Stephen Johnson explores the musical elements that underpin Mahler’s ten epic symphonies
Whether you’re thrilled, ravished, or just perplexed by a Mahler symphony, one thing is clear. Mahler doesn’t simply want you to enjoy his music as a beautiful, self-sufficient sound object – he wants you to find meaning in it. Sometimes he seems to be striving to tell some kind of story; sometimes the effect is more like a wild kaleidoscope of ideas. But eventually there comes a point where the music seems to say, ‘There – what do you make of that?’ To achieve this effect, Mahler employs an array of distinctive sound symbols and devices. Here are some of the most important ones.
1. FUNERAL MARCHES
Funeral marches haunt Mahler’s symphonies, from the spectral ‘huntsman’s funeral’ cortège in Symphony No. 1 to the agonisingly slow, silence-punctuated procession that opens the finale of No. 10. In each case, we are clearly meant to think ‘Death’. The first movement of the Fifth Symphony is entitled Trauermarsch (‘Funeral March’), and it conveys the impression of a vast human panorama: mortality is confronted with grand, public ostentation (like a typical wealthy Viennese funeral), then privately, painfully. The mood of these marches can be fascinatingly ambiguous – as in the huge first movement of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony No. 2. Their scoring and expressive character can be tender, awestruck, impassioned or acid, conveying a mixture of horror and fascination. But in the last two symphonies, composed after the death of Mahler’s adored infant daughter, they are especially chilling.
2. THE VOICE OF NATURE
As a boy, Mahler would often ‘lose’ himself in nature – literally on at least one occasion. Some of his ‘nature sounds’ – like the ‘Pan awakes’ solo trombone in the first movement of the Third Symphony, or the bellowing tenor horn at the start of No. 7 – wouldn’t be obvious if Mahler hadn’t told us what they were. But the woodwind birdsong in the first movement of Symphony No. 1, the finale of No. 2 and the Seventh Symphony’s first ‘Night Music’ is obvious enough – though what menacing ‘birds of night’, exactly, can the latter be depicting? Sometimes Mahler’s literalism takes a bit of getting used to: the cowbells in the Sixth Symphony, for instance. But even there the evocation of Alpine vistas via shimmering high sounds (violins and celesta), and sense of distance (offstage church bells) is so enchanting that disbelief is easily suspended.
3. POP MUSIC
Composers before Mahler had used folk music in serious works, but the way Mahler
Mahler employs an array of sound symbols and devices
raids the streets, cafés, beer gardens and fashionable ballrooms of Vienna in his symphonies scandalised his contemporaries. We hear waltzes, polkas, hurdy-gurdy tunes, yodelling woodwind and the garish or sickly-sweet colouring of commercial light music. Mahler’s attitude to this sort of thing is very much love-hate. In the Scherzo of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, popular-style tunes float and blur like figures in a hideous dream sequence; but after the nihilistic funeral music in the first movement of Symphony No. 9, the solo violin’s saccharine dance-hall swoops are strangely consoling. One problem for modern listeners is that distance has leant enchantment to this kind of thing. Malcolm Arnold’s use of ‘airport lounge’ music in his symphonies, or Mark-anthony Turnage drawing on hip-hop, probably bring us closer to the effect in Mahler’s own day.
4. KLEZMER MUSIC
Mahler had mixed feelings about his own Jewishness, as you’d probably guess from his evocations of Eastern European Jewish song and dance music in his symphonies. The Klezmer wedding tunes, with squawking clarinets and impossibly up-tempo percussion, that burst into the First Symphony’s funeral march third movement are raucous and shocking – ‘alienated’ seems the word here. But what of the poignant keening lament in the Funeral March of Symphony No. 5, and the heart-rending cries of the starving child in the song ‘The Earthly Life’ that forms the basis of the Tenth Symphony’s central ‘Purgatorio’? These seem to come much more from the heart. The use of the Austrian rural Ländler – rough country cousin of the sophisticated Viennese waltz – often conveys
similar mixed feelings, but the mockery is never quite so stinging, or the identification so poignantly tender.
We all know a hymn tune when we hear one, and several of Mahler’s symphonies make prominent use of them. But what are they meant to symbolise? The hymnlike unaccompanied choral writing at the beginning of the ‘Resurrection Ode’ in the finale of Symphony No. 2 seems a straightforward piece of religious imagery – though I should stress ‘seems’. What then of the massive brass chorale sounding through cascading strings at the end of No. 5? An image of the simple faith Mahler found so touching in his youthful mentor Anton Bruckner, or a hymn to the human love that defies death? The resemblance to the old German carol ‘How brightly shines the morning star’ hints at a connection with Mahler’s new wife Alma. But Alma wasn’t impressed, and Mahler himself may have had his doubts. The wind chorale in the finale of the next symphony, No. 6, is grim and sardonic. After that, they’re much rarer.
6. MILITARY MUSIC
Mahler was brought up within hearing distance of the local barracks, and military march tunes and fanfares are another recurring feature in his music. Ghostly distant trumpet fanfares in the opening movement of the First Symphony turn clamorous and ecstatic at the movement’s climax.
But the muted trumpet fanfares in the Ninth’s first movement are chilling – Field Marshal Death salivates over his potential victim. Military marches can similarly turn fair or foul. In the finale of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, they depict ordinary humanity marching Heavenwards; in the Sixth they are exuberant, swaggering, at first, and increasingly sinister later on – Mahler really seems to peer anxiously into the looming 20th century in moments like this. But in the crazy collage that closes the huge first movement of Symphony No. 3, he seems to exult in the kind of regimented masculine drive embodied in the march.
7. CHILDREN’S SONGS
In the Fourth Symphony’s finale, a soprano imitates the sound of a happily singing child. In the Urlicht (‘Primal Light’) third movement of Symphony No. 2, an alto soloist suggests an older, but still innocent youngster. Children’s voices mimic the sound of bells in Symphony No. 3 (‘Bimm, bamm’). Elsewhere, though, we don’t need voices to tell us that children are singing: nursery tunes and artless piping in the first movement of Symphony No. 4; the cheeky folk tune that lightens the energetic counterpoint in the finale of the Fifth; the offstage post horn solo in the third movement of No. 3, in which physical distance adds to the impression that we are hearing something from a faraway time – experience recalls lost innocence. But children’s songs can also convey a sense of innocence under threat, as in the disturbing limping rhythms in the Sixth Symphony’s catastrophic Scherzo.
In the trio section of the Ninth Symphony’s Rondo third movement, a sugary but touching trumpet tune aspires Heavenwards. It almost gets there, but at what should be the clinching moment the light fails spectacularly. A moment’s stillness, then clarinets shrill out a horrible parody version of the trumpet tune’s first phrase. The message is clear: ‘Did you really think that with a tune like that…?’ Mahler is the master of sarcasm, of caustic mockery. The grotesque transformation of the ‘Idée fixe’ theme in the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique gave him a clue, but he ran with it into completely new territory. It isn’t always black, as when Mahler mocks his own critics (via a sly reference to one of his own songs) in the finale of Symphony No 5. But more often the sneering is vicious, as in the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony’s nightmare Scherzo.
9. IRONY AND AMBIGUITY
The driven, anguished minor-key march that begins the Sixth Symphony leads eventually to thunderous major-key shouts of victory. But after what we’ve heard so far, the rejoicing may seem premature – and in time the black-edged Scherzo and Finale confirm our suspicions. The Adagio finale of Symphony No. 9 ends in resignation, but near the end Mahler makes one last desperate attempt to batter on Heaven’s doors. As the music heaves itself upwards, the horns shout out the ‘Ewig, ewig’ (‘Eternally, Eternally’) motif from the oceanic final crescendo of the Eighth Symphony, but the note of affirmation feels out of place, and it lasts barely a moment. Mahler is a master of this kind of irony, and also of ambiguity. Is the strenuously bright finale of Symphony No. 7 joyous or manic? Does the chorale at the end of the Fifth convince or leave room for doubt? The answer to those questions is probably ‘both’. To borrow a phrase from Beethoven, ‘sometimes the opposite is also true.’
10. CRYPTIC CLUES
Mahler has been justly described as a ‘song symphonist’. As with Schubert, songlike melody leads the way, no matter how disturbed or fragmented the argument may become. But also like Schubert he references his own songs to provide clues to deeper meanings. Substantial quotations from the tragic cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Wayfarer Songs’) point to a possible personal thread in the First Symphony. An echo of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’) at the climax of the Fifth’s Adagietto conveys a message to Mahler’s new wife, Alma, and thus to us about the redemptive power of love. The invocation of The Earthly Life, with its starving child crying hopelessly to its mother, in the Tenth Symphony’s ‘Purgatorio’ almost certainly reflects Mahler’s desperation on discovering Alma’s infidelity. But some of these signposts are less clear, susceptible of more than one interpretation. Mahler may want us to interpret, but something in him draws back from saying too much. Music, he seems to say, is both less, and more, specific than words.
Mahler is the master of sarcasm, of caustic mockery
themes and inspirations: (clockwise from top) Moritz Ludwig von Schwind’s The Hunter’s Funeral; a Klezmer wedding; Alma Mahler; an Alpine cow, complete with bell