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Pas de posthorn

John Neumeier's choreography of
Mahler's Third Symphony,


'... an individual response to Mahler's music. It is so complex a production that I dearly wish I could have seen it more than once before trying to pass even an interim judgement. What is clear at first sight is that even when unexpected, Neumeier's inventions never clash with the music ...' -- John Percival, The Times, 1975, after the première of John Neumeier's choreography of Mahler's third symphony.

Today, twenty nine years and one hundred and sixty six performances later, the Hamburg State Opera House is still sold out when presenting Mahler's Third. The program shows in equal grey characters 'Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler: Ballet by John Neumeier', both names underlined in red, putting them on one level. And indeed, Neumeier is being celebrated for his genius nowadays just like Mahler was in his time.

What gave the American the idea to choreograph Mahler? In 1974, after the death of John Cranko, John Neumeier was asked to create a gala to honour his dear colleague. 'When searching for an appropriate music for this I came across the 4th movement of Mahler's third symphony ... I sensed what occupied my friends and colleagues ... [it was] a situation of mourning ...' says Neumeier. 'When I studied the music further and read Mahler's program notes of his symphony, my wish grew to perform it in a choreography ... The symphonic character of Gustav Mahler's music gave me the freedom to create a drama out of the music rather than retell a pre-written story. While listening repeatedly, intense and concentrated, the music not only became increasingly coherent but it also appeared more and more in a physical form.'

Initially, Neumeier had the intention to cast a star dancer for each movement (for instance, he wanted Nurejew for the first movement), but then he decided against it and chose an ensemble-choreography.

While working out his choreography, Neumeier dwelled on Mahler's world and composition. He even called Leonard Bernstein (whom he wanted to conduct the première) and discussed the project with the maestro. Bernstein could not understand why Neumeier wanted to perform the third. 'Why don't you do the seventh? The seventh is a ballet', Bernstein asked the then thirty-something choreographer. To this day, absurdly, as he confesses, Neumeier has never choreographed the seventh.

'To me, the principle of Mahler's music seems to be similar to the fundamental principle of dancing,' finds Neumeier. 'But I never consciously tried to illustrate his programmatic ideas by adapting them to the single movements. My path into his imagery was, after all, instinctive.'

A scene from John Neumeier's Mahler 3 ballet. Photo © 2004 Holger Badekow
A scene from John Neumeier's Mahler 3 ballet. Photo © 2004 Holger Badekow

Mahler himself had written the program notes as 'a little signpost' as he called it in a letter to his friend Max Marschalk (6 August 1896). The composer opined that his concept should 'set the reader on the road on which I want to travel with him' (letter to Friedrich Löhr, 17 August 1895). The third remained the only one of Mahler's symphonies with such a complete poetic predefinition, showing the structure and his leading idea (the others just have sometimes more or less characterizing titles). In another letter to a friend, Mahler writes in June 1896: 'My work builds in progressive climax a musical poetry enclosing all the steps of evolution'.

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Copyright © 13 July 2004 Sissy von Kotzebue, Germany


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