I’m finding myself behind schedule on this piece, but it’s also the end of the semester, so hopefully I will be able to catch up on this piece.
This movement comprises Part I, and roughly half of the total piece. Lutoslawski commented that there was a tendency of Romantic symphonists to overwhelm the listener with multiple significant statements–a justification for his own later symphonies, perhaps, which are signle movement works. As in the first movements of his previous two symphonies, Mahler presents us with a “big idea” that could almost stand on its own. And yet, unlike in previous outings, the overall tonality of the movement is incomplete. It is literally impossible for this movement to be taken as a complete piece in the harmonic language of the late 19th century, and strange indeed for a piece to end other than where it began. Despite its weight, despite its musical significance, this movement is incomplete on its own.
Where Mahler’s first two symphonies begin by developing motives, the Third begins with a theme–a wonderfully memorable one scored for eight horns. What is interesting about this opening is that the theme is stated and then left completely until a later portion of the piece. The theme is followed by relatively unrelated material that unfolds slowly over the next 200 bars. This very clear initial statement followed by a “putting together” of new material is somewhat unique.
This part of the movement is very static from a harmonic sense–the music is centered on D minor and A minor chords, and much of the music is about gettingb to A–from a half-step above and a half-step below. Perhaps for Mahler’s narrative tonal design, it is necessary to firmly establish the home key to make clear that the ending is not in the home key. The sheer length of the movement may be a reason for this.
Measure 99 has a temporary change to Bb minor–a mere half-step from A minor. If A minor is expected, we are denied this, as within a few measures we return to D-minor. Measure 132 introduces new material which will later be expanded. Mahler’s use of the chromatic mediant relation is striking and clearly divides this music from the rest of the piece.
D-minor returns in m. 164 with what I, as a trombone player, of necessity considered to be the most significant portion of the piece. The only earlier trombone solo I am aware of that is this expansive and which is more important is the middle movement (“Funeral Oration”) of Berlioz’ Symphonie funebre et triomphale. The trombone writing also bears a certain resemblance to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. However, this project has given me a new perspective–most of the material of the solo has been introduced previously in the horns.
Finally, more than 200 measures into the piece, Mahler begins to head toward a new key area–m. 225 has the return of the chromatic mediant material, leading us to a presentation of thematic material in Db major. Another ten measures sees the music in C major with the first appearance with music in the strings that continuously is transitional music–mm. 239-273.
Measure 273 also finally has the return of the opening theme–transformed into a major mode (F major). The composer and conductor in me has to snicker at the notation Mahler gives to the first violins in m. 276, which has three anacrusis eighth notes. Mahler feels the need to write “Keine Triole,” “no triplets.” In conducting rehearsals, I have often had to clarify what should be obvious from the notation–if three eighth notes are preceded by an eighth note in common time, they are almost certainly not triplets. But who did Mahler imagine was going to play his music?
Measure 302ff has an interesting orchestral effect–trumpets echoed by woodwinds.
Measure 330 has a change to D major, but the harmony is a long pedal point on A until 351. A return of the march theme, and then a climactic passage that ends in measure 369 with another key signature change (although the key is G major (or G minor) despite the indication of one flat). The brightness of the march leads us to a darker place–leading back to the more sublime, more subtle music that appeared just after the opening.
The solo trombone reappears in measure 423, this time in F major instead of D minor. I always used to practice this solo more delicately than the first, with more lyrical qualities. It is as though it lies between the frenetic celebration of the martial music and the dark brooding of much of the other material.
There is a fantastic transformation of the initial theme in solo clarinet and bassoon in mm. 478–barely recognizable yet completely familiar; such is the power of developmental technique. The chromatic mediant material returns in m. 482–this time sequenced so that the resulting key is Gb major for a wodnerful duet between horn and violin–what composer would have considered such a thing?
Measrue 514, still in Gb major has a restatement of the march theme over a subtle scrim effect in violins and harp more French than German. This leads to material in Bb minor.
Measure 530 sees the transitional material from earlier in the strings now become developmental in nature. Mahler builds to a return of the march theme, but with additional counterpoint. The march transforms from the glorious music of earlier to some sort of nightmare version, swinging through Eb minor and C major to land on Db major. The march fades into the distance, and the percussion battery retransitions to the opening material at m. 643.
I’ve been teaching Forms and Analysis this semester, and one thing I’ve emphasized to my students is that a restatement of earlier material is rarely verbatim, and is usually truncated in some way. The same is true here. While Mahler opens with the same music, he cuts about 100 bars to bring back the solo trombone at measure 681.
This third solo is a combination of material from the first and second solos. Measure 708 is indicative of Mahler’s frequent decision to score the low register thickly. This is something I avoid in my own writing–I’ve read the orchestration texts too closely, perhaps, because Mahler’s scoring is very effective. I resolve to attempt something like this in my next large-ensemble piece.
The solo section ends with a direct modulation to C minor, with material related to the earlier transitional passage. The march music returns in F major and a repeat and elaboration of earlier material. A succession of 6-3 chords, first in D-flat major, then in G-flat major, pulls back to F major in measure 867–the transitional material now becomes the coda.
Any piece of this size–nearly 40 minutes and 900 measures of music–has to have an internal structure that is coherent but not repetitive. Mahler’s approach is to continuously develop a few basic themes and pieces of material. This is not, of course, unique to Mahler–only a few composers have eschewed repetition to the extent that Schoenberg did in Erwartung. There is a balance between harmonic stasis and harmonic progression, and of course the large orchestra provides a highly varied timbral pallette.
As a composer, I must now ask myself whether I am capable of the same sustained kind of writing, abandoning, as I usually do, Mahler’s use of a basically functionally tonal idiom. The truth is that I don’t know–studying Mahler is a way to at least see how it can be done, but my longest single movement is about twelve minutes. This is the challenge that lies before me.