Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 3, a scherzo on a poem

Mahler in Manchester

Hi readers-

Peter Davison and I have continued to chat about the meaning of the Rott references in Mahler 3, which were further spurred along my the question of sin raised in my Mahler 4 post. He’s made some more very interesting discoveries, especially about the Scherzo. Rather than burry this in a comment, I post it separately as it is extremely interesting. Note that all this new insight does not replace what we already knew about the piece and the original working program that Mahler told his friends about, but reveals instead a second, more personal, level of meaning. There are surely more to be found there.


Just as you might think the idea of the Third as a memorial to Rott is exhausted, I was rereading Peter Franklin’s excellent book on the symphony and it reminded me that the scherzo is associated with a poem by Leander about a dead friend. The posthorn solo calls out to the dead friend, and the friend replies with an echo. Mahler did not use the text explicitly but never discouraged the association when it was put to him. So now the Third symphony can be described like this:

First mvt. – Battle with the conservative estbalishment on behalf of Rott – with a personal attack on Brahms. Mahler’s mission is to change the (musical?) world through a struggle with the forces of inertia. He is the iconoclast with his heart set on reforming the Vienna Opera to turn it into a Mahlerian Bayreuth giving voice to neglected geniuses like Rott.

Second mvt. – Mahler says – yes I can do conservative, classical and picturesque – but in this context it is only an island of relative calm. Behind the pretty surface are dark forces.

Third mvt.  – The scherzo expresses the indifference of Nature to individual death and suffering. It is a salute to the memory of Rott. The cuckoo is dead and the world does not care, the nightingale (Mahler) must sing on regardless. Mahler finds this hard to do; he grieves for his lost friend and has survivor guilt, like St Peter.

Fourth mvt. – From out of the darkness of the material world, springs the light of spirit and the possibility of transcending the survival struggle and blind willing a la Schophenhauer. Perhaps Mahler says, the pain of loss is meant to spur me on, to make me redouble my efforts. Rott’s life is wasted only if I give up. Divine love and pure being exist beyond the darkness.

Fifth mvt. – The angels deliver a message of hope. Rott says to Mahler ….don’t weep, get on and fulfill what I started; this is the dawn of your time, you are forgiven for surviving me, but it obligates you to create a new order. Be like St. Peter, compose the music and build the institutions that will sustain our message for future generations.

Sixth mvt. –  Mahler’s vision of the new order is revealed. He overcomes his grief and guilt. It is a vision of a compassionate world, devoid of conservative power interests and which permits the apotheosis of Rott.

Das himmlische Leben would then become the place of timeless transcendence and innocence where Rott’s soul is able to dwell for etenity. It is a very touching to see the symphony as an expression of deep friendship and personal grief, and it hints that Mahler’s whole career as a conductor was part of an idealistic masterplan. Carzy. deluded, egotistical? Perhaps – or genuinely inspired, visionary and prophetic? Or in some very Mahlerian paradox, it was both!

Are you convinced?


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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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1 comment on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 3, a scherzo on a poem”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » A flawed perspective? Mahler and Rott

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