Hymn to Nature

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 3, D minor

May 7 & 8, 2016
Program Note by Paul Hyde


Mahler’s Third Symphony is the longest work in the standard orchestral repertoire. There may be longer symphonies, but they’re not played with any frequency. Actually, performances of the Third Symphony itself are somewhat rare. The work requires huge forces: not only a large orchestra but an alto soloist, a women’s chorus and children’s chorus.

The symphony includes a unique six-movement framework, with the first movement lasting longer than Beethoven’s entire Fifth Symphony. Performances of the complete Third Symphony typically last 100-110 minutes.

Maher’s ambitions were as big as the symphony itself: “Imagine a work so large that it mirrors the entire world,” he wrote to a close friend. “My symphony will be something that the world has never heard before!” At other times, he referred to his creation, though affectionately, as his “monster.”

Mahler composed his “monster” during the summers of 1895 and 1896 at Steinbach on the Attersee, about 30 miles east of Salzburg. By the first summer, Mahler was convinced that the symphony was turning into “the ripest and most individual work I have yet composed.” By the second summer, he felt possessed by the work. He described himself as “so deeply immersed in it that it is as if one were dead to the outside world. … In this score, all nature speaks and tells such deep secrets as one may intuit in a dream. At certain places in the score, a quite uncanny feeling takes possession of me, and I feel as if I had not created this myself.”

Mahler gave descriptive titles to the symphony’s six movements. He called the entire symphony “A Summer Noon’s Dream.” He later regretted this, believing his words misinterpreted. At another time, Mahler exclaimed, “To hell with every program,” suggesting that the words you’re reading now are ultimately inadequate in seeking to express the world of ideas and emotions that inform complex musical composition. Still, the titles arguably do serve as a shorthand for understanding this towering work:

Introduction: The awakening of Pan. Summer marches in (procession of Bacchus).

What the flowers of 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.

Mahler himself conducted the premiere in the small city of Krefeld on June 9, 1902.

1. In the first movement, Mahler seems to deal with two immense themes: the creation of the world and the relentless self-assertion of life. Following a robust fanfare by eight French horns, the music dissipates to a soft rumble. Slowly, the universe vibrates into existence. Chaos begins to take form. “Out of unfathomable silence,” Mahler said, “it is the world, nature as a whole that is awakened into tones and sounds.” In the energy unleashed, however, there’s an element of terror and overwhelming power. Eventually, however, “Summer marches in,” as Mahler writes. The movement becomes a contest between two ideas: a series of marches in the major key and a dirge-like procession in the minor. In this pitched conflict of bright and dark elements, the march of life eventually prevails.

2. After the monumental first movement, which occupies roughly one-third of the symphony’s length, the much-shorter second movement serves as a pleasant, intimate interlude. It’s a delicate minuet, the contribution of the flowers. The simple, dance-like theme at the beginning is related to the opening material of the first movement. It is played first by oboe, accompanied by plucked strings, then taken up by violins and a solo clarinet. Mahler provides contrast through scurrying motifs for woodwinds and strings.

3. A folk-like scherzo evokes the “animals in the forest.” The movement is notable for several extended solos for the posthorn, an ancestor of the modern French horn with a bright, gleaming tone. The posthorn solos, gradually changing from fanfares to song, often are played outside the orchestra from a distance. Particularly memorable is a poetic passage toward the end of the movement for the posthorn accompanied very softly by four of the normal symphonic French horns. Just before the end of the movement, Mahler makes chilling reference to the Last Judgment “Great Summons” music from his Second Symphony.

4. Mahler introduces an alto soloist singing the Midnight Song from Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” The music proceeds softly and slowly. The mood is mostly solemn, though with hints of a sensuous nocturne. The next movement follows without pause.

5. The texture brightens considerably with the entrance of the children’s and women’s choruses. The text is taken from the famous German collection of traditional poetry called “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” which inspired several generations of romantic composers. The movement opens with the children’s choir imitating the ding-dong of joyful bells. The women sing of what “the angels tell”: salvation is promised to all. Again the next movement follows without pause.

6. This symphonic finale, unlike many in the repertoire, is not a headlong rush toward a blazing coda. Instead, this slow movement, beginning ever-so softly, presents Mahler at his most serene, offering a deeply spiritual reflection of “What love tells me.” The long, melodic line rises gradually to a succession of climaxes, each more glowing than its predecessor. Some final dissonant episodes challenge the mood of hope and optimism, but they fade away. A brass choir softly restates the movement’s opening theme. The tempo remains deliberate, but the music gathers energy for a powerful, triumphant conclusion.

Paul Hyde is the arts writer for The Greenville News and a founding editor of the website Classical Voice North America. Follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.