By Charlie Odulio
Hi there! I’m Charlie Odulio, an intern at WDAV this summer. I study music at Amherst College and am a trumpet player. As a brass musician, I love the music of Gustav Mahler and wanted to share that passion through a deeper dive into a specific piece of music: Mahler’s Third Symphony and its famous “posthorn solo.” There are entire books written about this symphony, so while we can’t cover the full scope of the piece in this two part series, I hope to provide some insight that might help you understand and appreciate this wonderful Mahler masterwork.
Read Part One of this series on Mahler’s Third Symphony.
The Posthorn Solo
In part one of this series, we discussed the broader meaning behind the symphony as a whole, and why Gustav Mahler’s music is worth your time. In the Third Symphony, Mahler faces the struggle between life’s innate suffering and finding existential meaning. Ultimately, he turns to human love as the supreme good through which we can make sense of the natural world and our place in it.
Now, let’s zoom in on the third movement of the symphony, “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me.” This movement contains one of the most iconic trumpet solos in the entire orchestral repertoire. The solo is not only a point of interest for brass players, but is greatly beneficial to understanding the symphony’s central conflict.
Mahler begins the movement with an instrumental setting of his lied “Ablösung im Sommer,” or “Changing of the Guard in Summer.” The text of that lied describes the death of the cuckoo bird and its replacement by the nightingale. In its morbid jollity, the song perfectly conveys the Schopenhauerian struggle for survival we discussed in Part One of this series. An analysis video from the Boston Symphony Orchestra aptly calls the movement a “musical illustration of the ‘war of all against all,’ in which nature dictates a cycle of predation as a condition for living.” Musically, we hear this in a frenzy of raucous melodies, incessant woodwind trills, and a driving tempo that, at times, seems to be careening towards chaos. Mahler himself described the scherzo as “a sort of face-pulling and tongue-poking on the part of all Nature,” with “a gruesome, Panic humour in it that one is more likely to be overcome by horror than laughter.”
Set against this grotesque animality, though, is a scene of tranquil bliss. Six minutes into the movement, chaos resides and we hear a lone horn call out a simple, arpeggiated figure from seemingly out of nowhere. A handful of strings play ethereal, shimmering chords and the horn continues upward until reaching a peak, at which point it takes a lyrical turn into a sweet, velvet melody. This is the legendary “Posthorn Solo,” which takes its namesake and inspiration from the calls that postmen, or postilions, would play to signal their arrival, typically on horse-drawn mail carriages.
When Mahler wrote the symphony, the posthorn was frequently found in popular culture, especially on the band-stand and in poetry. One especially popular poem, “Der Postillon” by Nikolaus Lenau, was explicitly referred to by Mahler as being an inspiration for the solo. Lenau depicts a postman riding on a May evening who stops at a cemetery to pay respects to a deceased companion. I encourage you to both read the English translation of the poem, and to listen to the German narration of the original as a reference for the “Posthorn Solo.” It’s terrific how well Lenau’s verse accompanies Mahler’s music.
Mahler’s solo is not explicitly tragic, but it evokes a feeling of painful nostalgia, especially set against the rest of the movement. Like Lenau’s poem, it is an homage to a life lived – a meditation on worldly existence, shaded by its inevitable end. It is both a call to remember things past in a world marred by inevitable suffering, and a questioning of how humanity can reconcile itself in an animal world. It serves as an explicit summation of the existential conflict that Mahler finally resolves in the sixth movement.
From the performer’s perspective, the solo is the subject of much discussion. It is very long and therefore physically taxing to perform. Furthermore, the character of the music is extraordinarily delicate, so the player must take care to ensure they do not overplay. This is made more difficult because the solo is played offstage, meaning that the performer can’t gauge how their sound will be perceived like they can when onstage.
Last but not least, the solo is completely exposed, and the melody is so simple that any mistakes would be obvious to even the casual listener. Despite all this, perhaps what drives discussion of the solo more than anything else is the question of what instrument to perform it on.
Despite being called the “Posthorn Solo,” it’s not always performed on an actual posthorn. In fact, according to the legendary Phillip Smith, former principal trumpet player of the New York Philharmonic, “Some editions of this work call for posthorn, while others call for flugelhorn.” You may know of the flugelhorn from Chuck Mangione’s 1977 hit single, “Feels So Good,” but the instrument is far from unheard of in the classical setting, particularly in British style brass bands.
Omar Tomasoni, principal trumpet of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, explains that “it’s not very clear what kind of instrument Mahler meant… [but] what we know for sure is that Mahler had a very clear idea of the color that he meant. Mahler writes exactly to ‘try to recreate the sound of a posthorn.’ So, we have to play in the way that the posthorn sounds.” Trumpet players have employed a range of instruments including Bb, C, and Eb trumpets with various special mouthpieces to achieve a dark sound, cornets, and modern interpretations of the historic posthorn. Today’s trumpet player is quite lucky to have a wide array of instruments at her disposal to pursue the sound that she believes will best embody Mahler’s music.
While knowing about the posthorn solo and the many instruments it’s performed on is certainly a good musical fun-fact to keep in your back pocket, I hope you can take away something much greater than that. The solo epitomizes the idealistic, Mahlerian approach to music – it is the pursuit of a feeling, of an idea, that the performer can impart to the audience. With any luck, familiarity with the background of one Mahler’s most beautiful musical moments will give you a chance to listen with a refreshed sense of wonder, and a new appreciation of the performer’s task in bringing it to life.
Sources and Further Reading
Mahler Symphony No. 3 by Peter Franklin (Cambridge University Press)
“Popular Music and the Colloquial Tone in the Posthorn Solos of Mahler’s Third Symphony” by Timothy Freeze (Oxford Scholarship Online)