Mahler’s 3rd Symphony

Gustav Mahler in 1907

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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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Tchaikovsky On The Edge

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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Tonight I went to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra‘s production of Tchaikovsky On The Edge, which was an interesting presentation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s final symphony “Pathetique” (Symphony No.6, Op.76). The conductor, Roberto Minczuk and Katherine Duncan, from CBC, spent some time at the beginning of the symphony discussing the musical themes we would hear and put the music in context of Tchaikovsky’s life. I learned some very interesting things about the music legend, he was gay and could have taken his own life, but more than that, Roberto and Katherine’s introduction made me think of listening to classical music in a new way.

“Pathetique” was Tchaikovsky’s last work. He died just a couple of weeks after it’s first performance. The second time it was performed was at his funeral. The cause of his death is unknown, but when you listen to “Pathetique” it is difficult to imagine that he died of natural causes. To me, it sounded like a musical autobiography, an explanation of the emotions he felt and a way of sharing something deep inside.

The symphony itself was composed in four movements. The first rolls across you like wave after wave of emotion. There is a clear cycle of despair, loneliness, anger, frustration, annoyance, hope, joy, and then a sideways slide back into despair, only to repeat the cycle again. If you every have been, or know someone who has been, depressed then the first movement of ‘Pathetique’ will sound eerily familiar.

The second movement of most symphonies is usually a waltz, in 3/4 time, but in “Pathetique” he composed it in 5/4 time. As Roberto and Katherine explained, it is an unusual rythym that sounds almost like a waltz but it is not the same. There are these two extra beats that throw you off step. As I listened it seemed to me that Tchaikovsky was trying to communicate in music what he would never be able to say at the time. Waltzes are for couples, for lovers, a beautiful dance for a man and a woman. The fact that he loved men, made the music no less sweet, but there was something about it, the rhythm, the very DNA of the music in the second movement, made it not fit into the typical heterosexual mold. You could not waltz to the second movement, but you could dance in a different way. The music seems to say ‘I am different, but I still love’. The music of the second movement is sweet, like a first kiss.

The third movement was fun and exciting. If you view this symphony as a memoir, then this would be the chapter on his work. It is clever and fun, triumphant and spirited. There is only a hint of the musical equivalent of impatience or annoyance part way through. Maybe at the point where Tchaikovsky’s public and private lives touched. This is the point where most symphonies would stop. You naturally want to clap at the end of this movement, but Tchaikovsky had more to say.

The fourth movement is serious and somber. It speaks of a deep emotional struggle and even has passages of Russian funeral music included. It is an odd way to leave an audience. There is no cheery resolution, no rescue for the hero. the movement itself ends with a rest. A silence. It is in that silence that you wonder what he was trying to say.

Is this piece of music really a suicide note?  Or was he just breaking the bonds of conformity in the one area of his life where he was free? Perhaps his death was merely coincidence (there is no clear evidence either way). Whichever way you answer these questions, it is clear that this is an amazing emotional piece of music and the best way to experience it is to hear it live.

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