Mahler pays tribute to the whole of creation in his gigantic third symphony.
Nature, flowers, animals, Man, God and love − Mahler gives praise to the whole of creation with his gigantic Symphony No. 3 − one of the most unusual, unpredictable and astonishing masterpieces in the whole of the symphonic repertoire. Our former Principal Conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, returns, leading us in to Mahler’s many-faceted musical world, which extends from the banal to the sacred. He is joined by alto Anna Larsson and a large choir of women- and children’s voices.
A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything. In different ways, Gustav Mahler (1860−1911) attempted to live up to his own basic approach to composing in all his nine symphonies. In his third symphony, the attempt to incorporate the whole of creation resulted in both the inner and outer traditional frameswork for the symphony as a genre being blown to pieces. The work has six movements, and in general lasts around one hour and three quarters. Furthermore, Mahler presents a colossal span of style and expression — from the sweetly sentimental to the sublime and elevated, from the childishly simple to the divinely complex, from the immediate and expressive to the philosophical and provocative. The massive proportions have ensured that the symphony is performed more rarely than some of Mahler’s other symphonic works, but when it is performed, it has an overwhelming effect on listeners.
The symphony starts with a monumental first movement − which is almost like a symphony in itself − which presents a dramatic narrative symbolising the enormous forces of nature in play. Mahler had the habit of adding programmatic titles to the movements in his earlier symphonies, and although he in the end retracted these descriptive titles, they often give the listener a good starting point for interpretation. Mahler entitled this movement Pan Awakens. The Summer Marches In. For Mahler, Pan was the ultimate symbol of nature − something which extended itself beyond pure landscape with all its flora and fauna, towards metaphysical proportions. When Pan awakens, huge forces are unleashed and the whole existence of the world is set into movement. It’s no surprise then that the awakening is both dramatic and painful. The movement oscillates between a funeral march and a triumph march − in the way that Mahler understood and gave life to these definitions − concluding with a magnificent, life-affirming F Major chord.
Despite the dimensions of the first movement, it constitutes only the first part of a greater musical narrative. Nevertheless, Mahler understood that the first movement might be demanding for listeners, and wrote a note in the score that it should be followed by “a long pause!”. The highly dramatic first movement is followed by a movement with quite a different expression − the lyrical, delicate, and sweetly-scented menuet, which Mahler named What the Flowers Tell Me. This movement also contains stormy moments but they quickly blow over and do nothing to alter its sunny and calm character. After having blown off a huge amount of energy using his giant arsenal of instruments in the first movement, Mahler demonstrates here his most sensitive, tender and and elegant powers of orchestration.
The third movement is more complex and puzzling, both in content and character. Mahler called this movement What the Wild Animals in the Forest Tell Me. The music takes one of the songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn as its starting point − a strange melody in a polka rhythm, which soon develops into a grotesque embellishment of a dance of the animals. A post horn signal keeps breaking into the strange scherzo, interrupting the contrapuntal game. The dramatic highlight of the movement is the introduction of the Cuckoo is Dead − the motive from the above-mentioned song in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which is followed by a dramatic fanfare and a repeat of the polka before the movement ends with a bang.
Following the movement of the animals, it’s time to introduce Man and the human voice into Mahler’s symphonic world. The fourth movement, What Man Tells Me, is centred around the alto soloist, who sings a text from the Midnight Song in Also Sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche: “O Mensch … The world is deep, and deeper than the day ever believed”, sings the soloist, leaving no doubt that it is the thinking, philosophical man Mahler is drawing a portrait of in this symbol-laden, slow and thoughtful movement. Man stares out into the night and reflects on himself before his gaze is lifted up towards the angels of the next movement.
The fifth movement What the Angels Tell me, brings faith and the metaphysical even more explicitly into the musical development. Ding Dong sing the childrens’ clock choir, ringing the bells of heaven before the Choir of Angels tells that prayer and love of God is the solution for sinful Man. Once again, the text is taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The short movement has a jubilant and almost childish joy about it before Mahler concludes the symphony with one of his most beautiful and contemplative symphonic movements. What Love Tells Me is a slow adagio movement and is therefore a very unusual finale in a symphony. It is this which has been the ultimate aim of the symphonic journey through God’s creation − a tender, sublime and passionate contemplation on the greatness of love.
Mahler’s third symphony was first performed in Krefeld in 1902 with the composer himself conducting. The premiere was a great success and there are anecdotes that Mahler had to return to the podium as many as twelve times to receive the applause which lasted for more than fifteen minutes. Despite less frequent performances, this symphony has always occupied a very special place among Mahler’s symphonies.
Although Mahler’s symphonies have been part of the Oslo Philharmonic’s repertoire from the very first season, which included his first and fourth symphonies, more than fifty years were to pass before Symphony No. 3 was performed in Oslo! On the 12th and 13th of April 1972, Principal Conductor Miltiades Caridis finally led the first Norwegian performances of the gigantic work in the University Aula, with soloist Vesla Tveten, NRK’s boy’s choir and Kvindelige Studenters Sangforening. Even as late as in 1972, the symphony provoked amazement and bewilderment among Norwegian critics. Klaus Egge was one of those who thought that “There is something bombastic over Mahler’s need for the massive. Most of it could have been said in half the time”. Still, Egge was pleased with the performance:
“Caridis had a great evening with his orchestra. He knows this material, and he knows very well how it should be built up architecturally. Mahler’s instrumental details demand the highest level of alertness for the orchestra strategist, and Caridis got everything in its place with a gorgeously balanced sound between the groups. The performance elicited a great, spontaneous enthusiasm in the hall.”
Excerpt from a review in Arbeiderbladet, 13 April 1972
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Jukka-Pekka Saraste)Read more
- Adult: 190 - 490 NOK
- Senior: 160 - 395 NOK
- Student: 120 - 245 NOK
- Child: 120 NOK
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