Mahler Symphony no. 3

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, or as below, Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, a wonderful performance

So here we are, at kind of the middle point of our series, and we have reached quite a point in the history of the symphony. This is a beast.

World’s (almost) biggest symphony composed in the world’s smallest composing ‘hut’ (via Wikipedia)

Some Thoughts

This is a really enormous piece, and had been one of the biggest challenges for me in the Mahler cycle. I’d been holding out on number nine, as I’ve mentioned only a thousand times before, but that’s over and done (the listening part, anyway), and I’ve decided it’s time to finish the remaining pieces in their chronological order. Its enormous scope makes it a challenge to write about, and then there’s the whole…. Connection to the previous three symphonies in our German(ic) Series to catch up on, and I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to do that, but you may notice that something is different. In my attempts at getting all this down on paper, I had a post of frightening length (perhaps suitable for a frighteningly long symphony) and decided that the aforementioned ‘connection’ for obvious reasons, needs to be an afterword to the actual discussion of the piece itself, so we’ve flipped the order this week. Music on Tuesday, some thoughts on Thursday.

It’s hard to imagine that, coming off the heels of something like his second, one of the grandest symphonies ever written up to that point, that he could outdo himself. And he did.

I don’t know what it was about the second that gripped me from just the first few listens, but it kept me coming back for more and more and more. That was good and bad, though, because I realized later that that kind of approach bred a familiarity with the piece that was more like memorizing every line of a movie but still not really grasping the plot or the meaning of those lines.

I love the piece, and had kind of my own conceptions of what it was ‘about’, but it still carried that very religious, spiritual kind of message that Mahler intended. My eyes were really opened when I listened to Aaron Cohen’s presentation based on Mahler’s notes for the piece. It all came together: the funeral rites, the procession, everything. The entire experience meant even more, and for whatever reason, that symphony will always be close to my heart, and the last ten or fifteen minutes will (almost, depending on the recording) always bring me to tears. It’s one of the most blissful moments in all music.

So… I actually had some apprehension about the third for a few reasons. To begin with, it was like starting all over again. I’d managed to fall in love with this 80-ish minutes of music, and coming back and starting from zero with the third, an even longer piece, made me feel tired before I’d even started listening to it.

I gave Kubelik’s recording a passive listen, as I did with another one (Solti?), but it didn’t accomplish much. It almost felt like I was cheating on Auferstehung.

But as I continued with the rest of the symphonies in his oeuvre, it seemed to fall a bit more into place. Even the sixth has its pastoral, rustic moments. That theme, of nature and surroundings and creation, seems to play a big part in his works, as contrast if nothing else, but it feels to be the central theme of the third. Nowhere is it more obvious to me than here.

It is craggy and monstrous and all-encompassing. The longest of Mahler’s symphonies (generally, unless there’s some super slow recording of another one somewhere), and generally considered the longest in the “standard” repertoire, (aside from like, Brian’s Gothic, which I’ve listened to a few times, and some as-of-yet-unperformed works) it’s quite a beast, and it has a very ‘upward’ narrative that continues beyond this work and into the fourth, but we’ll get to that later.

The History

I don’t want to reveal too much about the fourth here, for anyone who’s looking to hear these in order, unlike I did, but of his Wunderhornsymphonies, the works of his early period, this is kind of… The focal point, at least to me… The first two symphonies work up to this one, and the fourth finishes it up. There must obviously be people who take instantly to the third like I took to the second, but for me, this one became approachable only when I better understood its context among the other works. It’s also a serious commitment, quite a climb.

Those words, gnarly, craggy, climb, etc. all seem so fitting because… That’s really what it feels like. This piece is about nature, about the earth, and it feels mountainous and organic and earthy, like starting from the enormous looming foundation, and crawling up from the bottom on and on into greater glory and height. l like how it was put here in notes on a pre-concert talk for Mahler’s third:

“If you’re seeing a kind of ladder of awareness, here, we go from the calling forth of primordial matter in the opening – following this incantatory horn theme that begins the piece – through flowers to animals to mankind to the gates of Heaven and finally Love in a spiritual sense, the Love or Forgiveness from God.” And that’s this symphony. It couldn’t be said any better.”

At the time of writing, Mahler is in his mid-thirties. Along with the other markedly pastoral symphony of his, the first, this one had a nebulous sort of beginning, with a program and titles and things before they were all scrapped in preparation for publication. I’m okay with that, but it is interesting to have a look at them anyway.

The work currently, as it exists now, is as follows:

  • Kräftig. Entschieden (Strong and decisive) [D minor to F major]
  • Tempo di Menuetto (In the tempo of a minuet) [A major]
  • Comodo (Scherzando) (Comfortably, like a scherzo) [C minor to C major]
  • Sehr langsam—Misterioso (Very slowly, mysteriously) [A minor]
  • Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck (Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression) [F major]
  • Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden (Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt) [D major]

The whole thing at one point was called “A Summer’s Midday Dream.” Part one (the first movement) had two sections, “Pan Awakens,” and “Summer Marches in.” (You’ll hear those marches for sure.) Later, the first section was changed to “What the stony mountains tell me,” which I find to be a far more fitting visual image of the music, but that’s very subjective.  In comparison to the above, the simplest and most straightforward version of the symphony had the following subtitles:

  • “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”
  • “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”
  • “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”
  • “What Man Tells Me”
  • “What the Angels Tell Me”
  • “What Love Tells Me”

There was to be a seventh movement, but Mahler said to himself “hey, Gus, this thing is already an hour and a half long, and you want another chapter? Why don’t you save that last idea and do it justice in its own symphony? Wouldn’t that be better?” True story.

Tony Duggan, in his assessment of the recordings of the third symphony, talks about the step-by-step nature of this piece, with each movement it feels to me, like an ascension of sorts, perhaps not as literal as in Dante’s Divine Comedy or anything, but it feels like the progress of the entire earth. This is also kind of hinted at by programmatic titles Mahler had for the piece, but later (thankfully, I think) rejected.

This writeup was a fantastic read, and a good resource. It describes how the piece had to wait six years before being premiered in its entirety, in 1902, which happened to be a significant event for Mahler, in a good way. Before this, though, it did earn a performance of the second, third, and final movements. Felix Weingartner premièred these in Berlin in 1897. Mahler’s account of the event (again, from the above link):

Today I was engaged in two battles: the dress rehearsal and the concert. Unfortunately I must report that the enemy won. The applause was very warm, but the opposition was powerful too. Cat-calls and acclamation! When Weingartner finally brought me on to the stage, the audience really broke loose. The press will tear me to pieces.

While I do admire his boldness and bravery, there still must be a moment of utter terror when a work like this gets presented to the public for the first time. Mahler’s evaluation of that performance seems lukewarm at best, but he at least had a champion in Weingartner. He says:

“[I] found in Mahler a musicality more authentic than that in the symphonic poems of Strauss” and said that he was “a strong profound nature that can and should express itself in its own way.”

Fantastically, in Berlin, Mahler met Richard Strauss. The above link says that they became friends, which, from the anecdote to follow, seems logical, but another source referred to them as (or at least suggested them to be) archrivals. In any case, Strauss arranged for Mahler to premiere his third symphony in Krefeld in 1902. Even Alma Schindler was blown away by the work, to the point, the resource suggests, of deciding to marry him.

Also not insignificant was a member of the audience at the premiere, one Willem Mengelberg, who was in charge of the newly-formed Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra just a decade or so prior. The website says “Mengelberg was, in a word, bowled over by Mahler’s music and musicality. Mengelberg invited Mahler to Amsterdam to conduct and meet the Dutch musical community. Mahler visited Amsterdam three times, staying with Mengelberg in his lovely town house near the Concertgebouw.” As history would show, this was a pivotal relationship, as the Concertgebouw is to this day not only one of the best orchestras on the planet, but also one of the few that has a strong historical (if not physical, spiritual, whatever) relationship with the composer, the others being New York and Vienna. So I suppose it’s suitable that the above recording is in fact the Concertgebouw.

Also, I didn’t know where to throw this in, but I did come across this thesis that seems to be incredibly thorough, so if you’re looking to make a serious study of the piece from beginning to end, then check that out.

The Music

As with the original concept for the piece, the opening movement forms part one, and is generally around 35 minutes in length, more or less, depending on the recording. There’s even direction in the score to have a (five-minute?) break between the first and second movements. I’m not sure if it would serve as an intermission, or just a very long pause. In either case, I would suggest to newbies of Mahler’s music that this individual first movement of the piece is quite a nice, compact (relatively speaking) self-contained idea of what Mahler’s music is like. It really runs the gamut, with all sorts of sounds and orchestration, and if it clicks with you after a few listens, you’re in for a treat for the rest of the symphony.

The movement feels prehistoric and craggy and earthen, and the opening is gripping. I think of dinosaurs and volcanoes and creation and all that. The opening horns are at once commanding and unwieldy. It’s beautiful. (Listen to those first few bars, though… does the horn theme sound familiar? We will talk about it in our next post.) There’s also a famous trombone solo. Those two sections, the horns and trombones, contribute greatly to the sound of this movement, as will the post horn later.

A lot of this kind of texture and harmony and stuff may be familiar to some lovers of film score music. Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores come to mind.

I love the bassoon and contrabassoons that start at rehearsal mark 2. They are earthy and ominous and that entire passage is one of my favorites. The horns and bass trombone give a fanfare-y triplet call, and the low woodwinds answer with a rich, earthy rumbly trill. Upper woodwinds join in over the bassoon family in the second call. This passage, to me, absolutely sets the tone for the movement, if not the entire piece. It’s dark in tone, not subject matter, rich, serious, and heavy. It’s a good place to start for a symphony that I feel crawls out of the depths of the earth right up to the heavens.

This movement is in sonata-ish form, inasmuch as there are multiple themes at either end with exciting development in the middle. In the central part of the piece, we get some light and even joyous moments in great contrast with the craggy opening. The noticeable second theme of the first movement and the march that kind of evolves out of it were mentioned above, and make for a sweet contrast to how the movement opened.

Also, I CANNOT and will not do a play-by-play of this piece. I have written extremely long posts about pieces much shorter than this one. I know I say I won’t write a play-by-play quite often, but here I really can’t. I’ll try to mention a few highlights to look out for in each movement, but I can’t address it like that. Also, you should just listen to the whole thing yourself.

The first movement, while expansive to say the least, is quite logical (to me). There are those that argue that it’s way too lengthy and doesn’t have enough material to support its own weight, but I quite love it. It kind of settles you in for the rest of the piece, and it honestly feels like it all goes pretty quickly from here.

The second movement, as mentioned above, is dedicated to “the flowers of the meadow.” It opens as a minuet, and blooms like a flower about a minute in, to a very Mahler-like tune. Also like a flower, it is delicate and beautiful. It doesn’t stay delicate and prissy the whole time. There are some more lively sections, which sound… very Semitic to me, and remind me of the second symphony. A wonderful movement.

The third movement is a scherzo, and it also opens quite delicately, and continues this pastoral, peaceful mood. It’s playful and free, but the trio section changes mood. This is the post horn solo, which is described (again, at Wikipedia) appropriately as ‘contemplative.’ It calls from afar, and if you hadn’t gotten the pastoral, Austrian nature of the piece by now, you should at this point. The post horn reappears throughout the reprise of the material from the opening.

The fourth movement is very much a contrasting movement, with lyrics sung by the alto, and very little instrumentation. It is the most serious, grave moment we‘ve had since the first movement, and appropriately has some subject matter from that movement return. As out-of-place as it may be, it comes from Nietzsche, his Midnight Song from Also Sprach Zarathustra. That seems a strange choice for arguably religious pieces like these symphonies, ideas of resurrection and heavenly life and bliss, but it is also kind of an interesting contrast, a sobering warning of sorts, and needless to say, is beautiful. It opens with “O Mensch! Gib acht!” (“O man! Take heed!”), which feels super serious, in stark contrast to the mood of the previous movements.

The fifth movement is quick and short, but is quite rich in subject matter and very cheerful. If you’ve listened to the fourth before, something might be familiar here, at least musically. This song, with children’s choir as bells and a solo voice all work together to present one of the lighter sections of the symphony. It comes from another of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, “Es sungen drei Engel,” based on a church hymn from the seventeenth century (which was later used in Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler) (not Mahler).

It’s perhaps cliché, but the children’s choir is kind of…. indicative of something heavenly, angelic, and Mahler uses it here tastefully. It’s the second and final appearance of the alto, and the only appearance of the two choirs. Again, if you’re familiar with the fourth (and if you’re not, don’t worry, we’ll get to it in a few months), you’ll recognize the tune here, but the subject matter is different. They are significantly more religious (link here to the text). I’d always kind of had the same feeling toward this movement that I did to the final movement of the fourth, about heavenly beauty and paradisiac life. It’s a dialogue among angels, Peter, and Jesus at the evening meal. We shan’t get into a theological discussion, but it’s a strange text, and even more so when you consider that the composer hadn’t yet converted to Christianity. It was very present in the second as well. There’s a fascinating little article here from the New York Times about this issue that is quite short and worth reading. One of the questions many people apparently had is why Mahler never wrote an opera. One I’d never thought of is why he never wrote a mass. The article claims the composer said he couldn’t. In any case, he formally converted around the time of this symphony, in 1897.

Religious affiliation aside, the music is gorgeous and it’s a nice lead-in to the final movement.

It is angelic, one gleaming, shimmering warm glow of swelling music, a twenty-plus minute long line to greater and greater expanse. It’s almost like one giant,  long, slow crescendo. It feels heavenly and surreal and otherworldly, but entirely removed (to me) from the earthy texture and bite that the symphony began with. It feels too epic an end to be the content of a middle movement, but it doesn’t have the crunch or sting of a definitive ending of such a large symphony; there’s no final crack of the whole orchestra or anything. That’s okay. You may also notice that the last few minutes with the timpani pounding out the heartbeat of the finale sounds strikingly similar to another intensely moving finale, and you’d be right, although it’s the end to Shostakovich’s heart wrenching fifth symphony. A similar end to two drastically different pieces. In any case, this last heavenly movement is appropriately lifting and blissful, and it kind of feels like basking in the rays of the sun. If that end doesn’t feel final enough, it’s because there’s still the fourth to come.

So that’s a six-movement layout. With its different subjects and themes and treatment of them, it makes for an odd kind of symphony, not a clean-cut four-movement typical progression, so the thematic program ideas are still pretty strong here. Mahler definitely pushed the bounds of what a symphony was capable of. Beethoven’s ninth was earth-shattering in scope for a symphony at the time, and Mahler’s was similar, really, and adheres mostly to the four-movement form, with the addition of the Ürlicht movement before the finale. This piece could possibly be similar. The first enormous sonata type movement, the second and third together form a minuet and scherzo (each with their own middle sections) and they could easily be the two middle movements of a four-movement scheme, or comprise one ‘section’ of their own. It’s also not hard for me to think of the fourth and fifth movements as kind of ‘one’ as well, if for nothing else than the presence of the alto soloist and choirs. So, at least to me, in kind of a large-scare, more broad definition, it still works as a scheme of a typical symphony; to call it disjointed would sound more negative than I’d like, but the ideas are more unified in their direction toward the final goal than in their own subject matter, I think. In any case, with a few listens, the piece begins to take shape and come together for the listener. It at least took a number of listens for me to put all six movements together mentally, but when it ‘clicks,’ it’s wonderful.

I’m always interested to hear what other composers or conductors have to say about pieces, because I feel they have arcane insight that us laypeople aren’t privy to (kidding) (sort of). Arnold Schoenberg, after hearing the Viennese premiere, (again, from those program notes) actually wrote to Mahler himself that “I felt the struggle for illusions; I felt the pain of one disillusioned; I saw the forces of evil and good contending; I saw a man in a torment of emotion exerting himself to gain inner harmony. I sensed a human being, a drama, truth, the most ruthless truth!” Perhaps some people would find it interesting that he had such admiration for the piece, since he is the composer people demonize for destroying modern classical music with the invention of the twelve-tone system and atonal music. He did have quite high admiration for Mahler though.


As for recordings of this piece, I have… listened to a lot. As much as I have really come to enjoy this piece quite thoroughly, I am not going to say I love it. In any case, it’s a big symphony to listen to a dozen versions of, but I have, at least in passing. Tony Duggan’s survey of the Mahler symphonies addresses the challenge for this symphony as the structure, the vision of the entire piece from beginning to end, and criticizes some people for their lack of that vision. To be honest, some of that may be above me, but I am not as sensitive to such a large-scale analysis.

The one that struck me as most enjoyable for one specific reason was Chailly’s recording from his traversal of the symphonies with the Concertgebouw. It got some criticism from some people apparently for a lack of vision or unity in the performance as a whole, but the other criticism against it (from the same critic) was the exact reason I instantly kind of took to it. The clarity of the recording is unreal. Literally. It’s so crisp and clear and clean that I would agree with the critic in saying that it’s kind of beyond even what a live performance would offer, sitting in the best possible seat of the best possible concert hall. But again, there’s that for really hearing everything.

As for hearing everything, as always, there’s Boulez, not for sonics as much as the interpretation. It’s with the Vienna Philharmonic, and if you want to hear Every. Thing. in this score, Boulez is your man. One admitted Boulez-admirer left a review of this performance here, and while I don’t necessarily see everything he’s saying (he’s more familiar than I am), it’s worth reading as a critical analysis of this recording. I quite enjoyed it, actually, and it would almost be one o f my suggestions for this piece…. thefinal movement is blissful.

Lastly, the Mahlerian who (almost) never lets me down (one of a few): the late Claudio Abbado. I have listened repeatedly to two of his performances, and they are both quite superb, in my opinion. The first is his recording (again, another) with the Vienna Philharmonic, which, naturally, is superb (how could it not be?). The second with him is from the DVD set with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra of all the symphonies minus the eighth. While neither of them has the sheer ridiculous clarity of the Chailly recording (or the Boulez, to be honest) both performances are top notch. The only thing about the Lucerne recording is that it’s live, and there’s shuffling papers and a bit of ambient noise, but it’s remarkably clear for a live performance, I feel. I think these were quite recent, though, so it shouldn’t be too shocking.

The Vienna recording, I feel, loses a bit of its energy toward the end, especially in the fifth movement. That’s picky and minor, but I noticed it. The two are both quite great, but I’d probably opt for the Vienna performance, because, you know… Vienna.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of preference. On one end you have Boulez, described in this review here as like being present at an autopsy, with everything undeniably clear and vivid, but also quite dead. On the other side of that spectrum, you have Bernstein, who hasn’t gotten a mention until now. Somewhere in the middle are Abbado and Gielen and the rest. It depends on what you like. I’d take Abbado or Boulez.

I haven’t listened to a bad recording of this piece, though. I recall Kubelík’s march in the first movement sounding out-of-place-ish-ly like Sousa and his band had walked in on the performance, but on the whole, they all have their merits (of the versions that I have or remember hearing. Honestly, I would probably suggest the Boulez to someone looking to give this piece a first-listen. He may not roar as intensely as Abbado in the first movement or other places, but overall, it’s a very honest rendering.

And really, that’s all I can say about this piece (actually not, but at this point, we’re nearing 4000 words before I even go back and finish writing about the final movement (and do some other editing. Writing in MS Word since the other app ate my last post. I can’t have that happening here, and the word count is staring me in the face).

If you really are interested in Mahler, not just hearing his work, but understanding his progression as a composer and where and how a lot of his history ‘fits into place’ then this is a serious consideration. Others may not be able to endure its length, but even movement-by-movement, I feel it’s deeply moving. Part of the reason a piece like this feels like it goes by so fast is because you’re sitting, listening in anticipation for not only what you’re currently enjoying, but what you know is shortly to come, and it always seems to come and go so fast. Kind of like life…. just a moment, and it’s passed you by.


2 thoughts on “Mahler Symphony no. 3

  1. If you like Abbado in this symphony, I suggest you try his live recording on DG, with the Berliner Philharmoniker. The recorded level is low, so turn the volume up. Nowhere near as crystal clear as Chailly, but much more natural and impassioned. This Abbado/Berliner recording also has the most beautiful last movement I’ve ever heard (by a wide margin). Such a brilliant build-up of tension, finally released by the cymbal crash, that, in this recording, is more like a cymbal slide, like a giant lid sliding off a big pressurised steam tank. That little detail always brings tears to my eyes when I hear it, and I don’t understand why not more conductors play it like that.

    Anyway, I guess I don’t have to convince you of Abbado’s genius.

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