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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 1

Mahler''s Third as seen by Nézet-Séguin

by Lucie Renaud / September 2, 2002

Version française...

As told to Lucie Renaud

La Scena Musicale launches this month a new series, "The Maestro's Choice", that will focus on works of the symphonic repertoire as perceived by the conductors who will direct them.

Mahler's Third Symphony continues to be one of his most interesting works because it is the only one for which the composer created a real program, a scaffolding, if you will, before beginning to work. Even so, I find that it isn't necessarily the easiest of his symphonies to understand. It is a fairly intimate work in terms of expression, despite its powerful orchestration, and carries us into a kind of dream world in which Mahler seems bent on mixing all sorts of things--mythology, the biblical Creation, and philosophy. To my mind, it typifies the end of the nineteenth century.

A symphony of Nature

Mahler always wanted his symphonies to embrace the world, and the Third, composed in 1895, does this quite explicitly, pushing the orchestra to unbelievable limits. Structurally, Mahler proceeded according to an established hierarchy of kingdoms: mineral, vegetable, and animal, moving a step up each time in terms of evolution. Then he went on to "What man tells me," "What the angels tell me," and "What love tells me." In the end, however, Mahler decided to do away with the program. Bruno Walter described it as a canvas, or a scaffolding around a building that is removed once the work is done. Mahler referred to the symphony as "my personal monster," which implies that he had difficulty adhering to his outline.

The composer retired to the country to write the symphony in order to find inspiration in Nature. Walter, who was nineteen at the time, remembered how one day, on an outing with Mahler, he was gazing at a majestic mountain only to hear his companion say, "No use looking up there. The mountain is in my music!"

First movement

The first movement represents "summer marching in" (in a general sense--sun, water, and sky). The key chosen is the rather sombre D minor. It may seem contradictory, but I really believe it represents Nature in all that is grand and rather fearsome. The majesty of summer can be frightening, even dizzying, because in fact it dominates us.

The program for the first movement surprised me when I read "Pan awakes." For me, the music sounded more like a funeral march. To speak of summer when scoring music for eight horns in D minor with lots of percussion may seem odd. There is something implacable about this passage. I think we have to see it as representing Nature emerging from original chaos. This movement is the most revolutionary of all Mahler's work because percussion instruments are given pride of place (fanfares, long percussion passages, right from the start). The orchestration is the opposite of what is customary. Symphonic music is traditionally based on the strings, but here Mahler opens with the trombone, moving to the trumpet, then the horns, woodwinds, and finally strings. You might say that Mahler is comparing evolution in Nature with symphonic evolution, thereby giving this movement a special colour, musically speaking.

Second movement

It came as no surprise to learn that the second movement dealt with "the flowers of the meadow." There was an elegance, a delicacy there. Mahler was a poet who was profoundly touched by the world in which he lived. He said that meadow flowers were the most incredible manifestation of the vegetable kingdom. For him they represented what was carefree and lighthearted, but which, when Nature's elements were let loose, turned to panic. The flowers writhed as though they were calling for help.

Third movement

When I learned that the third moment described animals ("beasts of the forest"). I suddenly thought it seemed less like a jest (suggested by the whimsical, almost ridiculous timbre of the E-flat clarinet) than a sort of heedlessness, a clumsiness in behaviour that we humans don't consider "classy." However the music is very beautiful and this movement contains one of the most famous solos--the hunting horn passage written for trumpet. (I'm planning to put the trumpeter in the hall rather than on stage, but I won't say where. Come and see for yourselves!)

Fourth movement

The sung text of the fourth movement, "Oh Mensch", ("O Man") is taken from Nietsche's Zarathustra. The orchestration of this night song is pure music, almost minimalist, and sweeps the listener into a kind of trance. It moves from one chord to another, the timbre dark, with an oboe glissando here and there (a night bird). Mahler sought inspiration in German philosophy, according to which the human rite of passage occurs at night. The strings are muted throughout the movement, and much of the score is given to violas, cellos, and double basses, playing sombre chords in striking contrast to the oboe.

Fifth movement

This great adagio is for me the finest movement of the Third, using orchestral colour for purely expressive effect. "Love," for Mahler, was the most highly evolved form of creation--what held everything together. When I began to study the symphony, I was amazed by the last movement's use of D major, by nature a brilliant, triumphal key, in such a moving adagio. Until very recently I couldn't listen to this movement without crying. Initially I didn't know about the work's full literary context, but I intuitively felt the presence of God or the creative force. It is as though you saw "The End" appear on a screen--a kind of sadness fills you because it is ended, but at the same time the beauty of it draws you on toward a new beginning. [Translated by Jane Brierley]

L'Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal will perform Mahler's Third Symphony two times this month: on September 9 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier and on September 26 at Eglise Saint-Nom de Jésus. (See calendar for details).

Yannick Nézet-Séguin's recommended recordings

  • I would first choose the recordings of Mahler's Third by Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter, two people who knew the composer personally and whose visions of the work are diametrically opposed. Klemperer's monumental interpretation, his rugged, severe approach to expression and timbre, are at the other end of the spectrum from Walter's version with its warm tone colours (even though he cuts corners). I think that Mahler can accommodate both these versions.
  • The most recent recording (1999) by Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic, live in London, bowled me over.
  • Of course I have to include Leonard Bernstein's two recordings. He makes great play of volume and sentimentality, but it's better to go somewhat overboard than not to rise to the occasion.
  • It's too bad that Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw haven't yet recorded the Third, but it should be out soon. It's the only one missing from the series, which I love.

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