Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 3, a shout-out


Mahler in Manchester

On its most basic level, what most musicians, musicologists and listeners call “interpretation” is, when done right, basically a 3 step process.

1-       Observation. What is there in the score?

2-       Examination. Why is it there?

3-       Application. What do we do with knowledge we’ve gained in the first two steps?

What do you see in the score, why is it there, and what do you do with it?

That’s the life of an honest conductor (or any other performer) right there. At each step of the process, there are observations of a straightforward nature- for instance “these notes have dots and those don’t. ” However, even the simplest observations quickly lead to more complicated questions, and very quickly, you are into tricky questions about notation, performance practice, instrumental styles of different countries and so on.

If simple things lead to big questions,  imagine what happens when one opens a score and observes something really, really big.

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony opens with something really, really, really big. The very opening of the symphony is one of the great examples ever of what I call a “shout-out.”

A  musical shout-out is a cousin of the quotation,  with subtle but important differences. A quote, or even a reference, works by keeping a musical idea from another, earlier work intact, but often depends on encoding that material into the musical material of the new work in a way that is often not obvious. When Beethoven quotes the St Matthew Passion at the end of the Storm movement of his 6th Symphony, it doesn’t sound like Bach- it is so integrated into the fabric of the work that it lurks there like a secret message from the composer to be discovered at some later date. Beethoven was not a particularly prolific quoter, but he used quotation with grate panache, ranging from hilarious quotes of folksongs to sombre references to Bach, but you never sense him calling attention to his predecessors.  Shostakovich is the great quoter of the 20th c.- it’s taken decades for some of those quotes to be detected, they are so cleverly hidden.

On the other hand, a shout-out (I suppose you could call it a reference or an allusion, but it’s less fun to do so) usually changes the original material in some relatively significant way, but tries to make the newly derived material sound as obviously like the original as possible. Where a quote is often something you don’t notice for ages then discover to be identical to something in an earlier work, a shout-out makes you immediately think of the earlier work (assuming you’ve heard it), but the more you look at it, the more you realize that it is different.

Mahler is the king of the shout-out.

In fact, Mahler began his entire symphonic voyage with a shout-out. The opening of his First Symphony is so obviously similar to the opening of Beethoven 4, that you can’t help but think Mahler is somehow directing our attention towards something in the earlier piece. However, Mahler’s beginning is based on a descending sequence of fourths, where Beethoven’s is built in 3rds. Beethoven’s opening is built around a tonic pedal of B flat. Mahler’s is built around a dominant pedal of A (the key of the movement is D major). Both symphonies begin in minor, but are otherwise supremely major-key movements. So, rather than quoting from Beethoven, Mahler points us to him, then seems to leave all sorts of clues and questions for us to ponder- why are the things that are the same, the same, why are the things that are different, different? Why not keep Beethoven’s key- does the difference imply a difference in mood between Beethoven’s B flat major and Mahler’s D?  Why trade a sequence of 3rds for 4ths- if the 3rd was Beethoven’s favourite interval (go look at your score of the Hammerklavier if you doubt me) what does this tell you about Mahler and the 4th (some of you already know- the fourth was Mahler’s favourite interval)? Why replace a tonic pedal with a dominant? These are some of the questions you’ve got to deal with when you’re getting ready to conduct the piece.

On the one hand, the differences tell us a lot about how Mahler saw himself, and what he wanted us to know about him. The similarities also tell us both about the mood of the piece but recalling an earlier model (both movements begin mysteriously, but become very joyous, full of sunshine and the sounds of nature), but, perhaps more importantly, about how Mahler saw himself historically- connected to Beethoven through craft and history, but still his own man.

The opening of the 3rd Symphony is also a shout-out. Have a listen, then go back and check out this famous bit of the Finale of Brahms 1. The similarity is so obvious that virtually everyone who knows the Brahms spots it and many find it quite baffling, even off-putting. I’ve never found a totally convincing explanation in print of why it is there or what it means.

But, I’ve observed it. We’ve all observed it.

Perhaps before I can answer the “why” question, I need to do some more observing. We’ve spotted a shout-out.  Both themes begin with a rising fourth (remember those fourths in the 1st symphony?). They share the exact same rhythm for the first four bars. On the other hand, Mahler’s theme is in D minor, Brahms’s is in C major. Mahler’s theme first appears at the beginning of his  symphony, Brahms’ is the main theme of the Finale of his, and follows a long introduction, in which the tune is intimated in a fragmentary way in minor long before we hear it in its perfected form. Brahms builds a question/answer phrase by answering this four bar unit with something with the same shape, while Mahler goes in a completely different direction- his question goes unanswered and instead, collapses into crisis.

And what of this Brahms theme? What do we know about it? Well, it’s also a shout out- a shout out to the Ode to Joy from Beethoven 9, something that almost every early critic mentioned when the work was unveiled (Brahms famously said that any idiot could spot the similarity). Hmm—Is Mahler is making a shout out to a shout out?


Is there a hidden but important connection to Beethoven 9?

Perhaps there is- the two works are in the same key, beginning in D minor and ending in D major. They’re both on a massive scale- the largest symphonic works of their creators. They both incorporate the human voice.

When Brahms First was premiered, people called it “Beethoven’s 10th,” and why not- Brahms had long been anointed as Beethoven’s successor, and his epic struggle to finish his 1st was largely caused by his apprehension at the giant staring over his shoulder. His shout-out to Beethoven 9 seemed to be his way of saying- “okay, I’m ready to take this legacy on. Here’s where I am going from Beethoven.” Brahms 1st Symphony is his most Beethovenian work, but it is very different to Beethoven 9 in important and obvious ways- there is no use of the voice, it uses a more classical orchestra (no extra percussion allowed), there is no real vernacular music like Beethoven’s crazy janizary march in his Finale (although there is the famous alphorn theme). While Brahms’ way of working with musical ideas was progressive and even radical, his approach to the genre of the symphony was much more conservative than Beethoven’s.  In this sense, he’s both paying homage to Beethoven and continuing in that line, while at the same time, reacting against Beethoven in a creative and interesting, even somewhat critical, way.

What is fascinating, bold and wonderful about Mahler’s shout-out to Brahms, is that it is so obvious, even audacious and yet comes at the opening of the most  un-Brahmsian movement he ever wrote. Where Brahms is concise, Mahler is gargantuan- this movement is, by itself, about as long as Brahms’ Third or Fourth Symphonies. While Brahms seems to be obsessed with limiting his material, Mahler is working with his richest and most bizarre assortment of themes and motives. While Brahms’ language is relatively pure (only once in a blue moon would he treat himself to a Hungarian finale), Mahler’s includes all manner of marches, dirges, animal noises, sound effects and more.

I think the connection back to Beethoven is really key here- Mahler almost seems to be saying that he is looking at the same question Brahms had to answer, namely, where does the symphony go after Beethoven? and deciding to go in a different direction. Brahms kept Beethoven’s sense of rigor and drama, but ditched the more theatrical and radical elements of Beethoven’s final symphonic thoughts. That was his response to and his critique of Beethoven. Mahler seemed to be saying that he’s ready to follow some of those paths Beethoven started down and Brahms ignored or rejected.

He is responding to Beethoven, and critiquing Brahms. In doing so, he is almost prepared to destroy the Brahmsian symphony. How can one go back to the structural logic of a Brahms symphony after experiencing something as wild as the first movement of Mahler 3?

Mahler starts with this obvious shout-out, but immediately starts to demolish and undermine the material, as if to say “much as I love Brahms, here’s where we should have gone after Beethoven……and by the way, I’m going to write in the same key as LvB’s 9th just to underline my point.”

And, on a programmatic level, this opening takes Brahms’ noble theme, which we associate with the learned, rational and classical world of enlightened society, and throws it to the wolves. We are soon far from the safety of civilized society, and, instead, at the mercy of mother nature, Pan and other wild and unpredictable forces.


This is just my take, evolved over a few years of trying to make sense of this opening and feeling like I must have an answer to the “why” question that makes sense of this detail and its place in the work. I may well be wrong, but I feel more surefooted starting the piece with this reasoning in my mind.

What is wonderful about this epic symphony is that it also ends with another shout out. Listen to the opening of Mahler’s Finale , then listen to the slow movement of Beethoven’s very last complete work, his String Quartet in F Major , op 135. The similarity is as obvious as the similarity of the opening of the work to the Brahms. The differences are just as telling- Mahler’s is in D major, the destination key of the symphony, while Beethoven’s is in D flat as part of a quartet in F major, a more transcendent and fertile setting than Mahler’s, but Mahler must have known that.

As with the shout-out to Brahms, this shout-out runs parallel to the original for the first half of the phrase, but just as Mahler departs from Brahms at the mid-point or “question mark” of the phrase, where Brahms repeats the idea as an answer, he goes on his own way here, while Beethoven again offer’s us an answer.

But perhaps this shout-out is also telling us more about Mahler’s engagement with earlier music. In the 1st movement he is declaring his intention to take up Beethoven’s radical paths of scale and genre-busting experimentation. Beethoven 9 gives us a choir, Mahler 3 gives us a children’s choir. Beethoven 9 gives us a Turkish march, Mahler 3 gives us a wild march of all of Pan’s minions. Yet, in the Finale, Mahler is nodding towards another side of late Beethoven.

Perhaps, Mahler might be saying, as Beethoven did earlier, that  grandiosity may have its place, but it also has its limits. In his late quartets, Beethoven seems to be reaching ever farther towards a place of spirituality that balances acceptance of and disengagement from worldly pain. If the 9th Symphony was Beethoven’s most gargantuan and theatrical work, the quartets gradually become more and more inward looking, finding more powerful truths on a smaller scale. By the time of the last quartet, he seems to be saying that true solace is to be found in humour and in a re-embrace of childlike wonder and simplicity. Op. 135 begins with breezy innocence and dry wit and ends with a wonderful joke- “Must it be?” wrote Beethoven over the sombre introduction of his last Finale.

“It must be!” He answers over the Allegro. The answer, for Beethoven, is lightness.

Remember then that Mahler conceived his 3rd and 4th symphonies as essentially one piece- the 3rd was originally going to end with the simple, sweet and gentle lied that ends the 4th (and is full of references to it). The answer Mahler is heading towards is also lightness, but we’ve still got a long way to go to reach it.

Post script-

Friends, teachers and colleagues are featured in today’s audio excerpts. The Beethoven 9 excerpt comes, appropriately enough, from my dear friend and teacher Gerhard Samuel’s recording of Mahler’s re-touching of Beethoven 9. The recording of the Beethoven op135 String Quartet is me (cello) and my friends in the Masala String Quartet- Kio Seiler and Eva Richey, violins, Sheridan Kamberger , viola. Beethoven 4 is the recording of my former teacher, David Zinman, whose Beethoven parts “look like a ——- Mahler Symphony.” Mahler 1 is from my good friend, James Judd and the Florida Philharmonic- that wonderful orchestra deserved better. The Mahler 3 finale is Ben Zander, who helped me get the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop started. The Brahms 1 excerpt  is my friend, Jonathan Pasternak, from his debut disc with the LSO, coming from Naxos in a few months. Together, these form another kind of shout-out.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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14 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 3, a shout-out”

  1. Mitch F

    There’s another instance of a Mahler-Brahms shout-out — I like that lingo, Ken! — but one with which Mahler was perhaps not eager even to hint at. Why did Mahler eliminate the Blumine movement from the predecessor of his Symphony No. 1? One of the speakers at a recent Colorado MahlerFest maintained that possibly the main reason was the trumpet solo’s striking resemblance to the main theme of Brahms 1: the very theme you link to above, where you talk about the opening of Mahler 3. According to the speaker, Mahler may have excised Blumine because the obvious similarity to the Brahms would have made him appear derivative, even plagiaristic. The music is at least similar, it must be admitted.

  2. Erik K

    Wonderful post, as always. One possible contender for the 20th-century quotation crown with Shostakovich is Charles Ives…the 2nd symphony makes my head explode.

    Am I reading correctly that this concert will feature a work IN ADDITION to the Mahler? Very old school.

  3. Peter

    The latest blog is very interesting, because you use the language that matches the gesture. Nothing subtle like an exclamation – but a shout-out – a statement of intent, laying down the gauntlet, even a declaration of war! Dionysus claims back what Apollo has stolen from him. Mahler thought of Brahms as feeble in some way, effeminate, lacking balls as we said this afternoon. Mahler’s music is ballsy!

    It also bears a resemblance to a big tune from Brahms Academic Festival overture and I think all these themes may share a common source in the revolutionary student song “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus”. Peter Franklin makes the connection also with Rott and Mahler’s student days too. But this all makes sense – here we have revolutionary fervour and youthful solidarity, What Brahms had made academically acceptable in his overture and which also found a respectable place in the veiled protestantism of his first symphony, Mahler here wrests back as the “Weckruf” – a summoning of primitive Dionysian energy to release a creative earthquake.

    As you said – when you hear that first movement as a riposte to Brahms’ traditionalism and conservatism, its revolutionary energy seems more obvious than ever. Of course, by the end Mahler has rediscovered the Apollonian beauty which this first movement had simply trampled upon. But Mahler’s vision is all-encompassing, true-to-life – and not simply bourgeois and polite. Mahler wanted to go on protest marches, to shout out and rebel – but what a vision to steer that youthful vitality and energy towards the resolution of that finale. It is a rebellion aimed at restoring the spiritual and the ideal….turning the money-lenders out of the temple, and the conservatives from their seats of power. Wow – what a composer that is!


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  6. tyner white

    Thank you for going into this quotelerism in detail, it deserves attention because it is an aspect of extended family which music offers us (the Mahler of Sy3 would doubtless agree). I was a little shocked when Bill McGloghlin pointed out this example on his program, and wondered why I hadn’t noticed it. I had also missed one pointed out by Peter Schickele, Brahms quoting the initial rhythm from Schumann 3 in his 3. Some of us (maybe including me) who are family-maldeveloped need this training input from our composer friends who are a surrogate extended family.

    Having said that/those, I’d like to offer competing “quotes” I noticed since being alerted this this issue.

    The first three Mahler symphonies all start with Brahms! While your reference to Beethoven 4 is good, please also look at the rondo theme of Brahms 2 finale, with two falling fourths comparable to Mahler’s, and especially at the end of the development where the mood is very quiet and these fourths are heard slowly, with a half-step between them as in the Mahler, prior to the final reentry of the rondo theme. I find the mood there more similar to Mahler 4 than the Beethoven.

    Now look at the finale of the Horn Trio op. 40 where the main theme leads to three strident upward fourths and a series of triplet running notes– and compare this to the opening theme in the basses in Mahler 2– eleven exactly matching notes. To be sure, Mahler writes “Todtenfeier” in 1889 or so, when Brahms was still living, long before marriage to Alma, but it’s interesting to note an anecdote in Alma’s memoirs where Gustav is madly searching for one more instrumentalist because he wants to run through the
    trio op. 40 one particular night– it shows he was interested in the work.

    Re Brahms and Mahler 3: I have seen an account in the travelogue section of the Chicago Tribune a decade ago, about places Mahler frequented on vacation in the Alps, telling of times when he would go to see Brahms and I think even went hiking with him looking at trees and mountains (all that stuff he told Walter he had put into the Third Symphony). This is when Brahms is dying of cigar cancer and God or music or whatever has sent Gustav out to try to keep him going for a few more opus numbers. (This is the same Gustav who was a veteran at battling death and had spent a year at age 13 trying to keep his younger brother Ernst alive through reading aloud, playing music etc. Analogous to trying to keep a symphony alive to the “age” of 100 minutes?)

    Anyway, try this: after the Brahms quote “collapses into crisis” as you put it– maybe the crisis of how to get the old man out of bed?– we hear “Hey! Johannes Brahms! Let’s go mo-o-o-o-u-u-u-ntaining!” (I dunno, maybe the original is “Gehn wir be-e-e-e-e-e-rgsteigen” or something?). And there’s a shrill trumpet scream, “Jo-han-nes BRAAAAAAAAAaaahms!” And eventually he got him going and looking at some more trees and we got op. 120 etc.

    P.S. “How can one go back to the structural logic of a Brahms symphony after experiencing something as wild as the first movement of Mahler 3?” Maybe Mahler 4 is the answer to that (and also to Beethoven 4). He sorted out the material and put the radical stuff in 3, the Haydncompliant (and the vocal finale a la Beethoven) in 4.

  7. Robert Lawrence

    Great article. I went to the web looking for someone commenting on the virtual pirating of the Brahms finale theme, and was pleased to find this.

  8. Kenneth Woods

    @tyner white

    Very interesting comment, Tyner. Thanks for writing.

    I’d never noticed the similarity with the Horn Trio- very interesting. If it is intentional, the question would be why? What does the Horn Trio tell us about Mahler 2? Something to think about.

    The link between Schumann 3 and Brahms 3 is more explicit than simply the rhythm- at bar 449 of the Schumann, you can hear the main theme of Brahms 3, pitches (transposed), rhythm and all.

    Again, many thanks for the very interesting thoughts


  9. Kenneth Woods

    @tyner white

    I forgot to respond to your mention of Brahms 2 and Mahler 1. You’re not the first to note the similarity of that passage (bar 234-242 for those of you checking at home) of the Brahms to the opening of Mahler 1. People often smile and say something about it to their stand partner in rehearsal. In my own score, from many years ago, are the words “Beeth 4! (Mahler?)” The two pieces (Brahms 2 and Mahler 1) are 10 years apart exactly- the Brahms was still new (and the composer still very much alive). It’s funny that Mahler says of the opening of the symphony that it is not music at all, but the sound of nature. Would Brahms have approved.

    So, is it a question of Brahms and Mahler both referring to the same passage in Beethoven, or Mahler citing both? What would it tell us about Mahler if his whole symphonic output started with a quote from Brahms? “I’m next”?

  10. CKB

    I discovered this excellent blog/discussion while searching for references to a different Brahmsian ‘shout out’ in Mahler’s 3rd symphony: the second movement, describing what the flowers are saying, is clearly referring to the Allegretto grazioso 3rd movement of Brahms’ 2nd symphony. That pastoral theme over the dainty plucked strings is Mahler’s appropriation of Brahms’ soft take on nature, which he then puts to his own uses.

  11. Brent

    This thread gets me thinking: there ought to be a wiki for annotation of musical scores, to pool collective insights about references and borrowings (and more). Anyone out there with the energy and technical competence to pull it off?

  12. Tyner White

    Just checking again, your Mahler coverage has grown magnificently. Thanks for your kind response to my comment here a couple years ago.

    I listened extra hard to Brahms’ last extended work– in the final variation movement of op. 120/2 I hear the theme say “Gustav Mahler” 6 times followed by “Wandre mit mir!” (And maybe not so long after that was written they did?)

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