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The horn is the hero’s instrument. Siegfried slew Fafnir with it. What do you think? does a hero slit a dragon’s throat while it sleeps? The Language of the Birds and more were his by this exploit.
Robert Schumann called the horn section the soul of the orchestra. In the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the Living Water bought with his hearing flowed from this instrument’s bell. So all of Europe was crucified. Do not however expect music to divulge its secret readily – for when horns sound, nothing can endure. Let us seek the answer then in Alte Deutsche Lieder.
Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a collection of folk poetry edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. It was dedicated to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Secret of Romanticism is plainly read in each one of these poems wherefore we must rather sing them for good friends, accompanied by instruments. Gustav Mahler set them to music about eighty years after their publication and they have been privately performed in various Romantic circles ever since, even through the National-Socialist experiment. Speaking of nationalism, do not pay any heed to academic paranoia about the editors’ alleged nationalistic intent. Anything that stirs the heart is nationalism to them, and these poems are designed to dissolve nations.
Of peculiar interest is an image preceding the text in the 1808 edition, published in Heidelberg.
What is this vaulted edifice looking like an orgastically convulsing spine? this gravity-defying cathedral? I haven’t the foggiest, but I notice that one side of this mysterious house is more developed than the other. On the big side, we see written “o mater dei,” which is “O Mother of God.” Above this is a series of crenellated balconies defended by fierce-looking pikemen. The density of armed defenders increases until, at the highest battlements, we are met with the most imposing of the characters. She appears to me to be a woman, but you might not agree.
Starting at the Latin superscription and following the facade down to the absolute minimum, we see more balconies populated by minstrels, knights and flagellants. Trefoils line what are, from our point of view, the sides in order to break the unpleasant line that would otherwise exist at the juncture of wall and background. Appropriately, the flagellants are upside-down. Past their position, as the building begins to turn around and reach toward the sky again, not a single armed inhabitant can be seen. Our eyes meet two horsemen who will have a hell of a time getting down from there. At the penultimate tier, are two dogs, looking bewildered and wondering what exactly it is they’re doing in such a tower. Finally, at the loftiest perch of the building’s undefended side, a maiden seated in a chalice unfurls a banner with “drink aus,” an archaic spelling of “trink aus,” viz. “drink up”written on it.
The structure itself is in the shape of a horn, evoking the cornucopia of Greek mythology. As you all know, the infant Zeus was hidden from his father Cronus, who sought to devour him. During this time, the little lightening-god was nursed by Amaltheia, whose horn he broke off. Therefrom fruits and goods are continually produced.
I now invite you to follow me on a schizoid but necessary National Treasure style wild goose chase, the horn also being the instrument of the chase. The ancient Germans – the alte Deutsche – used horns as drinking vessels. Remember that the cornucopia is a horn that continually refills its contents. Combining the attributes of being a drinking vessel and perpetual replenishment puts us in mind of the Holy Grail. This Passion Relic, which collected our Redeemer’s blood during the Crucifixion, is said to miraculously refill itself with holy blood, should its contents ever be emptied. What do the Grail Knights from Wagner’s Parsifal keep at Monsalvat? You’re a little slow so I’ll just tell you: the Grail.
Now that we’re on the same page, let us recall that Mahler wrote his first symphony – sometimes called Titan – just a few years before he began to set the Wunderhorn poems to music. In the finale, after the key change, we hear a contrapuntal fusion of two melodies. One is carried by eight horns in unison who are required by the score to stand and put their bells in the air. In the zealous key of D-major, their phrase begins with these four scale degrees: I – V – VI – III. This same motif is carried by the contrabassi during the Grail Rite from the first act of Parsifal before which, Gurnemanz tells us, time becomes space. The countermelody is carried by the trumpet. We recognize it from Parsifal’s prelude; it’s that famous trumpet lick ascending the major scale to the fifth degree while the orchestra carries out an authentic cadence. Of course this is repeated throughout the whole music drama in typical Wagnerian fashion.
What is twenty-eight year old Mahler trying to tell us years before he would encrypt the message in the draft of his Tenth’s finale? What is the relationship between the horn, time and abundance? What are we implored to drink by the maiden? What is the youth’s magic horn?