It was almost 25 years ago to the day that I first heard Mahler’s Third Symphony.
I was walking around the hills behind the Stanford University campus at sunset, listening to the piece on my Sony Walkman, and when the huge, glowing chords that bring the work to a close stopped ringing in my ears I was completely overwhelmed with a sense of love and spiritual joy. For the next few days I listened to parts of it again and tried to learn more about it. Then I had the crazy idea of having a huge party at the house I was living in off campus and inviting everyone I knew to hear it. I was getting ready to graduate and move back to New York City, so I figured it might make for a strange and wonderful way to end my time in college.
There were probably 75 friends at the house that I shared with four roommates in nearby Los Altos when I announced that we should all crowd into the living room and listen to Mahler’s Third Symphony. No one — including me — really knew who Mahler was, but to my astonishment everyone was silent for the entire time the Vienna Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado were making that magnificent noise on our stereo. The room was dark except for one lamp, and people were scattered on the couches and chairs and floor, many holding and hugging each other, some making out, more than a few a little drunk. But when it was over people were clapping like we had been in a concert hall. We had all had a collective religious experience. And for all intents and purposes, the Ecstatic Living Room was born.
Here is a clip of the great Leonard Bernstein leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the first movement:
A year later, I was back in New York City without a clue what I wanted to do with my life. As the first day of summer approached, I thought nostalgically about that party a year ago. So I took out my Mahler 3 recording and listened to it while looking out over the Hudson River from the 18th floor apartment I was living in with my brother. Once again, when the huge finale, which Mahler meant to depict the love that God had for his creation, came to an end, I felt utterly transformed. From that time on I marked the first day of summer by listening to Mahler’s Third. I look forward to it like kids look forward to Christmas morning. It’s my special day of reflection and inspiration and renewal.
Mahler originally called this vast six-movement work “A Summer Morning Dream,” and his program for the long first movement once featured the heading, “Pan Awakes – Summer Marches In.” But even if you didn’t know this, you might think of this as a summery kind of piece. It’s big and bold and intense, like a hot summer day, when nature is literally exploding with life all around you.
The idea behind the symphony is simple but monumental: Mahler wanted to depict nothing less than the entirety of evolution, from inanimate nature (movement 1) to, five movements later, the consciousness of God’s all-encompassing love. To achieve his ends Mahler stayed close to his key idea that a symphony should embrace everything that the world had to offer — life in all its paradox, beauty and contradiction. It has huge climaxes as well as intimate and incredibly tender moments; it has military marches and sublime hymn-like melodies; it has moments radiant with hope and other moments of primordial terror.
On the last pages of the score, Mahler told the musicians that the playing should be “saturated with feeling.” For me, this is the point where I have not failed to cry each and every time I’ve heard the piece.
Monday, June 21 is the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, so why not take the opportunity on that day — or anytime this summer — to discover Mahler’s Third Symphony. One of several great recordings of the work is a Philips disc from 1988 with Bernard Haitink leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which is available for download on iTunes. Listen alone, or with a friend, or with a houseful of people. It may just blow your mind; it might even change your life.