The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 3 in D minor

About the Work

Photo of Gustav Mahler Composer: Gustav Mahler
© Richard Freed

Mahler's First Symphony, introduced in Budapest in 1889, came only a few years after the last symphony of Brahms, and was contemporaneous with Tchaikovsky's Fifth and the Eighth Symphonies of with which it had little in common. Contemporaneous symphonies by Mahler's senior colleagues were Tchaikovsky's Fifth and the Eighth Symphonies of Dvořák and Bruckner. It was different from all of these, though; its most significant "ancestor," in terms of content, proportions, and the enlarged orchestra required, would have been the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz, first heard toward the end of 1830. Mahler's subsequent symphonies are still longer, and still more separated from those of his contemporaries -- and by no means only because several of them call for voices as well as instruments. the Third is his biggest in every objectively measurable respect except the number of performers required -- though it is a formidable array by any standards, involving an alto solo, a women's chorus, a children's chorus and a very large orchestra. It has the longest opening movement and is the longest in terms of overall performance time (about 100 minutes), and it would have been longer still if Mahler had held to his original seven-movement outline; as it stands, it comprises a greater number of movements than any of this other numbered symphonies. (It may be noted that Mahler also regarded Das Lied von der Erde as a symphony, though he did not give it a number.)

When Mahler made his first sketches for this work, in his rustic studio at Steinbach on the Attersee in the early summer of 1895, there were seven movements instead of six. While the sequence of those movements was changed more than once, all seven were retained through no fewer than five revisions which Mahler produced by September of that year, and it was not until the following June that he withdrew the original finale, a setting for soprano of a text from the Arnim-and-Brentano collection of folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn"); a more effective place was found for it as the finale of his next symphony, the Fourth.

The element of song, of course, with or without actual voices, plays a conspicuous role in all of Mahler's symphonies. In the First are themes from his early song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer")and echoes of songs other than his own; the Symphonies Nos. 2 through 5 are all related to the Knaben Wunderhorn songs -- in some instances with the texts actually sung, in others with the themes rendered instrumentally -- and there are still further citations of songs of one sort or another in his various symphonies. Mahler set nearly two dozen of the Wunderhorn texts to music between 1888, the year he completed his First Symphony, and 1901, the year he began the Fifth and the Rückert cycle Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children"); the alto solo in the Third Symphony, in fact, is the only song he composed during that period whose text came from a different source: in this case Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Nietzsche's remarkable book (Also sprach Zarathustra in its original language) was introduced in 1885 and became almost at once the most popular work of philosophy ever published. Its influence was felt everywhere, and not least among musicians. Strauss composed his famous tone poem on Zarathustra at about the same time Mahler was completing his Third Symphony, and a dozen years later Frederick Delius finished A Mass of Life, an expansive choral setting of passages from the book. Mahler not only set lines from Zarathustra to be sung in his Third Symphony, but for a time considered heading the entire work with the title of another of Nietzsche's books, La gaya scienza ("The Joyful Wisdom").

Mahler's original title for this symphony, though, when he began his first draft, was Das glückliche Leben: Ein Sommernachtstraum ("The Blissful Life: A Summer Night's Dream"). He set that title aside, fearing it might lead the critics to look for a connection with Shakespeare. By August 6, 1896, when he completed his eighth revision of the score, he had rejected also the Nietzsche title and two others -- the briefly considered Pan: A Symphonic Poem, and Ein Sommermorgentraum ("A Summer Morning Dream")--in favor of Ein Sommermittagstraum ("A Summer Noonday's Dream"). Eventually he abandoned all titles for the work as a whole, but he allowed these headings for its component sections to stand:

Part I
No. 1. Introduction -- Pan's Awakening; Summer Marches in (Procession of Bacchus)
Part II
No. 2. What the Flowers of the Field Tell Me
No. 3. What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me
No. 4. What Man Tells Me
No. 5. What the Angels Tell Me
No. 6. What Love Tells Me

The title of the final movement, Mahler pointed out, was a reference to spirituality on the highest level. He wrote to the soprano Anna von Mildenburg as he was completing the symphony, "I might equally well have called this movement "What God Tells Me" -- in the sense that God, after all, can only be comprehended as Love. And so [the Third Symphony] is a musical poem that progresses through all the stages of evolution . . . beginning with inanimate Nature and proceeding step by step to God's love."

Like Mahler's Second Symphony, his Third was given incomplete performances in Berlin before it was heard in full. While the premiere of the complete Second followed that of its three purely instrumental movements by only nine months (Mahler himself conducting on both occasions), that of the complete Third did not take place until five years after the second of its partial performances. Arthur Nikisch conducted the second movement alone in Berlin on November 9, 1896; Felix Weingartner conducted the second, third and sixth movements there on March 9 of the following year; Mahler himself presided over the premiere of the entire Third Symphony in Krefeld on June 9, 1902. His colleague Richard Strauss, who was present, and whose tall frame commanded instant recognition, made a point of striding down the aisle to the stage at the end of the long opening movement (followed on that occasion by a brief intermission) to demonstrate to the public his own enthusiasm for the work. Willem Mengelberg, who had become conductor of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra seven years earlier, at age 24, was also present, and it was then and there that he committed himself to his famous lifelong activity on Mahler's behalf.

By the time of that eventful premiere, which took place three months after his wedding to Alma Schindler, Mahler had made his final revision of the score (in May 1899). While he had by then come out with his denunciation of all subtitles and programmatic analyses for symphonies, he continued to have the titles of the six movements of this work printed in his concert programs as late as 1907. "Even if one eventually chooses to let the music stand on its own," Henry-Louis de La Grange observes in the first volume of his monumental biography of Mahler, "all listeners should at least be acquainted with them, for they throw a fascinating and essential light on Mahler's inner world."

That inner world was one in which Nature, in its various guises and emblematic concepts, was given a conspicuously prominent place. The celebration of Nature that is already quite assertive in the First and Second symphonies became the very core of the Third. "One always forgets," Mahler wrote to the music critic Richard Batka, "that Nature includes All -- all that is great and terrifying as well as lovely (this is what I particularly wanted to express in the whole work, using a kind of evolutionary development)." In the same remarks are references to "the god Dionysus [and] the great Pan," and a summing-up of the Third Symphony as being "nothing but the sound of Nature." When the young Bruno Walter came to him at Steinbach as his assistant in the summer of 1896, Mahler told him he would not have to look at the Attersee or the rocky cliffs beyond, because "I have already put all this into the music." Some sixty years later Walter, remarked, in his book on Mahler:

"Had he been an ordinary 'nature lover,' a devotee of gardens and animals, his music would have been more 'civilized.' Here, however, the Dionysiac possession by Nature, which I had learned to recognize, sounded through music that expressed the very root of his being. Now I seemed to see him in the round: I saw him as possessed alike by the stark power of the crags and by the tender flowers, as familiar with the dark secrets of the life of the animals in the woods. Notably in the third movement, he brought everything -- aloofness and whimsy, cruelty and untamability -- to life. I saw him as Pan. At the same time, however -- this in the last three movements -- I was in contact with the longing of the human spirit to pass beyond its earthly and temporal bonds. Light streamed from him onto his work, and from his work onto him."

This "Dionysiac possession" perhaps explains how it was possible for Mahler -- who was, after all, a busy conductor and had only the summers for composing -- to complete so vast a work in so short a time. Henry-Louis de La Grange points out:

"It is absolutely essential to bear this in mind while studying the Third Symphony and experiencing the raging hurricanes, the Dionysiac marches, and the icy gales of the first movement; otherwise its tragedy, its wild exuberance, its reckless mixture of styles would remain absolutely enigmatic and unintelligible. The romantic artist invariably places himself in the center of the universse, or indeed of any subject he chooses to illustrate. Whether he evokes rocks, Nature lying motionless in the icy grip of winter, the brightly colored spring flowers in a field, or the innocence of animals threatened by man, it is of course Mahler's own voice that speaks in his highly subjective and visionary musical style. Here, as in Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler's much later 'Farewell to Nature,' his philosophy has a definite pantheistic flavor. This form of mystical feeling was perhaps even more essential to his nature than either the Christian or the Jewish faith."

Nevertheless, as M. de La Grange also reminds us, "Christianity and Judaism had so conditioned him that he could not endorse Nietzsche's total denial of the traditional concept of God," and this ultimately led to his rejection of Nietzsche. (Alma Mahler wrote that shortly before she married Mahler he urged her to burn her set of Nietzsche's complete works.) This consideration is especially relevant, not only in terms of Mahler's equating "Love" with "God," as he does in the Third Symphony's final movement, but in terms of the continuity from one work to the next in his chain of symphonies, and of these works' pervasively "autobiographical" nature.

The continuity is illustrated not only by the use of the Wunderhorn motifs in four consecutive symphonies, but by Mahler's remark that the opening movement of his Second (the "Resurrection") represents the funeral rites for the "hero" of his First. The "programs" of the first two symphonies, however, he seems to have devised only after he composed the music, while that of the Third actually served as his outline in composing, and it may be said to have grown out of the last words of the great final chorus of the Second Symphony -- "up, up, to God" -- for each successive movement in the Third represents a higher plane in Mahler's God-seeking pilgrimage.

The first movement of this work is one of the two longest wholly instrumental movements to be found in any of Mahler's symphonies (the other being the finale of No. 6). It opens with a statement by the eight horns of a theme whose resemblance to that of the finale of Brahms's First Symphony may be noted -- with the further observation that it resembles as well one of the student songs quoted by Brahms in his Academic Festival Overture. The resemblances, in any event, carry no significance; this theme, according to Mahler, represents "Nature's inertia." The structure of the movement is uncompicated: more or less in sonata form, its content characteristically dramatic, encompassing the conflict between "Nature's inertia" and the burgeoning strength of summer. The episode -- marches, pitched battles, contrasting landscapes, lyric passages -- are linked together seamlessly, and before the end is reached (following a remarkable soliloquy for trombone) the "inertia" theme is transformed into a jubilant triumphal march. M. de La Grange, referring to Karlheinz Stockhausen's remark on those moments in Mahler's works in which "the gates fly open and a dancing mob bursts in," notes that this phenomenon occurs "in no other work of Mahler's so often as in the opening movement of the Third."

The marking Tempo di menuetto is an exceptional one for Mahler, and the second movement, so headed, has more of the character of a waltz or its rustic ancestor the Ländler than of a classical minuet. The contrasting middle section depicts Nature's interruption of the idyll: in Mahler's words, "A stormy wind blows across the field; the leaves and flowers moan and cry out on their stems, begging the superior powers for deliverance." The composer's friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner wrote that in composing this movement Mahler had been driven by a compulsion "greater than if he had been composing a tragic movement, for then he could defend himself with both gravity and humor," but that he now "went to the very heart of existence, where one must feel every tremor of the world and of God."

The scherzo that follows is based for the part on Mahler's early Wunderhorn song song Ablösung im Sommer. (That title is usually translated "Relief in Summer," but that can be misleading, for the text has nothing to do with respite from the summer's heat, but deals with the nightingale's taking over from the recently deceased cuckoo with the coming of summer: the nightingale relieving the cuckoo in the sense of taking turns, or a changing of the guard.) Here Mahler sought to contrast the serene life of the animals in the forest with the fright that possesses them with the approach of man. The trio is an extended solo for posthorn, showing that instrument's unimagined gift for expressiveness on a most tender level. Henry-Louis de La Grange observes that "this essentially human sound seems to create no panic whatever among the animals, but rather a mood of happy nostalgia. The anguished outburst of the forest creatures . . . is undoubtedly the E-flat minor triple fortissimo climax preceding the coda."

The fourth movement, "What Man Tells Me," was originally headed "What the Night Tells Me." The text sung by the alto, "Zarathustra's Midnight Song," is from "The Second Dance-Song," the penultimate chapter in Part III of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, and contains what is perhaps the most poignant line in the entire book: "Lust tiefer noch als Herzeleid!" -- "Joy deeper still than heartache!" (or, to maintain the meter, "Joy deeper still than deepest woe!").

O Mensch! Gib Acht!
Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?
Ich schlief!
Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht!
Die Welt ist tief!
Und tiefer, als der Tag gedacht!
Tief, tief ist ihr Weh!
Lust tiefer noch als Herzeleid!
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit!
Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!

O man! Give heed!
What does the deep midnight say?
I slept!
From deepest dream have I wakened!
The world is deep!
And deeper than the day had thought!
Deep, deep is its suffering!
Joy deeper still than deepest woe!
Woe says: Be gone!
But all joy seeks eternity!
Seeks deep, deep eternity!

In this movement Mahler evoked, he said, a "daydream," a mood of "gentle self-awareness." He remembered only after completing the score that he had used in the opening bars music from a long forgotten student work. In Nietzsche's book the words sung here are followed by an episode of morning bells, and so in Mahler's symphony, but both the text and the mood of the fifth movement are utterly un-Nietzschean. Mahler used a Wunderhorn text for this ingratiating intermezzo, actually the first part of the symphony to be composed. Here the bell sounds are echoed by the voices of children, who are joined in the actual words by a women's chorus and the soloist from the preceding movement.

Bimm, bamm, bimm, bamm . . .
Es sungen drei Engel einen s?ssen Gesang;
Mit Freuden es selig in dem Himmel klang,
Sie jauchtsten, fr?lich auch dabei,
Dass Petrus sei von S?nden frei,
Und als der Herr Jesus zu Tische sass,
Mit seinen zw?lf J?ngern das Abendmahl ass,
Da sprach der Herr Jesus, Was stehst du denn her?
Wenn ich dich anseh, so weinest du mir?
Und sollt' ich nicht weinen, du gutiger Gott?
Du sollst ja nicht weinen!
Ich hab' ?bertreten die zehn Gebot.
Ich gene und weine ja bitterlich.
Ach komm' und erbarme dich ?ber mich!
Hast du denn ?bertreten die zehn Gebot,
So fall' auf die Knie und bete zu Gott!
Liebe nur Gott in alle Zeit!
So wirst du erlangen die himmlich Freud'.
Die selige Stadt war Petro bereit't
Durch Jesum und allen zur Seligkeit
Bimm, bamm, bimm, bamm . . .

Ding, dong, ding, dong . . .
Three angels sang so sweet a song;
Resounding joyfully through Heaven,
They shouted with delight
That St. Peter was free of sin,
And when Lord Jesus sat at the table,
For the Last Supper with His twelve disciples,
Lord Jesus spoke: What doest thou here?

As I behold thee, thou weepest before me?
And shall I not weep, thou merciful God?
You must not then weep!
I have broken the Ten Commandments.
I go my way with bitter tears.
Ah, come and have mercy on me!
If thou has broken the Ten Commandments,
Then fall on thy knees and pray to God!
Only love God at all times!
So shalt thou aspire to heavenly joy.
The Kingdom of Heaven was readied for Peter
And all, through Jesus, for blessedness,
Ding, dong, ding, dong . . .

At the beginning of the final Adagio Mahler wrote, "Father, behold my wounds, do not let any creature be lost." There are reminiscences of the first and fourth movements as the music proceeds confidently and serenely to the most sublime level yet reached in Mahler's symphonic cycle. This finale, according to Henry-Louis de La Grange, "is a reply to the terrifying restlessness and the titanic conflicts of the opening Allegro, while the daylight of the angel movement dispels the midnight darkness of the Nietzschean Lied, and the deep faith and overpowering feeling of love that pervade the finale answer all questions. It could even be claimed that none of none of Mahler's optimistic and victorious conclusions is as convincing as this one: the short moments of anxiety and grief only strengthen the complete serenity of the whole."