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.
The Third Symphony
For many brass players, the music of Gustav Mahler represents the pinnacle of symphonic brass writing. From his fanfares, to epic Wagnerian solis, to sweet, wistful melodies, Mahler wrote for every personality of the brass family, and his music offers musicians a chance to showcase the full emotional range of their playing. Among the composer’s works, his Third Symphony stands out as the longest in the general orchestral repertoire, lasting more than 90 minutes. The behemoth piece comprises six movements and contains several of Mahler’s iconic brass moments. One of these, the third movement’s “posthorn solo,” is one of the most beautiful and demanding of all orchestral trumpet solos.
THE MOVEMENT STRUCTURE OF MAHLER’S THIRD SYMPHONY
Movement 1. Kräftig. Entschieden. Introduction: “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”
Movement 2. Tempo di Menuetto/Grazioso. “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”
Movement 3. Comodo, Scherzando [Rondo]. “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”
Movement 4. Sehr Langsam. Misterioso. “What Mankind Tells Me”
Movement 5. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck. “What the Angels Tell Me”
Movement 6. (Finale) Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden. “What Love Tells Me”
Note: Mahler redacted the movement titles in quotations prior to the publication of the symphony. They appeared in neither the published score, nor the program notes. These titles were discovered in manuscripts, notes, and letters. They have been widely used in analyses of the work, and are accepted as legitimate.
The Third Symphony doesn’t outline a firm “plot,” so it isn’t explicitly programmatic. However, insight from Mahler’s own notes and correspondence has generated a corpus of critical interpretations imbuing the symphony with more concrete “meaning.” The first movement opens with a somber funeral march depicting the harsh struggle for existence. In fin-de-siècle Europe, philosophical pessimism weighed heavily on the minds of intellectuals, artists, and composers – including Mahler. The philosophy was a staple in the writing of Arthur Schopenhauer, a highly influential nineteenth century German philosopher. He suggested that life is filled with constant struggle, motivated by an instinctual and insatiable drive for survival. Considering Mahler’s own difficult childhood, it is no surprise that Schopenhauer’s ideas resonated with the composer.
Mahler depicts this philosophical pessimism in the first movement of the symphony, “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In,” musically illustrating the brutal struggle for existence that precedes summer’s eventual renewal of life. Appropriately, the movement begins with an ominous funeral march featuring an iconic unison melody played by a whopping eight french horns. Filled with foreboding brass melodies, frantic runs in the strings, and disturbingly dark harmonies, the opening section of the movement evokes a petrified sense of animalistic fear. Eventually, fear gives way to childlike jubilance, as the strings and upper woodwinds finally take the melody from the lower instruments. Mahler captures a sense of carefree simplicity, although on several occasions we slip back into the primordial chaos of the introduction. Ultimately, the movement concludes in what seems like a jubilant affirmation of life, although the underlying sense of foreboding never quite dissipates. In Mahler’s own words, “life gradually breaks through, out of soulless, petrified matter.”
In Part II of the symphony, Mahler explores human nature and the search for meaning in light of the struggle for existence evoked in Part I. He does so by issuing five musical depictions of life, moving from base life in the form of “Flowers,” up to “Animals,” then “Mankind,” “Angels,” and finally, “Love.” We might liken the progression of Mahler’s movements to man’s escape from Plato’s famous cave. Yet, in a typically fin-de-siècle turn, man is not imprisoned by an external “other,” but instead by his own pessimistic psyche. Moreover, Mahler’s highest good is not some abstract, perfect form; nor is it God, whom we might expect to take on that role. With Nietzche as a known influence on Mahler, it is no surprise that the composer leans not on religion, but on human meaning as the greatest form. In the sixth movement, “What Love Tells Me,” Mahler finds resolution in his desperate search for meaning in our ability as humans to love – to experience and act upon the empathy that comes from our own struggle. Mahler’s Third Symphony is a colossal affirmation of human life that does not shy away from the suffering we experience, but invites us to flourish in spite of it.
Keep an eye out for Part Two of this series, where we explore how the posthorn fits into the Third Symphony.
Sources and Further Reading
“God is dead”: What Nietzsche really meant (BigThink)
Arthur Schopenhauer (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Plato’s Middle Period, Metaphysics and Epistemology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Mahler Symphony No. 3 Score (PDF via IMSLP)
Mahler Symphony No. 3 by Peter Franklin (Cambridge University Press)
Fin-de-siècle Vienna by Carl E. Schorske (Vintage)