Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's Mahler Time: The PodCast

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony performs Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3, certainly one of the longest symphonies in the standard repertoire and one that doesn't get performed all that often. It's safe to say that any performance of it is “an event.”

Stuart Malina took some time out of his schedule to chat with me about why this symphony is something you shouldn't miss.

You can hear our PODCAST here.

You can also read my account of the world premiere of Mahler's symphony back in 1902, how the audience responded to what you have the chance to hear this weekend.

The performances are this Saturday (April 16th) at 8pm and Sunday (April 17th) at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Come an hour early to take in the pre-concert talk which I'll be offering (free to any ticket-holder) an hour before each performance.

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You can catch MAHLER MADNESS and receive a 50% discount if you haven't already bought a ticket for these concerts by calling the Harrisburg Symphony Box Office - (717) 545-5527 - just ask for the Mahler Madness Discount! Tell them you saw it on the blog!
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Okay, it's true, a symphony that is just long doesn't make it great. Just because there's over 100 musicians on the stage (plus a vocal soloist and women's and children's choruses) doesn't necessarily make it an event.

Mahler was 26 when he completed the Third Symphony. A year later, three movements (the all-orchestral ones other than the first) were performed in Berlin (to not very positive responses) but it took another five years until Mahler could get a complete performance for its official world premiere. By then, he was almost 32 (see illustration, left, a drawing made that year). Though a respected (if controversial) conductor, this performance was the one that helped make his career as a composer.

His original intent, as Stuart and I discuss in the podcast, was to give a specific program to each of the movements, creating a kind of cosmological ladder from beginning to end. In the first movement, he describes the arrival of summer, the awakening of Pan, a festive march to honor him (or Bacchus) including a thunderstorm and a rousing celebration. The last to be composed, this movement is also as long as a typical symphony in its entirety written a hundred years earlier.

(By the way, the symphony is usually performed without intermission, so you may want to be aware of this and visit the restrooms before the concert begins...)

The next series of movements were originally given titles: "What the flowers of the field tell me." "What the animals of the forest tell me." "What mankind tells me." "What the Angels tell me." And "What Love tells me."

The 4th movement is a song for the alto (or mezzo) soloist, settings words of Friedrich Nietzsche, a poem taken from "Also sprach Zarathustra," one of the major works of German literature at the time, and written only ten years earlier. Part of the irony, here, is that while Nietzsche adopted a biblical style to promote ideas that were fundamentally opposed to Christian and Jewish morality - the idea that "God is Dead" actually came from a different work - and believed himself "godless and antimetaphysical," Mahler believed strongly in metaphysics, the transcendental and in the existence of God.

The 5th Movement with its pealing of bells and exuberant folk song is tied in with a song Mahler composed a few years earlier - "The Heavenly Life," a child's vision of heaven - and which originally was going to be the symphony's last movement (before he had decided to place the great Adagio there). But a seventh movement seemed unrealistic - entitled "What the Child Tells Me," this became the finale of his next symphony.

Though not originally at the end of the symphony, Mahler's eventual decision to conclude with a slow movement was unusual if not unprecedented (Beethoven had done it in his last piano sonata but a symphony is another matter.) Entitled "What Love Tells Me," his sense of "love," here, is more spiritual, God-like love rather than human emotional and physical passion, especially in light of the Nietzschean connections listeners might make from his use of the text in the 4th movement. Despite the tempo, it is a powerful, uplifting conclusion, if not a boisterously happy ending then a transfigured one.

When Stuart and I were recording our chat, he mentioned that Richard Strauss had also used Nietzsche's "Also sprach Zarathustra" as the basis of one of his most famous tone-poems. Thinking about this as I was driving home, I wondered when these two works were composed: Mahler wrote his song-setting for the symphony in the summer of 1895. Richard Strauss wrote his tone-poem on "Zarathustra" in 1896 and premiered it later that year. By the time Mahler's symphony was premiered in 1902, Strauss' tone poem would have already been quite familiar to the audience.

It's also interesting that, while Mahler sketched numerous plans for his symphony - this program with the  movements' titles - by the time he came to premiere the work, he had changed his mind and forbid the publication of the programmatic details and its titles.

However he felt about it while writing the piece and whatever prompted him to suppress these ideas later, he did relent in 1907, the last time he conducted the third symphony himself, allowing the titles back into the printed program.

Whether they help you "understand" the symphony or not, the music can exist on its own level without them. For some, it's helpful on the journey, like following sign-posts. For others, it doesn't matter or may even prove distracting. That is, after all, one aspect of Art - that it can survive on several levels simultaneously.

- Dick Strawser

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