Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

Symphony No. 3

Program from 1922 Carnegie Hall premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 3

The Carnegie Hall premiere of Mahler’s Third Symphony took place on March 2, 1922, with Julia Claussen, contralto; The St. Cecilia Club, Victor Harris, conductor; The Boys’ Choir of Father Finn’s Paulist Choristers; and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Willem Mengelberg.

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Wed, Feb 17, 2010 at 8 PM
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, Chief Conductor
Symphony No. 3

The Symphony at a Glance

Around 1900, Mahler declared that a symphony should be all-embracing, like the universe itself. There is nothing in his formidable output—not even the Eighth Symphony, known as the “Symphony of a Thousand” because of its gigantic performing apparatus—that fulfills this aim more comprehensively than the Third Symphony. Here the composer explores every corner of the world and every shade of human emotion, ranging from sheer physical exuberance and the enjoyment of nature to contemplation of ultimate mysteries and celebration of the delights of heaven.

The Symphony In Depth

Through most of the 1890s Mahler was busy with a series of orchestral songs, based on a collection of folk poetry published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Mahler never made any sharp differentiation between the genres of song and symphony that constitute all of his mature output. Of his 11 symphonies (including Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished Tenth), six include voice parts. Among these, Nos. 2, 3, and 4 are often referred to as the Wunderhorn symphonies, because each of them includes a setting of a poem from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection.

Originally, the vast scheme of the Third Symphony was to end with not one but two Wunderhorn settings. Evidently Mahler became convinced that this would be too much of a good thing even by his monumental standards, and when the Third Symphony was completed in 1896 it ended with a purely orchestral slow movement. (The discarded seventh movement was pressed into service instead as the finale of the Fourth Symphony, under the title Das himmlische Leben, or Life in Heaven.) What has come down to us is still a six-movement work, laid out in two parts and lasting more than an hour and a half. Its sheer physical size, like its extraordinary expressive range, is a realization of Mahler’s universe-encompassing conception of the symphonic medium. He planned it, as he observed in a letter to the soprano Anna von Mildgnburg, as a vast celebration of nature, life, and love:

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 ... Some passages in it seem so uncanny to me that I can hardly recognize them as my own work.

The cosmic picture he was aiming at led Mahler at first to write out a programmatic scheme for the whole symphony, as follows:

A Summer Morning’s Dream
I Summer marches in
II What the meadow flowers tell me
III What the forest creatures tell me
IV What night tells me (mankind)
V What the morning bells tell me (the angels)
VI What love tells me
VII Life in Heaven (what the child tells me)

The last of these tableaux was, as we have seen, transferred to the Fourth Symphony. “A Summer Morning’s Dream” was changed in due course to “A Summer Noonday’s Dream,” “What the forest creatures tell me” became “What the twilight tells me,” and the phrase “Pan awakes” was added to the beginning of the scheme. But then Mahler decided, as he has done with the First and Second Symphonies, to let the Third stand without an official program. The original headings nevertheless remain helpful as clues to the music’s expressive intent, even if they are also liable to some misunderstanding.

In particular, the “love” referred to in the title of the sixth movement needs clarification, which Mahler supplied when he told Anna von Mildenburg:

It’s a matter of a different kind of love from what you imagine. The motto to this movement reads:
Vater, sie an die Wunden mein!
Kein Wesen lass verloren sein!

(Father, look at these wounds of mine!
Let not one creature of thine be lost!)
. . . 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 is a musical poem embracing all stages of development in a stepwise ascent. It begins with inanimate nature and ascends to the love of God.

It is in this universal context that the role of the meadow flowers and the forest creatures must be understood. In a letter to Dr. Richard Batka, Mahler remarked that separate performances of the “flowers” movement given before the symphony was complete

will doubtless present me to the public as the “sensuous,” perfumed “singer of nature.” That this nature hides within itself everything that is terrifying, great, and also lovely (which is exactly what I wanted to express in the entire work, in a sort of evolutionary development)—of course no one ever understands this. It always strikes me as odd that most people, when they speak of “nature,” think only of flowers, little birds, and woodsy smells. No one knows the god Dionysus, the great Pan.

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 3 (I. Kräftig)

Within the symphony’s dramatic arc, the element of Dionysian terror—of Panic in the etymological sense of the word—makes several awe-inspiring incursions. It is to be heard in the huge chords that punctuate the first movement, (Audio 1) which the great Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke memorably described as

the most original and flabbergasting thing Mahler ever conceived. To express the primeval force of nature burgeoning out of winter into summer, he built an outsize, proliferating sonata structure out of a plethora of “primitive” material: a rugged F Major-D Minor march tune for unison horns, like a great summons to awake; deep soft brass chords, eloquent of hidden power, sullen D Minor growls on trombones, like primordial inertia; bayings of horns, upsurgings of basses, shrieks on woodwind, subterranean rumblings of percussion, and gross, uncouth trombone themes, like monstrous prehistoric voices.

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 3 (III. Comodo. Scherzando)

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 3 (III. Comodo. Scherzando)

Audio Audio Excerpt 4

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 3 (V. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck)

Audio Audio Excerpt 5

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 3 (V. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck)

Panic is implicit in the piccolo fanfares, played out of tempo, that suggest a kind of inimical birdsong (Alfred Hitchcock before his time), and it erupts again toward the end of the “forest creatures” movement, when the echoes of a long-drawn-out, shimmering, offstage posthorn solo, (Audio 2) redolent of high summer in the deep woodland, are brusquely thrust aside by the eruption of a fortissimo E-flat minor chord (Audio 3) that fills the orchestral landscape: so close, in Mahler’s conception, is the enchantment of nature to the visceral menace that lies beneath it.

The work’s remaining explicit Knaben Wunderhorn movement is the setting of “Es sungen drei Engel einen süssen Gesang” (“Three angels were singing a sweet song”) for boys’ and women’s voices. (Audio 4) Though purely instrumental, the “forest creatures” scherzo is based on the thematic material of one of Mahler’s earliest Wunderhorn settings, “Ablösung im Sommer,” which tells the story of the cuckoo’s death. The other textual element in the symphony comes from a very different source: Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song,” which furnishes the words for mankind’s nocturnal questionings in the fourth movement. (Audio 5) Powerful out of all proportion to its brevity and dynamic restraint, this is (to quote Cooke’s unimprovable description):

One of the stillest things in all music, with its cry of a night bird (oboe glissando) and its long-held contralto notes backed by thirds on trombones echoed by piccolos.

Audio Audio Excerpt 6

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 3 (VI. Langsam)

Audio excerpted from Carnegie Hall presents Leonard Bernstein: The Mahler Symphonies / Sony Classical

It is after such mysteries, and after the carol-like naiveté of the succeeding angels’ song, that “love” presents its grand, unhurried apotheosis. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony might well serve as an illustration of the musicologist Sir Donald Tovey’s axiom that once the human voice has been introduced into a score, any return to purely instrumental writing will be anticlimactic. But every rule worthy of the name has an exception, and Mahler’s Third Symphony provides an utterly convincing one. Try to imagine the opening of this sumptuous finale (Audio 6) following not the two vocal movements, but the orchestral scherzo, and it will surely be evident that the sense of heaven-within-reach would, in that scenario, be sadly missing.

Following the dying vocal bell-syllables of the fifth movement without a break, this full-throated orchestral finale is at once reminiscent of traditional 19th-century religious styles, and prophetic of the equally expansive slow finale of Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony. Yet this conclusion, close to unique in the composer’s output, contains none of the emotional indirectness and underlying irony that render the Adagio of the Ninth—and indeed almost all of his music—so poignantly ambivalent. More than any other movement in Mahler, the finale of the Third Symphony offers its feelings without camouflage or self-defense, and thereby communicates them to the listener with an immediacy as consuming as the composer ever achieved.

—Bernard Jacobson
© The Carnegie Hall Corporation