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A Symphony Must Be Like the World


Ben Zander’s lecture-guide to Mahler’s Third Symphony is not only admirably thorough, but also engaging in every one of its 76 minutes. My short first-person account will serve to point to that extended pre-concert guide to the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert at Symphony Hall on April 8th at 8:00. Zander will begin talking at 6:45. Tickets HERE.

I first heard Mahler’s Third Symphony on January 19, 1962, at Symphony Hall, on a Friday afternoon BSO program with Richard Burgin conducting. Although Burgin had conducted the first movement “Erste Abtheilung” a couple of decades earlier, we were hearing the first BSO performance of the complete work. Burgin had been the Boston Symphony’s concertmaster and assistant conductor for many years; Charles Munch, the principal conductor since 1951 and an Alsatian native, wasn’t considered much of a Mahler conductor.

When I got to know the score even a little bit better, I was dazzled especially by its orchestral size — almost as big as The Rite of Spring, with woodwinds by fours, and a scary beginning, with a single melody prominently in the middle of the score page, marked “Hörner zu 8,” and when I sang my way through that bare melody I thought of how much it resembled Brahms.

Thereafter what chiefly impressed me about Mahler’s Third were the extraordinary length (6 movements in 90 minutes), the over-the-top instrumental extremes, the constant saturation of folksong-like melody in four-bar phrases, and the unprecedented orchestral clarity in solo and massed textures — and these impressive impressions ring true for me today, 60 years later. They are all part of Mahler’s optimistic youthful conception, an athletic and even heroic grasp, not of the universe but of the realistic natural world and man’s striving to maintain a place in it. (Part I was originally entitled “Summer marches in,” and it is a month-long bucolic march. The third movement is an expanded version of a whimsical ornithological tragedy, plus a Schubertian posthorn. But the first vocal text to appear, the alto solo Nietzsche’s “O Man, pay attention!”, constitutes another kind of tragedy.

Newly discovered details of instrumentation continue to fascinate, like this example (in all the orchestral literature I have found only two other instances) of writing for trumpet in the bass clef:

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