DANIEL RAISKIN , EWA MARCINIEC , Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie
Boys & Ladies of the Mainz Cathedral Choir
Posthorn Solo: Peter Mönkediek

"GUSTAV MAHLER Symphony No. 3 in D Minor"

Earth, Heaven and Eternity: Mahler’s 3rd Symphony

“I’m quite sure if God were asked to draw up a programme of the world he had created, he couldn’t do it either.”
Gustav Mahler (in a letter to Alma Schindler, 19 December 1901)

The composer who dared such open rivalry with God himself was also a brilliant conductor. “Architecture is music in space, as it were a frozen music”, Schelling once wrote, and Mahler applied this in his conducting style: music is architecture transposed into the dimension of time – moving, flowing architecture. Instead of merely tracing the outlines of fellow-artists’ musical blueprints with a schoolboyish hand, Mahler built forms based on the drawings of great musical architects. To Mahler, the actual process of constructing a musical form – its deployment along the axis of time – was infinitely more important than the ultimate goal, a perfectly formed crystal.

Therein lies Mahler’s most important contribution to the aesthetics and practice of conducting. He was the first to comprehend Wagner’s aversion to “crystalline form”. Instead, as a composer and as a conductor, he consistently applied the concept of form as process. Whenever he conducted his own symphonies, Mahler enjoyed the advantage of combining two roles into one: he acted as a musical architect and, at the same time, as a master builder who could immediately bring his construction project into fruition in the concert hall. Every bit as significant, however, were the decisive consequences Mahler drew from Wagner’s pronouncements on the future of the symphony and of instrumental music in general.

On the manuscript title page of his essay Art and Revolution, Wagner wrote a suggestive reflection: “Beethoven, with his 9th Symphony, proves the opposite of what is usually affirmed – namely, when music is powerless, the word comes to its aid.” A similar utterance can be found in a letter Mahler wrote on 17 February 1897 to his friend Arthur Seidl: “Whenever I plan a large musical structure, I always reach the point where I have to resort to ‘the word’ as a vehicle for my musical idea. Beethoven must have felt the same way in his Ninth.”

In a letter to Friedrich Löhr dated 17 August 1895, Mahler wrote: “This summer brought me the 3rd – probably my most mature and individual creation to date”. Indeed, he tended to experience summer as a quite fruitful season. On vacation, he was free from the daily responsibilities of a conductor, no longer obliged to devote most of his attention to music written by others. In 1895 the composer spent the summer in Steinbach am Attersee, a health resort in the mountains of Upper Austria, where nature, in all its majesty, assisted him in the creation of a new symphony.

In the finale of the 2nd Symphony, based on an ode by Friedrich Klopstock with the first line Aufersteh´n, ja aufersteh´n wirst du (“Rise again, yes, you will rise again”), Mahler had found his own solution to the problem of individual immortality by depicting the creative spirit enjoying eternal life. In the 3rd Symphony, however, we are confronted with “the grandiose conception of the immortality of every living being, the depiction of the inexhaustible artistic energy deployed by nature in its creation of lower and higher life forms” (Inna Barsova).

Another author’s seemingly far-fetched remark is actually quite appropriate: “Mahler’s Third may be a peculiar, young work, but it also attains maturity and perfection – like an early Lied von der Erde” (Konstantin Rosenschild).

Mahler’s late works bathe in the rays of the setting sun; in the 3rd Symphony, however, the light of noon still reigns, the invincible optimism of youth.

In a letter to Löhr dated 29 August 1895, Mahler wrote: “My new symphony will last ca. 1 1/2 hours – all of it is in large symphonic form”. It was supposed to be made up of seven movements according to his original plan:

Symphony No. III
A Summer Morning’s Dream

Summer marches in.
What the flowers in the meadow tell me.
What the animals in the forest tell me.
What night tells me. (contralto solo).
What the morning bells tell me (female choir with contralto solo).
What love tells me.
Motto: “Father, behold these wounds of mine!
Let none of Thy creatures be lost.”
(From Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
Life in Heaven
(soprano solo, humorous).

However, in the 3rd Symphony’s final version, Mahler only retained six movements, and transformed the original seventh one into the finale of the 4th Symphony. He eventually withdrew the above programme as well. To be sure, if even the Lord God is not able to “explain” the world He created, a composer should not attempt to spoon-feed his work to the audience – particularly since “starting with Beethoven, there [is] no modern music that does not have its own inner programme”. For that is how Mahler viewed the contribution of Beethoven, the first composer who breathed the life of important universal philosophical ideas into a symphony.

At any rate, Mahler’s letters to his friends are full of remarks that reveal his purpose. “My work is a musical poem that ascends step by step, encompassing all stages of evolution. It begins with lifeless nature and rises up to the love of God! […] My symphony will be something the world has never heard. Within it, a voice is lent to all nature, and it tells deep secrets only glimpsed in dreams” (from Mahler’s letters to Anna von Mildenburg, 1st and 6th July 1896).

The first movement is almost as long as all the other movements together. The composer calls for a long pause – perhaps even an intermission – to separate it from the following minuet, thus dividing the entire symphony into two equally important sections.

The stunning 1st movement (“Strong and decisive”) has a structure one can only describe – with certain reservations – as a sonata-rondo. Here we see nature as it emerges, “thunderously breaking the ice and flooding the shores” (Ivan Sollertinsky). Tragic collisions are followed by heroic upsurges; ecstatic outbursts lead to moments of tranquil contemplation. The movement’s overriding march theme is altered, at certain moments, to the point of becoming unrecognizable. The exposition sets in with a phantasmagorical cortege led by the God Pan and his comrades (in Mahler’s words, “satyrs and other rough lads of nature are gallivanting”). But the march increasingly sounds like a heroic procession – thus it is no coincidence that Richard Strauss, when he heard it, envisioned worker’s columns marching in 1st of May demonstrations. The march theme undergoes grotesque transformations in the development section: the parade is no longer majestic, but dissolves into the merriment of a crowd celebrating carnival in the streets. The horns and the trumpets join in this wild street scene as if they were attempting to shout one another out; boisterous popular melodies emerge, accompanied by a rumbling group of drums. The march finally takes off its grotesque mask in the reprise: the initial theme resounds victoriously, providing this gigantic symphonic structure with triumphant closure. The final parade displays all the ‘heroes’ (i. e. all the movement’s previous musical themes) and gives the coda a markedly jocular tone.

The second movement (“Tempo di menuetto. Molto moderato”) is a graceful minuet.
“This is the most carefree music I have ever written” – Mahler’s words in a letter to Bauer-Lechner – “as carefree as only flowers can be. It all sways and ripples like flowers on limber stems sway in the wind. Admittedly, this innocent flowery cheerfulness does not last but suddenly becomes serious and weighty. A heavy storm sweeps across the meadow and shakes the flowers and leaves. They groan and whimper...” Once more, we are dealing here with a rondo. The peaceful refrain – the actual minuet – contains some glimpses of the first movement’s initial theme, and in its middle episodes this refrain is accompanied by a series of bizarre, rapid dances recalling the rhythms of tarantella or czárdás. Mahler avoids literal repetition. Instead, all the minuet’s themes are subjected to variation, as the composer indicates himself – “variations that become increasingly rich”.

The third movement (“Comodo. Scherzando. Without Haste”) is a scherzo in extended ABA form. The scherzo is introduced, and likewise concludes, with the instrumental version of Mahler’s song Ablösung im Sommer (“Relief in Summer”) from his cycle Songs of Youth based on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In the outer sections this song structure is subjected to a series of variation types whose variety is simply astounding (here as elsewhere in Mahler). In the middle section, a plain, mellow posthorn solo surprisingly introduces a motif reminiscent of the jota aragonesa, a popular Spanish dance. The calm, flowing scherzo is dramatically interrupted by the sudden intrusion of the coda.

The fourth movement (“Very slow, Misterioso”) is the first one that addresses itself to human beings. It also marks the first occurrence of the human voice within this symphony: a solo contralto. “And the first word in this symphony is heard here: ‘O Man!’ Here we observe the human being, defenceless against the overpowering forces of nature at midnight [...], alone, teetering on the brink of the world’s abysmal sadness” (Inna Barsova). The fourth movement has a strophic structure based on a poem taken from Nietzsche’s philosophical work Thus spoke Zarathustra.

The fifth movement (“Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression”) opens with the bells of morning, announcing the beginning of a new day. Everything is flooded by sunlight. Accompanied by a boys’ choir (imitating the bells: “bimm - bamm - bimm – bamm”) and by orchestration featuring high woodwinds and brass, small bells, a harp and a triangle, we hear a female choir singing a simple children’s song about heavenly joy: Es sangen drei Engel (“Three angels sang”) from the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This music anticipates Mahler’s 4th Symphony. In alternating dialogue, the contralto and the choir narrate St. Peter’s sins and sufferings in sombre tones. Interspersed chorale episodes in liturgical style express awe-struck admiration of God’s power and mercy.

Three angels sang a sweet song,
With blessed joy it rang in Heaven,
They shouted too for joy
That Peter was free from sin!
Heavenly joy is a blessed city,
Heavenly joy that has no end!
Heavenly joy was granted to Peter
Through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.

Mahler’s biographer Paul Stefan correctly remarked that, in Mahler, our “encounter with the cosmos begins in the streets and ends in infinity...”.

The symphony’s climax can be found in the slow D Major Finale (“Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt”): a solemn instrumental hymn praising the glory of God, a song about all-powerful love (“God is Love”). The imperious initial brass theme from the first movement undergoes a major transformation: we now hear it ‘sung’ by the strings in a peaceful, majestic, ethereal mood. We are taken on a slow, gradual ascent to the heavenly heights of the spirit – a thorny path, however, darkened by memories of painful loss. This via aspera leads to a monumental apotheosis, one of the most sublimely beautiful passages found in any symphonic music known to the world. Brilliant brass sonorities and a full, powerful choir of strings underscore the 3rd Symphony’s credo as enounced in the fifth movement: “All beings attain bliss through Christ”.

© 2014 Josif Raiskin