Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the TMC Orchestra in Mahler’s Third Symphony at Tanglewood

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Karen Cargill-sings with the TMCO and Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo Hilary Scott.
Karen Cargill-sings with the TMCO and Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo Hilary Scott.

Saturday, July 17: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Karen Cargill, alto
with the American Boychoir and the Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Fernando Malvar-Ruiz and John Oliver, conductors.

The French philosophe Fontanelle famously asked “Sonate, que veux-tu?” in response to the new popularity of a purely instrumental form that asked that the audience do nothing more than sit and listen: “Sonata, what do you want from me?” Hearing Mahler’s extraordinary, gargantuan Third Symphony, one is tempted to repeat the question. What indeed is demanded from the listener by this veritable barrage, this unprecedented outpouring of the full spectra of sounds and noises, human emotional conditions, evocations of life forms from flowers to angels, plumbed philosophical depths, musical allusions encompassing inchoate mutterings, crude military assaults, the most naïve and artless melodies, state-of-the-art sophisticated harmonies, an off-stage post horn, a marriage of a poem by Nietzsche and German folk lyrics, a chorus of boys and women that sings for less than four out of the ninety minutes of the work, pre-echoes of Sousa marches and pop tunes (Sammy Fein’s “I’ll be seeing you…”; Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”; the Beatles “Yesterday”), deliberate references to Beethoven, Wagner, and for all I know, even Brahms? Judging from the enthusiasm of its response last Saturday night, whatever it was that the audience was actually imagining or experiencing provided it with a full measure of gratification. But the question remains, what was the composer after: “Mahler, que veux-tu?”

Leon Botstein warns against taking Mahler too easily. His music, and especially the first movement of this symphony, caused much controversy upon its appearance and thereafter for about half a century. The great Mahler revival began around 1960, most of the credit going to Leonard Bernstein who celebrated the composer’s centennial that year by programming all the symphonies with the New York Philharmonic. Some writers, however, point to the preparatory work done by older conductors such as Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos, who had been passionate advocates of the composer for decades. But 1960 marks the date when Mahler began to displace Beethoven as the “go to” composer for symphony concert programming, the provider of works that reliably constituted genuine special occasions (the contradiction in that phrase is actually built into the whole concept of the subscription concert). And what could be more special than a symphony that takes up an entire program (as indeed the 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th, and 9th usually do)? Today, audiences happily devour these musical behemoths; I can’t remember a performance that was not greeted with roars of approval and standing ovations. They act as superb occasions for catharsis, and although they put audiences through the emotional ringer, we seem to love it every time and continue to beg for more.

So, Leon Botstein, “que veux-tu?” Well, he would like us to have a harder time with the music, to wrestle with it a bit more, to puzzle over its significance and to be not simply entertained, but shocked and disturbed by its vulgarities, banalities, discontinuities, and excesses as were Mahler’s contemporaries and Mahler’s critics. Botstein spends some time exploring the writings of one of the most severe of these critics, Robert Hirschfeld. It is of less interest that Hirschfeld responded negatively to Mahler and more interest as to why — Botstein claims that Hirschfeld was really understanding Mahler’s “message” and didn’t like it. This was “music of a future that exceeded the bounds of proper taste.” Perhaps it is the fate of modernist works to lose their shock value and to become comfortable, middle-of-the-road confirmations of “our” values. To the extent that we participate as consumers of Mahler’s music as a commodity, we are seriously misreading it. In this situation, Botstein finds today’s conductors complicit; they smooth the rough edges, burnish the tone, and cushion the shocks. This has the effect of obscuring the intentional contradictions, the harsh oxymorons of which this music is full.

The greatest and most apparent virtue of Michael Tilson Thomas’s approach was that he restored the elements of shock and awe to the music, and he did so by capitalizing on the youth and enthusiasm of the — unjaded — Tanglewood Music Center orchestra. One had the sense that he was “unleashing” energies that might have been bottled up by the normal constraints of classical playing. An example: conductors are taught that they must not encourage brass players too much; if they play without inhibition, they will swamp the other sections and throw off the balance. But Mahler’s Third begins with a stentorian melody called “Weckruf” ( = Awakening Call) scored for eight horns in unison, punctuated by bass and snare drums, all at full volume. Thomas let it rip at full force — a shocking opening that plainly revealed the relationship between Mahler and Shostakovich — one could almost imagine the Red Army in full attack mode. This “call” needs that kind of raw energy; it is followed by a long contrasting period of very quiet thumps and mutterings in the bass section which are at first almost inaudible with the “Weckruf” still ringing in our ears. The separation of musical ideas by color, dynamics, register, emotion, etc continued to be articulated with greater than usual clarity throughout the performance. Although there were swooningly gorgeous moments, sensual beauty and seamless transitions were not the point: it was more about those contrasts, juxtapositions and contradictions.

Another example: after the mutterings, there is a tentative and somewhat pallid statement of the “sleep” music that will later introduce the fourth movement. This forms background to the second, “naïve” subject on oboe and solo violin. Violin soloist Breana Bauman performed this tune with more individuality than one is used to, using generous “portamento” (sliding between notes) that was the normal performing style at Mahler’s time but which started to become unfashionable in the 1930’s. One still hears it today, however, as a normal part of bluegrass, jazz, and klezmer style fiddling. Add some strategically-applied vibrato, and you have an unusually personal statement, not the usual “representative of the orchestra” but a particular individual voice that steps away from the crowd. A similar style was employed by trombonist Samuel Schlosser in his important solo passages, where he used a kind of vibrato rarely heard in classical orchestral playing; it reminded me of Lawrence Brown, of the Duke Ellington Band of the 1940’s and once again proclaimed the presence of an individual voice. Michael Tilson Thomas, who is well acquainted with American vernacular music, kept drawing on stylistic traits outside the classical mainstream to particularize Mahler’s colors and dramatize his textural strategies. It is a cliché that Mahler rarely used his full instrumental complement, preferring instead particular combinations, invented smaller orchestras or ensembles, for particular musical ideas. What should be added is that Mahler could also create a counterpoint between several such groupings to form musical collages. His experience as a conductor allowed him to push this technique to points of complexity and conflict hitherto unattainable; the only composer who shared this vision and achieved it as successfully was Charles Ives, and Thomas, our pre-eminent Ivesian, gave those moments of layering a sense of independence and clairvoyance that was revelatory. Yet another example: following those delicate oboe and violin solos, the small E-flat clarinets honk out a rude interruption, demanding attention and making the audience members in front of me literally jump.

So the performance drew on the youthful energy and perhaps the American cultural background of its performers to present the music as an immediate and vital experience, without any museum-acquired patina. There was enough echt-Viennese feeling, especially in the second movement (a minuet-Ländler that keeps giddily losing its composure and then regaining it, like blossoms shaken by sudden gusts of wind) with swooning moments that showed how beautifully the strings could play. And in the third movement, the portrayals of the cuckoo, nightingale, stamping oxen, and other beasts (or are they beast-like humans?) were powerfully differentiated, benefitting from the lusty energies of the low brass and percussion. For me, the only disappointment of the performance was the fourth movement’s alto soloist, who looked and sounded uncommitted to the message of her lyrics, the philosophical core of the work, which address questions of meaning raised by the other movements. Mahler meant the voice to emanate from the heart of the warm orchestral color (defined by the low strings plus horns playing in thirds), but owing to vocal timbre or a subtle use of electronic amplification, the voice remained apart and did not possess the richness to resonate fully with the ensemble. To balance that, however, the fresh-voiced, energetic chorus of the fifth movement fully captured the unselfconscious enthusiasm of the angels, nor did it stint on the intensity of the sinner’s remorse, which sounded for once tragically genuine rather than blithely assured of the forgiveness soon to follow.

The final movement is built upon a theme drawn from the slow movement of Beethoven’s final quartet, op. 135. This “borrowing” has an interesting back-story: Mahler believed that the late quartets of Beethoven and Schubert were too emotionally powerful and weighty to be entrusted to the slender resources of four individual players. He therefore made transcriptions of them for full string orchestra and included them on his orchestral concert programs. (Two were published: Beethoven’s “Serioso” and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”) There is in this final movement of the symphony a tone of reconciliation of the oppositions already presented, and the movement revisits earlier moments, including the “catastrophe” music of the first and the “human suffering” theme (violin solo) of the fourth, as if to close the parentheses that had there been opened, as if to pour balm on those moments of anguish. Almost all other performances I have heard offer an unambiguously positive treatment of this process of reconciliation; but under Thomas’s baton the full power of the earlier anguish returned, as if the love and comfort offered by Beethoven’s theme, not to speak of the voices of the angels, had not been enough to banish the moments of Angst. The triumphant, even bombastic ending of this movement seemed an attempt to over-power the recurrences of pain and remorse that only partly succeeded. Whether or not it was Mahler’s intention, in this performance the balance was not decisively tipped. The Christian assurance of salvation remained but one point within the cycle of nature and spirit. If one had the stamina, the entire great wheel of this symphony could be rolled one more degree and find itself back at its beginning. In his excellent program notes, Michael Steinberg quoted Mahler: “In Adagio movements, everything is resolved in quiet. The Ixion wheel of outward appearances is at last brought to a standstill…with Adagios — the higher form as distinguished from the lower.” But Steinberg goes on to point out that in this movement, the manuscript bears Mahler’s superscription: “Behold my wounds! Let not one soul be lost.” What we heard on Saturday was not an assurance but a forcefully stated sense of hope, an assertion rather than a transcendence of the Will.

In its scope and daring, Mahler’s Third may be his most ambitious symphony, and it certainly is his longest. I would add that despite its having been completed fifteen years and seven symphonies before his death, it is his most modern. It is usually classified as one of the four “Wunderhorn” symphonies but for me it steps significantly away from Mahler’s earlier works which are so personally focused that they can be fairly described as “all about me.” Here, the humor and irony of the “Wunderhorn” poetry and spirit allow him to achieve distance from his material that lends it a greater degree of universality without sacrificing the intensity of the composer’s emotional responses. (Can one imagine anything that would reduce that intensity?)

Indeed, humor is a key to the questions of meaning that I raised earlier, and in his earliest thoughts about this work, influenced by Nietzsche’s thinking, humor played the principal role. For Mahler, humor could be a very lofty business; it makes its clearest appearance in this symphony as the tone of the angels who sing as a “democratic collective” inspired by the light-heartedness of Nietzsche’s concept of cosmic knowledge as a “gay science” (“eine fröhliche Wissenschaft”). In addition, the marches in the first movement have been characterized as possessing “yea-saying, Nietzschean qualities of southern lightness and gaiety, the mood of Heiterkeit appropriate to a Bacchic procession. Humor appears in the portrayal of the cuckoo and his death, as well as the oxen whose stamping and bellowing drown out the song of the nightingale; but that is humor that confronts the violence and destruction that are essential parts of nature, while the angelic humor banishes the Angst of guilt and excessive concern with self — it is as if Mahler uses it to heal his own wounded psyche.

But his vision in this symphony is too broad to be articulated only in personal terms (even if those terms help us understand how he achieved it). From the many sets of movement titles that Mahler cycled through as this symphony took shape (from 1893 to 1896) we can gather that Mahler was seeking to articulate a grand, positive vision of the cosmos. (The titles were eventually dropped; they had functioned as markers rather than explicit descriptions of musical “contents.”) Structurally the Third Symphony bears comparison with James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (also a gigantic comedy, cosmic in scope, circular in form, collage-like in texture, multiple in language, and full of allusions, both verbal and musical), but unlike that thicket of obscurity, this work strives to present its vision in accessible terms. Even so, Mahler worried that at least the monstrous first movement (35 minutes in length and written last) would be persistently misunderstood. He wrote “No one for whom [Jesus’s] cup [of sorrow] is destined can or will refuse it, but at times a deathly fear must overcome him when he thinks of what is before him. I have the same feeling when I think of this movement, in anticipation of what I shall have to suffer because of it, without even living to see it recognized and appreciated for what it is.” Fortunately he persisted in inscribing his vision. The common accusation against it of vulgarity has lost its force after a century of modernism. The populism and naïveté of the tunes conveys an urgent desire to communicate (another trait shared with Beethoven’s late quartets) as well as a sense of irony and a pleasure in thumbing the nose at the cultural establishment. All of this resonates with the modern audience. We sense even if we don’t know about a populist background to this work linked to Mahler’s intellectual circle in Vienna, the rising force of socialism in Austria at the time, and the continuing musico-philosophical influences of Wagner, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. In emerging from the self-absorption of his earlier works, Mahler discovers the power of the community, those he describes as the Bacchic celebrants or the rabble who come marching along in a lusty and somewhat disorderly manner in the first movement to accompany the god Pan whose entrance indicates both the overwhelming power of the awakening earth in springtime, and also the crude but positive power of a regenerated human community.

Influenced by Nietzsche’s (earlier) readings of both Wagner and Schopenhauer, by the aesthetics of his friend Siegried Lipiner, and by the politics of his friend Victor Adler, Mahler’s optimism may appear misguided as seen through the lens of 100 years of subsequent history, much of it appalling. It was not even sustainable within the short time-frame of the composer’s remaining lifetime. But neither of those considerations invalidates it as worthy of informing modern audiences. What redeems it is the sense of struggle through which it passes from the beginning to the end of this symphony; it is that struggle, the fact that Mahler’s positive vision is hard-won, which has rendered it relevant today, and which was so effectively conveyed by Maestro Thomas and his brilliant young musicians.

What does Mahler’s Third want? Nothing short an evocation of the human soul passing upward through physical, biological, social and spiritual communities. Mahler claimed that this symphony was an entire world, and that it wrote him. Trying to imagine how such an extraordinary work came into existence, it is not difficult to believe him.

1 Leon Botstein, “Whose Gustav Mahler? Reception, Interpretation, and History,” in Mahler and his World, edited by Karen Painter (Princeton U Press 2002)

2 Leon Botstein, “Gustav Mahler’s Vienna,” in The Mahler Companion, Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson, eds.. (Oxford U Press, 1999)

3 Peter Franklin has written “The revolutionary, critical aspect of Mahler’s music, which then, as now, could upset Brahmsian conservatives, consisted not least in the way in which it articulated Faustian questioning as much as it embodied the harmonious reconciliation that even Romantic classicism had tended to consider the primary function and purpose of the art.” Mahler: Symphony no. 3, Cambridge U Press, 1991, p. 11.

4 Franklin, p. 79. Mahler used the term in describing the symphony to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner. Cf Franklin, p. 115, n.66, which mentions that the term also possessed great significance for Nietzsche.

5 Quoted by Franklin, p. 78

6 This should point the curious reader in the direction of an invaluable study that spells out the intellectual life of that critical period as it impacted Mahler and his companions: Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria by William J. McGrath (Yale University Press, 1974), which views Mahler’s Third Symphony as a fundamental outgrowth and expression of important social and philosophical trends of that time.

7 A similar ambitious goal explicitly informs Arnold Schoenberg’s great, unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter composed two decades later.

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