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Views And Reviews: Mahler's Symphony No. 3

Paul Serotsky introduces us to the mighty Symphony No 3 - one of the most wonderful, uplifting, mind-blowing experiences in all music – by Gustav Mahler, a composer who “stretched conventional tonality to the limit, just as he pushed symphonic architecture about as far as it would go.’’

For more of Paul’s erudite thoughts on the greatest music ever written please click on Views And Reviews in the menu on this page.

Mahler (1860-1911) – Symphony No. 3


It must be tough enough creating epoch-making works of art even when you can devote all your energies exclusively to the job, so imagine what it must be like if you've also got a highly demanding professional career. In 1895-6, when he was working on his Third Symphony (which still holds a place in the Guinness Book of Records, or it did the last time I looked), Gustav Mahler was First Conductor of the Hamburg Opera, busily carving out the reputation that would, in 1897, win him the Directorship of the Vienna Court Opera – one of the most influential positions in the musical world. The demands of his profession – producing, rehearsing, conducting, and (last but by all means least) administration – took up most of his time. He had to organise his life so that in the summer months (the Opera's close season) he could be free to devote himself to creative composition. This he would do by retiring to a holiday retreat deep in the country. The Third Symphony was conceived at Steinbach on the Atterssee, in the midst of the not always pretty and peaceful profusion of Mother Nature in the Raw.

Mahler is one of those rare, pivotal figures in musical history. On the one hand, he was a "Child of the Romantic", a fruit of the final flowering of a movement that dominated most of the Nineteenth Century. Going back through his early Lieder und Gesange aus der Jugendzeit, his spiritual forefather seems to be, not Wagner or Schubert (as you might expect?), but Schumann. His inherent lyricism allied to a flair for poetry and an intense love of Nature, made the "Song of Creation" of the Third Symphony not just a safe bet but a racing certainty.

On the other hand, Mahler was a pioneer, a leading member of the fin de siecle avant-garde, hell-bent on pushing back the boundaries of what is possible or, more accurately, what is acceptable, judging by the controversy his music provoked. He stretched conventional tonality to the limit, just as he pushed symphonic architecture about as far as it would go. While he favoured what Stravinsky would have described as a "wastefully large" orchestra, it was rarely for the simple purpose of massive effect. Mahler's orchestration was aimed unswervingly at clarity: in his hands the symphony orchestra became a wonderful, kaleidoscopic chamber ensemble, a natural (though not inevitable) consequence of his consistent use of polyphony – which itself derived from his lifelong admiration for the music of J. S. Bach.


A few juvenilia apart, Mahler wrote music in only two forms, which is in itself remarkable. With a man so full of contrasts and contradictions it comes as no surprise that these were Song – the smallest, simplest, most static, most intimate and personal of forms – and Symphony – the biggest, most complex, most developmental and all-embracing of forms.

Mahler's view of the Symphony is encapsulated in the famous conversation with Sibelius, where Mahler declared, "A Symphony must be like the world – it must contain everything". Having made a pretty fair stab at that in his First Symphony, the rapidly maturing Mahler considerably widened his scope in the Second Symphony, which represented a journey through death to resurrection. However, he seems to have concluded that he had, even then, set his sights a little low. Aiming to put that to rights in the Third, he broadened the scope still further to take us all the way from Creation to Heaven, in an attempt to imagine the history of an entire "universe" in musical terms.

Fascinating as the story is, we must leave it there, save to mention that, in Das Lied von der Erde, he finally achieved what we might consider his ultimate goal, the reconciliation of Song and Symphony.


Let me put my cards right on the table – I find this Third Symphony one of the most wonderful, uplifting, mind-blowing experiences in all music, and I love every single minute of it (including the one mentioned in the next but one paragraph!). Even so, at over 90 minutes long it is a lot of symphony to find your way through if you don't know the lie of the land. Some thoughts on the way the work is put together should be helpful, and perhaps even interesting.

Originally, Mahler had planned the symphony to be in seven movements, but in the event withdrew the seventh movement and used it as the finale of his Fourth Symphony. I think this was because he realised that with the Third he had pushed his philosophy as far as it would go down this particular road: he knew that the Fourth would mark a retreat, a regrouping, and in that transplanted movement (like in a time-capsule) he would be carrying forward his poetic essence through a transition into some new order.

I'm also convinced that, consequently, he altered the conclusion of the sixth movement, which now no longer prepared the ground for any successor. No other slow movement of his ends fortissimo, and no other movement of his of any sort ends with such a dull succession of (admittedly impressively sonorous) chords punctuated by a battery of mundane tub-thumping. For me, this is the most – nay, only – disappointing passage he ever wrote, surely an uncharacteristic, even hasty misjudgement, one which reminds me of the equally incongruous ending of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet.

Originally the symphony had a programme, which Mahler withdrew as he did all his proposed symphonic programmes. He had an apparently ambivalent attitude to programme music. Mahler the symphonist was at heart an absolutist, but the poet in him found a programme to be a useful philosophical "scaffolding" during the erection of his ambitiously large structures. As with your actual builders' scaffolding, once the job was done it could be, indeed had to be, removed. Yet it is precisely because such schemes drive the overall architecture that they are useful for us to know (provided we don't lean on them too heavily?). The Third Symphony was given the (rather attractive) title Ein Sommermorgenstraum – "A Summer Morning's Dream" (I've omitted Mahler's Nietzsche-derived prefix "The Gay Science", as it's nowadays somewhat open to misinterpretation). The movements bore the titles:

1. Pan Awakens – Summer Marches In
2. What the Flowers and Meadows Tell Me
3. What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me
4. What the Night (Man) Tells Me
5. What the Morning Bells (Angels) Tell Me
6. What Love Tells Me

It is glaringly obvious from this that the work is not cyclic, in the normal manner of symphonies, but progressive, projecting a journey of epic scale through a kind of hierarchical "universe", from Inanimate Nature to God in Heaven in "6 easy stages". Mahler divided this vast structure into two Parts, the huge first movement standing alone (as with the Second Symphony, he sanctioned – even encouraged – a break of at least five minutes between movements 1 and 2). Neville Cardus considered the second and third movements an intermezzo, carrying none of the argument (again, as per the Second), while the remaining four movements formed a relatively conventional symphonic structure. I can't see it myself: for a start, only the first half-minute is even remotely conventional! More seriously, though, it's clear from Mahler's programme that the second and third movements are actually integral parts of a linear scheme.

Yet, unaccountably, Mahler himself has muddied the water, because there's plenty of evidence that the work falls into two halves (3 + 3 movements). This seemingly trivial point is actually important, as it's the key to understanding the "map" of this vast work. There are several strong arguments:

The first three movements are distinguished by each being built on two equal but contrasting characteristics, whereas the final three movements each revolve around a single characteristic (I've indicated characteristic pairs in the synopses of the first three movements).

Philosophically, the idea of Man as the embodiment of half-animal, half-god is pivotal: looking back from the end of the third movement, we see the birth and evolution of Nature in the Raw. Looking forward from the start of the fourth movement, we see the birth and evolution of the self-awareness that formerly only lurked in the wings.

But there are stronger arguments, based on a favourite structural technique of Mahler's, the "feeding forward" of materials. There is more to this than the simple use of a common or garden "motto" theme (as in Tchaikovsky's Fifth). Mahler would use one germinal theme to generate any number of new themes (etc!), which would lend great cohesiveness to a movement. But, he would go on to bind his large scale structures by feeding themes forward from one movement to the next, or across some even larger partition.

Thus the murky sequence of alternating notes, which ignites the gas under the primeval stew at the start of the Symphony, reappears as the principal theme at the start of the fourth movement. Then there's a trumpet call, flung like a gleaming spear against a granite face not long into the symphony's introduction, which reappears as a sinuous, passionate gesture in the fourth movement. The dividing line is thrown into even greater relief by the fourth movement's return to the brooding stasis of the Symphony's opening, having barely paused for breath since then, and of course by the introduction of the human voice.

There is one other wholly remarkable, and I think unprecedented, example of feedforward, this time not of a theme, but of a structural device. The climax of the first movement's first development section is capped by a distinctive modulating sequence (which recurs at the end of that movement). At a similarly crucial point in the finale, this same modulating sequence reappears, but now in the thematic context of the finale. This has a truly startling impact, like a draw-string snapping shut the structure of the whole symphony.

Detailed relationships and inter-relationships – those we notice and many others registering subconsciously – give us the growing feeling that these six, at first seemingly disparate movements really do belong together. Far from being a disjointed gargantuan sprawl, this symphony exhibits a quite exceptional structural integrity – the mark of a real symphony. But it is also a devastating musical experience. The tunes (and, by gum, this work is simply stuffed with great tunes!), the colours (which even over a century on can make your ears sit up and beg), the dionysiac passion, the breathtaking beauty, all add up to a nerve-tingling rollercoaster ride for the mind and the heart. Alcohol and "E"? Who needs them, when you've got this!


1. Pan Awakens – Summer Marches In

The symphony explodes into life with a bold statement on eight unison horns. The family resemblance with a certain Brahms theme is almost certainly a deliberate effort to convey a feeling of conventionality as, within seconds, Mahler dashes our expectations with a descent into a long, highly unconventional slow introduction – a dark, slimy protean musical ooze, from which are thrust massive outcroppings of recitative [Characteristic 1: "primeval"]. There could hardly be a greater contrast than the main subject proper, a timid, tremulous, spring-like violin solo. But this "Life-Force" fails to extricate itself from inanimate Nature, and the pot goes back on the fire.

Then, at last, Life breaks free and, hand-in-hand with the "Brahms" theme, develops into one of the most swaggeringly banal marches in all music [Characteristic 2: "radiant/rampant energy"]. Some still question whether such roughnecked stuff ought to be allowed in a symphony. Well, in Mahler's philosophy, there is no way it can be left out! A pastoral episode, pervaded by gentle whirrings and twitterings, gives way to galumphing basses and thence to another huge, unbridled climax in which the themes are re-worked even more riotously, giving us what is in effect a double development section.

The recapitulation is as unconventional as the rest of the movement (full literal repeats were not part of Mahler's ethos). At the very end, the rampaging Life-Force seems to run completely amok. And so it is that the introduction of Discipline into Mahler's universe, when it comes, is short, sharp, and terrible.

2. What the Flowers and Meadows Tell Me

Another shock, but of a very different sort. The second movement takes the form of an elegant, even dainty minuet of classical refinement [Characteristic 1: "floral"], a cunning choice to represent vegetable nature, as the minuet is essentially a static form. The second subject appears as contrasting episodes that skim by, like a wills o' the wisp or impulsive summer breezes stirring the blossoms [Characteristic 2: "breezy"]. These alternate in a broad ABABA pattern though, as in nature, Mahler's music is ever-changing, ever fresh and new, and never twice the same colour.

3. What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me

Mahler follows the introduction of delicate blooms into his universe with a scherzo movement bustling with animals to trample rough-shod through his garden. The main allegro [Characteristic 1] is based on the song Ablosung im Sommer. Taken from the early Jugendzeit set, this song describes how the Nightingale deputises for the dead Cuckoo when summer comes – you can almost hear the "Kuck-kuck ist Tod!" This little song is amplified enormously into a right old romp, drunk with the joy of life – a joy stilled only by the looming shadow of Man, heard from beyond the horizon as a long and challenging "post-horn" solo [Characteristic 2 – the tune, you may notice, is remarkably similar to the Jota Aragonesa].

Again, the "reprise" of the main music, triggered by a quickfire reveille from the trumpets, is actually further delirious development. Again, the creatures are stilled by the post-horn but then, in a rapid crescendo, the apprehensive animals are herded up-hill to the edge of a vast, vertiginous chasm, a flash of fearful foreboding before all are stampeded by a shockingly ecstatic final eruption.

4. What the Night Tells Me

Into the stunned silence steps Man, in a fourth movement as devoid of activity as the first three were hyperactive. It seems that we are back with the primal stirrings of the start of the symphony. But not quite: now the stirrings are not of the birth of Life but of Intellect – and Conscience, for Nietzsche's poem and Mahler's subdued music intone a warning: "O Man, Take Heed!" (What a pity that Mankind has not since "taken heed").

The music is also virtually devoid of melody, "without form and void", until hushed strings proffer the first movement's "gleaming spear". The singer, her dire tones now intoning an even darker warning, at first refuses the temptation, but finally succumbs: thus does Man become aware – aware of Joy, Heartache, Death, and of Eternity beyond Death.

5. What the Morning Bells Tell Me

From the brooding stasis of "Midnight" we emerge attacca into sunshine, somewhere in the suburbs of Utopia. Children intone bell-sounds as grown-up Angels sing of the Last Supper (a text taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn). Mahler's attitude to religion varied between ambivalent and expedient. Here, as in the Eighth Symphony, he was happy to juxtapose sacred and profane, finding a heightened drama in that very contrast. (In passing, I can't help noticing how odd it seems that Mahler, well-known for his love of children, required them to sit, as quiet as church mice, for a full hour before being involved for a mere four or five minutes!).

The central episode, in which a couple of themes presage the originally-intended finale (but now, of course, presage the Fourth Symphony's finale), reaches a climax that is momentarily threatening, although entirely in keeping with the text. This storm-cloud soon passes, enabling the joyous singing to carry us through a final ascent into silence . . .

6. What Love Tells Me

. . . from which the opening phrase of the great Adagio emerges, an utterly transfixing moment. The theme, it must be said, has that rather square-set look of a Victorian hymn-tune and, if Mahler's detailed markings are neglected, it can all too easily end up sounding like one: flexibility, of tempo and phrasing, is needed – oh yes, indeed! – but above all this ravishingly beautiful music must be played with all the Love it is intended to express.

The movement, basically a set of variations, is laid out with a masterly eye for cumulative dramatic impact. Casting it into four paragraphs of sublimely intertwining melody (in which the strings play divisi almost throughout!), Mahler demarcates his Road to Heaven with three intrusive "stumbling blocks", distinguished by the same four-note horn phrase, very similar to the three-note heavenwards-striving phrase that was to end his Eighth Symphony.

Progressively expanding in climactic urgency, a volcanic pressure builds up, released only when that first movement "structural device" blows the lid off the third block, clearing the path to those Pearly Gates – it's small wonder that Mahler once said that this movement's real theme is expressed in the lines, "Father, look upon my wounds! / Let no creature be lost!"

A long, mind-blowing symphony demands a long (though hopefully not mind-numbing) programme note. Writing and revising this has been a both a joy and a sorrow: the former because there's so much I wanted to say, the latter because there's so much that I had to leave unsaid. So, I must finish by taking my hat off to Gustav Mahler, who in his music managed to say it all!

© Paul Serotsky


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