When you write such “a large piece in which the whole world is actually reflected – one is, so to speak, oneself merely an instrument upon which the universe plays.” This famous and often quoted phrase could only have been uttered by Mahler and during a rare moment of exhilaration that gave birth to one of his most imposing, ambitious, and outrageous creations, the Third Symphony. How then had he come to cause such monumental differences of opinion?
This is somewhat easier to understand when you consider the fact that his theatrical work took up most of his time and energy. It was only during the summer months that he had the time to devote to his composition work. After completing his Second Symphony, Mahler suddenly became aware that he had now reached 34 years of age, yet his work had achieved very little in comparison to other great historical composers. He therefore felt the need to justify his career as a creator by devoting his summers not only to composing symphonies, but to creating real symphonic universes using “any technical means possible”. Anyway, contrary to appearances, the Third Symphony’s mammoth score was not born from the will to make it big, but from a formidable push of inspiration, like that of a creator, or even a genius of the first magnitude. A genre of inspiration not felt by many.
At the beginning of the summer of 1895, Mahler once again settled down in his small cabin in Steinbach am Attersee, where the daily routine had already been well established for two years. In the small lakeside cabin, he would start work at 6:30 AM and spent most of his days there, sometimes late into the afternoon. It’s where he composed the delightful Menuet which he would later call Blumenstück [Flower Piece], the inspiration coming from the flower meadow surrounding his Häuschen. At that time, he already had an overall plan in mind, which was undoubtedly one of the most ambitious ever conceived by a symphonist. It begins with a slow, primeval opening, evocative of rocks and inanimate nature. It then passes through the more elaborate stages of evolution – flowers, animals, and mankind, before culminating in divine love, which Mahler considered a supremely transcendental force.
Several versions of this programme have remained. It should be noted that, unusually, Mahler developed the piece before starting its composition. Later, he would never disown it, even at a time when the publication of any explanatory text was prohibited during performances. The general title of the piece, which he vehemently denied having any connection to Shakespeare, was “A midsummer night’s dream” (this later was renamed “A Midsummer morning’s dream”). Later, after immersing himself into Nietzsche’s work, he replaced the title again with something he found in one of the poetry books: “My Happy Science” or “The Happy Science”. The first movement was initially called “Summer Marches In” or “Pan Awakes” and later on became “Bacchus In Procession”. It would appear that the initial Allegro, which was only composed the following year, had not yet been preceded by the long minor Introduction which he would name at a later date:
For the Finale piece, Mahler would later add a subtitle: “Father, look upon my wounds! Let no creature be lost!” Mahler originally envisioned a seventh movement, “What the Child Tells Me” or Heavenly Life, which he had composed three years earlier, but he eventually dropped this, using it instead in his Fourth Symphony.
At times, the insane pride in his words plunged Mahler into a deep state of anguish. Because this time, he no longer saw the world in the same way as he had during the two previous symphonies, “from the point of view of the man who suffers and who fights”, but instead “transported himself to the very heart of existence, where you feel all the thrills of the world and those of God ”. Furthermore, he realised that his first movement lasted more than half an hour. He suspected people would think he was a fool, or in any case a megalomaniac who simply wanted to exceed the greatness of his previous symphony. And yet, carried away by the powerful influence which dragged him ever further, he felt compelled to continue. During this first summer of 1895, Mahler composed the following four movements again. Despite some hesitation about their order, he stuck very closely to the programme he had drafted in 1895. Furthemore, he was so proud of what he had done that he copied and sent them to all his friends in the months that followed. In short, there are no less than eight versions, all which bear a remarkably close resemblance to each other. For the first movement, the broadest of them all, he was happy to work on a few musical drafts in 1895 yet postponed their final composition until the following year.
When making the decision to resume his work in 1896, he realised when arriving in Steinbach on 11th June that, in his rush to leave Hamburg, he had left the drafts of the first movement in his office drawer. A friend in Hamburg agreed to send them on to him, but he still spent the following eight days in a state of anxiety, worrying over the time he had lost and constantly fearing that the package would get lost. As was often the case, going back to work would be much more difficult than he expected because the transition from his life as a performer to that of a creator was never without its trials.
For now, the introduction was still known as a separate movement, but its meaning was gradually changing: it would no longer depict soulless and lifeless nature, or the image of being trapped in winter, but on the contrary it portrayed the overwhelming heat of summer, when “not a breath stirs, all life is suspended, and the sun-drenched air trembles and vibrates”. “Captive life—struggling for release from the clutches of lifeless, rigid nature”. Mahler believed that music alone could “capture its essence.” To depict the procession of Bacchus and its violent outbursts, he thought of hiring a harmony orchestra with his repertoire of “military music”, reminiscent of his childhood in Iglau. He would eventually successfully replicate these characteristic sounds. At the end of the 19th century, a romantic century where the originality of material had taken on an emphatic force, it was considered incredibly audacious to introduce the insolent “predictability” of barely popular stylised music into a symphonic fresco.
Thanks to Mahler’s correspondence and the journal kept by Natalie Bauer-Lechner, we are well informed about the composition of the Third Symphony. A letter to his mistress of the moment, the singer Anna von Mildenburg, demonstrates both his lucidity and enthusiasm: “My Symphony will be something that the world has never heard before! In it, nature itself acquires a voice and tells secrets so profound that they are perhaps only glimpsed in dreams! I’m telling you; some passages almost scare me. Sometimes I wonder if it really should be written. ” Despite all his anxieties, Mahler remained convinced that “the world will one day take note of all of this”, knowing full well that “men will have to work a long time at cracking the nuts that I’m shaking down from the tree for them”.
The Particell for the first movement was completed on 11th July 1896 (in other words, in less than a month!). Shortly after, in Steinbach, Mahler received a visit from his young follower, Bruno Walter, to whom he had written previously about a new piece of work that would once again bring “his arid and brutal nature” to the fore and which would “exceed all acceptable limits”, and be filled with “banality” and “unnecessary noise”. Let us not forget that he had only just had his fingers burnt by the almost unanimously hostile reception of his Second Symphony in Berlin the previous December.
It is therefore no real surprise that the Third Symphony, with its profound conception and dominant ideology, is somewhat tinged with pantheism. After all, Mahler’s attitude towards the human condition, in terms of life and death, would always be influenced by Eastern philosophies as opposed to the Judaism of its ancestors and the Christianity to which Mahler eventually would convert. The Song of the Earth is today proof of this, with the final adieu illuminated by a comforting thought of the eternal renewal of nature in the spring So strong in their softness and so overwhelming in their acceptance of the law of destiny, these pages are vastly superior to a simple poetic idea. They demonstrate a genuinely mystical thought process and answer nagging questions about destiny and the human condition, questions which Mahler asked himself throughout his lifetime.
The First Performance
The second movement was created in Berlin on 9th November 1896 during a partial performance by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Arthur Nikisch. It was subsequently replayed in several cities in Germany. Then, on 9th March 1897, the same orchestra, this time directed by Felix Weingartner, performed the second, third and sixth movements. The whistles and booing did not quite drown out the applause, but it was very close. The next day, the press in the German capital surpassed itself. They described the performance as a “tragicomedy”, saying Mahler lacked any talent or imagination and that it was full of his usual “banalities”, and “recollections”. He was referred to as a “joke”, a “musical comedian”. It was the Finale that particularly attracted criticism with its “religious and mystical undertones”. One of the “infernal judges” described the main theme as a “shapeless tapeworm that winds its way throughout the whole piece”.
It was not until Monday 9th June 1902 at 8.00 PM, six years after its actual completion, that the Third Symphony was performed in its entirety by the Cologne Orchestra and the contralto Luise Geller-Wolter. It took place during the Crefeld Festival in the Rhineland and was conducted by Mahler. This concert, in the presence of Richard Strauss, Max von Schillings, Engelbert Humperdinck, Eugen d’Albert, Willem Mengelberg and many others, represented Mahler’s first real triumph as a composer. It was the final Adagio, its contemplative power and its refined lyricism that actually won over the listeners who were usually too ill-prepared and hostile to hear everything it had to offer. In the eyes of one critic, it was the “most beautiful slow movement ever composed since Beethoven” and was crowned a triumph. It would open up a whole new era in Mahler’s career and life. Once again, the genius’s audacity paid off.
The Third Symphony, the longest by Gustav Mahler, is made up of six movements:
To justify the unusual length of the initial movement, Mahler divided the Third Symphony into two “parts” (Abteilungen), the first of which includes just the initial Allegro and the second the following five pieces. Originally, he had planned to create a thematic unit for all six movements, but these do not exist in the final version.
However, he would go on to use several motifs from the first movement in the fourth and sixth sections. An even more striking thematic relationship links the fifth movement to that of the finale in the Fourth Symphony, notably two Wunderhorn Lieder which have several literary and poetic motifs in common. Furthermore, Mahler himself later realised that his 1892 Wunderhorn Lied, Heavenly Life, was the beginning, the mother cell of the Third and Fourth Symphonies.
-1- Kräftig, Entschieden [Strong and decisive]
Since the beginning of his career as a symphonist,Mahler never sought to sever ties with his past, nor free himself from the
Sonata form. The first movement of the Third Symphony does not break with this form which has always obsessed romantics concerned with preserving the Beethoven tradition, but it has one difference, it has two expositions.Proclaimed by eight horns, the initial theme of the march serves as a kind ofmonumental portal to the entire symphony. It subsequently plays an essential role in the movement. It serves as another “reference” to Brahm’s First Symphony Finale (who himself recognised a similarity to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme).
“The most striking feature of this first movement is, as we saw above, the contradictory, and even disparate style that exists between the two main thematic elements. Here, the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, talks about Mahler’s rebellious nature, going against the notions of“”culture”” and “”taste””. Music of darkness and chaos, noble music, powerful, grandiose in the most romantic and traditional sense of the word, the first element (with its somewhat motionless and captive nature) belongs to the great symphonic tradition created by Beethoven and carried on by Bruckner.
In contrast,the second (the procession of Bacchus) is distinguished by its boldly popular pace. It can therefore be said that it belongs to a “”lower”” sphere, to that of military or bandstand music. However, it should not be believed that this “”popular”” material is of lesser
quality in terms of its composition, because this was never the case with Mahler. With him, the simplicity, candour and smiling naivety always concealed a musical and intellectual structure which framed and organised the discourse with an undeniable learned rigour. While military music tends to gain momentum during the movement, the first element never departs from its tempo, nor from its tragic character, even if innumerable variations constantly change its profile. In the great solos, which are among the most perilous in the entire repertoire instruments, the deep and powerful timbre of the trombone resonates like the voice of the earth or elements.”
-2- Tempo di Menuetto. Sehr mässig. Nicht eilen [Very measured. Never hurried]
The flowers of Steinbach’s meadow inspired Mahler to compose a Minuet. Its “old-fashioned” references are not ironic; on the contrary they dance
with a beautiful grace. The orchestra is even more delicate than Berlioz’s Dance of the Sylphs. Two episodes alternate in a symmetrical manner. Their
tempo is the same but the second seems faster because of the shorter note values. One day, in Hamburg, Mahler almost sprained his hand while trying,
instinctively, to copy the stiff triplets of this second section at full speed (in the tempo of the movement).
-3- Comodo. Scherzando. Ohne Hast [Without haste]
Although it is binary and not ternary in nature, this movement plays the role of a Scherzo in the Symphony. All the thematic material, with the exception of the
Trio, is borrowed from the Lied Ablosung im Sommer [The Changing of the Summer Guard], in which the Spring Cuckoo gives way to the Summer Nightingale. It is easy to understand that Mahler chose the animal world to create his Scherzo. The melodic material of the Lied is endlessly transformed and intensified. The crucial element of contrast, one of the most magical moments in all of Mahler’s work, is provided by a post horn solo placed “far away”, in other words behind the stage. Twice the orchestra responds, first with a dreamy duet of horns, then with a gentle murmur of high-pitched violins, divided into eight distinct parts. Contemporaries took offence to the “banality” of this long solo inspired by one of Mahler’s childhood memories. Today it represents a
moment of pure poetry. Again, we experience a great wave of painful passion, a resounding “cry of despair” towards the end of the movement depicted with
a powerful brass band fanfare. Mahler let us believe that animals reacted this way to human intrusion, a devastating phenomenon for which we can witness today by simply taking a look at the world around us.
-4- Sehr Langsam. Misterioso. Durchaus ppp [Very slow. Mysterious. Always very very soft]
At a time when Mahler was using texts from the poetic Wunderhorn collection for his Lieder, Nietzche’s “Drunken song”, or “Midnight song” is the only exception. Its role here is the same as that of Urlicht in the Second Symphony. In the middle of the night, at the darkest
and deepest hour, Life makes Zarathustra feel ashamed of his anguish and doubts and orders him to meditate between the twelve strokes of midnight about the “secret of the worlds, their profound pain and even more mysterious joy, and on the ardour of that joy that, far from bewailing its ephemeral fragility, yearns for eternity”. During the course of this meditation, man discovers the way to
truth. He then accesses a higher form of existence in the childlike purity of the fifth movement and the mystic contemplation of the sixth. The form here is very free, with intentionally indistinct rhythms and ‘weak’ harmonic degrees and progressions suggesting night’s immobility. Everything revolves around contrasts of timbre and register.
-5- Lustig im tempo und keck im Ausdruck [Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression]
The “children’s begging song” is taken from the Knaben Wunderhorn. For the briefest of the six movements, Mahler uses the largest sound set-up in the whole Symphony, that is to say a double choir, of women and children, to which is added the soloist voice of the previous piece. It was certainly paradoxical to call upon such considerable resources for a piece which is not at all a symphonic apotheosis. It was even more odd to entrust the task of imitating the morning bells to a children’s choir, and yet the dazzling light of these fresh voices emits the clear colours of a spring scene.
-6- Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden. [Slowly. Tranquil.
It would be difficult to find another slow movement of this dimension in the symphonic repertoire of the 19th century and, what’s more, one that is placed at the end of a symphony. When reading the score, the way the first pages have been written demonstrates a simple polyphonic writing style. But when listening, it is impossible to remain insensitive to its serene grandeur, its restrained emotion, an immobility that one could consider mystical rather than meditative. In this music, which is better to listen to than comment on, we find Mahler showcasing both baroque and classical traditions, recognisable by a subtle art of variation which tirelessly transforms thematic elements that we are familiar with, but somehow different every time. As usual, there are two alternating main elements, two sections, one in minor and the other in major. The rare few moments when anxiety seems to arise only serve to heighten the tranquil certainty of the whole piece.
“Since this hymn of divine love is entirely bathed in the light of eternity: “”In the Adagio,”” Mahler told Natalie, “”everything is resolved into quiet Being. The Ixion wheel of appearances has at last been brought to a standstill.” The final fourth echoes that which opened the fanfare at the beginning of the Symphony. The final apotheosis of the Third Symphony is without doubt one of Mahler’s most authentically optimistic, especially considering that he is often described as being “”morbid” and obsessed with pain and death. Here, all the questions are answered and all anxieties appeased. Obviously, this movement wouldn’t have been written without Parsifal having come before but, nonetheless, that doesn’t detract from its greatness. As the Finale, this vast Adagio is the worthy counterpart of the first movement and Mahler would certainly have weakened the whole piece had he renewed the baroque splendours synonymous with the conclusion of the Second Symphony. With this great hymn dedicated to the creator of the World, designed as the supreme force of Love, he climbs the last rung of the ladder towards eternal light”
So, unlike what happened and would happen at other times in Mahler’s life, (for example in 1904, when he composed his most “painful” music, the last Kindertotenlieder and the Finale of the Sixth Symphony, during what was supposedly the most harmonious summer of his life), the Fourth Symphony exudes well-being, clean air, relaxation and lyricism; all this despite being created during times of great pain and anguish. Two years after Mahler’s return to Austria, one can see a kind of thanksgiving song for his new found fatherland, a hymn dedicated to the glory of the Viennese “Gemütlichkeit”. Because the language of the Fourth Symphony is taken directly from Viennese classicism, that written by Haydn and Schubert.