Mahler’s gigantic third Symphony is his paean to pantheism, his great hymn to nature. According to the model’s program, its six movements are arranged in a progressive sequence from inanimate nature to the creator of the universe who Mahler equates with love.
In the Third Symphony, Mahler still seeks an answer to the troubling metaphysical questions he expressed in his programs for the second, but his philosophical orientation has changed from spiritual to humanistic God is still the goal toward which all life strives, but the focus is on life itself in its naturalistic development, not on a divine promise of eternal bliss in the hereafter, yet the essence of Mahler’s existential perspective remains tied to the theme of redemption now approached from a more worldly perspective, this theme seems to develop cumulatively, in the first three symphonies.
The nature worship, and legend like heroism of the First Symphony, with its focus on earthly existence, combines with the god worship of the second in the formulation of the third, which may be characterized as the development of the life force in a desperate struggle between affirmation and negation, with a merger of human and divine love providing redemption.
If in the second Symphony man is represented as the believer who seeks a remedy for earthly pain and suffering, in the third, he becomes a Faust in wanderer, experiencing all of the fruits of nature as they progress to ever higher forms of existence, until the ultimate being God is reached, forming a union with humanity, although both the second and third symphonies resolve the issues they present through the divinity, Mahler’s God is not typically Judeo Christian, witnessed the abnegation of the Last Judgment in the program notes for the Second Symphony.
The essential difference in Mahler’s approach to redemption in both symphonies is that in the second, humankind is subservient to God’s grace achieved through belief, while in the third, God and humanity come together, not as equals, of course, but as partners in life’s traversal their mutual love providing the highest achievement in existence, that is also the long sought after redemptive resolution to human suffering, Mahler’s own world was beginning to evolve during the 1890s when he wrote the third, his personal quest for life’s meaning in the face of suffering and death, was deeply affected by his encounter with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche’s.
Mahler was attracted to Nietzsche’s dramatic and effusive style, as well as his antichristian sentiments, which must have touched a nerve given Mahler’s subjugation to pervasive antisemitism in both his personal and professional life. Yet Mahler may have instinctively recognized a quasi-religious spirit in Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra, from this quintessential work of the German philosopher, Mahler takes the text for the Fourth Movement, in which he intended to represent human life in the context of the progressive development of being more or even equated God and the Uber Manche in reference to the subject of the finale.
In spite of the transfigured conclusion of the second Symphony, Mahler had not completely overcome his serious doubts about the benevolent nature of God, and his responsibility for the tragic loss of men, during his work on the third Mahler poured out his heart and deeply personal correspondence, written in a style, not unlike Nietzsche, these outpourings events of profound inner struggle that ends with a terrible accusation against the creator as the ultimate source and respondent for human suffering.
It is then not surprising that Mahler saw in the great antichrist Friedrich Nietzsche, a kindred spirit, one who did not fear to attack the Christian conception of God, by juxtaposing it against the earthy spirit of the pagan god Dionysus. As a God of nature, overflowing with the joy of life, without being bound by the chains of guilt and sin, Dionysus was the very projection of Mahler’s own concept of nature, in all its purity, a symbol of the life-enhancing spirit as the nature deity pan, the Dionysian spirit horns, the Third Symphony, from the drunken rebels of the first movement, the gay playfulness of the second and the innocent frolicking of the third, to the passion and grandeur of the finale.
During the creative process, it is as if Mahler’s inner being was infused with the spirit of the great god Pan. Walter describes Mahler’s demeanor when the composer played him the third for the first time he said it was a shattering experience to hear him play the third of the piano. His music made me feel I recognized him for the first time, his whole being seemed to breathe a mysterious affinity with the forces of nature. I had already guessed its depth, its elemental quality. Now, in the range of his creativity, I felt it directly. I saw him as pan light stream from him onto his work, and from his work on to him, the way in which Mahler seemed to have taken on the pan like characteristics during the creative process is contrast with what appeared to Ferdinand foon as a rebellious nature, thrust out of the sight of God, Pharaoh said, he’d looked like one who had questioned God, and had accordingly been cast out of the light and into the darkness, one whose crime was acknowledged, and who now sought with desperate urgency the way back to the loss paradise, seeking to reach God and the angels on the sounding bridge of music, which joins the present world with the hereafter model was also receptive to other aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
The metaphysical concept of eternal return that nature embraced and transformed into the eternity of the moment, also found a receptive soul in Mahler, all will return, life only has meaning through this certainty, said Mahler, for this reason, I have to live ethically in order to spare my returning soul some part of its journey, although, Alma claims that Mahler overtly rejected Nietzsche, Uber Mench as too aristocratic and thus potentially tyrannical Nietzsche influence was so strong that Mahler thought of subtitling the symphony, the Freud the surevision shaft, the gay science, after the title of one of Nietzsche’s works, although he later withdrew this reference for the published tradition, in the fourth movement of the symphony, Mahler set to music does under the Townsley and other dance song from the German philosopher’s masterpiece, also sprats Arthur’s stroke, part three, Mahler denied that the third has anything to do with the struggles of an individual, he preferred to emphasize its ground plan, as Nietzsche’s path of development, from stiff materiality to the greatest articulation of his own contemporaries such as Arnold Schoenberg and Bruno Walter saw in the symphony a struggle between good and evil that provides an underlying theme for the entire work it is not at all unusual for composition, especially one of such enormous size and multifarious content to be attributed characteristics or philosophical undercurrents, far beyond the original intentions of the composer, whatever Mahler his initial inspiration and original conception, certain aspects of the third go far beyond them, if he can see part one, solely comprising the gigantic first movement, as a representation of the awakening of animate nature from the inanimate, as he frequently claims, why does the music he used for the ladder sounds so dark and ominous, anything but inert? And why does he set this music as a funeral dirge? Moreover, why does he referred back to this morose, sometimes terrifying subject, long after representations of animate life are achieved in the subsequent movements? Mama’s inanimate nature is surely not just lifeless, but life-threatening, or characterization philosophically implicit in the very nature of the simple it represents the antithesis of being whose progressive development is laid out so neatly in its structure.
Mahler was much more of a humanist than a metaphysically minded naturalist, who would be satisfied simply to offer a progression of stages of the life force without projecting into their natures a conflict of forces fighting for the very existence of life itself, most of his symphonies involve such a conflict, though viewed from different perspectives.
Mahler’s assertion that the third has nothing to do with the struggles of an individual may have been intended to discourage programmatic projections that he feared might divert attention away from the music itself.
While it is true, that man as such is only represented directly in the fourth movement, through the nature poem, the humanistic content of the entire work, as Mengelberg points out, takes it far beyond nature, to a vision of brotherhood, akin to Beethoven’s Ninth structurally Mahler sought to integrate classical forms and procedures with the logic of the symphonies progressive development through musical representations of increasingly complex life forms that necessitated both an expansion of and a deviation from traditional practices.
Beard in the Viennese symphonic tradition, Mahler tried to strike a balance between accepted symphonic form and variations from it, sometimes substantial when the wealth of his musical material and the nature of conceptual intentions required.
Indicative of his struggle between the traditional and the experimental, on a structural level, is unabashed pride in announcing that the gigantic first movement, taking over 30 minutes to play is but an enormous sonata movement.
Despite the fact that the world Mahler sought to create here is more extensive and diverse than in either of his preceding symphonies. Mahler still relied on basically the same ground plan, the outer movements would be the most extensive and contain the principal dramatic conflict, while the inner movements would be much shorter, less structurally complex, and serve as diverse as small or intermittency, even if they related to the symphonies overall conceptual design.
Mahler originally conceived the third in seven rather than six movements, the finale was to be his wonder horn song does hinglish avaible ultimately, he changed his mind, leaving the song to serve as the finale of his next Symphony.
The appearance of thematic and motivic material from that song in several of the third symphonies in our movements indicates the important role of the song here, Mahler may have reconsidered its inclusion as the third’s finale because it would have been anticlimactic, he may have wished to change the work’s focus from religious to humanistic notwithstanding the rather humanistic vision of heaven the text conveys. Mahler may have retained the title, what love tells me for the finale, instead of replacing it with what God tells me, in keeping with his declared identification of God with love.
Several commentators consider the third less a symphony than a divertissement, a string of unrelated movements that could not be successfully integrated merely by extra-musical connections, or isolated motivic or thematic references.
Ignoring the significance of these references, those who so denigrate the third, fail to recognize the importance of models transformative use of these motives, while linking movements together, both musically and conceptually, they also support the symphony superstructure, and provide the connective tissue that unites its diverse movements.
In the first movement, the stentorian horn theme with which the symphony opens, returns later in the movement, transformed into a joyous marching to motific elements from the dark sinister first section of that movement, reappearing in both the third and final movements, evoking dreadful images of life’s antagonist death, represented in the first movement as the absence of life that is inanimate being. Each movement not only responds to the question that Mahler posed in his original subtitles, but provides a counter foil for the succeeding or preceding movement, for example, to Seidler grounds. The finale is a reply to the terrifying restlessness and the Titanic conflicts of the opening Allegro, while the daylight of the angel movement dispels the midnight darkness of the Nietzschean lead, and the deep faith and overpowering feeling of love that pervades the finale answers all questions.
Mahler made his goal in this respect, unequivocally clear, as he said, just as the whole universe has developed from the original cell through plants, animals, man to God, the highest being in music to a whole piece should be developed from a single motif, a single theme, which contains the germ of all that is to follow whether or not Mahler succeeded in achieving his goal of motivic integration, as a means of unifying the diverse elements of this enormous Symphony is still a matter of some dispute.
Even Mahler was uncertain, admitting that each movement seems to stand on its own feet as a separate entity, without recapitulations or reminiscences, notwithstanding its enormous length and varied subject matter, as well as Mahler’s doubts that it would be completely understood.
The third was an unmitigated success at its premiere, it catapulted Mahler into prominence as a composer after a time during which the Symphony faded from public attention, it’s slowly increased in popularity.
Much of its success with audiences the world over can be attributed to Leonard Bernstein’s staunch advocacy. It is his first recording of this enormous masterpiece that we offer on this website.
By Lew Smoley