Logo Belle Epoque
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 d minor "Nature Symphony" (1895/96)

First performance on June 9, 1902 in Krefeld
conducted by Gustav Mahler

  1. Kräftig, entschieden.
  2. Tempo di Menuetto. Sehr mäßig.
  3. Comodo. Scherzando. Ohne Hast.
  4. Sehr langsam. Misterioso. Durchaus ppp.
  5. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck. (29 k)
  6. Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden.

Midi file by Julian Pages

"My symphony will be something the world has never heard before! The entire nature will get a voice in it and tell something so deeply secret which you maybe guess in your dream! [...] Sometimes it seems eerie even to me and I get the impression that it was not me who did it."

Around 1894, Mahler had found a balance in his life between his vocation as a conductor and his work as a composer: through the year he was mainly occupied by opera productions whereas he spent the summer holidays in Steinbach on the banks of the Attersee composing his works for which reason he had built a little composition house which was completely isolated against the sounds of outside. It also seems that the completion of the Second Symphony was some kind of inner breakthrough for him: In summer 1895 he started to work over his Third Symphony of which he completed the second to sixth movements; until spring 1896, he completed the full scores, and in summer followed the first movement. Originally, the Symphony was supposed to consist of seven movements: The song Das himmlische Leben (Heavenly life) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn should form the conclusion which is proved by variations of melodies and motifs in the first, second and fifth movements; eventually it became the point of departure and the final piece of the Fourth Symphony. From handwritten inscriptions on the score we know that Mahler completed the Third Symphony around November 1896.
The first performance of the second movement took already place on November 9, 1896 in Berlin, exceptionally not conducted by Mahler but by Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922) and met an enthusiastic audience. Mahler himself conducted this movement for the first time in 1897 and 1898. Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) conducted a performance of the second, third and sixth movement on March 9, 1897 in Berlin. The full score was published in Vienna in 1899 but it was only on June 9, 1902 in Krefeld that the entire symphony was performed for the first time.

Excerpt from the comments of Yasuhiko Mori:

"It was not merely fortuitous that six years elapsed between the completion and the premiere of the work. The person most surprised, moved, troubled, and even awed by the enormity of the proportions the work had assumed was Mahler himself, he who had borne direct witness to the appearance of the symphony at the tip of his pen. It is interesting in this connection to observe that Mahler frequently remarked to acquaintances about his sense of being 'compelled to write'. By this he means that he does not compose consciously through the exercise of his own will; he senses that an entity transcending his own self and immeasurable in terms of human faculties is using him, the composer, as a medium for writing music down on paper. We may thus observe that the motive force for Mahler's creativity originated in unsconscious layers deep within his spirit.
After beginning the work, Mahler remarked jokingly that it was his intention at last to compose an enjoyable work which would make him a rich man. But it had become a matter of total irrelevance by the time the first movement had been composed, and this at such an astounding speed. It was Mahler himself who was the first to question the justification of a first movement requiring such enormous orchestral forces and more than thirty minutes to perform.
Although, after its first performance, Mahler directed fifteen performances of the Symphony No. 3, this work was, until some twenty years ago, one of the most neglected of Mahler's symphonies. For example, the english musicologist Deryck Cooke, who in his later days was such a staunch and impassioned advocate of Mahler, described the work in 1960 as a failure. However, the Symphony No. 3 is now regarded as a masterpiece of central importance in terms of both Mahler performance and research. This is the first work into which Mahler incorporates his whole universe and which might appropriately be described as a manifestation of symphonic metaphysics. In reflection of this, Mahler researchers continue to bring their critical chisels to bear on this edifice as if to uncover the secrets of an entire cosmos, and to challenge from many different angles the colossal enigma presented by the work. Just as in the case of several of Beethoven's symphonies a century ago, so Mahler's Third has become a subject for debate among those with an interest in music, in the manner of the Bible or like a precipitous, unscaled peak which constantly allures the bold adventurer.
In order to rectify imbalances between the movements, Mahler here for the first time introduces units (referred to as 'Abteilungen' or 'parts') which stand over and above the individual movements themselves. In this work, the first movement alone accounts for Part 1, whereas the remaining five movements are gathered together as Part 2. Although the four inner movements adhere approximately to the structure of the Symphony No. 2, the two outer movements present a major contrast: The first movement is of a size and structure which make it impossible to subsume the movement within conventional concepts, and the sixth and final movement is an audaciously conceived slow movement. Furthermore, the titles which Mahler wrote in the score but wich were omitted from the published edition and other testimonies indicate that the arrangement of these six movements was intended to reflect a gradual climb up through the cosmic hierarchy. The work begins on a cold and stony tone suggesting inorganic rock, the second movement is intended to represent plants, the third movement animals, the fourth movement man, and the fifth movement angels, culminating in the attainment of divine love in the sixth movement. Each movement in fact bears eight titles, but there is no space to elaborate on this here. As pointed out by the American historian William McGrath, this arrangement is based on a philosophy culled synthetically from the thought of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wagner, who were all the rage among progressive-minded Austrian youth during the late nineteenth century. Man, who makes his appearance in the fourth movement as a being gradually becoming conscious of the anguish of the 'cosmological will', seeks redemption from the 'morning angels', redemption which comes about through divine love. [...]
It would be going too far to interpret this symphony exclusively from such a philosophical or programmatic perspective. However, even without knowledge of such extra-musical aspects, the fact that the symphony is an image as well as an attempt to make sense of the world and the cosmos comes across in the music itself. There is perhaps no other work in Mahler's oeuvre which, when given a first-rate performance, seems to become so much shorter every time one hears it. The prolixity which seems to characterize the work on first hearing appears totally to evaporate as one grows more familiar with it."

Generally, the Symphonie No. 3 is regarded as symphony in d minor; the music starts in the key of d minor and ends in the key of D major. Divergent opinions of musicologists refer to the fact that in Mahler's intention, the first movement was a sonata movement including a prelude having an unusual form and concluding in the key of F major, a key playing such an important role that one can be inclined to speak of a symphony in F major.

The enormous first movement forms Part 1 and has been described by Mahler as follows: "Pan awakes, summer marches in, it sounds, it sings, it begins to bloom from everywhere. And between all this, something endlessly mysterious and painful like the dead nature awaiting, in a dull immobility, future life." The work begins in a similar manner to the beginning of the last movement of the Second Symphony. The thematic groups which will come to the forefront later on in the work are initially introduced in parallel with pauses between them. The main role in the movement (reminding stronly on the main theme of the final movement in Brahms's First Symphony) is played by a march in F major presented by the horns, but immediately the atmosphere changes into a gloomy d minor where the background is formed by creaking bassoons and longingly lamenting trombones while trumpets, like a far echo of the wood wind instruments, accompanied by tender flutes and the oboe, call a charming violin solo: Nature awakes! Heavy trombone sounds come in, world is still rubbing its eyes, but the orchestra concentrates, assembles, and starts a joyful and vivacious march reminding sometimes on a circus marching into town. "Sehr drängend" (very pressing) and "mit höchster Kraft" (with greatest power), one of the great musical frescoes of Gustav Mahler comes to an end.

The remaining movements constitute Part 2 of the symphony. Corresponding to the Second Symphony, the second movement is a Menuetto, the third movement a Scherzo, and in the fourth movement emerges a gloomy contralto solo.

"What the flowers on the meadow are telling me", Mahler headed the second movement which has a gracious and carefree character. The oboe starts a bouncy and charming Menuetto played alternatingly by clarinet, flute, and horn, before harp and strings intervene graciously. You can see the meadows and fields lying before you in the light of the summer sun where butterflies and bumblebees are dancing merrily around the flowers while sometimes a stormy wind blows over the plain.

After the awakening of nature and the flowers come the inferior beings: "What the animals in the forest are telling me", the third movement is titled. Again - similar to the Second Symphony - the main theme is the paraphrase of a "Wunderhorn" song and again the wind instruments, especially the wood winds, play a main and funny role, but this time, in contrast to the Second Symphony, it lacks completely of any mockery and any sharpness. The friendliness of the second movement is continued in a cheerful, humorous and very dynamic manner. The merry and colourful bustle of the animals, however, stops twice in a quiet listening and leads to an extraordinary climax of the movement if not the entire symphony: Through the silence, from far away, a lonely posthorn is heard, a lyric interlude of the Fluegelhorn, maybe the most beautiful breather of all symphonies of Mahler, an enchanting, poetic moment.
But on the movement's conclusion, Mahler unleashes the elements, and a storm, the vision of terror, roars over the world and the audience.

This leads without a pause to the fourth movement, "What man is telling me". In a mysterious and slightly gloomy atmosphere are heard the words "O Mensch! Gib acht!" (O man! Attend!) from Thus spoke Zarathustra in a contralto solo. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a contemporary of Mahler, was very popular in the late 19th century and impressed many other artists besides Richard Strauss.
The movement has nearly the appearance of an impressionist picture: The various instruments are painting dots of sound, natural noises, short phrases and swaying forms, approaching and dieing down again, thus giving to the contralto a gentle and caressing frame.

Immediately follows the fifth movement: "What the angels are telling me." A boys' choir, accompanied by bright bells, sings the "Armer Kinder Bettlerlied" (Poor Children's Begging Song) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn in shining colours, representing in the first place the "rejoicing" and the "heavenly joy"; the middle part, interpreted by contralto and women's choir, is far less joyful referring to the words, and the music follows this change of atmosphere becoming more melancholy and more broken.

The final movement in the key of D major is an audacious and enormous Adagio: "What love is telling me." Mahler himself commented: "In a way I could name the movement also: 'What God is telling me', in the sense that God can only be understood as Love."

We heard the First Symphony, the Titan's image; we buried him and his entire life passed before our inner eyes. After a pause of contemplation, we heard the history of nature and of life. Now we have reached the end of the first part of Mahler's creation: After the trials and tribulations of human existence finally follows the redeeming triumph of pure music!
An incomparable final movement of about twenty minutes makes us tremble and puts us into the state of inner exhaustion, but also into emotional, mental and spiritual fulfilment and absolute happiness.

Top of page