MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor

Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt (Kaliště), Bohemia, near the town of Humpolec, on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. He did the main work on his Third Symphony in the summers of 1895 and 1896. Two songs, Ablösung im Sommer” (“Relief in Summer”) and “Das himmlische Leben” (“Life in Heaven”), provide source material for some of the symphony, and they go back to about 1890 and February 1892, respectively. Mahler made final revisions in May 1899 and (with L. Geller-Wolter singing the alto solos) conducted the first complete performance at the Festival of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein at Krefeld on June 9, 1902. Ernst Kunwald introduced the Third Symphony in the United States at the Cincinnati May Festival, May 9, 1914. Alfred Hertz conducted the first SFS performances in December 1921. The most recent performances here were given in September 2011 with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting and with mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus,  San Francisco Girls Chorus, and the women of the SFS Chorus. The score calls for mezzo-soprano solo, women’s chorus, boys’ chorus (sung at these concerts by girls’ chorus), and an orchestra of four flutes (four doubling piccolo), four oboes (one doubling English horn), three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet) and two high clarinets in E-flat, four bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), eight horns, four trumpets, posthorn, four trombones, tuba, two harps, strings, and percussion including timpani, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, bass drum with cymbal attached, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, and rute. Performance time: about ninety-two minutes.

When Mahler, then near to completing his Eighth Symphony, visited Sibelius in 1907, the two composers talked about “the essence of symphony.” Mahler rejected his colleague’s creed of severity, style, and logic, saying that “a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” Twelve years earlier, while at work on the Third, he had remarked that to “call it a symphony is really incorrect as it does not follow the usual form. The term ‘symphony’—to me, this means creating a world with all the technical means available.”

The completion of the Second Symphony the previous summer had given him confidence, and he was sure of being “in perfect control” of his technique. Now, in the summer of 1895, escaped for some months from his duties as principal conductor of the Hamburg Opera, installed in his new one-room cabin at Steinbach on the Attersee some twenty miles east of Salzburg, with his sister Justine and his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner to look after him (this most crucially meant silencing crows, waterbirds, children, and whistling farmhands), Mahler set out to make a world to which he gave the overall title The Happy Life—A Midsummer Night’s Dream (adding “not after Shakespeare, critics and Shakespeare mavens please note”).

Before he wrote any music, he worked out a scenario in five sections, titled What the Forest Tells Me, What the Trees Tell Me, What Twilight Tells Me (“strings only,” he noted), What the Cuckoo Tells Me (scherzo), and What the Child Tells Me. He changed all that five times during the summer as the music began to take shape in his mind and, with a rapidity that astounded him, on paper as well. The Happy Life disappeared, to be replaced for a while by the Nietzschian Happy Science (first My Happy Science).The trees, the twilight, and the cuckoo were all taken out, their places taken by flowers, animals, and morning bells. He added What the Night Tells Me and saw that he wanted to begin with the triumphal entry of summer, which would include an element of something Dionysiac and even frightening. In less than three weeks he composed what are now the second, third, fourth, and fifth movements. He went on to the adagio and, by the time his composing vacation came to an end on August 20, he had made an outline of the first movement and had composed two independent songs, “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm”(“Song of the Persecuted Man in the Tower”) and “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (“Where the Lovely Trumpets Sound”). It was the richest summer of his life.

In June 1896 he was back at Steinbach. Over the winter he had made some progress scoring the new symphony and had complicated his life by an intense and stormy affair with a young, superlatively gifted dramatic soprano newly come to Hamburg, Anna von Mildenburg. Now, as Mahler worked, he came to realize that the awakening of Pan and the triumphal march of summer wanted to be included in a single movement. He also saw, to his alarm, that the first movement was growing hugely, that it would be more than half an hour long, and that it was also getting louder and louder. He deleted his finale, What the Child Tells Me, which was the “Life in Heaven” song of 1892 and which he put to work a few years later to serve as finale to the Fourth Symphony. That necessitated rewriting the last pages of the adagio, which had now become the finale, but essentially the work was under control by early August. The Happy Science was still part of the title at the beginning of the summer, coupled with what had become A Midsummer Noon’s Dream,but in the eighth and last of Mahler’s scenarios, dated August 6, 1896, the superscription is simply A Midsummer Noon’s Dream,with the following titles given to the individual movements:

First Part: Pan Awakes. Summer Comes Marching In (Bacchic procession)
Second Part: What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
What Humanity Tells Me
What the Angels Tell Me
What Love Tells Me

At the 1902 premiere, the program page showed no titles at all, only tempo and generic indications (Tempo di Menuetto, Rondo, Alto Solo, etc.). “Beginning with Beethoven,” wrote Mahler to the critic Max Kalbeck that year, “there is no modern music without its underlying program.—But no music is worth anything if you first have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it, respectively, what he is supposed to experience in it.—And so yet again: pereat every program!—You just have to bring along ears and a heart and—not least—willingly surrender to the rhapsodist. Some residue of mystery always remains, even for the creator.”

Writing at about the same time to the conductor Josef Krug-Waldsee, Mahler elaborated:

Those titles were an attempt on my part to provide non-musicians with something to hold on to and with a signpost for the intellectual, or better, the expressive content of the various movements and for their relationships to each other and to the whole. That it didn’t work (as, in fact, it could never work) and that it led only to misinterpretations of the most horrendous sort became painfully clear all too quickly. It’s the same disaster that had overtaken me on previous and similar occasions, and now I have once and for all given up commenting, analyzing all such expediencies of whatever sort. These titles . . . will surely say something to you after youknow the score. You will draw intimations from them about how I imagined the steady intensification of feeling, from the indistinct, unbending, elemental existence (of the forces of nature) to the tender formation of the human heart, which in turn points toward and reaches a region beyond itself (God).

Please express that in your own words without quoting those extremely inadequate titles and that way you will have acted in my spirit. I am very grateful that you asked me [about the titles], for it is by no means inconsequential to me and for the future of my work how it is introduced into “public life.”

The climate has changed since Mahler’s time, and today’s audience is very much inclined to come to Mahler with that willingness to surrender for which he had hoped. We do well to ignore the “Titan” claptrap he imposed on his First Symphony—years after its composition; when, however, we look at the titles in the Third Symphony, even though they were finally rejected, we are looking at a series of attempts to put into few words the material, the world of ideas, emotions, and associations that lay behind the musical choices Mahler made as he composed. We too can draw intimations from them and then remove them as scaffolding we no longer need. That said, let us turn for a brief look at the musical world Mahler left us.

The first movement accounts for roughly one third of the symphony’s length. Starting with magnificent gaiety, it falls at once into tragedy—see-sawing chords of low horns and bassoons, the drumbeats of a funeral procession, cries and outrage. Mysterious twitterings follow, the suggestion of a distant quick march, and a grandly rhetorical recitative for the trombone. Against all that, Mahler poses a series of brisk marches (the realization of what he had adumbrated earlier for just a few seconds), the sorts of tunes you can’t believe you haven’t known all your life and the sort that used to cause critics to complain of Mahler’s “banality,” elaborated and scored with an astonishing combination of delicacy and exuberance. Their swagger is rewarded by a collision with catastrophe, and the whole movement—for all its outside dimension as classical a sonata form as Mahler ever designed—is the conflict of the dark and the bright elements, culminating in the victory of the latter.

Two other points might be made. One concerns Mahler’s fascination, not ignored in our century, with things happening “out of time.” The piccolo rushing the imitations of the violins’ little fanfares is not berserk: She is merely following Mahler’s direction to play “without regard for the beat.” That is playful, but the same device is turned to dramatic effect when, at the end of a steadily accelerating development, the snare drums cut across the oom-pah of the cellos and basses with a slower march tempo of their own, thus preparing the way for the eight horns to blast the recapitulation into being. The other thing is to point out that several of the themes heard near the beginning will be transformed into the materials of the last three movements—fascinating especially when you recall that the first movement was written after the others.

In the division of the work Mahler finally adopted, the first movement is the entire first section. What follows is, except for the finale, a series of shorter character pieces, beginning with the Blumenstück,the first music he composed for this symphony. This is a delicately sentimental minuet, with access, in its contrasting middle section, to slightly sinister sources of energy. It “anticipates” music not heard in the symphony at all, specifically the scurrying runs from the “Life in Heaven” song that was dropped from this design and incorporated in the Symphony No. 4. Some time after he finished this movement, Mahler noted with surprise that the basses play pizzicato throughout. In the last measure, Wagner’s Parsifal flower maidens make a ghostly appearance in Mahler’s Upper Austrian pastoral.

In the third movement, Mahler draws on his song “Ablösung im Sommer”(“Relief in Summer”), whose text tells of waiting for Lady Nightingale to start singing as soon as the cuckoo is through. The marvel here is the landscape with posthorn, not just the lovely melody itself, but the way it is presented—the magic transformation of the very “present” trumpet into distant posthorn, the gradual change of the posthorn’s melody from fanfare to song, the interlude for flutes, and, as Arnold Schoenberg points out, the accompaniment “at first with the divided high violins, then, even more beautiful if possible, with the horns.” After the brief return of this idyll and before the snappy coda, Mahler makes spine-chilling reference to the “Great Summons” music in the Second Symphony’s finale.

Low strings rock to and fro, the harps accenting a few of their notes. The see-sawing chords from the first pages return; a human voice intones the Midnight Song from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Each of its eleven lines is to be imagined as coming between two of the twelve strokes of midnight. Pianississimo throughout, warns Mahler. The harmony is almost as static as the dynamics.

From here the music moves forward without a break and, as abruptly as it changed from the scherzo to Nietzsche’s midnight, so does it change now from that darkness to a world of bells and angels. The text of the fifth movement comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn),though the interjections of “Du sollst ja nicht weinen” (“But you mustn’t weep”) are Mahler’s own. A three-part chorus of women’s voices carries most of the text, though the solo contralto returns to take the part of the sinner. The children’s chorus, confined at first to bell noises, joins later in the exhortation “Liebe nur Gott”(“Only love God”) and for the final stanza. This movement, too, foreshadows the “Life in Heaven” that will not in fact occur until the Fourth Symphony.

Mahler perceived that the decision to end his symphony with an adagio was one of the most special he made. “In adagio movements,” he explained to Natalie Bauer-Lechner, “everything is resolved in quiet. The Ixion wheel of outward appearances is at last brought to a standstill. In fast movements—minuets, allegros, even andantes nowadays—everything is motion, change, flux.

“Therefore I have ended my Second and Third symphonies contrary to custom . . . with adagios—the higher form as distinguished from the lower.”

A noble thought, but, not uniquely in Mahler, there is some gap between theory and reality. The adagio makes its way at last to a sure and grand conquest, but during its course—and this is a movement, like the first, on a very large scale—Ixion’s flaming wheel can hardly be conceived of as standing still. In his opening melody, Mahler invites association with the slow movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, Opus 135. Soon, though, the music is caught in “motion, change, flux,” and before the final triumph it encounters again the catastrophe that interrupted the first movement. The adagio’s original title, What Love Tells Me, refers to Christian love, to agape, and Mahler’s drafts carry the superscription: “Behold my wounds! Let not one soul be lost!” The performance directions, too, speak to the issue of spirituality, for Mahler enjoins that the immense final bars with their thundering kettledrum be played “not with brute strength, [but] with rich, noble tone,” and that the last measure “not be cut off sharply”—so that there is some softness to the edge between sound and silence at the end of this most riskily and gloriously comprehensive of Mahler’s worlds.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony, with mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the women of the SFS Chorus, the Pacific Boychoir, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Also included in this two-disc set is a recording of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, with Michelle DeYoung (SFS Media) |  Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with mezzo-soprano Janet Baker (Sony)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig (Deutsche Grammophon)  |   Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, with mezzo-soprano Martha Lipton (Sony)  |  Claudio Abbado conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, with soprano Jessye Norman (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Mahler: Symphony No. 3, by Peter Franklin (Cambridge) | Mahler: The Symphonies, by Constantin Floros (Amadeus)  |  Henri-Louis de La Grange’s four-volume encyclopedic Mahler survey, covers the Symphony No. 3 in its first installment, titled simply Mahler (Doubleday).  |  Another comprehensive study of the Symphony No. 3 and works with which it shares some affinity is Donald Mitchell’s Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years (California).  |  The Mahler Companion, edited by Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson (Oxford)

DVD: In Keeping Score: Mahler, MTT and Symphony musicians share their insights about the composer. The DVD includes SFS excerpts of Symphony No. 3 and all of Mahler’s symphonies, as well as a full performance of Symphony No. 1 (SFS Media).