VIDEO | Mahler’s midsummer night’s dream

150 150 Beatrice Berrut

Mahler spent the summer of 1893 in Steinbach on the Attersee near Salzburg. That year he became a “summer composer,” establishing the pattern that would suit him the rest of his life—working on his music during the long summer days in the countryside, then returning to the hectic life of a conductor and the tiresome chores of administration during the season in the city. The next summer Mahler had a tiny hut built, precisely to his specifications, on the edge of a giant meadow and right on the shore of the lake, where he could compose undisturbed. He furnished it with a piano, a writing desk, a bookcase, and a wood-burning stove; from the windows he could see only the lake and the mountains beyond.
He went there every day to write his third symphony, beginning around 6:30 in the morning. He would break late each afternoon for lunch, a nap, reading, and a walk. For two summers this music was his life.
The history of this symphony is disorderly; like most of Mahler’s early symphonies it took time and thought to reach its final, satisfying form. Movements were rearranged; the narrative “program” was refined, debated, and ultimately discarded; titles were proposed, changed, and dropped. The music itself is wrapped up in the history of Mahler’s other works—of earlier songs and later symphonies, and of the ways all these compositions influenced and shaped one another.

“My symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard! In it the whole of nature finds a voice.”
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

” The most carefree thing that I have ever written—as carefree as only flowers are. It all sways and waves in the air . . . like flowers bending on their stems in the wind.“
Gustav Mahler ( 1860 – 1911 )

The Flowers

The first music he sketched in the hut on the Attersee, in June 1895, is the charming minuet that is now the symphony’s second movement, and it was the first music from the symphony ever played in public. Mahler said it was “the most carefree thing that I have ever written—as carefree as only flowers are. It all sways and waves in the air . . . like flowers bending on their stems in the wind.”
Nature was Mahler’s chosen subject, one that he absorbed daily in his mountain retreat, staring out the window as storms swept across the lake, or walking in the forest after a long day’s work. He later wrote to the soprano Anna von Mildenburg: “Just imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world—one is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe. . . . My symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard! . . . In it the whole of nature finds a voice.” In fact, when Bruno Walter went to visit Mahler in Steinbach the next summer and stopped to admire the mountain view, Mahler said, “No need to look. I have composed all this already.” Mahler played through the score at the piano. “His whole being seemed to breathe a mysterious affinity with the forces of nature,” Walter wrote. “I saw him as Pan.”

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