Symphony No. 3, Gustav Mahler (2024)

About this Piece

Mahler's Third Symphony is one of his sunniest, most extrovert scores. It is also his longest symphony, lasting at least an hour and a half. It needs large-scale performing forces similar to those which works such as his "Resurrection" Symphony and his Eighth Symphony (the "Symphony of a Thousand) call for. Perhaps most interestingly, the Third Symphony also offers one of the most complete musical statements of Mahler's world view that the composer ever penned.

Mahler offers two keys to his philosophy in the Symphony: the fourth movement, which is a setting of Zarathustra's song "O Mensch" (O Man) from Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1892), and, more intriguingly, the Wunderhorn song "Das himmlische Leben" (The Heavenly Life), which the composer originally thought would be the Symphony's finale.

Mahler was captivated by Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), a collection of German folk poems, and he set many of them as songs during the period when the Third Symphony was taking shape. He had set "Das himmlische Leben" in 1892, three years before he began the bulk of his work on the Symphony, and abandoned the idea of using it as a finale only after completing the Symphony's six other movements in 1895-96.

The combination of these influences offers a vision of a world filled with a pain assuaged only by death, and a longing fulfilled only by heavenly paradise. Zarathustra's song implies this trajectory from woe to joy, a joy that "wants deep eternity." Joy finds this eternity in heaven as the child sees it in "Das himmlische Leben" - "Kein weltlich' Getümmel hört man nicht im Himmel!" (No worldly tumult is heard in heaven!)

Mahler used the sounds of nature to represent the "worldly tumult," a tumult not only of birdcalls, rustic dances, military marches, and other mundane sounds, but also of emotions. For Mahler, nature meant everything; it was the world. He explained this idea and how it played out in the Symphony in a letter to his close friend, violinist and violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner: "It's not really appropriate to call it a symphony, for it doesn't stick to the traditional form at all. But 'symphony' means to me building a world with all the resources of the available techniques." Jean Sibelius recalled Mahler saying something similar to him when the two met in 1907: "The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything."

The Third is, indeed, unconventional and all-encompassing. It ended up being six movements but started out as seven. In the same letter to Bauer-Lechner quoted above, Mahler outlined the titles of the seven sections he was projecting:

  1. Summer marches in.
  2. What the flowers in the meadow tell me.
  3. What the creatures in the forest tell me.
  4. What the night tells me (Mankind).
  5. What the morning bells tell me (The Angels).
  6. What love tells me.
  7. What the Child tells me.

With these titles, we begin to sense the vastness of Mahler's idea of nature. This program for the Third Symphony underwent several revisions and rethinkings, and eventually, Mahler abandoned the titles altogether. The most notable change in the work itself was the loss of "Das himmlische Leben." (The song ended up as the finale of the Fourth Symphony, the last of Mahler's Wunderhorn-inspired works.) Mahler composed movements two through six during the summer of 1895 at his retreat at Steinbach am Attersee in Upper Austria, and only after he completed the staggering sixth-movement Adagio, music of a deeply personal nature distinguished by its searing emotional intensity, did he began to contemplate dropping the song and going with the Adagio as a finale.

The opening movement, as Mahler's program sketches indicate, is a march, or, rather, a series of marches. It begins, after a declamatory introductory fanfare, with a heavy, menacing one whose texture is dominated by the horns, trombones, and trumpets. Mahler described the effect of this opening to Bauer-Lechner: "Over the introduction to this movement, there lies again that atmosphere of brooding summer midday heat; not a breath stirs, all life is suspended, and the sun-drenched air trembles and vibrates." This is briefly interrupted by a second, major-key theme, with winds and a solo violin bringing a bit of light into the pervading gloom. Mahler brings this back later, ten minutes into the movement, and lets it ring out in its full glory, with horns asserting a major-key variant of that introductory fanfare that began the Symphony. This section is extended, becoming more and more impassioned, but a return of the menace of the opening march cuts it off. Mahler saves its climax for the blazing, resplendent closing pages of the movement, when the orchestra thunders away "mit höchster Kraft" (with all possible strength).

Mahler calls for a long pause after the exhausting (both to play and to listen to) first movement. The second movement minuet opens beguilingly, with a delicate melody designated for the oboe that is, in Mahler's words, treated to "ever-richer variation." In the course of these variations, brief moments of frantic activity break out, but these are always eventually subsumed into the minuet's predominating refined texture.

With the third movement, we begin the transition from daylight to darkness, from the meadow, bathed in sunshine, to the depth of night, glowing in shimmering moonlight. Here we are in the shadows of the forest, teeming with life. A folksy melody unfolds in the high winds over a lumbering accompaniment, and, again, Mahler develops this, varying between filigreed refinement and fulsome, earthy power. Several contrasting passages feature an off-stage solo flügelhorn (a trumpet-like instrument), which Mahler directs in the score to play "in the manner of a posthorn" (hence some confusion about what instrument is actually heard at this point) over a rapt, seemingly still accompaniment.

We arrive at night with the fourth movement. Here, Mahler builds an entire movement from the combination of alternating notes in the orchestra, which creates a slow rocking feeling, and a simple but powerful melody for the mezzo-soprano soloist. The fifth movement uses the same rocking device, this time in the children's chorus, which imitates the pealing of bells ("bimm, bamm") over the orchestra and the women's chorus. This musical repetition underlines the philosophical bond that ties movements four and five together. Zarathustra's song (the text set in the fourth movement) and the "Armer Kinder Bettlerlied" (Poor Children's Begging Song) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the text set in the fifth movement) both approach the inter-relatedness of joy and death from different angles - joy transcends death and worldly suffering in Zarathustra's song, and heavenly joy rewards the faithful in the "Bettlerlied."

It's tempting, in light of this, to argue that the final Adagio - rapt, intense, seeming to exist outside of time - somehow "represents" Mahler's vision of heaven. Such an argument could explain why he felt he could dispense with "Das himmlische Leben," but it would also fly in the face of his early drafts of a program, which described this movement as "What love tells me," a designation open to interpretation and one that may or may not have anything to do with heaven. Mahler himself was always suspicious of the effect extra-musical programs had on the listener, using them for inspiration at the outset of a work but leaving them behind once it was finished, to avoid any confusion and to let his music speak for itself. In the case of the Adagio, it speaks with an eloquent voice. The movement draws together the disparate strands of the five movements that precede it into a profound utterance of serene power and beauty, a staggering conclusion unlike anything Mahler had written before.

- John Mangum

Symphony No. 3, Gustav Mahler (2024)
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