Mahler thoughtsI began thinking about the M3 after listening to Brahms' symphony no.1 in c minor. In the last movement, the Brahms modulates into the major and introduces that lovely, lyrical theme in the strings. The melody comes as a ray of sunshine percolating through storm clouds, a reminder of the positive aspects of life in the midst of difficulties. (Similarities to Haydn's Creation and Beethoven's Ode to Joy have frequently been remarked.) I had heard Mahler described as sarcastic and ironic, and had always understood that it referred to his use of earlier composers' themes in strange and difficult ways, but until I was listening to the Brahms it had never hit me exactly how bitter and angry Mahler could be. In his Symphony No. 3 he took that theme from Brahms, put it into the minor key, arranged it for brass and thus turned it on its head! No longer lyrical, pastoral, and above all optimistic, it becomes a bitter and pessimistic martial theme better suited for soldiers goose-stepping down avenues in the most militaristic of parades. Mahler then worked the development (still in the major) into other places in the first movement, and you can hear it every so often poking itself out like daisies and chamomile sprouting from cracks in the pavement of a run down city street. The symphony is at once an hommage and a satire of Brahms!
So many have described Mahler as the last composer in the 19th century romantic tradition, but I think they have missed the point. Mahler is the first true composer of the industrial age. He rips off the veneer of the pastoral that all of the 19th century romantic artists pasted over the ugliness of the industrial revolution and makes all of the music of the 20th century possible. Where the Romantics are heroic, Mahler is anti-heroic: just remember those mortal hammer blows of his sixth symphony. Mahler has been described as a composer in the Arte Nouveau style (Jugendstil), and with the way his melodies fragment and reform, they create a dense surface tapestry in which one can see similarities to the work of artists such as Klimt. If however, I have to compare Mahler to anything, then it has to be to Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon and its fractured and bitter surface and the new stream of consciousness writing style pioneered by James Joyce, especially in Ulysses (which coincidentally is about a Jew in the Catholic milieu of Dublin). For me, Mahler's music is not merely the culmination of 19th century romanticism so much as it's deathknell.