If one is creating a world, as Mahler said he intended to do in his symphonies, how does one choose a text to sum up, in words, that world?
In the Second Symphony, the two texts deal with, roughly, death and ressurection, that is, the end of life and the hope for a new life. Mahler’s texts in the Eighth Symphony also combine ideas of sacred and profane, and seem to suggest that both modes of thought can lead to redemption.
Mahler was not a composer of opera (at least, not successfully), but he was primarily an opera conductor. He thought in terms of the blending of music and words, and the idea that music can be about ideas is central to his understanding of music as an art form and his approach to composition.
So, to deal only with the fourth movement of the Third Symphony, why this particular text? What is Nietzsche saying here that Mahler deems important enough to include in his world? Not only that, if, as a composer, I wanted to make sure that my audience and musicians took a text seriously, I would set it just this way–slowly, deliberately, with an accompaniment that stays out of the way, and with very little repetition, ironically. In song, repeated words often shed their meanings, threatening to become mere rhythmic and timbral elements of the composition.
This movement acts like a way station in the overall plan of the piece. It begins and ends on A, the dominant pitch, as though the music enters the room already in progress and leaves before it is quite finished. An interesting parallel here with Gregorian chant–some practitioners of chant believe that it is a continuous cycle of worship, always being sounded in either this world or some other dimension, and that when Gregorian chant is performed or perceived, we are only joining worship already in progress, never ending, never diminishing. Perhaps Mahler means to suggest the eternity (ewigkeit) of Nietszche’s ideas in much the same way.
The music opens with a motive heard in the first movement–again, Mahler’s preview technique in action, just as in the Second Symphony. The motive always returns to A, much as the music will at the first entrance of the soloist. The chromatic mediant relationship is again a part of Mahler’s vocabulary here–FM to am, F#m to am to FM, and then a falling third into the tonic key of D major for the bulk of the movement at m. 18.
Once the tonic key is established, much of the music is played out over a pedal D, sometimes suggesting D major, at other times, D minor–again, a Mahler schema. Measures 20-23 are a palette of orchestral color unto themselves, and they succeed in causing the listener to do what the singer demands: “Attend” (Gib Acht!).
Perhaps one reason this text appealed to Mahler is the word tief (deep). When I choose poetry for my vocal compositions, it is first and foremost the sounds of the words that appeal to me–I will read poems aloud while trying to select them–but ultimately, if they lack meaning or have meanings that I don’t wish to pass along, the poem will often fall by the wayside, or the project will fail. Depth seems to be a very appropriate sentiment to this music–from the middle of this titanic symphony that is about creating a sound world. By the time one is four movements in, quite a bit of depth has been undertaken, and I can’t help but wonder if Mahler recognizes this.
After a long pedal point, the music becomes more active beginning with m. 57. The melodic material here seems to be related to many of Mahler’s other melodies. Versions of it appear in the finale to the Second Symphony. This interlude leads back to the opening statement, musically and textually, in m. 75. The music is again centered on A for a recapitulation of earlier material from this point to the end of the movement. The text is largely parallel, thus the music is as well. The narrator’s sleep has been deep, and then his suffering, and at last his joy.
In parallel to the Second Symphony, then, this movement would seem to be Mahler’s explication of his belief in the human path to redemption, rather than a godly path. Joy is possible in this world, of course, but only in balance with sorrow (Herzeleid).