Sym­phonic se­crets

Stephen John­son ex­plores the mu­si­cal el­e­ments that un­der­pin Mahler’s ten epic sym­phonies

BBC Music Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.’


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

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