Symphony Study No. 47 | Mahler: No. 3

by Glenn on May 30, 2016

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 3 in d minor

Part I
i. Kräftig. Entschieden
(Strong and decisive)

Part II
ii. Tempo di Menuetto
(In the tempo of a minuet)
iii. Comodo (Scherzando)
(Comfortably, like a scherzo)
iv. Sehr langsam—Misterioso
(Very slowly, mysteriously)
v. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck
(Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression)
vi. Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden
(Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt)

I was going to save Mahler for the end of this little study, but the Oregon Symphony performed Mahler’s Third last weekend and I didn’t want to give up the opportunity to hear Mahler live. Recordings are wonderful, but there is something about being in the room as the music is being created that adds the palpable to the experience.

I guess it could be something like the difference between going to the movies (or watching movies on the TV) and attending live theatre. Obviously, there are no second takes in live performance and that one chance for the performer to get it right adds a certain kind of energy. For the audience member there’s an expectation, too, that comes from having to be there on time (they’re going to start without you), having to pay attention (you can’t rewind), and needing not to be distracting for other attenders.

There is, also, that sense of community when 2,000 people show up for what I will call a noble purpose of listening to something beautiful.

Mahler 3 Oregon

This was my first chance to hear Mahler’s Third performed live. Who knows when the opportunity will come again, so I attended both performances, the second time as the guest of a friend, so it didn’t feel entirely ridiculous going twice.

Many of the symphonies I’ve been listening to in this study are completely new to me or are unfamiliar. Mahler is a bit of an obsession, though, so when it comes to his music I’m trying to go beyond mere acquaintance, studying to understand the symphonies on a deeper level and to be a better listener. I don’t know when (or even if) I will listen to much of Bruckner again (outside of his incandescent Seventh Symphony), but I plan to listen to Mahler for as long as life and the ability to hear lasts.

It is a long work. Normally about 110 minutes. Apparently the ushers had been asked to warn concertgoers of the length. On Saturday night, as they handed out programs they cautioned, “Please be aware that the concert will be one hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission.” The performance actually may have hit two hours, though, and it was interesting to hear the ushers on Monday night say, “The concert will be two hours long without an intermission.” It was recorded for later broadcast, so it will be good to get some timings. (I’ll comment on the actual performance later, but I believe it was the last movement that dramatically extended the length of everything. It wasn’t just langsam. It was sehr langsam.)

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In addition to Michael Steinberg, I consulted some other sources and here are some observations:

1. The scale of this symphony is unprecedented. In his famous discussion with Jean Sibelius about the nature of the symphony in general, Mahler declared, “[A] symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” While working on the Third, Mahler said,

“[To] call it a symphony is really incorrect since it does not follow the usual form. The term ‘symphony’—to me this means creating a world with all the technical means available.”

It’s a big world Mahler created.

2. The creative process is messy. The Symphony we hear today is mostly set in stone, now (uncertain to what extent the work on new critical editions goes on), but Mahler’s years-long process of getting to what we understand today as Symphony No. 3 (he began in earnest in 1895 and first conducted a complete performance in 1902) shows that his understanding of the work changed along the way. For example, at one point the symphony was to have seven movements, the last of which we now know as the final movement of his Fourth Symphony, which explains why there are so many musical connections between these two symphonies. Constantin Floros in his book, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1993, translation by Vernon and Jutta Wicker), offers an in-depth explanation of the process and prefaces it all nicely: “[T]he details of the Symphony’s history are quite complex.”

3. This symphony is hugely “text-oriented,” to use a term by Iván Fischer in a brief talk he gave in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. Obviously, the fourth and fifth movements have written texts, but there are numerous other connections to text:

a. The third movement contains an instrumental version of one of his songs, Ablösung im Sommer (“Change in Summer”), which comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.


b. The third movement has two solos for posthorn,

which allude to a poem (translated), “The Postilion”, which tells the touching story of a coach driver who stops at a graveyard to play his horn for his deceased friend.

c. Mahler originally conceived the Symphony as a programmatic work with these titles:
First Part:
Pan Awakes. Summer Comes Marching In (Bacchic Procession).
Second Part:
What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me.
What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me.
What Humanity Tells Me.
What the Angels Tell Me.
What Love Tells Me.

The idea for this scaffolding comes from the influence of a poem, “Genesis,” by Siegfried Lipiner. Later, Mahler removed the titles for publishing. Steinberg includes a quotation from Mahler to a critic, Max Kalbeck, where he explains,

“Beginning with Beethoven, there is no modern music without its underlying program. —But no music is worth anything if first you have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it and what he is supposed to experience in it. … You just have to bring your ears and a heart along and—not least—willingly surrender to the rhapsodist. Some residue of mystery always remains, even for the creator.”

There is an interesting documentary on Mahler’s Third that explains these and other literary connections. It can be found in four parts on YouTube:

4. This symphony is “highly eclectic,” to use another term by Iván Fischer, meaning that a wide variety of music gets included:
military music
funeral marches
instrumental recitative
music imitating natural sounds—birds, for example, and sounds meant to allude to natural forces
“classical music of the concert hall” (terminology from Floros)
popular tunes of people from the lower classes
folk music
children’s music
church/chorale music

5. Simon Halsey offers an alternative way of thinking about the organization of the symphony. His idea is to think of it in three parts:

The first half hour (or more): Opening Movement;

The second half hour (or less): Movements 2 and 3;

The last half hour: Movements 4, 5, and 6, which are meant to proceed without pause.

6. While the first movement was written last, Mahler writes the music in such a way that “themes heard near the beginning will be transformed into the materials of the last three movements.” In literary terms, this means includes elements of foreshadowing for things you’ve already written.

7. One of the great things about Benjamin Zander’s recordings of Mahler’s works is that he includes a bonus CD with a lecture on the work including musical examples. Zander refers to the “democratization of the instruments,” which simply means that every instrument gets a voice in Mahler’s symphonies. Hadn’t really thought if it that way before, but it makes sense.

8. Zander also points out how important the interval of the Perfect Fourth is throughout this particular Symphony—something of a unifying principle for the melodies.

9. The most helpful thing from Zander’s lecture, though, was to hear him refer to the final movement as a rondo. It had never occurred to me to think of it that way because I’ve always thought of rondos as fast. But it’s a great way to hang on to the form of the last movement. While the basic form works, one of Mahler’s compositional principles is never to say the same thing in the same way twice (or four times in this case), so it’s interesting to hear the different presentations of the main theme.

Aside: Zander did say one thing that struck me odd, though. In the context of the third movement he included this sentence, almost in passing:

“This is how great music can infect our psyches—not by informing our brains, but by subtly and subconsciously shifting our molecules so that we actually transform our being as the music transforms.”

I know that music can have a transforming effect on us, but I’m not clear about the whole molecule-shifting aspect. Not sure what that means although it has the ring of a scientific claim without any sort of explanation.

10. Before the Saturday night performance, I attended the pre-concert talk with the conductor, Carlos Kalmar, who was interviewed by Robert McBride of Portland All Classical Radio. It didn’t feel like they over-prepared for this conversation, but there were some interesting highlights from Mr. Kalmar:

a. He spoke of the challenge of conducting the Third, which is “How do you put an arch to 1:45?” (Don’t think he realized at that point how much time he was adding by taking the last movement so slowly.)

b. He noted that Mahler only writes in either short form—art songs—or long form—symphonies.

c. He compared conducting the Third to other Mahler symphonies. The First is the easiest. The power of it carries you along. The Sixth is very difficult—tragic and devastating—you ask, “How am I going to do this? The good thing about the Third is that while it’s physically demanding, it doesn’t leave you emotionally exhausted as, say, the Ninth does. The challenge of the Third is that the first three movements move along, but then in the fourth movement everything stops. The static nature makes it very difficult. “You have to breathe for the music.”

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As far as the performances by the Oregon Symphony, there are a number of things to commend:

First, the performances by assistant principal trombone, Robert Taylor and principal trumpet, Jeffrey Work were outstanding. The latter, in particular, was noteworthy because he left the stage to play the posthorn solos in the third movement, which demonstrated a tremendous stamina. (When I’ve seen the Third Symphony performed on video, a separate soloist handled the posthorn solos.)

Second, the performance was polished. There is nothing easy about this symphony. Just so many details to look after and my reading of the score says that Mahler doesn’t take it easy on his instrumentalists. (When I later gave a listen to a recording while watching the score, I was stunned by how difficult, for example, the horn writing was.) It had been thirteen years since they last performed the Third (June, 2003, with James DePreist). And aside from some intonation issues with the horns during the posthorn solos (to be fair, I’ve heard similar problems on recordings—it’s just challenging music), it presented really well.

Third, the last movement was impressive for it’s slowness. I think it was too slow, actually, depriving the music of a song-like character, but it was remarkable how the woodwinds and brass could sustain long—really long—lines. We got the goosebumps in the right places, though.

Fourth, the release of the last chord was magical. Steinberg notes that “the last measure is ‘not to be cut off sharply’; rather, there should be some softness to the edge between sound and silence at the end of this most riskily comprehensive of Mahler’s worlds.” This Kalmar and the orchestra pulled off beautifully.

If I was to critique anything, I would say the performance came across as a bit of a stretch. For example, the horns sounded good and full on the opening, but there are extremes of volume they are asked to go after later in the symphony and it felt like what we got at the beginning was all there was to be had. There are moments toward the end where you want the horns to roar and overwhelm—to be heroic, reaching for something beyond the music— and they couldn’t quite take us there.

I’m also struggling to find a good place in the Schintzer Concert Hall for listening. To my ears, the bottom half of the strings and woodwinds, while not inaudible, do not balance out the upper half. There are many moments in this Symphony that you want to feel the rumbling and you don’t. I’m wondering if that’s the room, though.

I also feel like there is a lid on the woodwinds. Earlier this year I heard the Oregon Symphony with Mr. Kalmar play Elgar’s First Symphony. That same lid was there. Do the woodwinds simply sound that soft (an acoustical issue) or are they being kept in a box (a conducting issue)? There are moments where the flute and oboe, for example, have to play in unison as chamber players. No problem. But when they have solos, it would be great to hear what they sound like as soloists. I didn’t notice it so much with the Mahler, but with the Elgar, it did seem like there was a concerted effort by the conductor to control the sound of the winds to the detriment of the music, particularly in the adagio.

I had hoped that after a successful opening night on Saturday, that on Monday things might have loosened up a bit and we could hear some freedom in the lines. Mostly, it seemed like the orchestra was a bit tired.

I shouldn’t pick. The performance was moving. I’m grateful that the Oregon Symphony took on the challenge. What a way to finish a season. They are planning to finish next season with Mahler’s Second, which should be thrilling.

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For reference, I listened to a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic in their Digital Concert Hall, conducted by Iván Fischer. One fascinating aspect of this performance was the fact that Fischer divided the violins left and right of the podium. This created some interesting antiphonal effects, especially in the second and third movements.

I also listened to a CD of Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra from a live recording in 23 May 1969 (BBC Music | BBCL 4004-7) which was rated highly by the late Tony Duggan.

The most interesting aspect of this recording was the last movement where Sir John takes great liberty with the tempo. He begins plenty slow, but doesn’t leave it there. This is not Mahler with a nod to Bruckner, but an earnest attempt to make the orchestra sing. The tempos Barbirolli reaches at times are a little surprising, though. Duggan admits,

“[Barbirolli’s] inability to resist speeding up at moments of release later on spoils this movement’s serenity just a little, though. But take that away and it would not have been a Barbirolli performance at all.”

I love the affection Mr. Duggan shows for both Mahler and those he feels are Mahler’s best interpreters. Regarding Sir John and this final movement, Duggan writes,

“Compared with some, Barbirolli is more expressive and ‘heart-on-sleeve’ in the last movement and the big-heartedness of it all is overwhelming.”

There are modern recordings that are more “perfect” (including fewer groans from the conductor), but this one is certainly heartfelt.