A symphony must be like the world

Ben Zander’s guide-lecturer to Mahler’s Third Symphony is not only admirably thorough, but also engaging in each of its 76 minutes. My short first-person narrative will serve to point to this extended pre-concert guide to the Boston Philharmonic concert at Symphony Hall on April 8and at 8:00. Zander will start speaking at 6:45. Tickets HERE.

I first heard Mahler’s Third Symphony on January 19, 1962, at Symphony Hall, as part of a Friday afternoon BSO program conducted by Richard Burgin. Although Burgin had conducted the first movement “Erste Abtheilung” a few decades earlier, we hear the first BSO performance of the complete work. Burgin had been concertmaster and assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony for many years; Charles Munch, the principal conductor since 1951 and originally from Alsace, was not really considered a Mahler conductor.

When I got to know the score even a little better, I was dazzled above all by its orchestral size — almost as large as The Rite of Spring, with woodwinds in fours, and a chilling beginning, with a single melody prominently displayed in the middle of the score page, marked “Hörner 1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8. zu 8”, and when I sang this bare melody, I thought how much it sounded like Brahms.

Subsequently, what impressed me most in Mahler’s Third was the extraordinary length (6 movements in 90 minutes), the exaggerated instrumental extremes, the constant saturation of a folk melody in four-phrase measures and unprecedented orchestral clarity in solo. and massive textures – and those awesome impressions ring true to me today, 60 years later. They are all part of Mahler’s optimistic and youthful conception, an athletic and even heroic understanding, not of the universe but of the realistic natural world and man’s effort to maintain his place in it. (The first part was originally titled “Summer marches in,” and it’s a month-long bucolic march. The third movement is an expanded version of a whimsical ornithological tragedy, plus a Schubertian post horn. But the first vocal text to appear, the alto Nietzsche’s “O man, pay attention!” in solo constitutes another type of tragedy.

Newly discovered details of instrumentation continue to fascinate, such as this example (in all of the orchestral literature I have only found two other examples) of trumpet writing in the bass clef: