Friday, June 24, 2011

A Documentary of "A Concept of Existence in its Totality"

Imagine a work so large that it mirrors the entire world.
One is only an instrument the universe plays upon.
Gustav Mahler

I'm going to try to sell you on watching at least just a few minutes of a fantastic video on an incredible piece of artistic expression.

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 - May 18, 1911) is typically considered one of history's great composers.  While his name may not be as universally familiar as Mozart or Beethoven his compositions have had an immense impact on music in the 20th and 21st centuries and are regularly played in concert houses around the world.

Most of his work can be found in his series of massive symphonies.  Of these, the longest was Symphony No. 3.  It's not just about "music" but directly draws upon ideas in philosophy, theology, literature,  and science.  This is not the elevator music I think many associate with the term "classical music".  It has an emotional breadth, depth, and intensity that can leave one staggered.  As described by Tony Duggan:
It was largely composed in the summer of 1895 after an exhausting and troubling period that pitched him into feverish creative activity.  Bruno Walter visited him at that time and as Mahler met him off the ferry Walter looked up at the spectacular alpine vistas around him only to be told: "No use looking up there, that’s all been composed by me."  Mahler was inspired by the grandeur around him at the very deepest level of feeling and also by visions of Pan and Dionysus.  In fact by a sense of every natural creative force in the universe infusing him into "one great hymn to the glory of every aspect of creation", or, as Deryck Cooke put it: "a concept of existence in its totality."
For many, such a large piece can be intimidating -- especially since it lasts at least 90 minutes.  However, recently I've come across a documentary "What the Universe Tells Me - Unraveling the Mysteries of Mahler's Third Symphony" that helps make this piece more accessible.  It's probably the best documentary I've seen for a piece of classical music -- especially in terms of acting as a guide for people with no formal training in or significant exposure to classical music.  H/T to a tweet by Net Jacobsson (see here for purchase and reviews).

Much of Mahler's music is programmatic, it has a story to tell, and Mahler's Third is no different.  The documentary reveals that a reviewer of one of the first performances of the symphony wrote that the 3rd movement reminded him of a particular poem.  When Mahler later saw the review he was "astounded" and later called in the reviewer to express that it was exactly the poem he had in mind.

For now at least, the documentary is available on YouTube.  I hope the publishers allow it to remain there as I think it can attract help attract attention from people who otherwise would have never considered purchasing this or similar documentaries.

Whatever you may feel about classical music, I highly recommend giving the video at least 5-6 minutes of your time.  See what you think -- you may be surprised.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

If that caught your attention I further recommend listening to the actual symphony.  Try to set aside the 90+ minutes to listen to it in a single sitting without interruption (although a break after the first movement is common for live performances).  As one learns the "language" of the piece more of its beauty, intricacy, and ideas will be revealed with every listening.

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