Mahler’s third: An epilogue

As has been common for the past few installments of our German(ic) Symphonies series, things got out of hand, and the most consuming idea of the piece itself expanded to take up a huge portion of what was supposed to be a post about the symphony itself, so I decided the ‘thoughts’ and ‘music’ posts would change their orders for this week, and this is why. You’ll see once you read why this had to come before the proper post on Mahler’s third, and not after.

Gustav Mahler around 1896, when this symphony would have been written (via Wikipedia)

The quote returns.

Despite the piece’s history and its various forms, it was pared down to a mere six-movement, 90-100 minute work, and that’s not even what I found most overwhelming about this piece. What I found most perplexing was this thread of drama starting with Beethoven, onto Brahms, through Bruckner onto Rott, and now with Mahler.

Beethoven, bless him, wasn’t involved in the drama personally. It’s the matter of that persistent quote. What quote? Listen to these:

Here’s the original, the famous theme from the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth.
Here’s Brahms’ quote of said theme in the final movement of his own first symphony
And here’s Rott’s homage to them both in the final movement of his first symphony.
And now go back and listen to the beginning of Mahler’s third.
Now, could this be entirely unrelated? Yes! Am I eager to pass it off as coincidence? No! In case you haven’t read last week’s post (actually like, the posts from the last three weeks), there is drama. Brahms already didn’t care for Bruckner and Wagner, and in the final movement of his first symphony (again, linked above), quoted the glorious theme from the finale of Beethoven’s ninth. This was 100% intentional, and Brahms acknowledged it. However, a number of years later, Bruckner’s student Hans Rott quoted Brahms’ quote of Beethoven in the final movement of his own first symphony, but this did not exclude him from Brahms’ denunciation. Rott later (related to this rejection or not) went mad and died of tuberculosis after a few failed suicide attempts. He was also Mahler’s roommate for a time and fellow classmate in composition under Franz Krenn. Rott’s work struck a chord
with Mahler in some very strong ways, as evidenced by his comments about Rott, and went on to kind of, in some ways, continue his legacy and write the kind of music that it seems Rott may have written had he lived to write more than just one symphony. So that’s all pretty straightforward. But as I’m preparing these pieces and listening to them in and out of order in a playlist I have on my phone, there’s that question nagging at me: IF Mahler did in fact intend for the opening theme of this, his largest work (and the largest in the [normal] symphonic repertoire) to quote this ever-more-symbolic passage, then why? What did it mean?
I made a comment to a friend the other day (a musician herself, classically trained professional) that at best, I will only ever be a musicologist, and I mean that to embrace whatever negative connotations musicians may attribute to the title. I can’t really play any instruments, I have only a tenuous grasp of music theory, but I can talk about music and know some stuff about it. Something I know not nearly enough about is music history in the context of understanding perhaps what was likely going through someone’s head at a time because of A or B or X or Y and all that.
So this question puzzled me. Reading into it can be dangerous, and there’s nothing that says anyone’s filling in of the gaps that are (or maybe aren’t) there is right or wrong. It’s all extrapolation and supposition, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. I pondered over the whole thing for a while, and two things came to my mind:
1.    What connection does Mahler have to Brahms? What meaning is there for Mahler in quoting Brahms, either in honor or in derision?
2.    The realization last week (well, long before last week, but at least in last week’s post) that Rott is kind of the bridge, the missing link that fills in the gap between Bruckner and Mahler, is significant. That was a huge epiphany for me, in kind of putting all these people in their places, organizing them mentally, and I would say it probably helped me appreciate Bruckner more. But that’s beside the point now.
The second point pretty much answers the question in the first, to me. The connection is Rott. Do you see where this is headed? If you’re inclined to jump down this rabbit hole headfirst, it makes this entire thing significantly more significant. Why?
Well, what did Mahler know about his friend Rott? What was he privy to that we aren’t today? How much did Mahler hold Brahms responsible, for at least squashing Rott’s dreams, if not even possibly driving him (more) mad? It’s not a huge leap to see the connection, and if you think of it that way, then remember this (from earlier): this one symphony is not a standalone piece. It is the third in a series of four very connected works.
As has been brought out plenty of times, there’s a program of these symphonies, sort of. The first had (and in many occasions still has) the subtitle ‘Titan’ derived from its original status as a symphonic poem, program-type work that was popular at the time. A second movement was hacked to give it the four-movement form it has today, and Mahler never used the Titan title after the second performance of the piece. The second, still subtitled ‘Auferstehung’ (resurrection) is perfectly just about that, not as much in a religious way as in a re-beginning of man (or something). It begins with funeral rights, and a procession, and the final amazing celebratory finale that is one of the most beautiful things in music. Then there’s this piece…. the third, which kind of picks up from the second in a more all-encompassing sort of ascension, culminating with the entire, heavenly fourth movement.
Phew… so here’s the question: is Rott our Titan? Is he the hero that pervades the plot of these first four symphonies? There is compelling evidence to think so… Granted, almost two decades had passed since Rott’s day by the time this symphony was formally written (and more than two decades had passed by the time it was premiered), but there’s evidence to suggest Mahler started writing it while he was completing the second. Do recall also that Mahler’s first was written eight-ish years after Rott’s symphony, so this entire storyline began after Rott’s demise in 1884 (which was also roughly around the time Mahler began composing his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen).
Okay, so there’s the evidence, and after I kind of got my head around the dates and had put everything in order, I couldn’t help but do some digging online, and this is what I found. These two links are both required reading, as they come from a blog I have greatly enjoyed reading, and from an actual professional with some poignant thoughts on this whole matter. Read every word of the below:

This first post here that seems to reference a previous post by Mr. Woods that I seem to recall reading but can’t find. And this one, a continuation of a discussion from the above article. Have you read these? Do you see how lovely they are? Good. You may continue.

I honestly just wanted to quote the entire article, but he has entire sequences of posts and everything, and Mr. Woods should get the credit for his research and professional input on the matter.
But you have to realize, you must think, how absolutely thrilling it was to have been pondering this great enormous idea, this conspiracy theory of sorts, and wondering if I’ve thought way beyond the bounds of reason, and to look it up and find two articles like that from a conversation between people on exactly this topic. It was supremely exciting, like when you have some weird possibly insignificant moment with someone and you want to shake them by the shoulders and say, “I know! I know exactly what you mean and I get it!!!” It was like that. I was on my lunch break at work, and I caught myself from shouting in delight. But there it is!
You can choose to believe it or not, but it was validation for me for this crazy idea, an outstandingly satisfying answer to a burning question I’d had about a small piece of history, even if it amounts to nothing more than a mile-high pile of circumstantial evidence. It is wonderful.
And what if you do believe it? What if you do put stock in the idea that this little-known figure who only wrote one completed symphony only premiered 100 years after its completion, this classmate of the composer, is the main character, the central figure of the works that spanned a solid ten years or more of the Mahler’s life? (even longer than that if you include quotes from Rott in Mahler’s fifth…) What a close friendship they must have had, or what a great sin was committed by Brahms for bringing Rott to his downfall (at least in someone’s eyes), how tragic a story, and then by extension, how strong a rebuttal is the beginning of this monstrous, craggy, symphony, a slap in the face to the man Mahler possibly blamed for the injustice, Johannes Brahms, who died just a year before the publication of this work. Is it possibly that significant, that epic? The thought is truly mind-blowing.
Let all this sink in, process that idea and digest it. Organize it in your head and then go back and listen to the beginning of this symphony with the idea that it is a defiant response, a callout in defense of Hans Rott. It may perhaps seem far-fetched, but it is an amazing possibility, and one capable of holding that romantic place in one’s heart, the fanciful perfect idea that may be not-so-possible, but is so heartwarming, so endearing and moving that one can’t help but be enchanted by it. And I love it.
While perhaps more a product of fiction and romanticizing history than actual fact, it gives incredible focus and structure and meaning to a huge swathe of Mahler’s work, the Wunderhorn symphonies that form the basis of Mahler’s career. They weren’t necessarily written in his youth, though. He was already almost thirty years old when his first symphony was done, and pushing forty when number three was being completed. He was 42 when it the final piece was premiered in 1902. It may seem a stretch to think that something like this, perhaps a blip in the composer’s life, could span such a large portion of his life and work, but then again, when I was twenty years old, things that probably wouldn’t be enormously important if they were to happen now held enormous significance in my life; those are formative years, and who knows how meaningful they were for the young composer of this piece?
But let’s even take it one step further. The piece itself isn’t bitter. It’s not an angry or sad or tragic piece, nothing like the intensity of his sixth, not to mention the finality of the ninth. But is it perhaps offering closure for what happened? The intensity and kind of dark, gloomy passages of the first movement slowly fade (even within that one movement) and the ascension is brilliantly evident. It would be significantly more cliche to suggest, but what if this symphony is a coming-to-grips-with and moving away from all of what we’ve talked about? It certainly was not included with the program of this symphony, and the entire idea of Rott as a central figure for the four symphonies suggests a far more personal program than the composer may like to admit. Or perhaps it wasn’t 100% intentional or direct.
Or perhaps it’s all circumstantial and I’m way off base.
In any case, this is a brilliant example of why music is amazing and fascinating and consuming. If I want this to be what the piece is about, then it is. If not, then not. It means many things to many people, and there are those who hold the third as dear to their hearts as I hold the second to mine. It resonates with them, for one reason or another, and for me, it is perhaps this haunting idea of Rott and Brahms and the encompassing breadth and history and future of classical music that is represented in a symphony of this scope. True genius through and through.
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2 thoughts on “Mahler’s third: An epilogue

    1. Mr. Woods, thank you. I quite enjoy reading your articles! It’s a bit intimidating to write about pieces like this one, but to some extent, enjoyment is enough, and it’s about as close as I get to knowing what I’m talking about.

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