Mahler’s god Pan and Nature/Παν awaken

Gustav Mahler’s massive 3rd Symphony (1893-96), which calls for 200 musicians, a women’s choir of 300, and a boy’s choir of 200, is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, lasting over an hour and a half. The composer considered various programmatic titles for the entire work, and one of them was “Pan,” because he was intrigued by the Greek noun’s two meanings, the name for a god and for “all.”  I identify the same double function in the component “Pan-” of the first name of Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self” – that is, in a noun denoting both division (a divinity who is half-man, half-animal) and unity (nature as a divinity which is unified).

How can we acknowledge publicly this double absolute that every great friend in our lives incarnates, the extreme meanings of the unique and divided vs. the cosmic and whole? How can we celebrate special occasions of our affection and admiration for them since we only know them as unique friends and cannot appeal to a general sense of friendship, be it value or virtue?

Pantelis is vehemently against conventional annual celebrations of birthdays, name days, anniversaries, mothers, lovers, and the like. He gives contemptuous speeches against them, arguing that they have no meaning as they are promoted year round by stores and companies interested only in profit. Reacting to such consumerist brainwashing, he insists that he wants our friendship practiced every day and not honored by pre-arranged and artificial occasions.  He may mark his birthday with his mother, his sister, and his wife-to-be, he says, but with us it’s different. In this spirit, I am celebrating his birthday not on May 8, which is what gift shops would dictate, but any day I find an opportunity, such as May 7.

Mahler changed his mind and put his favorite Greek word only in the title of the 35-minute 1st movement (his longest piece) of his 3rd Sympony, where he distinguished two sections, “Introduction: Pan awakes” and “I. Summer marches in (Bacchic procession).”  [In his song Good Love” Prince sings: “Gustav Mahler No. 3 is jamming on the box / I’ll have another glass of you, this time on the rocks.”] However, the symphony was still programmatic, so the composer suppressed completely its narrative development from awakening to love, and gave to its six movements general titles, calling the 1st movement Kräftig. Entschieden/strong and decisive. I salute the birthday of my forceful and resolute friend with the opening twelve-bar theme, which alludes to the main theme of the last movement of Brahms’ 4th Symphony which in turn alludes to the main theme of the “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. As the theme’s eight horns call nature to awaken and the summer slowly starts marching in, I get ready to join Pantelis in midday’s Bacchic procession.

May 6, 2015


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