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Memento Mori

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/31/2002 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 3
Florence Quivar (mezzo)
Women of the Westminster Choir
American Boychoir
New York Philharmonic
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

Here's a game for Mahler aficionados: Sing the posthorn solo from the Symphony #3. Can't do it? Sounds a little off? Confused? Don't quite remember which note goes where or what the rhythms should be? This is because this amazing representation of memory is slightly different each time that it appears. Although the listener's perception is that the melody is repeated several times in the third movement, actually it is altered each time and Mahler's genius is that the offstage memory of the eighteenth century is a little changed during each recall, just as a real memory would be. The orchestra tries to continue with its own musings at one point but the insistent posthorn returns, driving present trivialities in its wake. This is only one of many examples of Mahler's inclusion of the phenomenon of memory into his music. Taking his cue from the music of the Romantics, he creates a universe of nostalgia by judiciously infusing his great works with the persistence of memory.

The Third Symphony is the first where Mahler uses the persona of the child to crystallize his intense feelings about the loss of innocence and man's regression away from the natural state. With childlike titles for the movements such as What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me and What the Cuckoo Tells Me, the composer recalls the eighteenth century British tradition of the innocent child and his direct connection with Nature (imagine, for example, Gainsborough's The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly). This recollection is a Victorian convention (compare the perceptions of the dying child culminating in the chapter What The Waves Were Always Saying from Dickens' superb Dombey and Son) and would not have seemed overly sentimental to a fin-de-siecle audience. The fifth movement features a boys' chorus singing a marvelously life-affirming song of the angels, an effect repeated in the mighty Symphony of a Thousand. Like a sensitive Romantic song, Schumann's Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend comes to mind, the view of Nature in this instrumental essay is filtered through the memories of childhood.

Mahler recreates the experience of memory through the device of layering in the mammoth first movement march, a technique borrowed from John Philip Sousa, whose music was all the rage in Europe at the turn of the century. The March King played at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and toured Europe four times during this period. Sousa's marches were unique in that he would introduce a theme and then elaborate upon it (the most famous example is the piccolo part in The Stars and Stripes Forever) but never either repeat the theme sans elaboration (as had been the habit of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky) nor spend any time developing it in the traditional manner. The result was that by the third time through the new theme already seemed familiar and the recapitulation always appeared to be a triumphant memory forcing its way into the forefront of the listener's psyche. The thirty-five minute march in this gigantic symphony is exactly the same construction (the influence of Sousa on Mahler would make a fascinating monograph) and here the composer, well into the movement, even repeats the opening measures of the entire piece after a pause as if we are recalling the movement as a whole. The same triumph and joy as Sousa's comes through loud and clear and Mahler also develops his theme employing his favorite musical device, the childlike round (used already to great effect in the Callot funeral march from his First Symphony). If the fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony #7 is the apotheosis of the dance, then surely this mighty movement is its equivalent in march time. Martial music was personally evocative for Mahler (as his now is for us) and he often wrote in detail in his letters about the regimental band of his native village of Iglau.

Mahler uses material from the Wunderhorn songs to reinforce the childlike (but never trivial) mood. The boy's choir intones the lovely Es Sungen Drei Engel (Three Angels Were Singing), a song which later appears in the opera and symphonic suite Mathis der Maler by Paul Hindemith. The music surrounding the posthorn solo is the Wunderhorn tune Abloesung im Sommer (Relief in Summer) and recalls the marching entrance of the season just two movements previous. With the acceptance and popularity of Mahler's symphonies over time, the experience of memory has now reversed itself. A listener in 1902 might have recognized some of the themes in the first performances of the third if he had previously had occasion to hear the Wunderhorn songs; a listener in 2002 smiles with recognition when he hears the familiar themes from the third during a rare performance of these innocent lieder.

Now we come to the famous posthorn solo. The Third Symphony premiered at the Krefeld festival where the recent turn of century preyed on Mahler's mind. He was painfully aware that an era had passed and with it the gentility and innocence of mankind. Many times in his subsequent symphonies he would return to the image of the lost century and its simpler way of life. He was always saying goodbye. Mozart, Mahler's favorite composer, had written a beautiful Serenade featuring this brass instrument, which came into being as the horn that announced the arrival of a stagecoach. The offstage effect of this eighteenth century instrument playing its nostalgic lament is breathtaking as the audience searches the silent brass section in vain to see from whence this wonderful music comes. As alluded to earlier, this is Mahler's most direct attempt to recreate musically the phenomenon of memory. The call of the posthorn is also very similar to another symphonic melody of Mahler, but one that remains forever a subject of nostalgia. It is the main theme, played by the solo trumpet, of the Blumine movement, permanently excised from the score of the Symphony #1 when Mahler felt that it was too sentimental. Just a few short years later, the composer is having second thoughts and pines for this lovely theme, itself an embodiment of nostalgia, forever lost to posterity (although very occasionally performed by dedicated scholarly conductors).

The Adagio may not be the most beautiful of the Mahler slow movements (that honor was reserved for the third movement of the Symphony #4 by the composer himself) but it is arguably the most powerful. In this long essay Mahler expresses in musical terms what cannot be spoken, a dramatic swelling of the bittersweet regret of loss and the pain of looking back upon it. The movement builds to such a climax of emotion that Mahler's friends cajoled him into cutting the proposed finale of the symphony (which shows up as the last movement of the fourth) so that this extremely affecting Adagio can be the last word of the gargantuan third. It is no accident that the sentimental World War II pop song I'll Be Seeing You has the same melody as the main theme of this movement. In an era when many sweethearts did not return the solace of Mahler at his nostalgic best was highly appropriate.

Mariss Jansons led a rich and vibrant performance of the 3rd. His expressive slow tempo throughout the Rabelaisian first movement allowed the melodies to breathe, the resulting music more expansive, less military. This was original and intelligent phrasing, although some veteran players, especially the solo trombonist, could not adapt to its poetry. The third movement was similarly impressive, the offstage posthorn solos of Philip Smith (alternately performed on both the elongated older instrument and a modern trumpet) especially poignant.

It is just not fair. I heard Florence Quivar twenty years ago, singing the Mahler 3 in Chicago. She still looks the same today, while I…well, let’s not go there. More importantly, she still sounds the same, those marvelous chesty tones and perfectly shaped declamations viscerally moving. The fifth movement was pure delight as joyous melodies are intoned by pure female voices and then reprised by the rougher sounds of youth. But the crowning glory of this reading was an expertly built finale, the shimmering brittleness of just a few string players, so like the 9th to come, evolving into a magnificent full tutti paean to what has been lost forever. Jansons certainly wove a golden tapestry from what other conductors of the Phil often find only dross. The twilight tells me that he would have made a great music director for this particular band.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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