by Mona Seghatoleslami
Are you afraid of this man?
The WV Symphony
is performing Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 this weekend. It’s an impressive piece, with a monster-sized orchestra, choruses, and a vocal soloist
Several listeners have told us about their dislike…even their fear…of Mahler. We’re calling this condition “Mahl-eria” around the studio. And we’re in search of a cure. It’s not just for those who are considering this concert. I'm writing for (and would like to hear from) anyone who has thoughts on Mahler and his music.
Mahler is (in)famous for the size and scope of his symphonies. Symphony No. 3 is particularly long, running a bit over 90 minutes.
90 minutes…that’s pretty short for a movie…but when it’s the length of a piece of music, people start talking about not being able to sit still for that long.
I’ve been listening to this symphony for a few days (this recording) and I’ve read articles, anecdotes, and analyses. It’s hard for me to synthesize into one little blog post everything that goes on in a symphony that is said to “encompass the world,” but here are a few thoughts.
I want to hear this piece in concert. Mahler’s grand musical statements and dramatic climaxes sound a bit silly coming out of my computer’s speakers as I sit in my living room snacking on chips. This is music that should be sounded from the mountains…but I suppose a concert hall is an acceptable compromise. I still do enjoy hearing Mahler on the radio too; we’ve played his Symphony No. 1 and several songs recently, and today (Wednesday around 2pm) I’ll play the Adagio from his incomplete Tenth Symphony.
Mahler’s music is a full of contradictions and contrasts, which can be both disorienting and exciting. During Mahler's life, Freud observed that: “In Mahler’s opinion the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was…inextricably fixed in his mind.”
Alex Ross (author, music critic for The New Yorker, and blogger extraordinaire) sums it up really well in his book The Rest is Noise: “The frame of reference of Mahler’s symphonies is vast, stretching from the masses of the Renaissance to the marching songs of rural soldiers—an epic multiplicity of voices and styles. Giant structures are built up, read to the heavens, then suddenly crumble. Nature spaces are invaded by sloppy country dances and belligerent marches”
Over on his blog, Ross has photos of the hut where Mahler would compose and the view from the windows there. Take a look.
Those with this (Wednesday) afternoon free can head over to the Clay Center for a talk with a visiting musicologist and Maestro Grant Cooper from 1:45-3pm about “Mahler and his World.” Here's a bit more you can read more about Mahler and his Third Symphony.
My favorite Mahler anecdote that I've read recently: In 1910 Mahler took the Philharmonic on a concert tour of New York State. When they reached Niagara Falls he exclaimed "At last, a real fortissimo!"
And on the lighter side, Minnesota Public Radio tells us Mahler’s “Bacon Number.”
So, what are your experiences with Mahler’s music? Do you have a favorite piece? A pleasant or unpleasant story to tell? Share your thoughts in the comments.