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Mahler: Symphony No. 3

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) grew up in the small town of Iglau in Bohemia (now Czech Republic). He summarized his situation thus: 'I am three times homeless: as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed'.1 Despite all difficulties he had extraordinary success as a conductor, rising very quickly to the leading positions at the opera houses of Budapest, Hamburg (1891-1897), and Vienna (1897-1907).


Gustav Mahler. Photograph, circa 1898


The general culture of Vienna at that time was characterized by an especially strong contrast between a brilliant surface and an intensive feeling for the gradual decay of the traditional order and its values.2 Mahler's effort to achieve a new synthesis was regarded by contemporaries as a lack of originality and only since about 1960 it is increasingly recognized that we can find in his works the expression of a restlessness and preoccupations which are similar to those of our time.

Mahler's Symphony no. 3 in D minor will be played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Claudio Abbado at the Athens Concert Hall on 2 May 1998.

With 6 movements and a total duration of circa 93 minutes3 this is the longest of Mahler's nine symphonies. Composed in the summers of 1895 and 1896,4 it is also his boldest attempt to realize his idea that 'symphony means to me building a world with all the resources of the available techniques. The content, continually new and changing, determines its own form. This being so, I must always first learn again to re-create my medium of expression even though I can, I believe, now consider myself completely master of the technique'.5 Constantinos Floros has shown convincingly6 that the programme of this symphony is an account of the creation of the universe. Thus the 1st movement represents nature in its primordial form, symbolized by Mahler's indications in the manuscript score: 'Pan awakes' and 'Bacchic Procession'. Under the influence of Wagner and Nietzsche this first form of life is represented by a purposively simple march tune. The content of the 2nd movement is described by Mahler as 'What the flowers in the meadow tell me', whereas the 'animals in the forest' appear in the 3rd movement. Man as an individual and man living in a community are reflected in the 4th and 5th movements in which Mahler adds vocal parts. And the final movement expresses the idea of love in the sense that 'God can only be comprehended as "love" '. The symphony is thus indeed a 'whole world'.

In its artistic realization it is based upon traditional forms which are used freely and placed in an unusual sequence. Thus the 2nd movement is a Tempo di Menuetto with a very lively trio, which is played twice, resulting in a form of the type ABABA. The third movement derives its main section from a Wunderhorn song with the text 'Cuckoo has fallen to its death', which had been composed circa 1887-90.7 The second contrasting episode of this rondo is a posthorn melody which at times borders on the trivial, representing the intrusion of man into the realm of the animals. Mahler directs that the last three movements 'should follow on from each other without breaks'.8 The relatively short two vocal movements serve thus as a double introduction to the culminating - and again purely instrumental - final Adagio. The 'very slow ' fourth movement combines the pure lyricism of a Romantic lied in the tradition of Schubert and Schumann with a sensitivity to the awakening of individual consciousness, which had been expressed in a radically modern form in Friedrich Nietzsche's book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885), from which the text is derived. 'The fifth movement, too, quotes earlier-composed material, from the child's song Das himmlische Leben. Here it is included in the setting of another Wunderhorn poem that is introduced by the "morning-bell" ostinato of children's voices, whose "Bimm, bamm, bimm, bamm" rings out in F major after the last sepulchral A of the Nietzsche setting has died away'.9 Two choruses - women and boys - represent a joyful 'public celebration'10 which is only temporarily turning to sorrow in remembrance of Saint Peter's denial of Christ. This episode provides the motivic germ for the first theme of the final Adagio which is contrasted twice with a passionate melody, but then further developed in an unusual, but simple form which tends to increasing assimilation, incorporating also motives from movements nos. 1 and 4. The latter are added by the brass instruments, whereas the use of the string sounds as basic timbre and the very rich polymelodic texture contribute to the sense of fulfilment which differentiates the effect of this movement from that of the thematically similar opening Allegro. This movement depicts, in Mahler's words, 'the way life gradually breaks through, out of soulless, petrified matter'.11 Mahler wrote this Allegro after all the other movements. Thus the materials from other movements heard in it, especially nos. 4 and 6, are signposts indicating the direction in which the listener should expect further developments, creating a clear instance of what Adorno called 'forward listening. The movement has been described several times by Mahler himself as consisting of an 'introduction' and a main part, but no such division can be detected. It is in fact a ternary sonata form with a radically varied second exposition. The fanfare, which is the first of the three dominant themes, has also introductory character, in the same way which Schubert used in his two major late symphonies. Moreover, the first half of the monumental movement appears as a stream of ideas and seemingly free episodes, which are only gathered into a clear and obvious formal plan on traditional lines in the last section, i.e., the recapitulation.

The unified formal organization of a structure of such vast dimensions is in itself an element of greatness. And the controlled wealth of fantastic, in some instances seemingly disparate elements initiates in the listener a thought process in which a parallel between artistic creation and the origin of the world can be envisaged.

Christoph Stroux

1 Quoted in Norman Lebrecht, Mahler Remembered (London: Faber, 1987), p. xx.
2 For a general documentation see Die Wiener Moderne, ed. by Gotthart Wunberg, Universal-Bibliothek, 7742 (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981).
3 As in Gustav Mahler, The Symphonies, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, 10 CDs, no. 430 804-2 (London: Decca, 1991). The authoritative edition of the score is: Gustav Mahler, Saemtliche Werke, iii: Symphonie Nr. 3, ed. by Erwin Ratz (Vienna: Universal, 1974).
4 See Peter Franklin, Mahler: Symphony No. 3 (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), pp. 37-52.
5 Quoted from Mahler, A Documentary Study, ed. by Kurt Blaukopf (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), p. 202.
6 Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler, iii (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf, 1985), pp. 75-101.
7 The original is published in Gustav Mahler, Saemtliche Werke, xiii, ii a h, ed. by Peter Revers (Mainz: Schott, 1991), pp. 20-22.
8 Franklin, 1985, p. 66.
9 Franklin, 1985, pp. 68-69.
10 Franklin, 1985, p. 70.
11 Quoted in Franklin, 1985, p. 77.

   
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