Earth, Heaven and Eternity: Mahler’s 3rd
“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
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
Symphony No. III
“THE HAPPY SCIENCE”
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
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
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
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
Mahler’s biographer Paul Stefan correctly
remarked that, in Mahler, our “encounter
with the cosmos begins in the streets and ends
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