Mahler’s 3rd Symphony

Gustav Mahler in 1907

Image via Wikipedia

I went to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra‘s performance of Gustav Mahler‘s 3rd Symphony tonight. This symphony was a charming and thought-provoking piece of music. I was not very familiar with Mahler before going to listen tonight. This symphony has some of the most beautiful passages of music I have ever heard. It is also complex, with alternating slow, sweet sections and fast, loud, aggressive sections.

The symphony takes on the huge task of describing all of life. Everything is included in this description, from changing seasons and weather to flowers, animals, humanity, angels and, ultimately, to love. The contrast in the themes is the interesting part for me. There are parts of the symphony that are uncomfortable, the music is almost overwhelmingly anxious or mournful, even despairing. Then a few minutes later, a sweet flute will take over, or the uplifting voice of Julie Boulianne, or a heartfelt trumpet heard over your left shoulder.

Mahler uses the text from Friedrich Nietzsche‘s “Midnight Song” from ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ in the fourth movement. The translated text presents the idea that, while the world can be a painful place, the joy and beauty in it outweighs  the negative. These concepts are captured in the music so well, and delivered to our ears so expertly by the musicians. By the end of the symphony, the overall sense is one of beauty and sweetness.

It all makes you think; is the beauty and sweetness of life made more noticeable because of the contrast? Without the harsher elements in the symphony, would you be able to savour the magical moments of pure joyous song? Do we get more from life by having a few bad days or years? Would we even notice the magic of a spring day, if there was no winter?

Mahler, it seems, says yes, life is sweet even though there is hardship and despair. He did not have an easy childhood, and was Jewish in a time and place when anti-Semitism was quickly eroding the humanity in Germany and Austria.  He converted to Catholicism likely to get and keep his job as the conductor of the Vienna Hofoper (Court Opera) in 1897. Although, even his conversion was not enough to protect him from the growing anti-Semitic sentiment at the time. But the most amazing part is that, despite facing all of this negativity, he still believed that life is basically sweet.

So savour the sweetness of life, and listen to some truly inspired music.

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