Mahler at Princeton

The Princeton University Orchestra has now performed seven (all but nos. 7, 8 and 10) of the 9 ½ Mahler symphonies since 1978 (my second year here), plus three of the major orchestral song cycles. (That includes Das Lied von der Erde, which was considered by Mahler a symphony in disguise that went unnumbered, so as to avoid his superstition about the number 9.) So it’s fair to say that I am a Mahler hardcore. A number of them we’ve done more than once- 1, 2, 3, and 4, and I am chomping to do repeats of the others before I shuffle off this mortal coil. There is no other music like this. As Alex Ross has pointed out, Mahler’s symphonies are both addressed to a universal audience, and deeply intimate and personally revealing at the same time. “Love letters to the human race,” was his exquisite phrase. More personal reflections on Mahler to come in a later entry.

Mahler’s Third Symphony in D minor/major has a place in the Guinness Book as the Longest Symphony in the Standard Repertory. It clocks in at anywhere from 90 to 100 minutes—not long for a movie, but immense for a symphonic work. It’s not the largest orchestra quite (see his Symphony No. 8) but still gobbles up plenty of acreage on the stage—close to the size of a Wagner “Ring” orchestra. Because of that it’s not the most performed, but remains one of the most beloved, along with its immediate predecessor, the “Resurrection”. These earlier “Wunderhorn” symphonies (so called because Mahler was then obsessed with a collection of German folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn)  are quickly approachable by performer and listener alike. The material and character reflects the folk-like quality of these texts, so many of which Mahler set in both these symphonies and a separate song cycle. In other words, you get one great and singable tune after another!

Finally I must add that I recognize I am one of the lucky ones. There are many conductors at the college level, and even some at the professional orchestra level, who will not come near a Mahler symphony—let alone the longest one—in their careers. The wonderful instrument in front of me just gets better and better. This will be my third crack at Mahler 3—the first one was 22 years ago, the second 11. And hey, maybe I might almost get it right this time!