It is interesting to register the fact that Gustav Mahler never wrote an opera. Conducting the operas of others was of course his ‘day job’. When he was able to get away from the latter during his holidays, lieder and symphonies, especially the latter, slowly found shape and life in his Komponierhäuschen first at Steinbach am Attersee and later Maiernigg.
However, more often than not, Mahler’s music displays distinct literary interests. Only the three middle symphonies – the Fifth, the Sixth and the Seventh – along with the Ninth and unfinished Tenth can be reasonably considered as ‘absolute music’; certainly the jury has to be out with his First Symphony wkich overtly refers not only to ‘‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in the first movement, but also to ‘Frère Jacques’ in the third.
Not only is Mahler’s Third Symphony his longest (over ninety minutes in duration) but can be reasonably regarded as his most ‘philosophical’. Ultimately this is nothing less than an homage to Neoplatonism. The schema is stepped and deliberate: “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”, “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”, “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”, “What Man Tells Me”, “What the Angels Tell Me” and finally “What Love Tells Me”. In short from rocks to God!
Mahler’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity may be seen as cynical (cartoonishly portrayed in Ken Russell’s film of the composer) or something more profound. I suspect we shall never know. However, I have little doubt that the Neoplatonic vision he offers in the Third Symphony can be regarded as both quintessential and enduring. Indeed, it is a vision which perhaps has more relevance today than it did in the 1890's or even in the 0200's when Plotinus held sway. Think Extinction Rebellion. Think Greta Thunberg. But also think Hypatia, the Hellenistic Neoplatonist female philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, who lived in Alexandria and was murdered by Christians.
‘O Mensch’ (‘What Man Tells Me’) lies in the very centre of the symphony, the chosen text coming from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (‘The Midnight Song’).
O Mensch! Gib Acht! Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht? ‘Ich schlief, ich schlief –, Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht: – Die Welt ist tief, Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht. Tief ist ihr Weh –, Lust – tiefer noch als Herzeleid: Weh spricht: Vergeh! Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit –, – will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!’
Mahler captures the words magnificently, not only through his characteristically sudden switches from major or minor key but also in his ‘restrained’ orchestration and expert choice of tempo. “Sehr langsam. Misterioso. Durchaus.” That instruction tells you everything you need to know.
Although the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony featured prominently in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, ‘O Mensch’ plays a pivotal role in the film. As Tadzio swings nonchalantly between the poles and Poles, rumours of cholera are about to break. In September 1973 (when yet another bout of the deadly disease was afflicting the area) I visited the Venetian Lido with a friend, just a few years after it featured in the film. Currently the Grand Hotel des Bains is being refurbished. But at the end of the day, this music isn’t about Visconti, Thomas Mann or even Nietzsche, rather it’s about the enduring vision of Plotinus and Hypatia. In essence, it’s about our creatureliness, our capacity for moral discernment and our ability to experience the transcendental nature of love, despite life’s ambiguities and our natural fear of death. Bimm! Bamm!
There are many fine performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Bernstein and Horenstein spring quickly to mind. This version with François-Xavier Roth conducting the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln was only released in February this year and has already garnered critical acclaim. A French conductor and a German orchestra prove in this instance to be an excellent marriage. Sara Mingardo’s voice in ‘O Mensch’ is dark and expressive but in a natural, unmannered way, with the words of Nietzsche’s ‘Midnight Song’ thrown into high relief by ruminative horns and the almost impossible glissandi of a solo oboe (‘hinaufziehen – wie ein Naturlaut’). You might also like to check out Jessye Norman’s version of ‘O Mensch’ as well as that of Maria Radner. The latter version is particularly poignant as Radner died in the Germanwings Flight 9525 disaster.