Expert’s Perspective- Mahler 5, an Ass and Two Birds

“The donkey found it pleasing, and only said
Wait! Wait! Wait! I will announce my judgement now.

Well have you sung, Nightingale!
But, Cuckoo, you sing a good chorale!”

On Friday, the intrepid musicians of the Harlech Orchestral Academy performed Mahler’s Fifth Symphony- a performance that was every bit as hot as the auditorium we were playing in. Although we’ve had a lot of Mahler on the blog this year, there is always more to discuss, and more to learn. One topic that came up was the use of Mahler’s Wunderhorn Song “In Praise of Lofty Intelligence” in the Finale. What is he up to, crowing such a massive and serious work with a movement based on such a silly song? Although many writers reference the presence of this song in Mahler’s Finale,  I’ve come across very little material that offers any thoughtful analysis of what Mahler was up to. With this in mind, I thought we might turn to Mahler scholar Peter Davison again to share his thoughts and discoveries–

“In praise of high intellect”

Have you ever wondered why the Wunderhorn song, Lob des hohen Verstands – In praise of high intellect, provides the thematic seed for the Rondo Finale in Mahler’s fifth symphony? One school of thought views such borrowings in fairly abstract terms. It is a good, perky little tune and Mahler could see some symphonic potential in it. So, along with other random musical sources, Mahler threw it into the melting-pot of his symphony and hoped for the best. Readers of this blog will by now know that this is not a view held by Ken Woods or myself. We take the view that Mahler always did things for very good reasons and understanding his motives will often reveal dense layers of meaning in his work.

We should begin by finding out what this Wunderhorn song is all about. It tells the story of a singing competition between a nightingale and a cuckoo. An ass is appointed at the cuckoo’s request to be the judge, because its long ears allow it supposedly to hear very well. The nightingale then warbles its elaborate song, but this makes the ass dizzy. He can’t cope with all the subtle changes of pitch and rhythm. The cuckoo sings his song, and the ass, with some reluctance awards him the prize, because his melody is so easy to grasp. On the surface, this is just an amusing fable which tells us that asses are rather stupid, but, as ever in Mahler, the symbolism of the text is highly relevant to his ideas about music and the world around him.

The name, nightingale, actually means “songstress of the night” and in mythology, the bird’s elaborate and finely nuanced song is often associated with lament. For the Romantics, the nightingale was the melancholic voice of the poet who gives voice to the suffering soul trapped in the physical world. Think of Keats and Shelley. The cuckoo on the other hand is often treated as an interloper and trickster, because that bird lays its egg in other birds’ nests and deceives its rivals. The bird is for this reason associated with adulterous betrayal; to be cuckolded is to be the victim of a cuckoo which has invaded the intimate space. The cuckoo is a clumsy opportunist, while the nightingale is lonely, sensitive and profound; more likely the victim of the cuckoo. The ass, as we all know, is traditionally stupid, and his appointment as a judge mocks all dull authority figures. The ass cannot cope with the song of the nightingale because it gives voice to sadness and eternal longing. The cuckoo on the other hand does only what is simple and predictable.

How does all this work in the context of the fifth symphony? Mahler begins his work with a devastating expression of public and personal grief, which is followed by defiant anger. His inner being is in a state of great agitation, and he expresses this in music of heightened subjectivity. He longs to escape his torment and glimpses release in the form of a chorale which emerges tantalisingly in the second movement, before the music sinks back into the abyss. In the symphony’s Scherzo, as Ken has previously suggested, melancholy prevails. Time is the fleeting measure of our mortality and life is full of seductive deceptions. The music alternates between Dionysian wildness and gloomy introspection. This is again very much the territory of the romantic poet; the song of the nightingale.

Part Three of the symphony at first continues the introspection and subjectivity. We experience a state of bliss; a mingling of the spiritual and the erotic in a wordless song about intimate closeness. The Adagietto manages to be both passionate and serene, and it is very much music of the night. Again we might say, this is the territory of the romantic poet achieving a state of transcendent beauty, after enduring pain and melancholy. Mahler could have ended the symphony here. He did after all on several occasions finish his symphonic works with a slow movement. But the Adagietto proves to be merely an introduction to a more conventional symphonic finale, and it is now that the song, Lob des hohen Verstands is the focus of attention! All the material of the work’s Rondo Finale is somehow derived from it, except perhaps the Adagietto quotations which fill the more reflective episodes. But even then, the themes are closely related.

The Finale opens with a sense that dawn has arrived after a night of love. As activity picks up, the symphony’s hero enters the daytime world of people and ordinary business. We might also conclude from the many references to Lob des hohen Verstands that this finale re-enacts the song’s singing competition in some way. By implication the audience is invited to play the role of the ass who must judge what they prefer. They have heard the lament of the nightingale and the secrets of the night, but now there is a parade of much simpler melodic lines conforming to established formal and contrapuntal procedures, which are the province of the cuckoo. Or is it?

The Adagietto is not a lament, yet it is very poetic, mixing the bliss of the moment with sublime longing. So while it belongs to night, it is not sad or doom-laden. Thereafter, in  the Finale, Mahler treats us to such a virtuoso display of counterpoint and orchestral brilliance, it is hard not to conclude that he relishes the chance to put lament and night-time behind him. What is more, the virtuosity of the Finale suggests something of the nightingale’s complexity. It is a celebration of ingenuity and invention, not some crude two-note whistle. Thus Mahler enters the world of day, the world of real music-making with considerable swagger. His hooligan wilfulness sweeps away the precious sensitivity of the symphony’s earlier movements. “You want a symphonic finale”, he seems to say, “then I will give you one of the very best.”  Yes, we all love the exuberance of this music; its wit and cleverness, its boundless creativity. This is wonderful music for talented musicians, for good conductors and for sophisticated audiences. And we should enjoy it, not succumbing to any Adorno-ian pessimism that says, Mahler does not mean it or that he is being merely ironical. This is a real triumph of the musical imagination, which posits not a resolution of what went before, but suggests instead a different relationship to it. It sets a limit to the degree of introspection and negativity, because these would otherwise paralyse our ability to act effectively in the outside world.

Some may notice more than a hint of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in the narrative of the Fifth Symphony, something that becomes more overt in the Seventh. This can be no coincidence. The singing competition in the Wunderhorn song that pits natural spontaneity against dull convention repeats the confrontation between Walther and Beckmesser which takes place in Wagner’s opera. The unconventional Walther wins the prize in the Wagner, thereby renewing the lives of the ordinary people. He expresses true Nature in his song, which he knows through his love for Eva and through the mysteries revealed to him in dream-like states. Walther is an outsider who adapts the rules of the guild to his inspiration. Under the guidance of Hans Sachs, his new kind of song is made compatible with the traditions and conventions of the other masters. The rule-bound Beckmesser is humiliated for his poor judgement and lack of sensitivity, so that justice appears to be done. But in the Wunderhorn song, there is no wise Hans Sachs, only a donkey whom the cuckoo has appointed out of self-interest. The assumption must be that, in Mahler’s case, the song of night, the song of the nightingale will not be understood and the people will lose touch with the dynamism of true Nature. Mahler undoubtedly identified with Walther as the outsider with the unconventional song, while his allusions to Wagner, Beethoven, Bach and even Brahms at the end of this Fifth suggest that he considered himself one of the great masters of the Austro-German tradition. Yet Mahler had limited confidence in his audience and the critics to judge him fairly or to understand what he was saying. He directed this mistrust of his audience into having a joke at their expense.

So how does the end of the fifth symphony relate to the text of the Wunderhorn poem which inspired it? These are the crucial lines:

The cuckoo then quickly began

his song through thirds and fourths and fifths;
The donkey found it pleasing, and only said
Wait! Wait! Wait! I will announce my judgement now.
Well have you sung, Nightingale!
But, Cuckoo, you sing a good chorale!
And you keep the rhythm finely and internally!
Thus I say according to my high intellect,
And, although it may cost an entire land,
I will let you win!

The last bars of Finale might suggest victory for the cuckoo’s brand of simple music – lots of primary intervals and the “good chorale.” The chorale is a symbol of conventional religious faith and hints at conformity to religious authority. It has a moral imperative; you shall believe, because you are told to! The chorale has more than a passing similarity to the famous chorale, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern – How brightly shines the morning star.” It is a religious song by Nicolai from the late 16C expressing the joy of faith and the gift of divine grace. It has frequently been set to music because of the musical references in its text. Mahler’s version is no more than a discreet parody of the original melody, but it successfully evokes J.S.Bach whom Mahler so revered and looks back to his time when faith was much more firmly embedded in European culture than in early 20C. It is further evidence of Mahler’s penchant for ambiguity that the “Morning Star” is both a symbol of Christ and a new dawn, yet also represents a remnant of night persisting in the daytime. Christ is in truth an ambiguous figure; a symbol of sacrifice and suffering, as well as the bringer of new life and heavenly joy.

All this seems somewhat at odds with Mahler’s reputation as a free-thinker and as someone who struggled with orthodox belief, although we know Mahler was attracted to Christianity. In that sense, Mahler’s chorale and antiquated contrapuntal style give us the Finale we want to hear and which the audience of his time would have expected, rather than a true summary of the whole symphony. All those primary intervals, contrapuntal devices and the triumphant chorale are shout-outs  which say “I am a great musician”.  In the background, the Adagietto, the Scherzo and the Funeral March all subvert this conventional position. They are like residual memories which refuse to go away and which say, “I am a mortal man with fears, doubts and vulnerabilities.”  Mahler indeed wants to impress us with his gesture of faith, his masterful virtuosity and his wit, but the crucial lines of the Wunderhorn text are the last ones; “And, although it may cost an entire land, I will let you win!” In other words, for this musical victory there is a considerable price to pay in what gets left out. This is Mahler’s Meistersinger moment, when he asks us – are you a Beckmesser, who will judge my work by conventional standards, or will you remember the night-time song and its deep and sometimes troubling meaning?

The finale is a romp and we are meant to enjoy Mahler’s reconciliation with the daytime world. But he does not want us to forget the rest of the work with its darkness and lament, its sublime poetry and deep sensitivity. This is laughter that hides a few tears. That is not some trick , but a reflection of how life is. Because we are sometimes sad, that does not mean we can never laugh. We laugh with hindsight at how seriously we have taken things, and we also just forget that we were once sad. Sometimes the hustle and bustle of everyday life is good therapy for getting through gloom and melancholy. Life goes on. So Mahler has his fun, and the joke is on us. We are all turned into asses because we love this noisy, carefree ending and would choose it every time, even at the expense of the Adagietto which comes in for some rough treatment in the Finale.

But is Mahler wagging a chiding finger at us? Even this is not certain, for Mahler may want us to know that making a choice between dark and light, introspection and extroversion, simplicity and complexity is a false way of thinking. Human Nature is a fickle thing, and we like to enjoy the moment and forget the suffering that is around us. Indeed, it is perhaps necessary for us to suppress our doubts and worries to stay well-balanced. The Finale marks a moment of good feeling that could just as easily pass, if hostile fate intervenes and takes us right back to the beginning of the work. Besides, much of the movement’s impact is governed by its context, especially following the Adagietto with its deeply personal content. That movement provides the soul-nourishment which allows the work’s hero to face the outside world with confidence and emotional distance. Yet, though nothing in this music is ever quite what it seems, we still find it convincing. Mahler is a master craftsman and technician, who takes primary intervals and spins them round and around in dazzling combinations. But he does this always with playful ambiguity and a degree of subtle subversion. These are the hallmarks of Mahler’s genius as an artist and as a connoisseur of the human condition. For his extraordinary vision, we should praise Mahler’s high intellect.

Peter Davison

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at

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