PROGRAM NOTES for Concerts on April 5-6, 2014
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
The unique power and appeal of Gustav Mahler’s music comes from many things, but chief among them is Mahler’s ability to combine elements of common everyday life with the most sublime and transfigured personal statements. It is this remarkable contradiction that makes Mahler such an enigma and such a fascinating musical personality, His own personal strengths, weaknesses, and demons all found expression in his music and offer listeners extraordinary insight into the man, and also the universal human condition.
Born in a small Bohemian village under Austrian rule, Mahler absorbed many of the sounds that surrounded him as a child – bird songs, military fanfares and drum tattoos from a nearby garrison, and an overarching sense of the sublimity of nature.
As a youth barely out of his teens, Mahler embarked on a conducting career which progressed meteorically. In just twenty years he rose from a minor provincial conducting post to the most influential position in all of Germanic Europe–director and conductor of the Vienna Imperial Opera. Yet in spite of his success on the podium, his first love was always composition. His intense and hectic work schedule only permitted him time for composition during his brief two-month summer vacations. Yet in those few weeks each year he was able to complete a life’s work of nine large-scale symphonies and twenty-five songs before his death at age 51. It is impossible to separate Mahler’s songs from his symphonic writing, for each of his first four symphonies either includes songs as part of the overall work, or alludes to them through orchestral transcription.
For the two summers of 1895 and 1896 Mahler labored intensely on a new composition, his Symphony No. 3. His first two symphonies had taken him over six years to complete. But now, in just four months of time spread over two consecutive summers, Mahler completed his largest and longest symphony to date. The Third Symphony represented a continuation of a compositional and philosophical process–one of struggle and pain and redemption–that Mahler had begun with the First Symphony. But now, with the Third, Mahler turned from the image of the struggling Hero to that of Nature. His symphonies from this time all have "programmes,” extra-musical storylines that explain his inspiration. And although Mahler would later remove the explanatory movement headings, these omitted titles nonetheless serve as a roadmap through his thought and compositional process.
For the Third Symphony Mahler envisioned capturing Nature in its totality in his music. This is Nature in a pantheistic sense, one that celebrates the emergence of summer out of winter and examines what one can learn from meadow flowers, from forest creatures, from the night, from angels, and from spiritual love. With these broad categories defined, Mahler set about composing six movements to explore each of these areas. Along the way the symphony’s performing forces grew to encompass an expanded orchestra, solo alto voice, and both women’s and children’s choruses. Although he completed the symphony in 1896, the work waited until June 1902 to receive its first performance, a highly successful presentation in the German city of Krefeld with Mahler conducting.
With the success of his Third Symphony, Mahler soon set out on a conducting tour, performing the Third as part of concert presentations in Heidelberg, Mannheim, Prague, Cologne, and Leipzig. Yet today, the Third is infrequently performed, chiefly because of its more than ninety-minute length, and its choral requirements. This weekend’s performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony are its first performances by the Quad City Symphony Orchestra.
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Mahler divides the symphony’s six movements into two large parts: Part One contains only the massive first movement, which lasts a bit longer than half an hour. Part Two contains the remaining five movements–a minuet; a scherzo; a solo song for alto voice; a celebration of singing by women’s and children’s voices; and an instrumental finale of deep, almost religious introspection.
The first movement begins with an arresting summons from unison horns. But immediate punctuations by the rest of the orchestra quickly weigh down the music with gloom and funereal portent. Muted trumpet clarion calls, growls from deep trombones mixed with woodwind skirling and rumbling percussion all portray a scene of intense emotional anguish. Contrasting lyrical sounds later appear in woodwind chords and string trills as they accompany a brief violin solo. The movement’s opening solemnity returns, this time with a distinctive recitative-like solo by trombone. A hint of bird calls leads to an almost cheerful march that for several minutes seems to have gained the upper hand. But the gloom of the opening music eventually returns in a restatement of much that has gone before. Eventually the march re-emerges from the shadows and carries the movement to a jubilant ending. With a skill that seesaws between delicacy and gross exaggeration, Mahler presents a movement of conflicting moods of light and dark, one in which lightness barely triumphs.
After this almost overwrought beginning, Mahler steps back and eases the mood with four shorter movements. The second is a bit of a minuet, what Mahler called a Blumenstück or "flower piece,” and was the first movement he composed for the symphony. The movement’s nostalgic and sentimental air is only briefly contradicted by a chattering middle section of fleetness and energy.
For the third movement, Mahler takes inspiration from one of his earlier-composed songs, Ablösung im Sommer ("Relief in Summer”). Drawing from the text’s mention of nightingales and cuckoos, Mahler crafts a perky, often bumptious scherzo that charms and beguiles. Bird calls and other nature sounds fill the movement until, gradually, the sound of a post horn emerges far in the distance. Its languid and sentimental melody overlaps the quiet orchestral accompaniment as snippets of the scherzo’s energy peek through. The distant post horn fades as a muted orchestral trumpet fanfare re-introduces the scherzo’s boisterous tunes. A second time the distant post horn is heard singing its wistful tune. But it gradually disappears as the full force of the scherzo returns with first a fiercely ominous outburst, then an ebullient and noisy conclusion.
"The Midnight Song” from Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel, Also sprach Zarathustra, provides Mahler with his fourth movement. As intoned by an alto voice, the poem’s eleven lines urge humankind to seek eternity. Over quietly rocking strings and low harp accents, the voice emerges (O Mensch, gib acht!–"O Man, take heed!”), supported by a delicate, transparent stillness of orchestration.
The brief fifth movement interrupts the darkness of the fourth movement with bright and cheerful blends of women’s and children’s voices. Singing carol-like, the treble voices tell of three angels who sang in heaven in celebration of St. Peter’s freedom from sin.
Mahler chose to conclude his Third Symphony’s long journey with a slow and thoughtful adagio movement. It is one of the most extraordinary works of his symphonic output, lasting more than twenty-five minutes and blending an almost spiritual intensity and longing with elements from the symphony’s earlier movements. After many minutes, the brass section quietly intones the chorale-like melody. The noble theme grows ever more intense until it reaches its fortissimo climax, to the dramatic thundering of double timpani strokes.Program notes by Dennis Loftin