• Mahler: The world of a Symphony

Mahler-HikeMahler’s Third Symphony as an epic description of the World

Composed: 1895-1896
Premiere: by Mahler @ Krefeld, June 9, 1902

Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt (now Kaliste) in Austrian Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911.

As with each of his first four symphonies, Mahler originally provided a programme of sorts to explain the narrative of the piece. He did not reveal the structure and content to the public. But, at different times, he shared evolving versions of a program for the third symphony with various friends.

  1. “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”
  2. “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”
  3. “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”
  4. “What Man Tells Me”
  5. “What the Angels Tell Me”
  6. “What Love Tells Me”

In a letter from Summer 1896, he writes that “Pan” seemed to him the best overall title (Gesamttitel) for the symphony, emphasizing that he was intrigued by Pan’s two meanings, a Greek god and a Greek word meaning “all.” All these titles were dropped before publication in 1898.

Mahler originally envisioned a seventh movement, “Heavenly Life” (alternatively, “What the Child Tells Me”), but he eventually dropped this, using it instead as the last movement of the Symphony No. 4. Indeed, several musical motifs taken from “Heavenly Life” appear in the fifth (choral) movement of the Third Symphony.

When it is performed, a short interval is sometimes taken between the first movement and the rest of the piece. Mahler did it at the premiere and every time he conducted the piece. This is in agreement with the manuscript copy of the full score (held in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York), where the end of the first movement carries the inscription Folgt eine lange Pause! (There follows a long pause.) The inscription is not found in the score as published.


Performance of second, third and sixth movements: 1897, Berlin, conducted by Felix Weingartner.
Premiere of the complete symphony: June 9, 1902, Krefeld, conducted by the composer.
Dutch premieres: Oct. 17, 1903 in Arnhem; five days later Mahler led the Amsterdam premiere with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
American premiere: May 9, 1914, Cincinnati May Festival, cond. by Ernst Kunwald.

Mahler’s case is, to be sure, more complicated: the movement titles changed several times during the composition process (with only the general formula, “what ___ tells me,” remaining constant) and were finally eliminated altogether in the published score. Mahler contemplates nature and humanity on a universal, “cosmological” scale, just as Nietzsche had done. Here, we go from the calling forth of primordial matter in the opening – following this incantatory horn theme that begins the piece – through flowers to animals to mankind to the gates of Heaven and finally Love in a spiritual sense, the Love or Forgiveness from God.

It might be pure coincidence that the two archrivals, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, wrote works inspired (at least in part) by Friedrich Nietzsche at exactly the same time. Strauss completed his tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra in August 1896. The very same month, Mahler put the finishing touches on his Third Symphony, whose fourth movement is a song for contralto with words from the “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s philosophical poem – an excerpt, moreover and without words, that is also featured in Strauss’s work.

Strauss found in Zarathustria a compelling image of human evolution through successive stages of spiritual development. Those stages are indicated in the titles of the sections that compose Strauss’s work: “Of the Great Longing,” “Of Joys and Passions,” “Of Science,” etc. At this stage, the work seems to have existed in Mahler’s mind as a kind of “nature symphony.”

The last decision to be made involved moving the Adagio, the “Love” movement, from third place to the end of the symphony (a rather unusual choice, coming only two years after Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, which also ended with a slow movement). This decision had important philosophical consequences. As Mahler himself explained: “In the Adagio, everything is resolved in the calm of existence. The Ixion’s wheel of appearances finally stops turning.” Ixion was a king in Greek mythology, punished by Zeus for his love for Hera by being bound on an eternally revolving wheel in the underworld.

Except for this final movement, the structure of Mahler’s Third Symphony shows definite parallels with that of the Second. According to British musicologist Peter Franklin, the new symphony “was to celebrate the ‘happy life’ that the Second had inaugurated after dispelling apocalyptic horrors with its concluding choral hymn to the individual spirit.”


THE FIRST MOVEMENT – which was actually written last – is, by size at least, almost a complete symphony in itself. Many critics, including admirers of Mahler, have found this movement rambling and diffuse, with its sections disconnected and incoherent. However, it is possible that the main idea behind the movement is precisely the creation of order out of chaos, the emergence of clear directions out of a state of aimlessness. Mahler was a good friend with Siegfried Lipiner. The latter’s poem “Genesis” formed the original seed from which the 3rd Symphony grew – the cosmological dream of Nature coming to life and working its way up through flowers and animals to mankind and angels and God’s Love. The first movement of Mahler’s 3rd symphony has many marginal comments or section headings taken from Lipiner’s poem.

The opening theme seems to hark back to the last movement of Brahms’ first symphony, which in turn reflects on the last part of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Mahler (III-1)

Brahms (I-4)

Beethoven (IX-5)


THE SECOND MOVEMENT had the title “Blumenstück” (“Flower Piece”) when it was performed separately – a holdover from Mahler’s original program. Mahler described this movement to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner:

“It is the most carefree music I have ever written, as carefree as only flowers can be. It all sways and ripples like flowers on limber stems sway in the wind. Today I realized to my surprise that the basses have nothing but pizzicato, not one firm stroke, and that the low, heavy percussion is not used at all. On the other hand, the violins, again with a solo violin, have the most lively, flowing, and charming figures. . . . That this innocent, flowery cheerfulness does not last, but suddenly becomes serious and weighty, you can well imagine. A heavy storm sweeps across the meadow and shakes the flowers and leaves. They groan and whimper, as if pleading for redemption to a higher realm.”

The movement is a (more or less) regular minuet with a highly irregular Trio section (three different sections instead of two, each in a different meter) repeated twice in the form M-T-M-T-M.


THE THIRD MOVEMENT is based on one of Mahler’s early Wunderhorn songs, with the first line “Kuckuck hat sich zu Tode gefallen” (“Cuckoo has fallen to its death”). The song describes the cuckoo’s death with irony and mock mourning, and then goes on to celebrate the nightingale who will replace the cuckoo as the preferred singer in the forest. The posthorn, which used to announce the arrival of the mail in small Austrian towns, has its own literary-musical tradition from Schubert’s Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey) to several poems about posthorns and stagecoaches by Nikolaus Lenau, a Romantic poet cherished by the composer.

KnabenWunderhorn (IV-3)

Mahler (III-3)


THE FOURTH MOVEMENT brings an abrupt change of mood with a setting of Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” from Zarathustra, for contralto solo. Out of a mysterious background of muted strings, the soloist begins on a single repeated pitch. The vocal line gradually becomes more and more elaborate, but the harmonies remain static and the dynamics extremely soft throughout. The image of pain is emphasized by an expressive violin solo.

The text comes from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: the “Midnight Song”:

O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—,
—seeks deep, deep eternity!”

THE FIFTH MOVEMENT, which follows without a break, is another complete contrast in mood. The happy chiming of the bells, children’s voices singing “bimm, bamm” provide the background to a cheerful, folk-like chorus on a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This movement shares several motives with the last movement of the Fourth Symphony (which, as we have seen, was originally going to be the last of the Third).

Three angels sang a sweet song,with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: “Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!”
“And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!”
“If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy.”
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.

THE SIXTH MOVEMENT follows the fifth with no break. All the previous contrasts seem to be resolved in the peaceful calm of this, Mahler’s first great symphonic Adagio. The opening theme quotes from the slow movement of Beethoven’s last string quartet, Op. 135 – the resemblance is too great to be accidental:

The manuscript bears the following inscription, adapted from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:

 Vater, sieh an die Wmienn mein!
Kein Wesen lass verloren sein!
 Father, look upon my wounds,
Let no creature be lost!

The movement is based on two themes: a simple and soft D-major chorale melody (the one inspired in Beethoven) and a more intense and dramatic minor-mode theme. The two themes and their variations alternate – and their developments include subtle recalls of fragments both from the first movement’s tragic episodes and a comforting moment from the fifth. All these conflicting impulses are finally united in the powerful closing section, where the dynamics rise to fortissimo (Mahler warns: “not with raw force but with a saturated, noble tone”) as the monumental symphony reaches its glorious and ecstatic conclusion.

Beethoven (135-2)

Mahler (III-6)

Mahler wrote to a friend four months after completing the 3rd Symphony, “No one will hear, of course, that nature encompasses everything that is eerie, great and even lovely (this is precisely what I wanted to express using the whole work as a kind of evolutionary development).” He said that most people’s image of Nature was only flowers, birds, forest fragrances – “nobody mentions the god Dionysus or the Great Pan,” who figure so prominently in the first movement, ideas he took from Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy.” “There,” he told his friend, “you have a kind of program, a sample of how I make music – always and everywhere only the sound of nature!” He goes on, “If I have now and then given them titles, I wanted to provide sign posts for the emotion, for the imagination. Here it is the world, nature as a whole, which is awakened out of unfathomable silence and sings and resounds.”


Wunderhorn 1Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder (The boy’s magic horn: old German songs) is a collection of German folk poems and songs edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, and published in Heidelberg, Baden. The book was published in three editions: the first in 1805 followed by two more volumes in 1808.



Wunderhorn 2The collection of love, soldiers, wandering and children’s songs was an important source of idealized folklore in the Romantic nationalism of the 19th century. Des Knaben Wunderhorn became widely popular across the German-speaking world. Selected poems from this collection have been set to music by a number of composers, including Weber, Loewe, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, and Webern.

Gustav Mahler numbered the collection among his favourite books and set its poems to music throughout much of his life. The text of the first of his four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, begun in 1884, is based on the Wunderhorn poem “Wenn mein Schatz.” Between 1887 and 1901, he wrote two dozen settings of Wunderhorn texts, several of which were incorporated into or composed as movements for his Second, Third and Fourth symphonies.

Mahler: The world of a Symphony
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