When Gustav Mahler was finishing his First Symphony, he began the sketches for his Second, and while finishing the Second he began his Third. The creative process for taking vast works from the first sketches to the definitive orchestration always took a few years. However, lack of time was not the only reason for these overlaps. In every symphony, Mahler was building a single world, and at a certain phase, another world opened itself before him. Again while composing the Third Symphony, there was a moment when he got a glimpse into yet another world. The Third was originally to have had seven movements, but he ultimately saved the last movement for his Fourth Symphony. Even with “just” six movements, the Third turned out to be Mahler’s longest symphony.
In the history of the premieres and early performances of Mahler’s symphonies, and especially of the early ones, we find one condemnation after another; music critics in particular competed with each other in denigrating his music. When Gustav Mahler arrived on the scene, his quite different kind of musical expression elicited very intense reactions from some of the composer’s colleagues of the previous generation. Even Johannes Brahms, who had a friendly inclination towards Mahler and respected him as a conductor, regarded his younger colleague as the “king of the revolutionaries”, and he was truly horrified by the score of his Second Symphony. Certain conductors greatly contributed to the performing of Mahler’s music, but even they could not guarantee success for the innovative music. In those days, it was still relatively common for only some of the movements of a multi-movement work to be played at concerts, and Mahler disapproved. After all, he was building “entire worlds” in his symphonies. Although he regarded the practice as the mutilation of his works, he had to resign himself to such compromises. At the same time, he did all he could to have his compositions played in their entirety. Devastating reviews tormented Mahler, but they did not dissuade him from writing more works. In March 1896, he wrote to a friend: “You'll see: I shall not live to see my cause triumph! Everything I write is too strange and new to my listeners, who cannot establish contact with me.”
It was in this state of mind that Gustav Mahler wrote his Symphony No. 3 in D minor. He began work on the first sketches in 1893 while in his second year as chief conductor at the opera in Hamburg. His enormous conducting workload prevented him from concentrating on composing, but he was creating new music in his mind during every free moment. He jotted down sketches of his compositions during the theatre’s season and looked forward to summer, when he would again become a “holiday composer”. Concentrated work on the Third Symphony took up the two summer holidays of 1895 and 1896. Mahler had established a ritual for his summer composing, which he followed in this case as well, leaving the city after the theatre’s season had ended and heading for the Alps. In the summer of 1895 he stayed at the same site as in previous years, at an inn in Steinbach near Lake Attersee. Every morning at 6:30 he went to a little hut (which is still standing) that he had built between the inn and the lakeshore. In a tiny room, he had only a desk and a piano. In that small, isolated space, he could concentrate fully on his great works, and no one was permitted to disturb him. He would occasionally go out into the meadows or on a walk alone, but he would return to his hut immediately to write into his score whatever ideas he had come up with. He did not leave the hut until lunchtime.
In his new symphony, “Nature itself” was to speak, but not in the sense of imitation or tone painting. Mahler wanted to portray the act of creation in music. He later revealed to a friend how he himself was affected by the symphony’s first movement: “It is hardly music anymore, just the voice of nature: one shudders at this motionless, soulless material (I could have called this movement “What the rocks tell me”), from which, little by little, life frees itself and finally conquers, developing and differentiating step by step: flowers, animals, men, right up to the kingdom of the spirit and that of the angels.” Mahler originally gave the symphony’s six movements titles. For the first movement, he wrote: “Pan awakens: Summer marches in”, and for the second: “What the flowers of the field tell me”. He continued in the same fashion with names for the rest of the movements: movement III is a musical setting of what the animals of the forest told him, followed by mankind and angels. Finally, his inscription for the sixth movement was “What love tells me”.
Mahler later suppressed the movements’ programmatic titles, but he retained the content of his conception. The symphony’s first three movements are purely instrumental; the composer waits until the fourth movement to let the human voice be heard. The alto solo “O Mensch! gib Acht!” (O Man! Take heed!) to a text by Friedrich Nietzsche has a revelatory effect. Mahler’s indication in the score reads “Very slowly, misterioso, sempre ppp”. The fifth movement also employs the vocal element, but in a completely different manner. It opens with ringing bells and a boys’ choir singing “Bim, bam” in accordance with Mahler’s indications: “Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression”. A women’s choir and alto soloist join in, singing the text “There were three angels singing a sweet song” from Mahler’s favourite collection of folk poetry, The Youth’s Magic Horn. While the fifth movement is brisk and the shortest part of the symphony, in the final sixth movement the composer slows the music down to create a calm, heartfelt statement of optimism. About the finale, regarded by many as one of Mahler’s most beautiful movements, the composer wrote in a letter: “It is a summation of what I feel towards all creation, and that could not have been done without undergoing deeply painful mental processes that suddenly evaporate into blissful faith.”
The composer divided his six-movement symphony into two parts. The first part contains the unusually long first movement, and the second part consists of the second through the sixth movements. Mahler was worried about the unusual length of the whole work, but he was convinced that it did not contain even a single superfluous bar, and he had serious conceptual reasons for the first movement’s dimensions: “No one can imagine how strenuous it is to compose such a long movement, to keep it cohesive, and not lose control over it. But I needed it to serve as a base, like a colossal pillar, like the base of a pyramid that gets ever narrower, more transparent, and weaker in the subsequent movements.”
The public premiere of the Third Symphony took place on 9 March 1897 in Berlin in Mahler’s presence, but just as in the cases of his two previous symphonies, it was heard in an incomplete form. Three movements were played under the baton of the outstanding conductor Felix Weingartner: the second, third, and sixth. The public in the packed concert hall reacted immediately after each movement was finished. After the “Flowers” movement, the listeners reacted favourably, but their dissatisfaction increased with each succeeding movement. By the end the applause was completely drowned out by hissing. Mahler fared even worse in the press, where he was portrayed as a “tragicomic hero” with “no imagination whatsoever” or “a jokester of the worst calibre”. Exactly five years later, on 9 March 1902, Gustav Mahler and Alma Schindler were married at the Karlskirche, a baroque church in Vienna. At the end of May 1902, when Mahler was 41 years old, he left Vienna accompanied by the young Alma, just 22 at the time, and went to Krefeld, Germany, to conduct his Third Symphony in its full, six-movement version at an important contemporary music festival. He insisted on plenty of rehearsals, and he resisted the urging of the organisers to give the individual movements titles. Having had bad experiences with his previous symphonies, he knew the kinds of misunderstandings that could arise from an incorrectly interpreted “programme”. He had realised that his “artistry always expresses only that which cannot be expressed in words.” He added humorously: “Listeners cannot be helped. Each listener has to help himself by listening repeatedly and carefully studying the score. […] Fortunately, it is my calling to write music, and not to write about music.” When the Third Symphony was first heard in its entirety on 9 June 1902, it was an extraordinary event and a triumph for the composer. Alma Mahler recalled: “There was a huge outburst of cheers after the first part, and after each subsequent movement the listeners seemed to be more moved until the last part, when the public went into a real frenzy.” The composer-conductor was called back to the stage twelve times.
Today, Mahler’s Third Symphony is played in concert halls all around the world. Within it there is something extraordinary, in places even terrifying, as the composer himself wrote in a letter to the singer Anna von Mildenburg: “My symphony will be something the likes of which the world has never heard before! In it, Nature itself speaks, revealing secrets so profound that one perhaps only senses them in dreams! Let me tell you, there are some passages in it that almost frighten me. Sometimes I even ask myself whether it should have been written at all.”