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Gustav Mahler: The Third Symphony

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Gustav Mahler
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All of Nature has a voice in it

Mahler's Symphony No 3 in D minor, with alto solo, boys' choir and women's chorus

Musical Form and Outline

The symphony is in two parts; Part 1 comprises the long first movement, and Part 2, the following five. Mahler stipulated that there should be a long pause between the two parts. When originally published, the composer gave subtitles to each of the six movements, but they were later withdrawn.

  • 1st movement: Kräftig. Entschieden (Forceful. Resolute)
  • 2nd movement: Tempo di Menuetto. Sehr Mässig (Minuet. Very moderate)
  • 3rd movement: Comodo. Scherzando. Ohne Hast (Leisurely. Playful, humorous. Without rushing)
  • 4th movement: Sehr Langsam. Misteriosos. Durchaus ppp (Very slow. Mysterious, ppp throughout)
  • 5th movement: Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck (With a cheerful tempo and a saucy expression)
  • 6th movement: Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden (Slow. Peaceful. Deeply felt)

First Movement

'Pan awakes. Summer marches in', is how he described the first movement. Forceful and resolute indeed, it opens with a 12-bar theme in D minor for no less than eight horns! In the course of the next 30 minutes or so, Summer marches in to displace cold Winter, except that being Mahler, Summer is not summer and Winter is not winter, but the stirring of Life in a seemingly lifeless landscape. That opening march theme is the imperative of Nature, which will triumph by the end of the movement. Various march themes appear throughout, some of them coarse and plebeian, before the movement comes to a riotous conclusion in F major, with Pan and Bacchus celebrating together.

Second Movement

Following the pause comes the second movement, originally entitled "What the flowers in the meadow tell me". A deliberate contrast to the first movement, it is a lovely little 3/4 A major Minuet. The form is A-B-A-B-A, with the quicker B section in the relative (F sharp) minor, initially in 3/8 time signature.

Third Movement

The third movement ('What the animals in the forest tell me') is a Scherzo. Conventionally, we would expect the structure of such a movement to be A-B-A, with a Trio section in the middle. This movement however is more complex, with two Trios as well as other contrasting sections. The opening section in C minor is based on an early song from Mahler's set of Wunderhorn Lieder, the one entitled 'Ablösung im Sommer'. In this song, the cuckoo has died and we are waiting for the nightingale to sing the song of summer. The second Trio, in F major, features a post-horn solo representing the first appearance of humans in the forest. The post-horn starts quietly, as if in the distance, and approaches us before receding again. A sudden climax, in E flat minor, represents the cry of terror from the animals at the approach of Man.

Fourth Movement

Man is central to the fourth movement ('What night tells me'), and in turn the fourth movement is central to the whole symphony. It is a setting of words from Nietzsche's 'Midnight Song' in Also sprach Zarathustra, in which Zarathustra is instructed by Life to contemplate his lack of faith, between the 12 strokes of midnight. This slow, sparse movement in D major/D minor is for alto soloist and orchestra. It is something of a pre-echo of both the Ninth Symphony and the closing pages of Das Lied von der Erde.

Fifth Movement

In the brief penultimate movement in F major ("What the morning bells tell me"), a boy's chorus sing the words "Bimm, Bamm" repeatedly, in imitation of the bells, throughout much of the movement. Over this accompaniment, a women's chorus sing another Wunderhorn song, 'Es sungen drei Engel'. The alto soloist sings a theme that will become the Finale of the Fourth Symphony (it was originally planned as yet another movement of this symphony!). The string section of the orchestra has little to do in this movement, and the violins nothing at all.

Sixth Movement

Whether or not Mahler deliberately rested his upper strings in the fifth movement, in preparation for the sixth and final movement we shall never know, but now they and the full orchestra play one of Mahler's great Adagio movements, subtitled 'What love tells me'. Others have said that Mahler was influenced by, or even paying homage to Bruckner. This researcher disagrees – in this beautiful D major movement, Mahler is giving a masterclass in Adagio writing. It constantly evolves and formal analysis adds nothing vital to our appreciation of it; it is simply 328 bars, 22 minutes of the finest music written by Mahler or any other composer.

Composition and Premiére

Mahler composed this large-scale symphony primarily during the summer holidays of the years 1895 and 1896, taken at Steinbach, on the Attersee. The autograph fair copy is dated 22 November, 1896.

As with the Second Symphony, the concert-going public heard separate movements from the Third in advance of the first complete performance of the work. The second movement was first performed, on its own, at a Philharmonic concert conducted by Arthur Nikisch given in Berlin on Monday, 9 November, 1896. At that time, the movement was still known by the title of Blumenstück. It was sub-titled subsequently, in the programme for the completed symphony, 'Was mir die Blumen auf der Wiese erzählen' ('What the flowers in the meadow tell me').

Mahler arrived by train from Hamburg on the morning of the day of the concert, and went straight to the first rehearsal. This continued for so long that at midday, the leader of the orchestra was obliged to inform Mahler that they must stop, since the orchestra was scheduled for another rehearsal in the afternoon.

The performance was well-received by the audience and Mahler had to come forward to the podium from his seat in the auditorium, shake Nikisch by the hand and then bow repeatedly. The Berlin press also received the piece well, one of the few occasions on which this was so. Mahler celebrated in Berlin after the concert and returned to Hamburg the next day.

The Berlin Philharmonic again played the Blumenstück movement at a concert given a month later in Hamburg on Monday, 7 December, 1896, conducted by Felix Weingartner. Again, the piece achieved success both with the audience, who demanded an encore, and the critics.

Nikisch included the Blumenstück movement in a programme given at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on Thursday, 21 January, 1897. Both the concert itself and the public final rehearsal the previous afternoon were a great success, as Nikisch informed Mahler by letter the day after the concert.

The second, third and sixth movements were given at a Königliche Kapelle (Chapel Royal) concert, conducted by Felix Weingartner, on Tuesday, 9 March, 1897. This performance was just prior to Mahler's first international conducting tour to Moscow, Munich and Budapest. Mahler arrived in Berlin over the weekend to attend the final rehearsals and the concert, before undertaking the long train journey to Moscow.

The three movements of the Mahler symphony were given in the first half of the concert, preceded by Weber's Euryanthe Overture. Blumenstück was, as on previous occasions, well received, but after the second excerpt, 'Was mir die Tiere im Walde erzählen' (What the animals in the forest tell me), there was a mixture of applause and booing. At the end of the Finale, 'Was mir die Liebe erzählt' ('What Love tells me'), the audience's increasingly negative reaction overwhelmed the support and the first half of the concert finished in disarray. 'The press is going to tear me to shreds', said Mahler at the railway station the next day as he boarded the train to Moscow. He was not wrong.

The first complete performance of the six-movement symphony we know today was given in Krefeld, on Monday, 9 June, 1902, as part of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein Festival. This time it was received with great acclaim. Notable members of the audience included the composers Richard Strauss (who was at least in part responsible for organising the première), Max von Schillings, Engelbert Humperdinck, Eugen d'Albert, themselves having works performed at the Festival, and the conductor Willem Mengelberg1.

First rehearsals with the orchestra for the première took place in the Gürzenich Hall, Cologne. Mahler had insisted on two full days of rehearsals in Cologne, followed by two further three- to four-hour rehearsals in Krefeld, plus the final dress rehearsal. Mahler warned the orchestra right from the outset that if the previous history of performances of a Mahler symphony was anything to go by, they could be in for a rough ride from the public. The orchestra itself comprised musicians from both the Krefelder Städtische Kapelle and the Gürzenich Orchestra. The choirs comprised the ladies of the Oratorien-Verein and the children of the St Anna-Knabenchor. Frau Luise Geller-Wolter sang the alto part.

Mahler left Vienna late in May, accompanied to both Cologne and Krefeld by his wife Alma, then pregnant with their first child. The first of the two Krefeld rehearsals took place on the morning of Friday 6 June, 1902, the second on the afternoon of Sunday, 8 June. The final rehearsal was held at 09.00 on the morning of the concert, 9 June.

By the end of the century, Mahler had turned against the use of programmes and forbidden the use of the subtitles he had previously ascribed to each of the movements.

Anticipation was clearly high, the concert hall filling up well before the scheduled start at 8pm. Applause followed the end of the first movement. Richard Strauss got to his feet and walked very deliberately to the podium to shout his support for the music. This public statement raised the excitement and tension in the hall and there followed a ten-minute interval. Each of the subsequent movements added to the excitement and the audience listened to the Finale with a breathless hush. At the completion, they clapped, cheered, and waved handkerchiefs for quarter of an hour, calling Mahler back to the podium for bow after bow.

The evening had been a dazzling success and marked a red-letter day in Mahler's career as a composer. The day, however, had a bitter end to come. Richard Strauss left immediately after the concert and did not stay behind with the others to congratulate the composer. Later, Mahler, Alma, Mahler's sister Justine and her husband Arnold Rosé ate in a restaurant. Strauss came up to Mahler and shook his hand, but said nothing. This apparent indifference, despite Strauss's earlier public display of approval, hurt Mahler very much and quite ruined the evening and the symphony's success for him.

The musical critics in the press universally acknowledged that a great event had taken place, and that whatever their personal likes and dislikes, here was a masterly conductor and a composer to be reckoned with.

Mahler conducted the Third Symphony on more occasions (15) than any other of his symphonies, the last being on Monday 14 January, 1907, in Berlin, at which the young Otto Klemperer played the off-stage drum.

1Mengelberg, the 31-year-old conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, took Mahler's music to his heart and in the following years, the two men became good friends. He invited Mahler to conduct in Amsterdam and to meet the various figures in the musical life of that city. On Mengelberg's instigation, Mahler visited Amsterdam on four occasions. In October 1903, he conducted his First and Third symphonies there, and in the following year, again in October, his Second and Fourth symphonies. Later, in 1906, he conducted the Fifth symphony there, and in 1909, the Seventh.

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