Charlie Odulio

What Love Tells Me: Searching for Meaning in the Music of Mahler (Part 2)

By Charlie Odulio

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.” 

Video: Behind the Music: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3

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. 

The posthorn solo begins around 5’45

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. 

Video: Nikolaus Lenau “Der Postillion”

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. 

An audio track from Phillip Smith discussing and performing the posthorn solo.
Video: Symphony No. 3 (Posthorn)

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. 

Video: Omar Tomasoni about the posthorn solo in Mahler’s 3rd symphony

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)

Boston Symphony Orchestra video on Mahler 3

“Popular Music and the Colloquial Tone in the Posthorn Solos of Mahler’s Third Symphony” by Timothy Freeze (Oxford Scholarship Online)

Omar Tomasoni on the Posthorn Solo

Chris Martin on the Posthorn Solo

German, Austrian, and Prussian Post Horns

Phillip Smith commentary and performance

What Love Tells Me: Searching for Meaning in the Music of Mahler (Part 1)

By Charlie Odulio

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. 

Gustav Mahler

Part I
Movement 1. Kräftig. Entschieden. Introduction: “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”
Part II
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 Kiss artwork by Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt’s famous painting, “The Kiss” (Google Art Project, Public Domain.) Klimt was a prominent figure in fin-de-siècle Vienna. He was also an early love interest and lifelong friend of Gustav Mahler’s wife, Alma.

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.

Arthur Schopenhauer
Portrait photograph of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, 1859. By Schäfer, Johann – Frankfurt am Main University Library, Public Domain.

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

Boston Symphony Orchestra Video on Mahler 3

Leonard Bernstein: Who is Gustav Mahler? (lecture/performance)

Video on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

“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)