de Waart and Mahler’s Third
Mahler worked on his Symphony No. 3 from 1893 through 1896, as his mid-30s passed. He revised it in 1906. He originally attached evocative phrases to the six movements — “Summer Marches,” “What the Flowers of the Field Told Me,” “What the Animals of the Forest Told Me,” “What Man Tells Me,” “What the Angels Tell Me,” “What Love Tells Me.” Then he withdrew and disowned the titles.
All this suggests that this 90-minute symphony — for epic forces including eight French horns, a children’s chorus, a women’s chorus and an alto soloist — might have been something of an enigma even to the composer.
To this day, the Third intrigues conductors, including MSO music director Edo de Waart. He will revisit it with the orchestra this weekend (June 4-6).
“I can’t say that I’m any closer to unlocking this piece than I was 35 years ago,” he said, in an interview before rehearsal Thursday. “It’s so complicated and elusive. But doing it so often, I have learned about what works in performance and what doesn’t.”
De Waart, like Mahler, considered the titles and discarded them.
“When I first started doing it, I read all the titles and the commentary,” he said. “But it’s not an opera. People need to make up their own minds as to what it means. It’s not about what the flowers tell me. It’s more about the essence of the music.”
Mahler, however, did leave us some words, in the choral and solo texts, from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (which also inspired Richard Strauss‘ famous tone poem) and from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a famous anthology of folk poetry adored by German Romantics.
(Roger Ruggieri includes the full text in his excellent program notes for the MSO. You can download them right here.)
But I’m not so sure that even Mahler’s chosen texts tell you how to listen to this piece.
“It’s very hard to put into words,” de Waart said. “I just see the arc from the first movement, when the horns come in, to the end, with the timpani. Everything else is an adventure. It’s so busy and so varied; it’s like going from Switzerland to Italy to Spain. I often feel we’ve just begun and then realize we’re already in the third movement.”
The Mahler Third is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire. The first movement alone is longer than all but a couple of Mozart’s symphonies. Is stamina not an issue?
“I’ve done a lot of opera — a lot of Wagner,” de Waart said. “That’s put me in good stead.”
This symphony holds a number of big solos, the grandest and most famous being for trombone, in the first movement. Does the maestro shape the solos, or does he step in only if the soloist lacks ideas?
“I usually go about 70% with the player,” he said. “Our trombonist [Megumi Kanda] is unbelievable. In this solo, you must be big, not merely loud. It’s the pleading of a very large person. Many times, players get the bigness but don’t get the piano, the softness, the sensitivity. Or they get the sensitivity and not the bigness. She gets both.”
Hmmm… “the pleading of a very large person.” So maybe there is a bit of a story, here, for the maestro. But that’s as far as he went with it.
So I’ll give you mine, in a nutshell: The Mahler Third portrays the blunt, mysterious forces of nature gathering into sentience and sentience gathering into moral imperative and moral imperative developing into sin and despair and sin and despair giving way to effort and moral fortitude and fortitude leading to joy and joy leading to love. No wonder it takes 90 minutes.
Maybe de Waart wouldn’t be that specific, but the music means a great deal to him. I asked him if music with such a 19th-century German Romantic agenda can still be relevant today.
“Absolutely,” he said. “When you look at what’s going on around you today… This music, so full of love and desperation… Yes, it’s still here.”
Edo de Waart will lead the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the women of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir and mezzo Kelley O’Connor in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (June 4-6) at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $25-$93 Friday and Saturday and $24-$77 Sunday. Call the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206. For further information visit the MSO website.
Looking for arts events this weekend? Find them in Barbara Castonguay’s OnStage Column.