From Nature to Ever Higher Levels of Being
Notes on Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony
The line stands before us as though carved in stone: “None but the lonely heart / knows what I suffer!” For countless artists, these words of Goethe were not only an apt description of their state of mind but were also the central motivating force behind their creative potential. In the wide field of music there are two composers in particular who created their works out of this dialectical world-human constellation: Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler. Both suffered in a disenchanted world but fashioned magnificent works from it, although with different aesthetic resources and in various spheres: works of longing, of the principle of hope, expressed in music. Works between life and death.
Mahler chose the symphonic form for his works. It gave him the possibility to describe two worlds at once: there, that of (often ugly) reality, here, the world of his imagination, a musical sunshine state, as it were. He did not lack self-confidence; the trenchant lines he wrote about his Third Symphony are proof of that: “My symphony will be something which the world has never heard the like of before! All nature is endowed with a voice there, and tells secrets so profound that we can perhaps imagine them only in dreams!” What Mahler did not acknowledge was the enormous influence Friedrich Nietzsche exerted on him. Reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music certainly influenced him. On 18 November 1896 Mahler wrote: “It always strikes me as odd that most people, when they speak of ‘nature’, think only of flowers, little birds, and woodsy smells. No one knows the god Dionysus, the driving, creative force, the great Pan.”
The bacchanalian principle confronts us in person in the Third Symphony. “Introduction. Pan awakes – followed immediately by: Summer marches in (Bacchic procession).” Those words are written above the first movement in the autograph fair copy. It could also have read: “The idyll appears.” That is how the symphony sounds at the beginning, like a wonder of nature which Mahler had directly in front of him. Day in, day out he sat at the writing desk in the tiny composing hut that stood on the meadow next to the main building in Steinbach, Austria. Mahler also adhered to the principle of per aspera ad astra [through hardships to the stars] in this work, simply applying it to the world, to nature as a whole. And he knew exactly how far he was going: “It has almost ceased to be music; it is hardly anything but sounds of nature. It’s eerie, the way life gradually breaks through out of soulless, petrified matter. And, as this life rises from stage to stage, it takes on ever more highly developed forms: flowers, beasts, man, up to the sphere of the spirits, the angels.”
The Third is Mahler’s longest symphony, approximately 100 minutes in length. Formally it is divided into two parts with six movements altogether: the first part consists of the first movement; the second includes movements two through six. One searches in vain for a main idea, however; Mahler himself pointed that out: “While waiting for my sketches I also realized that nothing came of the profound interrelationships between the various movements, which I had originally dreamed of. Each movement stands alone, as a self-contained and independent whole: no repetitions or reminiscences.”
Instead, there are discernible structures. The first movement is composed in traditional sonata form and, particularly during the exposition, due to its sometimes collage-like design assumes an “anti-architectonic character”, as Adorno so aptly termed it, in which no thematic hierarchies can be established, which should not surprise anyone in light of the anarchic essence of nature. It begins with a theme that incorporates the patriotic song “Ich hab’ mich ergeben mit Herz und mit Hand” [I have given myself heart and hand] and is “sung” in unison by eight horns. After only nine bars the carefree attitude is interrupted by a cymbal clash, followed by a passage that anticipates the point in the fourth movement where Nietzsche’s world-sceptical admonition “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” [O man! Take heed!] is heard. Later, when the trombone soars, thundering and exultant “with the greatest display of power”, one may justifiably assume the god Pan is behind it – the image of an idea, as it were. If it is really him, he takes his time: the march music announcing the summer does not make its entry until after more than 200 bars. And if a quarter of the movement had not already elapsed, with a little fantasy it could appear that the actual exposition does not begin until this moment. Its character is humorously reminiscent of traditional wind music in which the trumpets and trombones dominate. After the greatly prolonged, unwavering, somewhat amorphous beginning, it develops into a dynamic force that does justice to Pan, as the personification of creative energy.
The second movement appears in the guise of a light-footed minuet and is thus in complete contrast to the spirit of what was heard before. The oboe begins a graceful, gentle, almost innocent melody, transporting us to a pastoral idyll from distant times. “It is the most carefree thing that I have ever written – as carefree as only flowers are,” the composer himself commented. Mahler structured the third movement as a scherzo with a post horn trio and immediately added its programme: “In this piece it is as if Nature herself were pulling faces and putting out her tongue. There is such a gruesome, Panic humour in it that one is more likely to be overcome by horror than laughter."
The “crown” of creation finally gets its turn in the fourth movement: man appears in Mahler’s symphonic world. And he endures the greatest suffering, simply because he is aware of it. In order to express human pain the composer inserted a voice at this point. The text he selected is the “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Joy and pain are directly connected in the words quoted here, and three important elements can be found in the music: first, the descending whole tone (which is also narrowed once to a semitone), then a motivic sequence to be played “like a sound of nature” and third, a contrasting violin melody in the style of art music.
The melodic idiom of the fifth movement alternates between irony and naivety, between children’s song and hymn. The boys’ chorus imitates the ringing of the bells already heard in the orchestra. Meanwhile, the women’s chorus sings in a teasing, playful way about the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles and the absolution of Peter’s sins. Although the exhortation “Love only God” appears in the a cappella chorale at the end of the movement, the beauty of this redemptive fantasy cannot really be trusted.
In the last movement it becomes clear that, in the context of the multilayered thinking of the Third Symphony, ultimately it is about a God who can only be “understood” as love. To express this state musically Mahler composed an Adagio movement which ends with a triumphant apotheosis that has completely lost all sense of irony. For the “symbol of love” Mahler chose Richard Wagner’s famous “love” turn – a slight bow. The fact that the last bars of the finale shine with metallic, transparent brilliance is both unexpected and unusual, however. Within the idealism that serves as the basis of this symphony such a ravishingly beautiful, conciliatory ending is nevertheless obligatory. Its composer agreed: “The Third has nothing to do with the struggles of an individual. One could rather say: it is nature’s course of development from inanimate, rigid matter to ever higher levels of being: plants, the animal kingdom, the human sphere, the realm of the angels to God understood as love.”