful and fragile before becomes downright violent (3:04) As the whole orchestra joins in, it becomes more raucous and out of control Into this growing, the orchestra again hushes and slows. And the posthorn returns, one more time, providing an island of calm and transcendent stability.
And, here at 5:10, the violins take up the posthorn's theme, but it is changed. It begins to waver uncertainly in that way peculiar to Mahler, leaving us in suspense as to whether it is going to change key, but not quite doing it. And then the posthorn returns, giving us that certainty. As it vanishes, the orchestra float aimlessly for a moment in its wake.
And now the violins return at 7:20 with what sounds like what will be the resumption of the light, airy, scherzo theme. But no... it accelerates, accelerates again, and suddenly we have this ENORMOUS climax that comes out of nowhere and shocks any sleepers awake. And now the scherzo theme returns and plays us out to the end.
Of course, at this point, we get the fourth movement, with O Mensch, which we heard at the top. No need to hear that again.
I'm doing this all out of order, but we didn't have time to cover the whole thing, and it was easier to start with the easier musical piece. Now we'll end with the hardest piece, the best piece, the finale of the symphony, the sixth movement. I'm going to switch to a different conductor/orchestra for this.
I originally was going to do the diary on just this one movement, and it is worthy of it, being about thirty minutes long, all by itself, as long as many whole symphonies. From this, you might suspect that people who attend a Mahler 3rd performance are already Mahler lovers, because being trapped in a seat for a hundred minutes can be a daunting experience for somebody who isn't already committed! But Mahler symphonies have the gift of being immersive experiences, like epic films, as I said, in that he creates a progression of events rather than a series of disconnected tableaus.
I wanted to present this as an contrast view of Mahler from that presented by our previous Mahler diary on the Ninth. Where the finale of the Ninth was filled with ecstasy and terror and despair, the finale of the Third is filled with warmth, passion, and optimism. Where our imagined protagonist in the Ninth finale dies and fades away like a roadkill, the Third ends with a vision of beauty. And I'll use that word again, transcendent. Transcendent beauty.
Mahler Symphony #3, final movement (1 of 2), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons
Mahler originally entitled this movement "What Love Tells Me." I have no idea what that means, and don't want to because it might ruin it for me.
The piece is based on a form that Beethoven excelled at, especially in his final quartets, and, strangely enough, the main theme is Mahler's own bastardization of (or homage to, if you prefer) the theme from one of Beethoven's final quartets. What Mahler does in the movement is offer alternating variations on two different themes.
The first theme (0:00 to 3:55), presented by the strings alone, is long, slow, and confident, sentimental, dripping with feeling, definitely in the Romantic style. We can break the first theme up even further, and I was going to, but do that on your own. I'm short on time so I'll try to keep this a little simpler.
The second theme enters at 3:55. The violins and violas play a contrasting theme, more melancholy, less confident. The feeling is strained. And into this, at 5:25, the horns try to interject the first theme atop it. And almost succeed. But the strings resist, fight back, and there is a tragic collision (6:18), one of Mahler's "failed climaxes" that he did so well. Quite wrenching.
After a brief hush and pause, the first theme returns (at 6:50) in a new variation. Basically, it's the same music, but with more feeling now, and less confident, more vague in its tonality, at times seeming ready to wander away (like at 8:10).
At 8:25, we begin another variation on the first theme, this one begun by the woodwinds. The deeper strings join in, adding strength and confidence to it.
At 9:54, the melancholy second theme returns in another variation, this time more bittersweet, less fragile, more filled out with more orchestral backing.
At 12:16, we have another variation on the second theme, a development of it, but this is heavy stuff, as the bittersweetness of the second movement reaches upward with full orchestra, upward, upward.... And at 13:01 we have another failed climax, this one more devastating than the first.
Before we begin the second clip, we can see the clear format of this movement so far: first theme confident, second theme sad and lacking confidence, collision, failed climax, rinse repeat, each time with more agitation and development. What will happen next? If this were like Mahler's 9th, we would expect a VERY tragic failed climax at the end. But in Mahler's 3rd, the success of that coming final climax will make it monumentally earth-shaking in its power.
Mahler Symphony #3, final movement (2 of 2)
The second clip resumes with a new variation on the first theme, actually beginning in the middle of it. It has gathered greater gravity. It rises in volume and power and begins afresh (look at all that brass in the clip at 1:33! That's big fucking orchestra!)
And, again, we have another failed climax, this one even more scattered in retreat than the previous one. It's as if it's trying to climb a wall, and failing each time.
At 2:46, a solo flute enters in the hush of that failed climax, offering a new, somewhat forlorn variation on the first theme. And in the hush after it begins, at 3:30, a new, solid, whole, recognizable variation on the first theme, played by the trumpets. The tremolo (fast trembling playing) in the strings adds to the tension.
At 5:35, the orchestra begins its final assault on that wall with a new wellspring of power. At 6:15 the strings play a new, more powerful, variation of the first theme.
At 7:21, we are at that metaphorical wall again that defeated us before, and there is a hush in the orchestra as we finally climb over it, with pounding drums and full orchestra, the horns blaring in calm triumph out to the final note.
Please notice, here, at the end, how plastered wet with sweat Jansson's hair was. Wow! Who needs the Boston marathon?
----------------- FINALLY, A REQUEST FOR ASSISTANCE FROM YOU ALL --------------
I've been doing this series for 43 diaries now. Last week we only got 9 comments. Wait. I'm not asking you for more comments. I'm not going to ask you for praise to buck me up. I'm asking for constructive feedback so we can make this series work better.
Not everybody wants the same thing, obviously, and I have to perform a balancing act each week. Personally, my own goal is not to be an educator or hang out and feel cool with you guys, but to be a proselytizer, evangelizing to those who are ready to hear the word of the living Beethoven/Mahler/Mozart, whatever. To me, music is like a religion, and it's altar should be shared, not horded. Music is not THE reason for our existence, and I'm not sure there is a reason, but if we can create a reason, music that binds us to our humanity is certainly as good a reason as any.
But what is it that people want that makes this series a success with some diaries and less so than at others, and with some people but not others?
Theories off the top of my head that I would appreciate if anybody wants to evaluate or comment upon:
1. People gravitate towards diaries about composers/works that they already know and like. Sounds reasonable to me. That isn't compatible, really, with my evangelical goal, but it's a good one that I accept and can use. These might be people for whom my long-winded breakdowns are particularly useful.
2. Similar to above perhaps: True believers, like yourself, that want to worship at the altar with company.
3. People want to learn something they know nothing about to better themselves. Sort of a continuing education thing. Hey, I feel the same way about Shakespeare, whose works I usually don't get until somebody explains it to me, and then I'm like, whoa! That IS good.
4. People are hoping to hear something new that they think they might like.
5. Musicians want to hang out and feel the camaraderie because they've all shared the trial by fire and this is as good a place as any.
What features of these diaries are effective and which aren't?
1. My own particular brand of goofy patter and irrelevant anecdotes.
2. Anthropomorphic descriptions of events in the music. (Such as, climbing a wall...)
3. Detailed descriptions of musical forms. I'm kind of stubborn about keeping this, but I'm not sure I'm doing it well or that there's not a more accessible way to do it.
4. Cool pictures.
5. My extraneous philosophizing. Which might also follow under point 1.
6. Eclectic diaries on a theme rather than analysis of a single work, like the one we did about Degenerate Music.
7. History lesson part, like the biographies of the composer or that style of music.
8. Music theory. How chords work, what Sonata form, double varations is, etc.
I would PARTICULARLY appreciate it if you tell me which parts of the diaries YOU usually skip or you think others skip. I don't take it personally. It's essential to my knowing which parts of my diaries I need to either, improve, remove, or accentuate.
Lastly, any ideas for increasing our attendance beyond just the DailyKos confines? I'd rather keep this a Thursday DailyKos thing, so there's a specific time each week where we know we will gather to discuss things as a group.
Probably... Mozart Symphony #41!