Closing Out the Festival

July 31, 2019

by Peter Oundjian

The final week at the Colorado Music Festival is focused around two extraordinary symphonies by two giants of the classical music world: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 on Thursday night, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on Saturday night. Despite their clear differences in era and style, both of these pieces are cut from the same cloth. They were both heavily inspired by nature and were both written to convey a specific state of being within each movement.

Many composers over the years have had relationships with the power of nature, many of them expressing the need to find energy and ideas from experiencing their natural environment. Very few were able to transmit these experiences through sound with such authority and clarity as these two greats.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral Symphony, is a very early example of “program music”. Each of the five movements has a descriptive title:

  1. The awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside
  2. Scene by the brook
  3. Merry gathering of country folk
  4. Thunderstorm
  5. Shepherd’s song, cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

These five movements contain a journey symbolic of life experience and human condition. Mahler’s 3rd Symphony shares this description in many respects — we’ll get to that soon.

The Pastoral Symphony begins by setting the scene — Beethoven chose to immediately establish the various moods for the symphony, to give his audience a glimpse into the journey that lies before them. It is one of the most sunny and optimistic movements Beethoven ever wrote, barely containing any minor chords.

The 2nd movement conjures emotions through the image of water flowing in a brook. It is intimate and personal. In the final moments there is a sprinkle of bird songs; a nightingale, a quail and a cuckoo. (Wait for Mahler’s cuckoo!). The 3rd movement establishes the presence of people dancing and reveling in the beauty of nature. It is the piece’s most joyous and fervent chapter.

The 4th movement is one of the earliest known musical depictions of a storm, and is meant to symbolize human struggle through adversity. The final movement represents gratitude for the end of the storm and the beauty of the natural world; the wonders and challenges it provides, and all that is positive and consoling in the world and in the spirit of humankind.

Mahler’s awareness of Beethoven the Giant was as acute as that of any 19th century composer. They all lived in his shadow. But Mahler, as opposed to Brahms, who is often seen as Beethoven’s main successor, had the advantage of some years of separation. Brahms was born just six years after the death of Beethoven, Mahler 33 years. Mahler also had a bold and confident disposition in addition to the enormous influence of other Romantic period giants such as Wagner and Bruckner. His view of Beethoven seemed to be one of limitless admiration but also as a source of inspiration rather than intimidation. When he chose the subject matter for his 3rd Symphony, Beethoven’s Pastoral could not have been far from his mind. 

This magnificent symphony (likely the longest symphony ever written at that time, at least in the public eye) traces the development of nature and mankind. It presents a clear evolutionary journey. Its movements are titled as such:

  1. Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In
  2. What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
  3. What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
  4. What Mankind Tells Me
  5. What the Angels Tell Me
  6. What Love Tells Me

Its opening line is undeniably influenced by the melody of the finale of Brahms’ 1st Symphony. It is played by eight horns and has a quality of magnificence that is difficult to measure or describe. It is, to me, as close as a line of music comes to being unparalleled in its majesty.

The opening movement in its entirety is a journey from the stillness of winter to the warmth and exhilaration of summer. These are depicted by a recurring funeral march, characterized by chilling fanfares revolving around domineering melodies from the trombone, and yearning outbursts from the rest of the orchestra. Then comes a series of light-hearted marches written in the popular style of the time, which all begin extremely softly and build to powerful climaxes. These marches mark the awakening of Pan, the God of Nature, representing the emergence of ripe, benevolent summer from the bleakness of winter.

The 2nd movement, “What the Flowers Tell Me”, begins as a leisurely minuet, followed by variations that, in Mahler’s words, “become increasingly rich”. There are two interruptions to this minuet, both free-spirited, joyous dances which contrast the movement’s lush, elegant flavors.

From his delicate depiction of the world of flowers, Mahler moves to “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”. For this movement, he adopts one of his beloved songs from his own Des Knaben Wunderhorn, “Ablösung im Sommer”. The song concerns a cuckoo who has fallen to its death and the question of who will take over the cuckoo’s duties. Mahler referred to this as the “most ludicrous and tragic music that ever was”.

The duality of moods in this movement is haunting and powerful: in the midst of all of this activity suddenly emerges an offstage post-horn call. The tenderness of its melody represents both a sense of longing for civilization and for the intangible existence of heavenly beings and higher powers. The melody persists in interrupting the sometimes raucous animal music, until finally the animals win out and end the movement with an outburst of energy.

The 4th movement, “What Mankind Tells Me”, features a contralto solo and is inspired by Nietzsche’s Midnight Song from his famed novel Also Sprach Zarathustra. The midnight mood appealed to Mahler: the awakening from a deep dream, the dialectic of night and day, pain and pleasure, decay and eternal life. Mahler’s fascination with the duality of life is on full display throughout this entire work, and is rooted in this most introspective of movements.

In the 5th movement, Mahler introduces a women’s choir and a children’s choir to support his contralto — a fitting setting to convey “What the Angels Tell Me”. It is a movement full of sweet song, evoking reminiscence of caroling. The text concerns the idea that sinners can regain their place in heaven through faith and prayer.

The final movement defies any effort of description. The best I can do is to say that the beauty and profundity of this movement knows no equal in my personal view. Mahler drew his inspiration for it from the slow movement of Beethoven’s last string quartet. The deep longing and tender consolation woven into this lingering conclusion takes us — all of us, musicians and audience alike — to a transcendent place.