Mahler’s 3rd Symphony: Why It’s Awesome

So the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing Mahler’s 3rd Symphony today and tomorrow. It is Mahler’s longest symphony and one of the longest in the symphonic repertoire. So make sure your bladders are empty and prepare for the next 100 minutes of awesomeness.

The singular thing that is interesting about the 3rd symphony is how Mahler structured it as part of his world-view, in fact not just world-view but how he looks at existence. In the 19th century, the science of evolution was really a hot topic and put into the mix people like Nietzsche, Wagner and Schopenhauer, it is really a big pot of intellectual stew.

The symphony is presented in two parts, Part 1 is the first movement whilst Part 2 consists of 5 movements as follows:

Part 1:

1. Pan Awakes. Summer Marches In

Part 2:

2. What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me

3. What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me

4. What Mankind Tells Me

5. What the Angels Tell Me

6. What Love Tells Me

From the above structure, you can see how Mahler is presenting the upwards movement from the beginning of inanimate nature when Pan Awakes and then the flowers, then the Animals, then Mankind, Angels and finally Love. Initially, Mahler wrote What God Tells Me but then finally changed in to What Love Tells Me because he views God through Love.

For a conductor to be able to present this work convincingly, he must look at this symphony in this manner, i.e. a progression and not treat each and every movement separately. Also, the first movement is clearly in its own separate part and the first movement is wild! The second part is tender and soft. It is almost like Part 1 is the Old Testament and Part 2 is the New Testament. So if the conductor tries to smoothen out Part 1 so that it is rounder and nice and be more in tune with Part 2, then he is making a big mistake.

Let’s see if the conductor tonight makes this mistake or not. But tonite we have Edo de Waart and he is not foreign to Mahler’s work having recorded for instance the box set with the Netherlands Radio Symphonic, although it is not a particularly inspiring set.

That aside, another interesting note about the Third Symphony is how Mahler almost called it My Happy Science.

From the above program you will notice that there is movement titled What Mankind Tells Me and this is a song setting on Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” from his Also sprach Zarathustra. There are many associations made between Mahler and Nietzsche but there is a stark contrast between Mahler’s world view and Nietzsche’s world view.

For Nietzsche, it is a Godless world and the heavenly kingdom does not exist and what exists is only earthly kingdom. God is essentially dead and mankind has to be on their own and has to be strong, so strong he becomes an overman, or superman, and controls his own fate.

For Mahler, it is the opposite. As you can see from the progression, Mankind ascends into Heavenly Kingdom, God expressed through Love. In fact, this love is for all mankind and he almost called his work My Happy Science as opposed to Nietzsche’s The Happy Science (or The Gay Science).

In some aspects of it, Mahler’s view is that one finds happiness in love. For him God and Love is synonymous. In fact, like Schopenhauer, to him all love roots in compassion. To quote Schopenhauer,

“It means that we cannot be completely happy as long as there are others who are unhappy”

And for a Mahayana Buddhist, this rings true for a Boddhisatva, for how can one attain Nirvana whilst there are so many others that are still suffering? And as such, the Boddisatva postpones his/her attainment of Nirvana and comes back to the world to help others.

That’s all I wanted to say and to all of you attending the concert tonight and tomorrow, enjoy!!

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