Two weeks ago I had the incredible privilege of sitting in on a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra rehearsal. On Thursday, October 4th and Saturday, October 6th the orchestra performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (henceforth referred to as Mahler 3). This is an incredible undertaking, as it involves coordinating a massive orchestra along with a women’s chorus, boys’ choir, mezzo soprano soloist, and offstage post horn solo (performed by a trumpet player).
A word about Mahler 3: if you sit down with the intention of hearing this incredible work all the way through, you are in it for the long haul. On average, performances run about an hour and forty minutes. But consider the length of a Peter Jackson movie and this is short by comparison! In fact, I have said many times that Mahler 3 is the Lord of the Rings of symphonies. It is an epic work. (Cincinnati billed it as a “Force of Nature” on their website, with appropriately placed lightning bolts in the background.) It explores every emotion from rapturous joy to utter despair, one extreme often chasing another. It is by turns a glorious battle march and a plaintive lament. Musical characters come and go, and if you take the time to meet these characters you may find yourself loving them as much as Frodo or Aragorn.
Tolkien analogies aside, the fact is that any Mahler symphony is difficult to take in all at once. I will readily admit that Mahler 3 and I are still getting acquainted, and I am much more familiar with some movements than others. So in order to get to know this symphony, I have a few recommendations.
Break the work into bite-sized pieces. Listen to one movement at a time (if you’re not dying to hear what comes next after just one). Play it in the background of your car trip or your cleaning spree (I find myself scrubbing dishes harder while listening to the more emphatic parts of the first movement). This will help you recognize the overall structure of the piece. Sometimes it’s helpful to know what comes next.
After all this, settle in sometime and take a few hours to hear how this work unfolds. Each of the six movements is completely unique, but every movement comes together to make an incredible whole. And please enrich your life by hearing a Mahler symphony performed live. The most expensive, state-of-the-art speakers cannot do justice to the dense layers of sound Mahler creates, not to mention the incomparable energy of over a hundred human beings uniting to make music together. Where else can you find that?
A few other horn players and myself arrived at the rehearsal shortly before it began and found seats in the empty hall. We remarked at the unusual sight of these world-class musicians wearing regular street clothes in the hall. This really shouldn’t surprise me by now, (these are normal people) but it still does. World-renowned Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the orchestra, and his incredibly nuanced conducting brought out the full extent of the emotions of the piece. He and the orchestra made a wonderful team.
It was a unique pleasure to hear Mahler live and in a silent hall. With so few bodies in the audience absorbing the sound, the acoustics were much more live, and it was easier to hear the subtle layers of the music. The orchestra tuned briefly and then dove straight into a run-through of the piece.
Eight horns open the work in unison, and I defy you not to be stopped dead in your tracks by this introduction. The first movement takes its time. It develops slowly. There are unashamed long pauses. But there is a slow, grinding intensity that gives the piece a heady, driving energy. Several soloists are featured in this movement; there is a famous trombone solo that is, for lack of a better word, delicious. Cristian Ganicenco, of course, played it outstandingly well, with power and consistency of sound throughout the register of the instrument. Timothy Lees, the concertmaster, played with stunning clarity and musicality. The basses played with such ferocity at times that I thought their instruments might catch on fire. No description can do live Mahler justice – I cannot emphasize this enough. To me the dirges and military marches of this movement reflect a struggle, both inward and outward. The first movement is a battle.
The second movement could not be more contrasting. It is light and simple-sounding, remaining in a major key. It reflects tranquility and happiness – the things worth fighting for. If we’re sticking with the Lord of the Rings metaphor, the second movement is about the Shire. It also contains a number of percussion sound effects that only Mahler could create (we’re talking about the man who told a percussionist to hit a giant box with a hammer in his sixth symphony). Most of the low brass gets a break for this delicate movement (No break for the horns, though. Mahler is a notorious face-buster but we love him nonetheless). There is a descending half-step motive from the first movement that makes a subtle return near the end of the second. Perhaps this is a half-remembered dream of the struggle.
The third movement always reminds me of walking through a mysterious, enchanted forest (Dare I say Lothlorien? Sorry, I can’t help myself). This lilting melody eventually becomes more dark and aggressive. This movement also features the famous offstage post horn solo. It’s played on one of these:
This little instrument is a bit of a devil to play and intonation is quite a challenge to say the least, especially from offstage. In the end, it pays off because the solo is incredibly beautiful. Robert Sullivan performed this challenging solo with a sweet, clear sound – really singing through the instrument.
The fourth movement featured mezzo soprano soloist Stephanie Blythe, who sang with arresting emotional depth. The text of the movement is taken from Nietzche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra:
O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
“I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
—seeks deep, deep eternity!
The fifth movement features the soloist, boys’ choir, and women’s chorus. After the dark, mysterious fourth movement, the entire vocal ensemble (seated behind the orchestra) suddenly rises, erupting in a joyous carol. Imitating church bells and a choir of angles, the following text is taken from an old German song:
Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: “Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!”
“And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!”
“If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy.”
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.
The last movement begins with the strings playing a heartbreaking melody. I have a hard time discerning what role the last movement fulfills in this story. It is laden with complex emotions. At one moment it seems nostalgic and reflective, the next, hopeful, and the next, resigned to some bitter fate. I encourage you to listen to it and draw your own conclusions. When discussing this movement with Professor Gardner, who subbed with the orchestra for the performances, he noted that this movement is a great litmus test for a conductor’s musical interpretation. If the movement is conducted too quickly, the deep emotional layers cannot be properly portrayed. If it is too slow, the audience is likely to nod off. Maestro Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos achieved an ideal tempo. I know I was on the edge of my seat, sensing the passion of both the performers and the Mahler himself.
The Cincinnati Symphony horn section was augmented for the performance by Randy Gardner, Jeff Nelson, and Bruce Henniss. Like most Mahler symphonies, the work is very taxing, but the musicians were definitely up to the challenge. The entire section demonstrated impressive versatility, shifting seamlessly from producing a powerful wall of sound to delicate lyrical playing.
I hope my description has given you a general idea of how this piece works. If you haven’t heard it yet, I hope this encourages you to go listen to it now! I know writing about it makes me want to hear it again. Each time I listen, I uncover some new facet of the work. Getting to know Mahler is an endless musical discovery.