#WhatMahlerTellsMe – how much should we know in advance?

A few years ago, while preparing for APO’s performance of Vaughan Williams’ ‘A Pastoral Symphony’, I read a quote that’s attributed to the composer about another of his symphonies: ‘It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.’ He was responding to questions about whether the violence in the music of his sixth symphony was a commentary on the Second World War, and specifically the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan.

Despite this reticence, Vaughan Williams eventually did offer up a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest* to suggest meaning to the last movement of the work, he’s not the only composer to show reticence in attributing a specific meaning, description or narrative to a work. Gustav Mahler subtitled each of the six movements of his Symphony No.3, which APO is performing this October, as well as giving the symphony an overall title, but subsequently withdrew them before publication. The reasons for this are the subject of speculation. Whatever they were, it can be argued that the titles shouldn’t be mentioned, in line with the composer’s wishes. I think they’re a useful way of understanding what Mahler was trying to say with the music – hence the hashtag #WhatMahlerTellsMe (which also refers to the structure of the subtitles for all but the first movement, ‘What x tells me’.

I don’t know if twas ever thus, but pieces in portfolios from young composers almost always come with a (sometimes lengthy) description of what inspired the music, or what it’s trying to say. Sometimes there’s an extensive ‘programme’ – the music is designed to depict something in particular, often a story, maybe a particular image or scene. How and when programme music ‘evolved’ in the history of western music is an interesting subject. I remember studying it at school, and indeed a quick Google leads to GCSE resources on the subject.

The first time I heard Mahler 3, I enjoyed it without any ‘programme’. I was lucky that a very kind friend had treated me to a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic – not a bad way to hear it for the first time! I enjoyed the familiar (to me) symphonic language of Mahler, with all its evocative depictions of nature, and was particularly drawn in by the unfolding tenderness, interspersed with episodes of crisis, of the last movement, leading to an ending which was different to other Mahler symphonies I knew – satisfying and whole, rather than spectacular and blazing.

It’s wonderful to get to an end of a piece of music and realise that you’ve been completely whisked away into another world by it, but that doesn’t happen all the time. Music can’t always be an ‘absolute’ experience, where the listener doesn’t think about anything else, or indeed about anything, while listening. It may have happened towards the end of that first experience of Mahler 3, but I’d spent plenty of time thinking about other stuff during the performance** (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but our ability to concentrate and listen will be the subject of a post in the near-future, as I think it’s interesting and relevant, when talking about a long work, like this symphony).

What connects us with music is the humanity of it – the ability for music to connect with our human emotions. A great piece of music can resonate with us through association with our current life experience, or it can take us away from it, instead creating a different ‘present’. Imagery helps with this (the most obvious example being ‘Pictures at an Exhibition, or even better, Pictures at APO’s Exhibition), as does narrative –  music that takes us on a metaphorical journey, just like a book, play or film with a great script.

With a gargantuan work like Mahler 3, it’s useful to have a way in, and Mahler’s subtitles give us both imagery and narrative. Learning about them since has enhanced my understanding and enjoyment of what Mahler is trying to say.

Here’s a run down:

  • The title of the whole symphony was, ‘The Joyful Science’ (after Nietzsche’s book of the same name). This was added after the subtitle that describes the overall narrative of the movement titles, ‘A Summer Morning’s Dream’.
  • The 1st movement was subtitled, ‘Summer marches in’ (though some sources have it as ‘Pan awaken: Summer marches in (Procession of Bacchus)’, which I think fires the imagination even more).
  • 2nd movement – ‘What the flowers in the meadow tell me’
  • 3rd movement – ‘What the creatures of the forest tell me’
  • 4th movement – ‘What the man[kind] tells me’ (some sources have it as ‘What the night tells me’)
  • 5th movement – ‘What the angels tell me’
  • 6th movement – ‘What love tells me’ (though Mahler is said to have remarked that it could equally be called ‘What God tells me’

Sometime soon, I’ll write a programme note for the concert. The difficult balance is this: how much should I describe how think the music relates to the titles above, or indeed to anything else I think it represents (perhaps how much I do says something about how much I trust my conducting to do the job!)? How much should I guide people’s ears, compared to letting the music reach them without any preconceptions? Does doing the former prevent individual listeners from drawing their own conclusions?

I welcome opinions on all of the questions posed. I know there will be strong views! Over the coming weeks, I’ll expand a little more on each movement in a post, to help me draft my programme note.

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

** – The friends (APO players) who by chance were sitting a few seats away; the delicious meal I’d just had; the choral piece by Brahms that had preceded the symphony, in an interesting piece of programming (and how good Stefan Dohr’s horn playing was in it), Sir Simon Rattle’s conducting and the Berliners’ response to it, among many other things.

2 thoughts on “#WhatMahlerTellsMe – how much should we know in advance?

  • September 11, 2018 at 10:55 am
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    This is really thought provoking. I wish I knew the answer to the questions you posed. Personally I like to imagine what the ‘story’ might be behind the music – what might be happening, or what emotions it provokes. Often, my imagination works better having been told a little beforehand, and I think having read the subtitles before listening to this symphony it did help me.

    I’ve done an experiment with my students lately, which is to play them 1 minute excerpts of the symphony and asking them what it told them. I gave them no indication of what I would be playing them, not even who it was by or that the excerpts were from the same piece. I only asked them to tell me what they thought, felt or saw in their heads when they heard it. I got some wonderful responses, which I’ve written up. My question to add to yours is – what to do with it? Will it help people, even orchestra members, to see different movements in different ways? Would it help fire up the audience’s imagination to know what 7-year-old George (although nearly 8, I am forcefully told) hears and to see the picture that 13 year old Clara has drawn to match the image in her head?

    It certainly makes me smile tons when I get to these little minute-long sections as I recall the different interpretations (some rather wacky!). And actually I know those sections so much better having heard them 5 or 6 times each in isolation and seeing them through someone else’s eyes as it were. A good technique for familiarisation of such a long piece perhaps…

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  • September 11, 2018 at 11:09 am
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    For years, my husband would refuse to read programme notes for concerts, telling me that he prefers just to write the film script in his head as he listens.

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