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Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.3 (Part 1)

Continued here: "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.3 (Part 2)"

The Third Symphony, Mahler’s longest, has sublime moments and plenty of them, but it can be difficult to find your way to—and around—it: Its quilt of music is complicated and never just straight forward and clear-cut. It has two large outer movements around four smaller movements—the first movement alone takes over half an hour. In my traversing Mahler, only the Seventh was more stubborn in opening itself up to me. The titles that Mahler originally gave the movements, only to withdraw them later, don’t offer much help. But the fear that knowing these titles might lead to misunderstanding the symphony is no longer given either, so there is no harm in listing them. (Mahler originally planned seven movements and there are seven corresponding titles as the letter to Natalie Bauer-Lechner (below the jump) shows. The seventh movement—"Was mir das Kind erzählt" ("What the Child tells me")—would become the finale of the Fourth Symphony.

The symphony itself had two working titles before Mahler opted for employing neither: “The happy life—A Summer-Morning’s Dream” (in German even more clearly a riff on Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, though Mahler denied any connection to it) was one. Later Mahler chose the Nietzschean title “The Gay Science”. That Michael Gielen likens the Mahler Third to Robert Musil’s novel “The Man Without Qualities” is gratifying to read. I love Musil’s novel about—essentially—nothing, and I’d never claim to understand it, either. The feeling of being removed from life and the world that Mahler
expresses in the Rückert Lied “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” applies very well here.

available at Amazon
Symphony No.3,
P.Boulez / A.S.v.Otter / WPh

available at Amazon
Symphony No.3 (& Bach Suite, orch. Mahler),
R.Chailly / P.Lang / RCO

The Third Symphony as a kind of mental refuge (because in his everyday life, Mahler was everything but removed from the world—in fact, he was very much in its midst, with all the bustle, stress, anxiety, and little triumphs) is an appealing image. Like many Nietzsche aphorisms or the Georg Trakl poem that Gielen also quotes in his liner notes, much of the Third is “flavor”—which you either relate to, or not. This relation—to a time, a mental state, a social setting, a mood—can only be made possible to an outsider (someone who has not had similar experiences, lived similar moods, never known a similar social environment) through music. The movement titles may therefore provide answers to intellectual questions we have, but cannot achieve to evoke any feelings that the music can’t rouse. Which is also what Mahler said (in a letter to Max Kalbeck about his First Symphony): “No music is worth anything if first you have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it.”

What did the job of giving me access to this symphony, eventually, was the combined glory of the Vienna Philharmonic, Anne Sofie von Otter (!), and Pierre Boulez: A recording of stunning clarity, von Otter’s silvery voice ethereally high (almost soprano-like), superb playing and attention paid to every detail. Boulez is lifting the rug for you in this symphony and lets you have a peek at what it is all about. He does the same in the Seventh, too, but with the Third that approach holds up even better to return visits, no matter how well you understand or like the symphony. I found his recording more enchanting and more involving than the much acclaimed Chailly/ Concertgebouw recording with Petra Lang that came out in 2004. The latter is impressive, as all of Chailly’s Mahler is, for the impeccable playing in a great acoustic in wonderful sound. But Boulez offers that, too, in this case—and counter to the usual and tired stereotypes against the Frenchman, he is not devoid of emotion, even for all his admitted clarity and detailed structure. In my initial review, I have called it haunting and subversive. I’ll stick with that. Only a tiny editing glitch in the third movement ruptures the sense of perfection on this issue.

Text & images below.

Draft of titles for the Third Symphony

Steinbach am Attersee, where Mahler composed the Third Symphony in the summers of 1895/96.

The font used in the title is "Windsor Light"

Find a list of the ex-WETA Mahler Posts here:

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