Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Progression to the Divine

When Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius met in Helsinki in 1907, the two composers laid out radically contrasting conceptions of the symphony. Sibelius found beauty and ultimate meaning in the symphony’s “severity of form” and “profound logic.” “No!” Mahler replied. “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!” 

No Mahler Symphony gives us a greater sense of this cosmic scale than the Third. Set in six movements, it remains the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, scored for a large orchestra with women’s and boy’s choirs (in movement 5) and an alto solo (in movements 4 and 5). Over the course of some 105 minutes, its dramatic journey encompasses and unifies nature, man, and God.

In a letter to the soprano, Anna von Mildenburg, Mahler wrote,

Just imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world—one is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe…My symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard!…In it the whole of nature finds a voice.

The Third Symphony pushed the boundaries so far that for a while Mahler considered classifying it as a symphonic poem. In the end, it became the next step in the evolution of a form which began before Haydn. Perhaps the music, itself, was even pulling the composer along. Mahler determined,

The term “symphony”—to me this means creating a world with all the technical means available. The constantly new and changing content determines its own form.

Occupied with a busy conducting schedule during most of the year, it was in the summer months that Mahler retreated into the Alpine countryside to fulfill his deeper calling as a composer. The Third Symphony was written during the summers of 1895 and 1896 in a small hut on the Attersee near Steinbach in Upper Austria. As the first movement took shape, Mahler confided in his friend, Natalie Bauer-Lechner,

It has almost ceased to be music; it is hardly anything but sounds of nature. I could equally well have called the movement “What the mountain tells me”—it’s eerie, the way life gradually breaks through, out of soul-less, rigid matter. And, as this life rises from stage to stage, it takes on ever more highly developed forms: flowers, beasts, man, up to the sphere of the spirits, the “angels.” 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. At intervals there come the moans of the youth—that is, captive life—struggling for release from the clutches of lifeless, rigid Nature. At last he breaks through and triumphs.

Mahler eventually discarded the program outlining this hierarchical journey to the divine. Indeed, the pure dramatic force of this music transcends any literal meaning. At the same time, Mahler’s program may help unfamiliar listeners gain entrance to this awe-inspiring work. The Symphony’s six movements are divided into two parts:

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

No. 1: Introduction—Pan’s Awakening; Summer Marches In (Procession of Bacchus)

The first movement is a vibrant celebration of the life force, sweeping in with an overwhelming Dionysian power. Mahler related it to the banishment of winter with “the victorious appearance of Helios and the miracle of spring thanks to which all things live, breathe, flower, sing and ripen,” and later, the arrival of summer, “a conqueror advancing amidst all that grows and blooms.” 

It begins with a titanic statement in the unison horns (this Symphony calls for eight) which bears a striking yet twisted resemblance to the noble, majestic theme in the final movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. We feel as if we’re being thrown from the warm comfort of Brahms’ flowing chorale into something more primal and ominous. It’s as if Mahler’s music is saying, “It just isn’t that simple. You don’t get off that easily.” 

As this movement progresses, we begin to get a sense of the meaning behind Mahler’s metaphysical descriptions. We’re confronted with pure sound, from the barely-audible rumble of the bass drum, to the strangely echoing, ethereal overtones created by new combinations of instruments. Powers are unleashed which are simultaneously triumphant, lamenting, exuberant, and terrifying. This is music which encompasses everything from the solitary, recurrent voice of the solo trombone, to the pastorale sounds of “fluttering wings” and woodwind bird calls. An irrepressible march, which begins with hushed intensity and grows into an overwhelming force, embraces everything from the sinister to the innocent.

We get a sense that the instrumental voices themselves are taking over and directing this drama in a way which picks up where Berlioz left off with Symphonie fantastique. For example, in this passage, listen to the way the two-note descending motif in the strings rudely and persistently interrupts, ushering in a seemingly inevitable and kaleidoscopic transition. Or consider the inexplicable emergence of the William Tell trumpet call in the final seconds. What does it all mean? Instead of worrying about the answer to that question, perhaps it’s more important that we just listen to what the Voices have to say.

No. 2: What the Flowers of the Field Tell Me

From the Dionysian exuberance of the first movement, we move into the meadow with a Tempo di menuetto. This is music filled with simple, unsophisticated beauty and sensuality—everything we would associate with blooming, fragrant flowers. Mahler characterized it as “the most carefree thing that I have ever written—as carefree as only flowers are. It all sways and waves in the air…like flowers bending on their stems in the wind.” Listen to the way the opening melody returns, each time with more voluptuous embellishment.

No. 3: What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me

The third movement climbs the next rung of nature’s ladder with the birds and beasts of the forest. This movement grows out of “Ablösung im Sommer” (“The Changing Guard of Summer”), a song from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. “Who shall sing to us all summer long?” asks the song, after the cuckoo bird falls to his death at the end of spring. With the change of season, the simple call of the cuckoo is replaced by the more elaborate song of the nightingale who sings and springs, is always joyous, When other birds are silent.” 

In the second trio section, the sound of birds and beasts fades into the plaintive serenity of a distant (off-stage) post-horn call. There is a strange reference to the Spanish folk melody, Jota aragonesa, which you might recognize from Franz Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole. The tranquility is shattered by a military trumpet fanfare. In the final moments, the vibrant life force of the animal kingdom returns with an awesome eruption of uncontrollable energy.

No. 4: What Man Tells Me

The fourth movement pulls us into a new, mysterious world. Time seems suspended in a way not unlike the twentieth century minimalism of composers like Henryk Gorecki. Solemnly rising out of silence, the oscillating whole-step motif from the opening bars of the first movement returns. The human voice is present for the first time in the Symphonynot the bright colors of a soprano, but instead the lower, darker alto. The text is taken from the “Midnight Song” portion of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra:

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!

No. 5: What the Angels Tell Me

As the tragedy and self-awareness of Man fades into silence, a joyful new sound breaks the stillness. Angels, the laughter of children, and the sound of celestial bells ring out. In the final moments, a trombone descant seems to pay homage to that instrument’s early associations with vocal doubling in church services.

The origin of this music is Mahler’s Wunderhorn song, “Es sungen drei Engel.” The text is based on an anonymous 17th-century church hymn:

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…

No. 6: What Love Tells Me

As the last echoes of the shimmering, angelic bell tones fade away, the final door of this transformational journey opens. With the first two chords, everything which came before seems to dissolve into irrelevance. Human voices recede and we find ourselves entering the ultimate “Bruckner adagio.” Mahler said, “I could almost call the movement ‘What God tells me.’ And truly, in the sense that God can only be understood as love. And so my work…begins with inanimate nature and ascends to the love of God.”

The movement’s expansive first theme begins with a dominant-tonic resolution—the most fundamental building block of tonal music, which harmonically represents a return “home.” Each time this cadence comes, initiating a new statement of the theme, it seems to bring a new layer and revelation. In the opening, it is an intense and reverent whisper in the strings. Then, it emerges as a new strand in the high woodwinds. Innocence and lament seem to mix in this new voice. Later, it becomes a mighty, earth-shattering, and heroic statement in the horns.

As we have heard from the opening of the first movement, Mahler’s music is filled with dualism. Everything is a complex flood of mixed messages and emotions—the street organ grinder meeting the funeral procession. This latest statement of our V-I cadence, blazing out in the unison of eight horns, ushers in the most exalted and triumphant music of the entire symphony, so far. Yet, only moments later, listen to the way it dissolves into the bitter sneers of stopped horns. Even here, there is a dark side. We’re left with the solitary voice of the solo flute and a static tone in the horn—sounds which emerge throughout Bruckner’s Symphonies. Listen carefully to the way the music finds its way back to that integral V-I resolution, unlocking the Symphony’s final climax and moment of transfiguration. This time, the upper strings seem to move through the orchestra with an octave which delivers a sense of upward lift. Before the majestic final bars, listen for that surprising, intimate moment of hushed mystery—a final glimpse which allows the music to let go.

Five Great Recording

  • Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Helga Dernesch, Chicago Symphony Women’s Chorus, Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus (This 1983 recording is featured, above) Amazon
  • Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, Martha Lipton, Women’s Chorus of The Schola Cantorum, Boys’ Choir of the Church of the Transfiguration (1961 studio recording)
  • Jesús López Cobos, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Michelle de Young, Women of the May Festival Chorus, Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir (1998 Telarc recording)
  • Claudio Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Anna Larsson, Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Tölzer Knabenchor (2007 live performance)
  • Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Nathalie Stutzmann, Limburger Domsingknaben, Frauenchor des Europachores Frankfurt (2015 live performance)

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

4 thoughts on “Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Progression to the Divine”

  1. Curious about the source for this story: “When Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius met in Helsinki in 1907, the two composers laid out radically contrasting conceptions of the symphony. Sibelius found beauty and ultimate meaning in the symphony’s “severity of form” and “profound logic.” “No!” Mahler replied. “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!”
    Does the author of this post, Timothy Judd, or anyone else know? I’ve head something like this before, but don’t know where it comes from.

    • The story of Mahler and Sibelius meeting is told in many biographies of Mahler. (One example is the book by Edward Seckerson, page 111). Alex Ross also outlines this story in The Rest is Noise.

      Two of the greatest symphonists of their time, and both sound so different because of the way they perceived the symphony. I wish I knew more about how the story came to be known, which may be your real question.

  2. Thanks for your reply, Timothy. Think I’d see it most recently in the Alex Ross book; he cites no source. I also wish we knew more about the original source of this story.

    • The account actually comes from a letter written by Sibelius and included in Norman Lebrecht’s book (a fascinating collection of letters) “Mahler Remembered.”

      Sibelius wrote:

      Mahler and I spent much time in each other’s company. Mahler’s grave heart-trouble forced him to lead an ascetic life and he was not fond of dinners and banquets. Contact was established between us in some walks, during which we discussed all the great questions of music thoroughly.
      When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs. This was the experience I had come to in composing. Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse.
      ‘Nein, di Symphonie muss sein wie die Welt. Sie muss alles umfassen.’ (No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything).
      Personally Mahler was very modest. He had heard that the Gambrinus restaurant was a popular resort of orchestral musicians and spoke of dining there. When I suggested that a Mahler ought, perhaps, to visit a higher-class restaurant, he replied curtly: ‘Ich get’ whine ice will.’ (I shall go where I please).
      A very interesting person. I respected him as a personality, his ethically exalted qualities as a man and an artist, in spite of his ideas on art being different from mine. I did not this him to think that I had only looked him up in order to get him interested in my compositions. When he asked me in his abrupt way:
      ‘Was wollen Sie dass ich von Ihnen dirigiere?’ (What would yo like me to conduct of yours?) I therefore only answered:
      ‘Nichts.’ (Nothing).

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