Brussels Philharmonic | Mahler 3

Mahler 3



Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)

[all programme notes]



The Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) has been described with many superlatives: it is his longest, most diverse, most humanistic and optimistic symphony. And with its enormous orchestration – the work requires an exceptionally large orchestra, alto solo and a women’s and children’s choir – it is also one of the largest. But even more importantly, this composition is the one that best reflects Mahler’s vision of this musical genre and of the world.

"Imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world. My Third Symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard. In it, the whole of nature finds a voice."

So wrote Mahler in 1896, while putting the final touches to the composition. Whereas his first two symphonies referred to quite melancholy themes like death and resurrection, with his Third Symphony, Mahler has written an ode to the creation of the world and of nature. He has in mind not only the flora and fauna that surrounds us, but also human nature and the contrast between earthly and spiritual existence. The result offers listeners a fantastic hour and a half-long trip through primal forces and natural beauty, from humanity to the hereafter.

Surrounded by the beauty of nature

As was the case with his first two symphonies, Mahler spent several summers working on his Third Symphony. His blossoming career as an opera conductor in Hamburg took up so much of his time, that he barely had time to write during the year. In the summer holidays, he withdrew to Steinbach am Attersee, an idyllic spot in the Alps near Salzburg, where he could compose in complete peace and quiet. He went on long walks in the mountains and drew inspiration from nature. He noted the musical ideas that came to him in little sketchbooks and when he returned to his Komponierhäuschen (composing hut), he developed them further into a first draft. Once back in Hamburg, he revised and orchestrated the sketches in between his engagements as a conductor.

This was how he wrote his Third Symphony as well: in 1894, Mahler finished the draft version of the symphony, and two summers later, he told musician friends that his ‘symphony dedicated to Pan’, was ready. To the conductor Bruno Walter, who visited Mahler in August 1896 and reported being much impressed by the surroundings in Steinbach, Mahler responded that he had just ‘composed away’ that beauty in a symphony of six movements. Initially, Mahler had included a reworking of his existing song Das himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life) – a description of heaven seen through children’s eyes – as a seventh movement. He changed his mind about this in the course of finalizing the work, when he noticed that the first movement was becoming much longer. In the end, he used Das himmlische Leben in his Fifth Symphony Instead. But even without that additional movement, Mahler’s Third Symphony is an oversized work, with an average performance length of 100 minutes.

Pan as superman

During the composition process, Mahler gave the symphony various titles, ranging from ‘A Summer Morning’s Dream’, through ‘The Joyous Science’ to ‘a Symphony dedicated to Pan’. He also gave the various movements programmatic titles in his draft:

1 – Pan awakes. Summer marches in
2 – What the flowers in the meadow tell me
3 – What the animals in the forest tell me
4 – What man tells me
5 – What the angels tell me
6 – What love tells me

All these titles served Mahler as a golden thread. When the score was published, he omitted the titles in order to rid the symphony of any extramusical context. He took the view that the music should speak for itself and the story behind it was no longer needed once the music was published: ‘Since Beethoven, there is no modern music without its underlying programme. But no music is worth anything if first you have to tell the listener what experience lies behind and what he is supposed to experience. You just have to bring your heart and ears along, and willingly surrender to the music. Some residue of mystery always remains, even for the creator.’

The titles do say something about the conceptual framework Mahler had in mind. Thus, the first movement is an exuberant echo of primal and natural forces, linked to the Greek god Pan:

"The greatest problems of humanity, those which I evoked and attempted to solve in the Second – why do we exist? Do we continue to exist after death? – can no longer touch me here. What, in fact, do they amount to in the face of the Almighty, of the Pan in whom everything lives and must live? Can a spirit that, as in this symphony, mediates the eternal truths of creation and divinity die?"

For Mahler, the figure of Pan represented the entire universe, from the earthly to the hereafter. That idea runs through the symphony as a golden thread and is linked to other allusions to literature, including The Joyous Science (1882) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1892) by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Mahler took the text ‘O man, take heed!’ from Zarathustra’s Midnight Song from the latter work as the basis for the fourth movement of the symphony. Here, the human being speaks, in his quest for illumination for his earthly cares. The fifth movement – based on a text from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn song cycle – marks the next step in that spiritual process, and finds ultimate fulfilment in the last movement, in love. Mahler saw this in the following way:

"It is the zenith, the highest level from which the world can be viewed. I could also name the movement ‘What God tells me, in the sense that God can only be understood as 'love'."

Successful premiere

It took a while for Mahler’s entire Third Symphony to have its premiere. In 1896 and 1897, the second, third and sixth movements were performed separately, but it was not until 1902 that Mahler could have the full symphony performed, in Krefeld. This was partly thanks to Richard Strauss, who had attended performances of Mahler’s Second and Fourth symphonies in Munich some time earlier, and was deeply impressed. The premiere was a great success: a local newspaper reported that "the thunderous ovation lasted no less than fifteen minutes’, and a Swiss critic referred to the last movement as ‘perhaps the greatest Adagio written since Beethoven."