The third movement of this symphony ended with nothing less than “the appalling shriek of this tortured soul.” How magical, then, is the moment that follows? Mahler instructs us that the third, fourth and fifth movements should be played without any break, and so from the grotesque low c in the horns and contra-bassoon that ends the third movement we are instantly transported to a new world. A single female voice sings the simplest of gestures, the first three notes of a D-flat major scale*, saying- “Oh little red rose!” Forty-five minutes into this great work we are now hearing the human voice for the first time, and what an astonishing first appearance it is. So different from the way Beethoven introduced the voice into his Ninth. After the opening chorale arrives in the most serene D-flat major cadence, the music shifts abruptly to the parallel minor (remember all those shifts from C minor to its parallel major? Is there some meaning to the fact that he now reverses the process a semi-tone higher?). The text here is breathtaking in its directness “Humanity lies in greatest need! Humanity lies in greatest pain!” Note that it is not merely our hero, or merely sinners or any other subgroup who suffer- suffering is universal. The suffering our protagonist endured in the first movement is universal. The second and final stanza of the poem reads:
“I came upon a broad pathway
“An angel came upon me and wanted to send me away. But no, I would not be sent away!
This poem comes from a collection of German folk poetry called “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” or “The Boy’s Magic Horn.” Author Michael Steinberg makes the point that Mahler creates a mood of “hymn-like simplicity” achieved by “a metrical flexibility so vigilant of prosody and so complex that the opening section of thirty-five bars has twenty-one changes of meter.” It may seem unlikely that a composer would turn to folk poems for statements of philosophy and belief, but this poem is particularly Mahlerian. This contrast of the universal (”Humanity lies in greatest need!”) and the personal (”I am from God and will return to God!”) is one of Mahler’s central philosophical ideas. There is never a “they” in Mahler’s music in the sense of an enemy, and one never belongs to a club any smaller than humanity.**
* Much like the perfect fourth we talked about, this three note scale motive has actually permeated the symphony. The second theme of the first movement actually starts with the perfect fourth, followed by the three note motive, and the brass theme in the scherzo has exactly the same melodic content!
You can continue onward to the finale of M2 here.
**Except, of course, the family, who are his subject in Kindertotenlieder
c 2006 Kenneth Woods