A Universe Unto Itself: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3

July 29, 2019

by Kelly Dean Hansen

“Guest blogger Kelly Dean Hansen has chosen one work from each of the six weeks of the 2019 Colorado Music Festival season to spotlight.  He will be exploring these works with the aim of explaining what makes them lasting, immortal parts of the classical repertoire.”

Most performances of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony run around 100 minutes, making it the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, with the only close competition coming from the composer’s own other symphonies. It has six movements, two more than the standard symphonic cycle, and even exceeding the occasional five-movement work such as the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, the Beethoven Sixth, or Mahler’s own Second, Fifth, and Seventh. And those two aspects aren’t even the most audacious things about the work.

What about the fact that the first movement of those six runs around 35 minutes, exceeding the length of any entire symphony by Mozart or Haydn? Or, most shockingly, that not one, but two choral groups are required for just one of the movements, the fifth—and that movement lasts a mere four minutes. Would any other composer have dared go to that much trouble, asking for all those voices—including a group of children—for such a small part of such a vast composition?

And yet, it is in the standard repertoire. Conductors love to program it, orchestral musicians love to play it, and audiences love to hear it. The big first movement is about the most excitingly diverse half-hour any music fan could ask for. The cosmological conception of the whole, with its evolutionary structure and logical progression, is irresistible.

The sixth and final movement is a slow “Adagio”-type movement, itself running around 25 minutes, but it is not like the closing movements of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique or Mahler’s own Ninth, which are filled with tragedy and resignation, respectively, and end with orchestral fade-outs. The Third’s finale ends with radiant, glorious brass and heroic timpani strokes, producing what Mahler himself called a “fulfilled and noble tone.” And that little fifth movement with the two choirs? It is impossible to imagine the symphony without it.

There are cyclic and metaphysical connections not only between the symphony’s own movements, but also to the Second Symphony that preceded it and the Fourth Symphony that followed it. Mahler considered his first four symphonies to be a gigantic “tetralogy,” and for those who have heard the much shorter and much more frequently programmed Fourth (it was performed by the Boulder Philharmonic just this year), hearing the Third will provide insights and understanding into that work as well.

Of course, the nature of the symphony lends it a particularly attractive character for certain functions—such as the final concert of a concert season or a summer music festival. Music director Peter Oundjian will lead the Colorado Music Festival orchestra in the symphony, along with mezzo-soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, the St. Martin’s Festival Singers and the Boulder Children’s Chorale to close the 2019 festival on Saturday, August 3.

Mahler famously said that the symphony should reflect the world or be its own world, but among his symphonic “worlds,” the Third is more like its own universe.

How did this remarkable edifice come to be, and why is it such a delight for musicians and audiences?

The Evolution of the Program

The gestation of the Third is well-documented, but the course of the conception and the execution over the course of a mere two summers (those of 1895 and 1896) is convoluted, with many different stages between the initial idea and the final product. Like his first two symphonies and the Fourth, the Third initially had a program. Even though Mahler later officially withdrew these programs as far as public presentation goes, he never distanced himself from their ideas in private communications. These days, audiences for these four symphonies are at the very least somewhat aware of the extramusical ideas that underlie them.

The difference between the program of the Third and that of the first two symphonies is that it seems to have been conceived before any of the music was written. None of it was “after the fact,” and the concept drove every decision Mahler made through the process of assembling the music. We have a trove of letters and written communications from Mahler to several people during those two summers, which gives us a greater understanding of the compositional process than we have with any of his other symphonies. Mahler’s close friend, the violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner did the music world a great service when she published her “Memories of Gustav Mahler,” which included his correspondence regarding the composition of the symphony. In addition to Bauer-Lechner, we have letters to the soprano Anna von Mildenburg (with whom Mahler was having an affair at the time) and several other people.

The Third, like the Second, was composed in the first of three famous “composing huts” Mahler had built as he moved his center of activity from place to place. This one was in Steinbach on the Attersee in Upper Austria, where he spent summers while employed during the regular season as an opera conductor in Hamburg. The earliest conceptions may date from earlier than 1895, but it was in that summer that he refined previous drafts of a potential program and composed the last five movements. The first movement would be completed the following year.

From the outset, there was the idea of a “summer dream” of some sort, along with the concept of “What [insert element of nature or metaphysics here] Tells Me” for titles of the individual movements, moving along some sort of progressive path. And there seems to have been a later inspiration from the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically two of his major books: The Happy Science (Meine fröhliche Wissenschaft) and Thus Spake Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra). The former was at one point considered as a title for the whole symphony, and the fourth movement directly sets a text from the latter.

Then there is the presence of the folksong collection Mahler so loved, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). Assembled by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, the collection provided Mahler with most of his song texts written before 1900, along with texts for movements of the Second and Fourth Symphonies as well as the Third. The fifth movement—with the two choirs—sets a Wunderhorn text, and Mahler initially conceived of the symphony containing a seventh (!) movement that would set yet another. That movement was eventually dropped and would be spun off into the Fourth Symphony, generating its entire conception in the process. An already existing Wunderhorn song (which Mahler only composed for piano accompaniment, never arranging it for orchestra, as he did so many others) provides the primary material for what became the third movement.

It seems that Mahler’s initial idea was to provide a suite of nature pieces, and that this evolved into a grander plan, a more secular and nature-based answer to the problems addressed in the spiritually based Second Symphony. In the end, the structure of the Third mirrors that of the Second to a remarkable degree, at least for the first four movements. Early drafts for the program and movement titles include some that were not in the final form but can be identified with elements in the existing movements. These include “What the forest tells me,” “What the twilight tells me,” and “What the cuckoo tells me.” The order of the movements also only gradually took shape: “What the flowers in the meadow tell me,” which ended up as the second movement, was originally placed later than “What love tells me” (which became the finale) and the “twilight” movement (which could be the current fourth movement or part of the current third movement). At some point, “Summer marches in” became the title of a potential introduction—it would evolve into the massive first movement.

At about the time he decided to incorporate Nietzsche, the movements as we know them become more readily identifiable in his program drafts. The “flower” movement has been definitively moved to second position. The “forest” and “cuckoo” movements have been combined into “What the animals in the forest tell me” as the third movement. The setting of the Zarathustra text for alto solo took fourth place and was called “What night tells me” (alternatively, “What mankind tells me”). The women’s chorus with the alto solo (the boys’ choir was apparently added later) setting the Wunderhorn text is fifth and titled “What the morning bells tell me” (later clarified as “What the angels tell me”), and an Adagio, “What love tells me,” is in sixth place.

The song “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) had already been composed at this point, and Mahler still wanted to place it as the final movement, called “What the child tells me.” The original overall title of “A summer night’s dream” has been rejected as too Shakespearean and replaced with “A summer morning’s dream,” along with the Nietzschean “The Happy Science” (Mahler would also refer to “My Happy Science”). This dovetails with the earliest draft for the “summer night’s dream” idea, which also included the heading “The Happy Life.” The first movement is now planned as a large introduction to these character pieces, with “Summer marches in” eventually incorporating the image of the Greek satyr god Pan as the driving force behind it all. Mahler also made the important point that “pan,” a common prefix in English, is the Greek expression for “everything”—the prefix generally indicates universality. Eventually, “Pan awakens” would be applied to the movement’s enormous introduction and “Summer marches in” to the main body. The overall title would have one more stage, temporally moving the “summer dream” one last time, to “midday,” which was sufficiently Nietzschean to allow “The Happy Science” to be dropped. “A Summer Afternoon’s Dream” would be the best English equivalent.

From the outset, the idea of the child was ever present, culminating the entire concept into a vision of childlike love. It became clear to Mahler that the Adagio movement ended up incorporating this childlike love (especially in the context of the angels’ song with children’s chorus that preceded it), and that including “Das himmlische Leben” as a finale would be a superfluous epilogue to a project that was already expanding almost of its own Nietzschean will. This was especially apparent the following summer as the first movement’s giant tapestry continued to evolve. Thus, it was dropped, which was clearly the right decision. The song already existed and was probably already orchestrated, though. At that point, Mahler probably simply intended for it to be one of his set of orchestral Wunderhorn songs from this time period. After finishing the Third, there was an unusually long composing gap as Mahler changed employment and circumstances. The Fourth Symphony would finally be written between 1899 and 1900, and the germ of its gestation would be the song originally planned to end the Third.

It would be some time before the Third would experience its complete premiere. There were several performances of the second movement (the “flower” minuet) alone in 1896 and 1897 in Berlin, Leipzig and Budapest. It was the first music from the symphony anyone heard, and it was generally well received. On one occasion in 1897, also in Berlin, the third and sixth movements were also included, and the critics eviscerated them, especially the third movement with its animals and its central “posthorn” solo. For five years after that, there were no more performances and the first, fourth, and fifth movements remained unheard.

In the meantime, the Second had a triumphant Munich performance in 1900 and the Fourth was given its premiere in 1901. Richard Strauss, impressed by both symphonies and what he had heard of the Third, finally arranged for the first full performance of the Third. This took place at the annual Festival of the Allgemeine Deutsche Musikverein (General German Music Association), of which Strauss had become president, on June 9, 1902 in the Rhineland town of Krefeld. By that time, Mahler had already relocated to Vienna as director of the Court Opera, and he had married Alma Schindler, who was pregnant with their first child. He was practically finished with the Fifth Symphony by that point, which began an entirely new era with a post-Wunderhorn aesthetic. The premiere was an enormous success, and the symphony was given several other performances through about 1906 across Germany and Austria that were similarly acclaimed by the public, if disdained by establishment music critics in Berlin and Vienna.

The Evolution in the Program

While it probably wasn’t Mahler’s original intention, the final form of the Third reflects an evolutionary structure on an expanded scale. At the same time, he arrived at a macro-structure, as noted, whose similarity to the Second Symphony is striking. Both begin with a large-scale introductory movement that incorporates march elements. In both cases, Mahler indicates that there should be a significant pause after this movement. The second movements are both minuet-like and rather brief. The third movements are extended scherzo-type movements with material derived from a Wunderhorn song involving animals (fishes in the first place, birds in the second). In both cases, there is a large contrasting middle section and a huge explosion—the Mahlerian “breakthrough”—toward the end.

The fourth movements in both symphonies are settings for solo alto. In the Second, this is another Wunderhorn text that serves as a prelude for the huge choral finale, and in the Third, it precedes a shorter choral movement. The diversion between the forms of the two symphonies comes at the end. The finale of the Second is an apocalyptic vision with a grand choral finale. The last two movements of the Third are a much shorter choral movement (with a Wunderhorn text) preceding a purely instrumental Adagio movement (something the Second lacks).

The answers to the questions posed in the two symphonies, however, are entirely different. The Second culminates in a vision of the resurrection that is certainly religious and probably Christian, despite many unconvincing arguments from scholars who desperately want the Jewish-born Mahler to be an atheist or an agnostic. With the Third, Mahler takes inspiration from Nietzsche—who was certainly an atheist—and nature, constructing a musical portrait of Darwinian evolution. The problem for Nietzsche and Darwin, however, is that Mahler took his evolutionary concept beyond them both—and in both directions.

He may have wanted to construct a secular world, but in the end, he couldn’t suppress his latent spirituality. The evolution from the flowers (representing plants) in the second movement moves to the animals of the third. But humanity already inserts itself into the world of the animals, both with the central “posthorn” episode and the explosion at the end. The alto then speaks for tormented humanity in the fourth movement’s Nietzsche setting, whose musical material would find its way into the first movement’s introduction music.

But the mysterious song is no way to end a symphony with such a grand design, and so evolution must continue beyond humanity. The idea of “love” was always part of the plan, but what, exactly does “love” mean in this evolutionary scheme? Mahler seems to have provided the answer by inserting the childlike angels between humanity and love. The angels, thus, represent the first evolutionary stage beyond Nietzsche and Darwin, and logically, there is only one super-evolutionary step that can follow. Mahler always called it “love,” but he betrayed another idea to Mildenburg when he explicitly told her that he might have called it “What God tells me.” Of course, the formulation “God is love” is well-known (see, for example, 1 John 4:8). The text sung by the angels makes explicit references to Jesus and Peter, so this shouldn’t be shocking at all, except for those, again, who desperately want Mahler to be an atheist.

What about the other direction? Does evolution begin with plants? Or with protozoa and bacteria? Mahler doesn’t bother with the lower forms of life, going even beyond them to inanimate material! He once said that the opening portion of the first movement, before the grand entry of summer, could be called “What the mountain rocks tell me.” Take that, Darwin! Take that, Nietzsche!

As noted, the first movement was composed a year later than the other five.

It incorporates musical material heard in the third and sixth movements. And while “Das himmlische Leben” was rightly dropped from the plan, as it would have disrupted the super-evolutionary process, its musical material was not excised. The “flower” movement contains direct references to the middle section of the song, and the central portion of the “angel” movement is almost entirely lifted from the same portion. The alto soloist and the women’s choir sing lines of music that exactly reflect those sung by the soprano soloist in what became the finale of the Fourth. But such musical connections across symphonies are not a problem in Mahler, especially when he explicitly grouped the first four symphonies together. It even goes beyond that. A trumpet fanfare heard at a crisis point in the Fourth’s first movement would become the very opening of his Fifth Symphony, which begins its own trilogy of purely instrumental symphonies.

1st Movement: Pan Awakens—Summer Marches In

Mahler said that the composition of the first movement terrified him. It needed to provide a backdrop for the remaining five, but it kept expanding beyond anything Mahler had imagined. Indeed, it takes up about a third of the symphony’s entire performance time. Mahler separated it out as “Part I,” making the other five movements “Part II.” And he directed there to be a significant pause after its conclusion. Indeed, a full concert intermission would be justified here, as between acts of an opera, but this is never done today.

Despite all of that, Mahler himself was amazed to find that the movement, despite its gargantuan scale, retained the rudiments of the sonata form developed by Haydn and Mozart, a form that seems so natural and logical that it almost feels imposed. Granted, Mahler incorporates his slow introduction into the alleged sonata scheme, placing it at the beginning of his “recapitulation.” And the key structure is progressive. The entire symphony is almost always described as being “in D minor,” and indeed the first movement begins there. The finale is in D major, which also follows a typical path set by Beethoven and Brahms. But the bulk of the movement, the march, is in the “relative” key of F major, and the movement ends there. Mahler once spoke of a “symphony in F major,” but that doesn’t really fly when the whole work begins and ends in D. F major appears again as the key of the “angel” movement, and the Nietzsche setting in the fourth movement is in D major/minor.

The opening is for eight horns in unison, originally labeled by Mahler as “The awakening call.” It bears more than a superficial resemblance to the “big tune” in the finale of Brahms’s first symphony along with one of the student songs included by that composer in his “Academic Festival Overture.” But it is in the Dorian mode, an inflection of the minor key, and thus far from triumphant, despite its fanfare-like nature. It is followed by the heaving of the “mountain rocks,” the chaotic alternating chords that will later appear in the fourth movement. A solo passage for bass drum (!) leads to other elements, which include upward-striving woodwind calls and strangely dissonant upward-shooting trumpet fanfares. A heavy proto-march rhythm provides the underlying background.

There emerges a passionate and extended horn call derived from the crisis points in the finale. Connections to two later movements have already been established. The material is extended at some length, culminating in a climactic downward chromatic plunge in bassoons and bass clarinet. The bass drum is again left alone, and it leads to something entirely new. Chiming woodwinds and string trills provide the backdrop to the melody that will eventually become the main march material. Mahler originally labeled this moment as “Pan sleeps.” The first appearance of the march melody is given by an oboe and then a solo violin, but it is interrupted by a series of strange clarinet calls Mahler originally labeled “The Herald.” Rushing low strings give a hint of the driving march rhythms that will come, but they again collapse into a pause after the bass drum is left alone.

The “heavier” march rhythms return, as does the opening material, now the basis for an extended and difficult trombone solo that is one of the jewels of that instrument’s orchestral literature. This leads to yet another climax and collapse. The oboe again introduces the “Pan sleeps” material, the clarinets again play the “Herald” figure. The tempo increases, and the low strings again begin their rushing motion. The march rhythm is heard in the violins, and piccolo plays upward riffs derived from these figures that speed up against the continuing steady rhythm, Mahler indicating that they are to be played without regard to the prevailing beat. The snare drum begins to play its distinctive rolls. All of this is at an exceedingly quiet level.

The end of the introduction is nebulous, particularly given the twofold appearances of march material within it, but Mahler clearly marks the beginning of the main march movement with a double bar. It begins with the horns playing their opening fanfare, but now in a bright F major. The march builds and continues at a steady and extended length, incorporating the musical figures already heard during the “interruptions” of the introduction. Eventually, the key changes to D major (perhaps the standard “second theme” key change of a sonata-form exposition?), and it is there that the first march statement reaches its full conclusion and cadence. And it provides further argument for D as the key center for the whole symphony. Immediately after the huge arrival, there is an extreme crisis. Sweeping harps and strings, with thundering percussion rolls, introduce a passionate, pained leap and descent in harmonized trumpets. This is another element that will turn up in the finale.

This leads to the first of two large-scale returns of the introduction material. The extended, passionate horn call that will be heard in the finale returns, now reaching an even greater intensity. It collapses, as expected, but what is not expected is yet another extended trombone solo (now without the unnecessary “Pan sleeps” interruption). This solo is marked “sentimental.” It becomes languid and even sweet. The English horn interrupts with the “horn call. String trills herald the tentative, almost shy return of the “Pan sleeps” march melody on the solo violin. This begins a magical transitional passage based on the main march.

The piccolo and the small E-flat clarinet play the “accelerating” figures heard before and new fanfare melodies are presented. A solo horn plays the opening “awakening call” in an almost otherworldly and remote G-flat major and is joined by the solo violin. This dissipates, and we arrive at the movement’s “development section”

It falls into three sections. Mahler called the first of these “The Rabble.” In addition to “Summer Marches In,” Mahler provided “Procession of Bacchus” as an alternative title for the march. That is nowhere more appropriate than here. It seems that the lower forms of nature as well as the common elements of humanity are here taking part in the procession, glorified in a fantastically vulgar way. It begins with the low strings intoning the march rhythm in B-flat minor. Then Mahler pulls out all the stops, becoming as coarse and raw as he possibly can. Shrill woodwind trills and whooping brass are incorporated, as is an oom-pah figure on that lowest of all instruments, the contrabassoon.

Having introduced the “rabble,” the second portion of the development can begin. Mahler titled it “The Battle Begins,” and this is also explicitly depicted. The opening “awakening call” is combined with some of the new fanfares just introduced. The “Herald” figure also plays a big role. The victory seems achieved with a brief motion to bright C major, but then everything collapses into the third portion, labeled “The South Storm” by Mahler, which moves to another remote key, D-flat major (which is relative to the B-flat minor where the “Rabble” section began). Rushing strings overpower the march and fanfare figures, and it seems as if they are going to plunge into a grand return of the main march.

Except they don’t. They suddenly die away into nothingness, with plucked bass strings seeming to fade, and against this, Mahler directs that several offstage snare drums begin to play a march rhythm without any regard to the fading storm music, still in D-flat. This is an incredibly strange moment, made even stranger by the return of the original opening call on the eight horns from the very beginning of the movement. Indeed, this is the return, the reprise, the recapitulation, whatever we may label it, but were we really expecting a full return of the chaotic introduction material at this point? We have already overcome it twice, after all. It is somewhat abbreviated, but all the elements are there, including the no longer “sentimental” trombone solo.

Mahler finally pays off our patience. After the introduction material makes its third pass and once again dies away to a full pause, the low strings start to wake everybody up again. The “Herald” figures are heard, and the march begins again with the major-key statement of the opening call. The long-awaited full reprise of the march follows, and it is grander and more triumphant before. There is no change of key this time. All remains in the march’s home key of F major. The trumpets include some of the “new” fanfare figures heard before the development section. The crisis point arrives again, with the wailing trumpets, but now they are immediately transformed into cries of joy. Instead of the former collapse, the last sixteen bars rush toward the conclusion of the monumental movement. These last bars gave Mahler some trouble, and he joked that he hoped nothing would happen to him, as nobody else could possibly bring all the forces of Pan and Bacchus, all the “rabble,” all of nature, to their elemental conclusion.

Second Movement: What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me

Having experienced such a monumental movement, already a world of itself, it is difficult to imagine that it was composed last and meant to be a prelude! Indeed, the remaining movements do seem like character pieces in a sense, but when considered all together, as “Part 2,” they do form a balance. The “flowers” movement, a minuet in A major, was the first, and for some time only music from the symphony that anybody heard, and in isolation, it is a charming, if somewhat troubled picture of the flowers which, like other forms of life, also face their challenges. It is in a five-part A-B-A-B-A form.

The main minuet melody is initially presented by the oboe with light string accompaniment. It reaches a full cadence and is followed by a slightly more urgent second phrase. Both are developed at some length, an urgent “blossoming” gesture is heard, and complete closure is reached. The first contrasting section in F-sharp minor immediately follows, itself in three subsections. It changes from 3/4 meter to a faster 3/8, incorporating repeated chords and trills. It has a decisive urgency that does not last before the meter once again changes into a march-like 2/4. This in turn gives way to a final change of meter to 9/8, where the movement’s fastest music occurs, beginning in E minor and moving to D major. It is here where the music from the middle section of “Das himmlische Leben” makes an appearance, and anyone who knows the Fourth Symphony and its concluding song well will not miss it.

This music plunges headlong and with shocking abruptness into the opening tempo and the first return of the main A-major minuet. After its full restatement, the contrasting material is given a second and more elaborate presentation. In particular, the 2/4 march-like material is greatly extended and initially presented in the very remote key of G-sharp minor. This march material is conflated with the passage quoting “Das himmlische Leben,” and the orchestration is expanded, including picturesque percussion. The final statement of the main minuet is also elaborated and decorated, becoming particularly lush at the “blossoming” gesture. The movement comes to an end with a high, ethereal chord.

Third Movement: What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me

The “animal” movement takes the place of a traditional scherzo, and it is significantly more extended than the “flower” minuet, although its structure is similar. The main material comes from Mahler’s song “Ablösung im Sommer” (“Changing of the Guard in Summer”), a Wunderhorn setting that he never orchestrated except for here. The song describes the death of the cuckoo and his replacement by the nightingale. The opening “cuckoo” music is in C minor, played by woodwinds and low strings. It transitions rather quickly into the more radiant C-major music of the nightingale.

Mahler introduces a “middle” section into his main scherzo that changes meter to 6/8, becoming dance-like and increasing in exuberance, incorporating a strangely troubled climax with “frightened” bird calls. Like the “nightingale” music, it is in C major. This material does not come from the song. Before too long, the “cuckoo” music in C minor returns and it, along with the “nightingale” music, is developed at much greater length.

The “cuckoo” music incorporates some brass-laden climaxes that suggest the presence of other, more threatening animals. The “nightingale” music, previously serene and gentle, also becomes disturbed, incorporating material from yet another Wunderhorn song, “Das irdische Leben” (“The Earthly Life”), the tragic counterpart to “Das himmlische Leben,” a song Mahler for a time considered incorporating into the Fourth Symphony as well. This song is a highly disconcerting story of a child who begs for bread, reassured by a mother who keeps urging patience until it is too late. Its “perpetual motion” accompaniment is truly eerie. And Mahler introduces this music into the “nightingale” material. But for what purpose? Clearly, it is in preparation for the intrusion of humanity onto the world of the animals.

The key changes to F minor, using the material from “Das irdische Leben,” and a trumpet fanfare sneaks in to herald the famous “post horn” episode in F major that serves as the contrasting “Trio” section to the animal scherzo. The instrument to be used for this extended reverie is somewhat unclear. Mahler at one point asked for a flugelhorn, a sort of mellow trumpet. The final score simply indicates “post horn,” although he cannot have meant the actual natural horn used for the call of the postilion. It is usually taken by the principal trumpet player. The entire episode is otherworldly, a true interruption to which the stunned animals simply listen in awe.

It is interrupted by the main scherzo material, specifically the portion that includes the material from “Das irdische Leben”—again, the human element. But the post horn returns and comes to its conclusion. Rudely, an onstage fanfare interrupts that conclusion and brings back the main animal music, now marked “with secretive haste.” Now in F minor (transitioning from the F-major post horn music), the “Das irdische Leben” music serves as a transition back to the main “cuckoo” and “nightingale” material.

This also appears in F minor and F major, with character transformations. In the score, Mahler uses colorful adjectives such as “Lustig” (“jolly”), “Übermütig” (“high-spirited” or “cheeky”) and even, after the music returns to C major, “Grob!” (“Coarse,” perhaps “Grotesque” or even “Gross”—and yes, he does use the exclamation point). Before long, this extraordinarily exuberant music turns to the dance-like “middle” section with the “frightened” bird calls, now more nervous and ominous than before. The initial cuckoo calls are heard in faster speed, without regard to the main tempo. Is a crisis at hand?

It is, but first there is a return of the F-major post horn music, heralded by fanfares. It is shorter than the previous one, and it fades away as the animals listen. Immediately, their music returns, faster than before, rapidly building, the urgent cuckoo calls moving inexorably to the catastrophic “breakthrough,” a shattering climax with sweeping harps, trembling strings, and awesome horn calls that signal the irrevocable arrival of humanity. This arrives on the utterly remote harmonies of E-flat minor and D-flat major. After making its impact, this outburst fades as suddenly as it arrives. The music moves back to C major, and the animals make their last stand, becoming even more exuberant and wild than before for the final page of music. Mahler’s use of percussion here, including unusual effects like rapid gong beats, is particularly notable.

Fourth Movement: What Night [Humanity] Tells Me

The last three movements are directed to follow each other without a pause, like the last three movements of the Second Symphony. The alto soloist enters to sing Nietzsche’s words to one of the stillest pieces of music Mahler or anyone else ever wrote. The basic material “comes from” the introduction to the first movement, but as we know, Mahler composed this movement first. It is notated in D major, but it is really a mixture of D minor and D major. The opening is simply an alternation in the low strings on the notes A and B, punctuated by the harp.

Mahler wanted a flowing, non-metrical feeling, but he still wanted exactness, and the notation of the changing meters between 2/2 and 3/2 gave him a great deal of trouble. The alto enters twice with her intonation of “O Mensch!” (“O Man!”) Here, the full string section and all eight horns, not used since the first movement, provide the oscillating chords familiar from the very beginning of the symphony.

At this point, the cellos break into a steady, unmeasured oscillation on D and A. The soloist sings “Gib acht!” (“Give heed!”) as other string and wind instruments make isolated and elemental interjections. After continuing with “Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?” (“What does deep midnight say?”), a rising third from the oboe is heard three times. Mahler marked this “like a sound from nature” (“Wie eine Naturlaut”) and at one point had labelled it as “The bird of night.” The alto continues with “Ich schlief” (“I slept”), and the horns again become active. For a second time, the “bird of night” is heard, now on the lower English horn.

The alto continues with ever more text: “Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht” (“I have awakened from a deep dream”) and then ominously “Die Welt ist tief, und tiefer als der Tag gedacht” (“The world is deep, and deeper than the day conceives”). The oscillating cellos finally break, and there follows a brief interlude with a solo violin playing music that was heard in the first movement on the trumpet. This anticipates the music the alto will use for the poem’s final lines. For a third time, the threefold call of the “bird of night” is heard, on the oboe again, and this time followed by a falling gesture.

The alternating motion on A and B is heard again in the strings, and once again the alto intones her “O Mensch!” The cellos begin their oscillation once more. They break as the alto sings “Tief ist ihr Weh!” (“Deep is her [the world’s] sorrow”). The solo violin rises, and the oboe intones the bird’s call again, joined by the horn. The “sorrow” line is repeated. The solo violin then leads into the movement’s most flowing music. “Lust tiefer noch als Herzeleid” (“Joy even deeper than heartache”) is sung on two-note sighing figures. “Weh spricht, Vergeh!” (“Sorrow speaks, ‘Go away!’”) is repeated against the continuing violin lines. Finally, with a broad flowering of the music in major, the alto sings her final line: “Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit, will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit” (“But all joy desires eternity, desires deep, deep eternity”). The horns are active here, and the singer cuts off without a full resolution.

The oboe sings the “bird of night” figure, heard for the fifth and final time, including its downward plunge. The strings then resort to the alternation of A and B, never resolving to the keynote D, and the mysterious song fades away, ending just as mysteriously as it had begun.

Fifth Movement: What the Morning Bells [Angels] Tell Me

Erupting from the last mysterious A of the previous movement, the most audacious, presumptuous, bold, perhaps even foolish symphonic movement ever composed arrives brightly and exuberantly. But the symphony simply would not work without it. We need to hear the angels, and we need to hear them sing! But again, it is only four minutes of a 100-minute symphony. “What was Mahler thinking?!” we might ask. He included the movement because he had to. Unlike the Nietzsche text, the Wunderhorn poem is too long to quote here in full. In addition to “Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang” (“Three angels sang a sweet song”), its first line, it is titled in the collection as “Armer Kinder Bettlerlied” (“The poor children’s begging song”), a title that seems to fly in the face of its yes, childlike, but also naïve and optimistic faith.

The poem begins with the narrative of the three angels, who rejoice that Peter is free from sin. The last supper, or some version thereof, is described, where Peter laments his transgression of the ten commandments. Jesus assures his disciple that if he repents and loves god “at all times,” he will obtain “the heavenly joy.” The angels then sing that all will receive this blessed eternal bliss through Jesus.

In F major, the “main” key of the first movement, the setting begins with tuned bells and the boys’ choir (as indicated by Mahler, but usually performed by children’s choirs with both genders these days) imitating those bells with calls of “Bimm bamm,” moving straight to the hum of the “m.” For most of the four minutes, that is all the children sing. At first, there are only woodwinds and horns, with no strings. In fact, violins are silent for the entire movement!

After the woodwinds announce their joyous presence, the women’s choir begins to sing their narration of Peter’s redemption. The glockenspiel tinkles along. At the description of the “last supper,” the low strings, cellos and basses, finally enter, as does a trumpet. Suddenly, the joyous music takes a dark turn as the alto soloist prepares to make her entrance (having recovered a bit from her Nietzschean experience). The violas enter here, providing further low string harmonies. It is here where the music, for the entire middle section, is almost directly lifted from the middle portion of “Das himmlische Leben” and creates an unbreakable link from this symphony to the next one. It is also a nod back to the “flower” movement, whose contrasting sections also used music from the song.

The alto (representing Peter? Or simply a penitent woman?) complains of her sinful condition. The lower women’s parts of the choir now sing “Bimm bamm” along with the children, but the cheeky sopranos tell the soloist that she should not cry. But cry she does, pathetically asking for mercy to a descending line very familiar from “Das himmlische Leben.”

An extended interlude follows, developing the same music. It reaches a quasi-tragic climax, with a wailing trumpet line. Through it all, the children and women continue to stubbornly sing the bell sounds, and the bells themselves continue to be heard. But this is quickly dismissed by the return of the full women’s chorus rejecting the complaints of the alto soloist and promising the heavenly life. For three measures, they are completely a cappella.

At this point, Mahler generously allows the children to sing text! They come in dramatically on a repetition of the words “Liebe nur Gott!” (“Love only God”). They then sing a few subsequent lines of text (in unison) along with the women’s choir as the poem is brought to its transfigured conclusion. It is here that Mahler introduces a powerful trombone line that is one of the most magical moments in the entire symphony. The woodwind instruments punctuate the closing text with their initial chorale-like music, and all the women and children, along with the actual bells, sing their “bimms” and “bamms” as the music fades away directly into the song of love.

Sixth Movement: What Love Tells Me

Had Mahler not resorted to the angels, we might be able to see this final movement as a representation of the Nietzschean “Übermensch,” the “superman” who has overcome everything. If the first movement was about “Becoming,” as it clearly was, then all of the remaining movements are about beings that have already “Become”—except perhaps for this one, which is the fulfillment of all aspiration. That fulfillment is love.

This is an Adagio of the highest order, in the line of the one from Beethoven’s Ninth. In choosing such a lofty slow movement to end a symphony, however, Mahler is breaking new ground. Even Tchaikovsky used his closing slow movement in the Pathétique for tragic, not transcendent expression. Like Beethoven’s movement, Mahler’s uses the principle of variation, bringing back his main theme in ever more resplendent garb.

In warm and comforting D major, the violins (who were absent for the whole previous movement) take the lead in presenting the chorale-like main theme, accompanied by the rest of the strings. The melody itself is reminiscent of one from Beethoven, the slow movement of his final completed work, the String Quartet in F major, Op. 135. The cellos sing the contrasting or “consequent” phrase, which has an element of striving aspiration.

After the strings conclude their broad, closed presentation of the “love” theme, the first contrasting episode is heard. All these contrasting elements bring some element of disturbance. This first one in F-sharp major, with its rising and falling leaps, begins neutral in character, neither positive nor negative, but still disruptive. It brings the first wind instrument entries, an oboe, then a horn. At first, a vestige of the opening chorale is in the low bass. The horn is soon joined by some of its companions, and the first of three major crises emerges. The horns erupt into what is none other than their passionate call heard near the very beginning of the first movement!

But the chorale melody has the power to banish any and all disruptions, and it does. The horn calls fade away, almost as if acted upon by a higher power, and the theme is presented again in its first real variation led by the cellos and violas, back in D major. The violins now take the “striving” consequent phrase. Woodwinds join in the presentation. But things become somewhat troubled again with the arrival of the “neutral” music and the dark key of C-sharp minor. It is not a full-fledged crisis, but it is another disturbance. The music very gradually becomes imperceptibly more passionate and animated as trumpets join in.

Things quiet down again, but the disruptive music now builds even more passionately in yet another distant key, E-flat minor. This seems to be resolved by a very warm and apparently fulfilling climax in E-flat major, marked by the first percussion entry (bass drum). But this is a false resolution, not least because it is in the wrong key. Very naturally, and yet still shockingly, this apparent climax devolves into the portentous horn calls heard in the first movement’s introduction. This is the second crisis, even greater than the first.

But the main chorale theme again proves unshakeable, banishing this crisis as it had the first, again in varied, more elaborate form. When the horns enter, it seems as if this is where the theme will find its fulfillment. But again, this is premature and deceptive. Now the third and greatest crisis arrives. Again, it sneaks up on the listener. It is familiar from yet another pivotal moment in the first movement—the disruptive interruption that followed the conclusion of the first main march section. The wailing harmonized trumpets heard there make an appearance here, along with the now familiar horn calls. This crisis takes a bit longer to dismiss. Mahler asks for full power, including a cymbal crash.

But it fades, as it must, and a flute, very tentatively, enters questioningly with the main theme’s “consequent” phrase, which is then passed higher, to the piccolo. Mahler directs that the tempo should slow to almost nothing here. Plucked low strings lead into the final and most gloriously resplendent presentation of the “love theme.” Having overcome this last crisis, it will no longer be disrupted. Let by the trumpets, it spins itself out inexorably over shimmering tremolo strings. It builds steadily and unstoppably, with both main phrases reaching their apotheosis. When the trombones and trumpets seem to be winding up for their final statement, things suddenly become quiet again, but this is like a moment of prayer as the trumpet intones the main theme. From there, it builds to the “full, noble tone” of the closing, with the clinching fanfares and the famous loud alternations of D and A on the timpani. The last chords are drawn out with even more timpani beats. Mahler directs that the final chord be held long and not be sharply cut off.

No “child’s song” could follow this conclusion, nor could anything else. What Mahler has achieved in this finale is nothing less than to merge the Nietzschean “Übermensch” with the God that Nietzsche rejected. And in so doing, in creating this symphony, which is not just a world, but a universe, Mahler has effectively defined himself as not just the instrument of the Divine, but as a God himself.

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