Friday, November 02, 2012

Nature in Mahler's Music

Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
by Gustav Mahler

“But it's peculiar, as soon as I am in the midst of nature and by myself, everything that is base and trivial vanishes without trace. On such days nothing scares me; and this helps me again and again.”  ― Gustav Mahler

Mahler is in the world and the world is in Mahler.  This is evidenced by his great symphonies and the Third Symphony was the first and perhaps the best example, with regard to the world of Nature.  It is Mahler’s hymn to the natural world and his longest work largely composed in the summer of 1895 after an exhausting and troubling period that pitched him into feverish creative activity. Bruno Walter visited him at that time and as Mahler met him off the ferry Walter looked up at the spectacular alpine vistas around him only to be told: "No use looking up there, that’s all been composed by me." 
Mahler is quoted by Jonathan Carr, in his 1997 biography of the composer, as saying -- that "one does not compose, one is composed."  This came after Mahler claimed he had composed away the mountains in the grand first movement of his Third Symphony.  At a time when symphonies were often thirty to forty minutes in length and seldom more than four movements, Mahler composed a ninety minute symphony in six movements.  Perhaps it is what inspired Mahler to say, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”
The Third Symphony in D Minor is Mahler's own pastoral as he was inspired by the grandeur around him at the very deepest level of feeling and also by visions of Pan and Dionysus. In fact he was moved by a sense of every natural creative force in the universe infusing him into "one great hymn to the glory of every aspect of creation", or, as Deryck Cooke put it: "a concept of existence in its totality." With references to Brahms First Symphony and, above all, Mahler's own songs from the Wunder Horn cycle the massive work also incorporates a setting of the "Midnight Song" from Friedrich Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra, a Soprano soloist, a children's chorus and another with female voices.  The result is a gargantuan symphony that can easily be said to represent the world as seen through Nature--at least the Nature that speaks to Mahler.  To ensure his inspiration was at hand Mahler had a hut built in the countryside on the shore of a lake where the sounds of Nature abounded. His Third was the first symphony he wrote in that hut but he would return for several summers to renew his inspiration and compose many more. 

This afternoon I attended a performance of Mahler's Third by The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Semyon Bychkov.  Joining the Orchestra was Bernarda Fink, Mezzo-Soprano, Women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and Anima, Young Singers of Greater Chicago.  This work is well-suited to the strengths of the CSO and they performed admirably with stamina and strength in all sections.  While the Brass stood out, this difficult work found the strings and woodwinds not lacking.  The result pierced directly to my soul during both the first and final movements.  It was exceptional music for an Autumn afternoon.

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