Mahler Symphony No. 3

Like Beethoven, Gustav Mahler took long walks in the countryside to rid himself of day-to-day worries and to gain inspiration; Mahler, unlike Beethoven, worked almost throughout the year as a conductor and was able to devote himself to composition only during his summer vacations. He composed his works far from any city and surrounded by nature, isolated from anything that could distract him. At the time of the Third Symphony (1893-96) this was in Steinbach, a village on the Attersee in Austria, where he had a small cabin in which he could compose.

Whilst Nature had provided the inspiration for his first two symphonies, Creation itself was the subject for the Third. Although descriptions of the separate movements were to be altered many times from the first sketches onwards and then finally abandoned, Mahler’s original idea for the symphony of the ‘creation of the entire world’ remained unchanged. The original titles for the various movements give an indication of the work’s underlying programme. The first movement has had many titles — ‘Pan awakes’; ‘The summer enters’; ‘Bacchic procession’ — and these when combined seem to sum up the atmosphere of the movement well. It is a noisy movement, one in which beauty seems to take a secondary place. Primal forces are at work here; darkness is conquered by light with concerted fanfares and nature’s noble harmonies.

The second movement, ‘What the flowers in the meadow tell me’, is a charming minuet that was inspired by the flower-filled meadows around the cabin where he composed. The third movement, the scherzo — ‘What the animals in the forest tell me’ — is based on Ablösung im Sommer, one of the songs in Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn; the cuckoo provides music in the spring, but the nightingale takes over its task in the summer after the cuckoo’s death. The boisterous animal world quietens eventually and makes way for a splendid posthorn solo; the animals are terrified by this confrontation with the human world and flee in horror.

Humanity takes centre stage in the fourth movement — ‘What man tells me’. Here, as in his Second Symphony, Mahler adds a contralto to the orchestral forces. Her text, Das trunkne Lied von Mitternacht from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, is a nocturnal meditation on the mysteries of the world, its sorrows and its joys.

In the fifth movement — ‘What the angels tell me’— dawn breaks as bells ring. Humanity seeks its redemption. The angel’s advice — ‘pray to God and love Him always, then you will gain the joys of heaven’ — is borne out in the sublime sixth movement, ‘What love tells me’. This hymn-like finale ends in a radiant apotheosis.

The six movements of the Third Symphony last almost two hours in total; it is Mahler’s longest symphony and one of the longest works in the concert repertoire. Mahler, however, originally intended to conclude the work with a seventh movement, one based on Das himmlische Leben, another song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. He then changed his mind and the song became the basis for his Fourth Symphony.

Translation: Peter Lockwood