Three Berlin critics on Mahler’s Third Symphony in 1907

Premiere in Berlin of the Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, 14 January, Gustav Mahler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Decadence (E.E. Taubert in Die Musik)

That Mahler is a brilliant virtuoso in the treatment of the orchestra is known–to me he is even bolder than Richard Strauss in that respect. He strikes an entirely new path with the implementation of various wind and percussion instruments, thereby somewhat neglecting the string instruments. His melody is banal, often even childish; also Mahler seems to me quite simple in harmony that remains mostly tonal. This symphony had a depressing effect on me, for, as the surest sign of decadence, the utilization of monstrous sound materials stands in glaring incongruity to the impoverished conceptual content. As a conductor, Mahler is a true master: he leads the amassed orchestra with unshakeable calm; he knows how to raise the ability of every single player to their highest limit. Never has the Philharmonic Orchestra deserved admiration more than on this evening.1“Wie bekannt, ist Mahler ein glänzender Virtuose in der Behandlung des Orchesters, mir scheint er darin noch kühner als selbst Richard Strauss vorzugehen. In der Verwendung der verschiedenen Blas- und Schlag-Instrumente schlägt er völlig neue Wege ein, die Streichinstrumente werden dagegen etwas vernachlässigt. In seiner Melodik ist er banal, oft geradezu kindlich; auch in der Harmonik, die meist tonal bleibt, erscheint mir Mahler recht einfach.  Auf mich wirkt diese Symphonie deprimierend, denn als sicherestes Anzeichen der Dekadenz steht die Verwertung des ungeheuren Klangmaterials zu dem doch dürftigen Gedankeninhalt in einem schreienden Missverhältnis. Als Dirigent ist Mahler ein wahrer Meister; mit unerschüttlicher Ruhe leitet er die Orchestermasse, weiss er die Spannkraft jedes einzelnen Spielers zu höchsten Leistung zu steigern. Nie hat das philharmonisches Orchester mehr Bewunderung als diesen Abend verdient.”

Nothing impressive about it: Leopold Schmidt for the Signale

A work by Mahler always means an interesting event. The third symphony of Mahler in D was new for Berlin, at least in its complete form, when it was conducted by the composer in the last philharmonic concert. But there is a difference from before: perception has sobered up, so to speak. What seemed like unheard of boldness years ago will now seem to us on second hearing almost harmless….There is nothing impressive about how Mahler makes his cacophony and sounds serve his ideas, how he mixes a solo song with random text and the bim-bam of the chorus into an instrumental work, without any inner necessity. One no longer marvels at the titanic will, but rather at best appreciates the masterful orchestral technique and picks out a few successful atmospheric moments or happy accidents. In this third symphony the yield is downright meager. Mahler works with such a basic minimum of invention, his themes are so incapable of standing by themselves—and how little does he shy away from cheap trivialities, which, despite all the cleaning up, remain trivialities! The whole is so pretentiously long–nothing else could be programmed besides this six-movement symphony–that even our patient public could not be particularly satisfied, and the friends of the composer could not completely keep them quiet…..2Signale (1907): 130-31. Schmidt gave a longer and more sympathetic assessment of the work in his collection of criticism. See Leopold Schmidt, Musikleben der Gegenwart. M. Hesse, 1922. http://archive.org/details/bub_gb_0BA5AAAAIAAJ.

Not as bad as I thought: Leßmann for the Allegemeine Musikalische Zeitung

Whether due to the four years that have since gone by having already made our ears accustomed to even worse things, or that the guiding details of the program facilitated enjoyment, or that the performance here was so much better that everything came out more clearly—in short, I don’t deny that I am partially correcting my earlier judgment of the first movement, although I also remain convinced that the melodic invention is not original and in fact is part of a banal Volkstümlichkeit.3“Haben die vier seitdem verflossenen Jahre bereits zuwege gebracht, dass unsere Ohren inzwischen an noch schlimmere Dinge gewohnt worden sind, haben die leitenden Angaben des Programms das Genießen erleichtert, oder war die hiesige Aufführung so viel besser, dass alles klarer herauskam, kurzum, ich verhehle nicht, dass ich mein früheres Urteil diesem ersten Sätze gegenüber teilweise korrigiere, wenn ich auch an der Überzeugung festhalte, dass die melodische Erfindung nicht originell, ja z.T. von banaler Volkstümlichkeit ist.” Otto Leßmann’s review, quoted in Peter Muck, 344.

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