Mahler’s Third Symphony with Elīna Garanča and Lorenzo Viotti
29 Feb 2020
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (112 min.)
Elīna Garanča mezzo-soprano, Women of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Boys of the Berlin State and Cathedral Choir
Elīna Garanča in conversation with Julia Gartemann (15 min.)
“Nothing came of the profound interrelationships between the various movements which I had originally dreamed of,” Gustav Mahler wrote about his Third Symphony in 1896. The self-critical comment was by no means an indication that Mahler was dissatisfied with the composition, but rather reflected the many modifications he had made to the work during its composition. Mahler initially intended that the last movement of his Third Symphony would include a soprano solo. After he had already completed the composition to a large extent, with numerous changes to the middle movements and a finale that deviated from his original plan for the work, the focus of his interest shifted to the first movement.
This movement confronted the composer with an “enormous undertaking” for which “I don’t think I should have had the courage, had the rest not already been completed”. The enormous proportions of the movement, which he juxtaposed as the “first part” with the other five movements combined as the “second part”, were unprecedented in the history of the genre. “I am almost afraid that even the faithful and initiated few will find it too much for them – this movement is so difficult, so incomprehensively vast, and developed in a polyphonic style that is new even to me,” Mahler said, voicing his doubts. “Whoever fails to comprehend it in terms of the Grand Manner will be like a dwarf faced with a mountain giant; at best, he will see details, but never grasp the whole.” In order to make it easier for his listeners to understand the music, Mahler supplied headings for the various movements, which he later discarded: “Pan awakes. Summer Marches in” – “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me” – “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me” – “What Man Tells Me” – “What the Angels Tell Me” – “What Love Tells Me.”
Despite Mahler’s misgivings, the premiere of the Third Symphony in Krefeld on 9 June 1902 was one of the composer’s greatest artistic successes during his lifetime. The Neue Zeitschrift für Musik described the audience’s reaction at the time: “It was no longer a mere celebration, it was an homage.”
From Nature to Ever Higher Levels of Being
Notes on Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony
The line stands before us as though carved in stone: “None but the lonely heart / knows what I suffer!” For countless artists, these words of Goethe were not only an apt description of their state of mind but were also the central motivating force behind their creative potential. In the wide field of music there are two composers in particular who created their works out of this dialectical world-human constellation: Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler. Both suffered in a disenchanted world but fashioned magnificent works from it, although with different aesthetic resources and in various spheres: works of longing, of the principle of hope, expressed in music. Works between life and death.
Mahler chose the symphonic form for his works. It gave him the possibility to describe two worlds at once: there, that of (often ugly) reality, here, the world of his imagination, a musical sunshine state, as it were. He did not lack self-confidence; the trenchant lines he wrote about his Third Symphony are proof of that: “My symphony will be something which the world has never heard the like of before! All nature is endowed with a voice there, and tells secrets so profound that we can perhaps imagine them only in dreams!” What Mahler did not acknowledge was the enormous influence Friedrich Nietzsche exerted on him. Reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music certainly influenced him. On 18 November 1896 Mahler wrote: “It always strikes me as odd that most people, when they speak of ‘nature’, think only of flowers, little birds, and woodsy smells. No one knows the god Dionysus, the driving, creative force, the great Pan.”
The bacchanalian principle confronts us in person in the Third Symphony. “Introduction. Pan awakes – followed immediately by: Summer marches in (Bacchic procession).” Those words are written above the first movement in the autograph fair copy. It could also have read: “The idyll appears.” That is how the symphony sounds at the beginning, like a wonder of nature which Mahler had directly in front of him. Day in, day out he sat at the writing desk in the tiny composing hut that stood on the meadow next to the main building in Steinbach, Austria. Mahler also adhered to the principle of per aspera ad astra through hardships to the stars in this work, simply applying it to the world, to nature as a whole. And he knew exactly how far he was going: “It has almost ceased to be music; it is hardly anything but sounds of nature. It’s eerie, the way life gradually breaks through out of soulless, petrified matter. And, as this life rises from stage to stage, it takes on ever more highly developed forms: flowers, beasts, man, up to the sphere of the spirits, the angels.”
The Third is Mahler’s longest symphony, approximately 100 minutes in length. Formally it is divided into two parts with six movements altogether: the first part consists of the first movement; the second includes movements two through six. One searches in vain for a main idea, however; Mahler himself pointed that out: “While waiting for my sketches I also realized that nothing came of the profound interrelationships between the various movements, which I had originally dreamed of. Each movement stands alone, as a self-contained and independent whole: no repetitions or reminiscences.”
Instead, there are discernible structures. The first movement is composed in traditional sonata form and, particularly during the exposition, due to its sometimes collage-like design assumes an “anti-architectonic character”, as Adorno so aptly termed it, in which no thematic hierarchies can be established, which should not surprise anyone in light of the anarchic essence of nature. It begins with a theme that incorporates the patriotic song “Ich hab’ mich ergeben mit Herz und mit Hand” I have given myself heart and hand and is “sung” in unison by eight horns. After only nine bars the carefree attitude is interrupted by a cymbal clash, followed by a passage that anticipates the point in the fourth movement where Nietzsche’s world-sceptical admonition “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” O man! Take heed! is heard. Later, when the trombone soars, thundering and exultant “with the greatest display of power”, one may justifiably assume the god Pan is behind it – the image of an idea, as it were. If it is really him, he takes his time: the march music announcing the summer does not make its entry until after more than 200 bars. And if a quarter of the movement had not already elapsed, with a little fantasy it could appear that the actual exposition does not begin until this moment. Its character is humorously reminiscent of traditional wind music in which the trumpets and trombones dominate. After the greatly prolonged, unwavering, somewhat amorphous beginning, it develops into a dynamic force that does justice to Pan, as the personification of creative energy.
The second movement appears in the guise of a light-footed minuet and is thus in complete contrast to the spirit of what was heard before. The oboe begins a graceful, gentle, almost innocent melody, transporting us to a pastoral idyll from distant times. “It is the most carefree thing that I have ever written – as carefree as only flowers are,” the composer himself commented. Mahler structured the third movement as a scherzo with a post horn trio and immediately added its programme: “In this piece it is as if Nature herself were pulling faces and putting out her tongue. There is such a gruesome, Panic humour in it that one is more likely to be overcome by horror than laughter."
The “crown” of creation finally gets its turn in the fourth movement: man appears in Mahler’s symphonic world. And he endures the greatest suffering, simply because he is aware of it. In order to express human pain the composer inserted a voice at this point. The text he selected is the “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Joy and pain are directly connected in the words quoted here, and three important elements can be found in the music: first, the descending whole tone (which is also narrowed once to a semitone), then a motivic sequence to be played “like a sound of nature” and third, a contrasting violin melody in the style of art music.
The melodic idiom of the fifth movement alternates between irony and naivety, between children’s song and hymn. The boys’ chorus imitates the ringing of the bells already heard in the orchestra. Meanwhile, the women’s chorus sings in a teasing, playful way about the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles and the absolution of Peter’s sins. Although the exhortation “Love only God” appears in the a cappella chorale at the end of the movement, the beauty of this redemptive fantasy cannot really be trusted.
In the last movement it becomes clear that, in the context of the multilayered thinking of the Third Symphony, ultimately it is about a God who can only be “understood” as love. To express this state musically Mahler composed an Adagio movement which ends with a triumphant apotheosis that has completely lost all sense of irony. For the “symbol of love” Mahler chose Richard Wagner’s famous “love” turn – a slight bow. The fact that the last bars of the finale shine with metallic, transparent brilliance is both unexpected and unusual, however. Within the idealism that serves as the basis of this symphony such a ravishingly beautiful, conciliatory ending is nevertheless obligatory. Its composer agreed: “The Third has nothing to do with the struggles of an individual. One could rather say: it is nature’s course of development from inanimate, rigid matter to ever higher levels of being: plants, the animal kingdom, the human sphere, the realm of the angels to God understood as love.”
Lorenzo Viotti is chief conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon and chief conductor designate of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dutch National Opera from the 2021/2022 season. Born in Lausanne to a Franco-Italian family of musicians, he studied piano, voice and percussion in Lyon and Vienna before continuing with his conductor training under Nicolás Pasquet at the Liszt School of Music Weimar. In 2015, at the age of 25, he won the Young Conductors Award at the Salzburg Festival as well as the 11th International Conducting Competition of the Orquestra de Cadaqués and was first prize winner of the Conducting Competition of the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted many leading orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Staatskapelle in Berlin and Dresden, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and the Munich Philharmonic. He recently made his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. In these concerts, he will be conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.
Elīna Garanča trained at the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music in her home town of Riga. In 1999, she won the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition and was a finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the world Competition. The mezzo-soprano began her career as a member of the Meininger Staatstheater ensemble and as a guest artist at Oper Frankfurt. This was followed by engagements at Wiener Staatsoper, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Salzburg Festival, the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden and other renowned festivals around the world. Her repertoire includes the roles of Octavian in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, Marguerite in Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust, Dorabella in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Sara in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux and the title character in Bizet’s Carmen, which she sang with great success at the Royal Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera. Recent highlights include her role debuts as Princess Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlos at the Opéra national de Paris and as Dalila in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila at Wiener Staatsoper. In the concert field, Elīna Garanča works with the leading orchestras and conductors throughout Europe and is also a versatile lieder singer. Her awards include the 2006 European Culture Prize and the nomination as the 2010 “Vocalist of the year” by the magazine Musical America; Wiener Staatsoper appointed her as Kammersängerin in 2013. Elīna Garanča first appeared in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker at the beginning of June 2008 with Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs under the direction of Mariss Jansons. Her most recent appearance in a Berlin concert of the foundation was in mid-May 2014 in the chamber music series Singers – the World of Vocal Music. In April 2019, she appeared at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Verdi’s Requiem, conducted by Riccardo Muti.