Mahler’s Third Symphony

“Don’t bother looking at the view – I have already composed it.” These are the words of Gustav Mahler. Precisely to what he was referring, I am unsure, but the statement could certainly be applied to his Third Symphony. His extraordinary powers of narcissism aside, he took the natural world, and returned it to us as music.

To give another quotation: “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Hence, his Third Symphony is an all-encompassing model of nature, and the way it strikes us as creatures within it. In six movements, we have the awakening of Pan, flowers on the meadow, animals in the forest, man, angels, and, ultimately, Love. This would all seem a little glutinous, sentiment-wise, were it not for Mahler’s far more interesting insistence on the relation we have to all these things, rather than a simple portrayal: he is documenting, as he explicitly says, what they tell him.

I’ve mentioned Mahler’s encounter with the Greek god of nature, Pan, before, but it’s worth a repeat. On holiday in the mountains of Austria, he is said to have gone for a brief stroll only to find himself rapt with terror. He was overcome, allegedly, with panic in the strictest sense – the incomprehensible vastness, the insensate amoral power, of the natural world in relation to him as but a man trembling before it.

This isn’t to suggest that it’s a particularly normal thing to feel as you wander through your local park. Mahler was pretty unstable, anyway. But given the difference between us and, say, a mountain range, we might understand a little of what he felt. This permeates the whole symphony: the first movement, in particular, stirs from cavernous echoes to a hurtling, roaring climax, all at once stirringly brilliant and yet terrifyingly fierce.

But, despite the overwhelming sense of doom that Mahler brings us, the second, third, and fourth movements show us a man entranced and seduced by the undeniable beauty of the natural world. Indeed, in typical Romantic idiom, Mahler often assumes the perspective of a child.

Anyone familiar with Mahler’s work will have already formed various, most likely quite visceral, reactions for or against him. He represents Romanticism at its utmost peak. Unashamedly Wagnerian in harmony and histrionics, Mahler does not give us music to play in the dining room, or any room at all, bar the one with all the seats and the conductor and orchestra and things.

It had a difficult time achieving even this: it was only officially recognised as music in the 1960s when Leonard Bernstein’s very loud, very effusive renderings of the symphonies battered Mahler into the forefront of concert programmes from then to the present day.

Mahler, in this respect, was a victim of circumstance. Brahms wrote in parallel to Wagner (he died just over ten years before Mahler’s own death) and achieved critical acclaim in response to his far more austere approach to music. He embodies the remnants of a more classical style: where music is created simply for its own sake, rather than for any representational or more explicitly expressive purpose.

With this in mind, a great deal of people appear to have found themselves unable to connect with Mahler’s music: if he felt unfathomably awful, which he very often did, he would quite seriously take it upon himself not only to represent these specific feelings in his music but to bring his audience to the brink of emotional breakdown as well. Mahler’s music is anything but reserved.

This is not to say that it is completely unapproachable, or that it is the musical equivalent of a travelling emotional freak-show. His symphonies, other than the Sixth and Tenth (they are both uncompromisingly tragic, and two of my most favourite), bring us back from apocalyptic cataclysm or nihilistic void to give us a vision of the future where man overcomes his crises either through the power inherent in his own nature, or through religious salvation.

The Third Symphony does just this: the fourth movement has a mezzo-soprano sing the ‘Midnight Song’ from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. I can’t pretend to fully understand its significance, other than the immediate impressions I take from its setting to music. However, its connection to the piece as a whole is clear. Following Nietzsche, we have a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Mahler’s portrayal of a series of traditional German folk poems. The latter, as a response to the former, presents a vision of spiritual retirement from the world, to offer a conclusion for the problem of mankind’s place within it.

It’s instructive to compare Mahler’s take on the natural world with Beethoven’s symphony on more or less the same topic, the “Pastoral” Sixth. Beethoven, given his place in history, did not see his music as representational in spirit. Despite some kind of pictorial content, say, a thunderstorm, or some drunken yokels dancing about in a field for some reason, the piece does more to further an atmosphere or series of impressions than directly illustrate particular things or occurrences.

Mahler’s symphony, however, comes at a time when many composers were experimenting with tone-poems and other more strictly representational forms in the attempt to precisely mirror phenomena in music. In this respect, Mahler’s piece suffers a little: in the attempt to depict the natural world in its seething, writhing intensity, his music must be just as violent, raucous, and abrasive.

Certain passages do not flow as well as you might like; they tear past each other and fight amongst themselves. And often Mahler does get a little carried away with how seductive he appears to find some aspects of nature, and with this the music at points descends into the grossly burlesque.

Overall, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” seems a far easier piece to appreciate. It is far less antisocial towards the ears. But this is also because Beethoven’s piece is not in any way honest: bellowing from it is an unfaltering Enlightenment optimism for man and his place in the world, one that asserts our dominance over it as stewards or, I sometimes think, zoo-keepers.

Whatever critics once bemoaned or currently bewail, I see Mahler as inescapably fantastic. He’s the pinnacle of the Romantic tradition, but such that he both dives into the future (as in his revolutionary, yet unfinished, Tenth Symphony) whilst also absorbing important aspects of past traditions with bits of otherwise mistreated European folk music of the day thrown in as well.

It is uncompromising, challenging music and in that respect it requires, paradoxically, very delicate handling. The Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer coped reasonably well – the concentrated, densely interwoven string threnody of the final movement seems to be very hard to pull off, and more eminent people have done a worse job. However, their rendering did nothing to downplay the weaknesses of the symphony. The somewhat rambling incoherence of some of the more over-enthusiastic passages was made more obvious, if anything.

Mahler’s piece finds a heightened beauty in its indefatigable honesty about the human condition, and the terrifying state we can find ourselves in the world, whether or not we can ultimately sympathise with his religious conclusion on the matter. Whatever the music seems to do to us as we listen, the ultimate state we find ourselves in afterwards is, I hope, an emotional understanding of Mahler’s project and, more importantly, the musical equivalent of gawping across the Andes.

Or, like some, you’ll just be staggered at the enormous protraction of the piece, or the fact that for the entire symphony one of the percussionists has been ritualistically slapping himself to death with a pair of tambourines. I hope not.

_Mahler’s Third Symphony was performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra. _
_Mezzo-Soprano: Birgit Remmert_
_Conductor: Ivan Fischer_


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