The March 26 rehearsal brought us to the end of the “read it down” phase. We attended to movements 4 and 5, the ones with a vocal element. #4 is the song movement, a setting of a text from Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” for mezzo-soprano. A movement of deep mystery, it’s the first use of textures for vocal settings that Mahler employed for the rest of his career. It’s also an early example of Mahler’s rhythmic declamation that has puzzled conductors since. The rhythms in melodic lines are so speech-like, that ordinary notation just doesn’t cut it. “OK, now in this bar, I beat the quarter triplet, then a half note, so there are four uneven beats, then I beat in quarters against the quarter triplet, but with and extra upbeat at the end……”. The 5th movement the first time through is pretty empty w/o the women’s and boys’ voices, but is still such adorable and sweet music.
OK, a break, then back to the top! This movement is all either a slow march or a fast one, and that does simplify things. “Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In” was Mahler’s original title. We are constantly, to borrow a Python phrase, “marchin’ hup and down the square!”. Yet within that rhythmic regularity is much strangeness and wildness. Weird little nature noises abound (Mahler’s instruction in the oboe part is “like a Nature noise”) and they have to sound weird, not beautiful. I always have to stress the element of the grotesque in Mahler to young musicians, something they take to with delight once they figure that out. There is also, in the quiet dirge-like marches, much precise and delicate playing to do—all the lower brass, woodwinds and timpani play a muffled military drum rudiment, and it must sound like one, as must the low cello twitch that follows immediately. I could beat it like a march, but the ensemble here needs to from within the players. That we have yet to achieve.