BRUCKNER AND MAHLER
MAHLER: MELODY, HARMONY AND COUNTERPOINT
ALTHOUGH Mahler's music in general shows a surprisingly steep upward trend of development, leading from a kind of neo-primitive simplicity and strict tonal diatonicism to the chromatically refined subtlety and rarefied atmosphere of the last symphonies, a number of static features of style are noticeable which seem to permeate his music up to the very end of his life. Their sum-total amounts to a specific personal idiom enabling the composer to turn even more clearly derivative melodies and eclectic harmonies into something intensely 'Mahlerian.'
The peculiar position of Mahler as a melodist whose eclectic allegiance to the Viennese classics in the widest sense (i.e. including Brahms and Bruckner) was never in doubt, and whose inclination towards Volkstümlichkeit may strike the observer of to-day as almost quixotic, is best explained by a morphological analysis of two typical symphonic subjects and an investigation of their stylistic ancestry. Both these melodies stand for an elemental side in Mahler's musical personality, the first representing, as it were, the Hungaric-Slavonic side of his artistic character, the other being a decidedly German type of Volksweise with manifold undertones and associations with other melodies, stored up in the subconscious memory of every German listener. Here is an example of the first type:
a savagely melancholy tune that forms an episode in the third movement of Symphony I. It foreshadows a deliberately vulgar and blatantly scored melody, 'Mit Parodie' (see Ex. 3 ), with a csárdás flavour, a cheap guitar-like pizzicato accompaniment and obstinately repeated motives hovering on the brink of triviality from which it is saved only by the pungent counterpoint in the trumpets. All this must have scandalized audiences in the later 1880s by its departure from the idiom of musical respectability as displayed in the symphonies of Brahms, Raff and Volkmann; yet, carefully analysed, the tune reveals its respectable pedigree, for it clearly derives from the second subject in the finale of Schubert's great C major Symphony. Both melodies are repetitive down to the smallest motif-particle, both achieve a cheap 'folky' atmosphere by being doubled in thirds, in both cases the self-assertive obstinacy of repetitions (x) is followed by a weak falling-off at the tail-end (y) and both tunes display a peculiar mixture of vulgar jauntiness, with an undertone of weariness; finally both are played against a background of primitive accompaniment in the strings. It is Schubert who first made such deliberately 'popular' tunes eligible for serious symphonic treatment, chiefly because of the psychologically complex connotations aroused by some of them. [It was after all Schubert who inserted into the third movement of his Wanderer Fantasy. Op. 15, a reminiscence from Wenzel Müller fashionable operetta Aline.] Just as Schubert's theme is a relaxation from the symphonic rigours of other parts of his finale, it becomes the subtle purpose of Mahler's to act as a weary foil for its parodistic afterthought:
Here in a Rash all its features are turned into a frightening grimace. The guitar accompaniment of the strings is changed into the spectral crackling of the wooden col legno effect; the rhythmic background of the pizzicato is savagely underlined by the vulgar 'oompa' rhythm of cymbals and bass drum, served by a single player in a manner reminiscent of the booths at a fair, and the melody itself is deliberately vulgarized by alcoholic skips, culminating in a vile glissando slide (z). The whole intentional vulgarization and the psychological subtlety inutilizing trivial tunes of the fair-ground type for the purposes of an escapist anticlimax (coming after the funereal 'Frère Jacques' canon with which the movement begins and ends) is a tremendous achievement of Mahler's even if it took its cue from the vulgarizing transformation of the original idée fixe in the Witches' Sabbath of Berlioz's Fantastique. [See Eulenburg pocket score, p. 170, Allegro 6-8, solo for E flat clarinet.]
The second archetype of Mahler's symphonic melody may be exemplified by the main subject of Symphony III: an unaccompanied horn-call, not unlike the initial theme of Schubert's great C major Symphony, with which it seems associated also by virtue of the peculiar order of its motivic cells. However, other associations obtrude themselves even more inescapably and show, so to speak, the point at which Mahler and the Viennese classical tradition converge:
For this theme is even more strikingly similar to the very familiar principal strain in the finale, of Brahm's first Symphony, and therefore also to a development of that in the last movement of Beethoven's choral Symphony, the resemblance of which to his tune Brahms irritably said 'any fool' could see. Moreover, there is a clear affinity with one of the students' songs used by Brahms in the Academic Festival overture.
Such similarities and sometimes irritating resemblances are apt to occur frequently in the case of Mahler's popular tunes, barnacled, as it were, with the accretions of manifold melodic experiences. It is safe to assume that he used these melodies because of their associative values rather than despite of them. This is part of a technique as evolved slowly but eventually brought to the highest pitch of virtuosity by Stravinsky, [e.g. Stravinsky's ballets, operas, masses, etc., composed since 1923 based on Pargolesi, Lully, Weber, Tchaikovsky and Dufay] a technique sometimes stigmatized as pastiche, especially when it is used to re-create a certain historic atmosphere. Mahler showed a masterly understanding of its implications in the early case of the 'Lutheran' chorale tune prefacing the contralto's solo, Urlicht, in Symphony II and anticipating there and then the later a cappella chorus of the finale. This is the kind of ecclesiastical tune which Mahler, following in the footsteps of Bruckner, was fond of calling Choral and liked to insert at emotional climaxes of his symphonies (e.g. Symphony V, II; Symphony VI, IV; Symphony VIII. etc.):
This superb imitation of style is in its way as successful a tour de force as Wagner's introductory chorale tune 'Da zu dir der Heiland kam' at the beginning of Die Meistersinger.
The subtle art of spiritualizing a hymn-tune by throwing it into a certain perspective of harmonies may occasionally lead to temporary abdication of clear-cut melody in favour of dominating modulatory energies, swamping the thematic development by their elemental vigour. This may be observed in the juxtaposition of two chorale tunes from Symphonies II and VIII, standing in a kind of corroborative relationship to one another and disclosing thereby the deepseated affinity between the only great choral finales composed by Mahler, at the outset and towards the close of his career:
In both instances a chromatically descending bass paves the way for an expressionist suspension (x) which in the latter case leads to an enharmonic change with a bias towards the sharp keys. In both quotations it is the pivotal chord of the added sixth (y) which sets the modulatory train in motion and all but obliterates the original melodic trend.
Pastiche effects are not confined to the ecclesiastical orbit. They are even more frequently found in the sphere of music inspired by military signals--undoubtedly one of Mahler's most easily recognizable 'fingerprints.' They range from the imitation of actual army signals (e.g. the 'Abblasen' motif of the former Imperial Austrian army, in the third movement of Symphony III):
to the stylized melody of a sentimental 'Biedermeier' posthorn. Here the continuation of the coachman's melody ('wie nachhorchend'--as if listening on) results in the almost comical identity with a melody of Liszt Rapsodie espagnole:
which may or may not have been based on Spanish folk tunes.
Far removed from stylization and clearly emerging from a stratum of primordial experiences are those 'nature motifs' which Mahler often asks to be produced 'wie ein Naturlaut' (like a natural sound). They again range from amorphous acoustic symbols, such as the unforgettable luminous harmonics of the high-pitched A with which Symphony I starts, conjuring up the infinite Slavonic plain of Moravia in which Mahler grew up, to primitive intervallic steps like the first recognizable motif of the same Symphony, with its falling fourths--again one of Mahler's most characteristic traits:
out of which the cuckoo-call as well as the watchmen's distant trumpet-call in the exposition of that movement grow.
The motivic stylization of repetitive bird-cries:
inexpressibly lonely and remote, seems to symbolize the infinity of nature--in contrast to the neatly fashioned bird motifs in Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony. These bird-cries are a persistent feature in Mahler's musical idiom from beginning to end. In their immobility and complete refusal to submit to traditional methods of symphonic treatment they represent the other extreme in Mahler's world of melodies. They inhabit the misty region of indistinct noises and amorphous sound-patterns of which Mahler was so fond and which make him seem like an early forerunner of the Alban Berg of the Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6, and of the latest French bruitistes. Ex. 11 is the essence of a Mahlerian sound-picture of midnight in the sense of Nietzsche's and Rückert's visionary dreams. Motif x permeates Mahler music from the early Klagende Lied to the autumnal pages of Der Abschied in Das Lied von der Erde. It signifies the eternity of motion in nature--rippling of the brook, rustling of leaves--and it is set rigidly against the pliant curve of lonely and harmonically vague melodies, like the following in Das Lied von der Erde:
This is very different from similar incidents in earlier works because here Mahler temporarily abandoned diatonicism for the pentatonic scale. But this brings us to the subject of Mahler's orientalisms, which it would stretch this chapter beyond endurance to deal with here.
To discuss Mahler as a harmonist seems in a sense contradictory, for he was a composer who throughout his life clung stoutly to the principle of two-part counterpoint and deliberately avoided the concept of primary harmony, so prevalent in the opulent days of his youth. It is characteristic of him to think of music, generally speaking, in terms of thematic antithesis rather than as melody supported by an undercurrent of ever-changing harmony. Conjointly with this goes an inclination towards the intervals of the fourth and fifth in faburden-like pedal-point effects. This odd employment of bare intervals, which may sometimes strike the casual listener as a revival of the medieval practice of organum, eventually leads to a gradual emancipation of the fourth and fifth in Mahler's work, paving the way for a conception of music almost wholly based on combinations of these two intervals and to a codification of their chordal possibilities in works like Schoenberg Kammersymphonie No. 1, Op. 9 ( 1906), and Alban Berg piano Sonata, Op. 1 ( 1908). Mahler's essentially negative position regarding problems of harmony may be exemplified by two cases which also indicate the peculiar function allotted to bare fifths and fourths in his musical procedures:
In the second example figure a is immediately presented in canon at the octave at a bar's distance, while b is simultaneously played as a melodic continuation of a and in an augmentation (b 1) in the bass clarinet. In both examples harmony appears as a result of clashing contrapuntal entities rather than as a primary conception--except for the faburden fifths at x in the first example.
In later years Mahler liked to dispose of supporting pedal-points like the persistent one at y, Ex. 14, and to present his music as all sinews and no fat at all. This process of 'slimming' also heralds the approach to a different concept of tonality, as may be seen in the following two examples of his later music:
Here the two contrapuntal parts are completely independent and capable of separate development. The resultant harmonies--with prevailing bare fifths and fourths--are accidental. This peculiar technique, pursued to its limits, leads Mahler less than ten years later to two-part combinations almost devoid of any traditional feeling of tonality:
Even where he brings primary harmony (i.e. fifths and fourths in chordal arrangement) into play for some special effect, it still appears as if it were intervallic motion, suddenly congealed in the very act of enunciation and still incapable of bringing about a modulatory shift of key ( Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; Wunderborn):
This eventually leads to a bold emancipation of those intervals and to a temporary suspension of the traditional structure in thirds of the fundamental concept of harmony, as in the extreme case of Symphony VII and its progressions in fourths:
This 'atonal verticalization' of progression in fourths may occasionally be harnessed to a scheme of tonal modulation, with startling results, as in the finale of Symphony I.
Modulation in the traditional sense was conspicuously absent even from Mahler's early works, where he did not hesitate, for instance, to use primitive key progressions in consecutive fifths in song and symphony dating from before 1900. Later on his increasing tendency to present thematic expositions in the kind of dualistic bareness shown in Exs. 16 and 17 was capable of leading to actual polytonality, to combinations of unrelated harmonies such as Darius Milhaud's experiments in polytonal procedures accustomed us to at a later period. Mahler's boldest harmonic adventures result either from a stubborn clinging to pedal-points or from a truly amazing integration of the whole-tone and the pentatonic scale, into his musical resources. His employment of the pentatonic scale, rare in his later works apart from Symphony V and Das Lied von der Erde, though it sometimes produces no more than casual exoticisms, can lend itself to constructive purposes. Where, as in the latter work, his task was to reshape his musical idiom in order to evoke a far-eastern atmosphere, he found himself for once confronted with the necessity of working with a type of preconceived note-series. This led to one of his most ingenious inventions: the application of the five-note scale to the final but inconclusive chord of the work (C major with added sixth), which is nothing more than a verticalization of the basic series (A, G, E, D, C) which opens the work and fertilizes most of its thematic features. The fourth note (D) of this basic series is insisted on in the ostinato reiteration by the voice of the word 'ewig,' fading away one bar before that final chord.
The impressionistic use of consecutive sevenths, probably used by Mahler years before Erik Satie tried similar experiments in 1887, may in fact be observed in one of his earliest compositions, the song Erinnerung ( Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, Vol. I), in a passage which may be compared with Verdi's bold progressions in the magical postlude to the first scene of Act III of Falstaff ( 1893).
Chromatic progressions are very rare in Mahler's earlier works, which in fact derive much of their independent individuality from their absence; but in his later music the general weakening of keyfeeling, combined with a tendency towards acrid sonorities, leads to a more frequent use of such progressions and thus to a certain approach to Bruckner's processes of harmonization. The following extracts, from the Adagio of Bruckner's seventh Symphony:
and from the Urlicbt movement in Mahler's second:
show a kind of harmonic emotionalism which reveals Mahler as a whole-hearted and eclectic adherent to the somewhat Parsifalesque pathos of Bruckner's Symphony. These examples, incidentally, give the lie to the oft-repeated assertion that no bond of style existed between Bruckner and Mahler, whose close spiritual affinity is after all one of the chief topics of this book.