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Exploring Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Journey Through Nature and Humanity

April 3, 2024

Exploring Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Journey Through Nature and Humanity

Gustav Mahler’s monumental Third Symphony reflects the composer’s profound philosophical and spiritual inquiries into the nature of existence, the human condition, and the relationship between humanity and the natural world. The compositional journey was deeply personal and introspective with this symphony, drawing upon a wide range of influences and ideas to create a sprawling musical landscape of immense scope and complexity. 

Discussing aspirations for the symphony, Mahler wrote, “One is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe. The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!” No Mahler symphony gives us a greater sense of this cosmic scale than the Third, pushing the boundaries so far that for a while Mahler considered classifying it as a symphonic poem. In the end, it became the next step in the evolution of a form which began before Haydn. 

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 Mahler’s 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, Beethoven’s Sixth, or Mahler’s own Second, Fifth, and Seventh symphonies. And those two aspects aren’t even the most audacious things about the work. 

“The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!”

Gustav Mahler

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? 

The concept of nature and its significance in human life is a central theme that permeates the Third. Mahler was deeply inspired by the beauty and grandeur of the natural world, and he sought to capture its vastness and majesty in music. The opening movement evokes the primordial forces of nature through its expansive orchestral textures and sweeping melodies. As the symphony progresses, Mahler explores the relationship between humanity and nature, depicting both the awe-inspiring beauty and the harsh realities of the natural world. 

From the outset of his work on the Third, 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 a progressive evolutionary path. There was also inspiration taken from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically two of his major books: The Happy Science (Meine fröhliche Wissenschaft) and Thus Spoke 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. 

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 his spiritually based Second Symphony. 

Mahler was attracted to Nietzsche’s dramatic and effusive style and may have instinctively recognized a quasi-religious spirit in Nietzsche, a kindred spirit of sorts, one who did not fear to attack the Christian conception of God, by juxtaposing it against the earthy spirit of the pagan god Dionysus. As a God of nature, overflowing with the joy of life, without being bound by the chains of guilt and sin, Dionysus was the very projection of Mahler’s own concept of nature, in all its purity, a symbol of the life-enhancing spirit as the nature deity Pan. 

Where Mahler’s Second Symphony culminates in a vision of the resurrection that is certainly religious, the Third takes inspiration from Nietzsche and nature, constructing a musical portrait of Darwinian evolution. 

In the end, Mahler structured the symphony into the following movements: 

Part I: 
No. 1: Introduction—Pan’s Awakening; Summer Marches in (Procession of Bacchus) 

Part II: 
No. 2: What the Flowers of the Field Tell Me 
No. 3: What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me 
No. 4: What Man Tells Me 
No. 5: What the Angels Tell Me 
No. 6: What Love (God) Tells Me 

The epic first movement is a vibrant celebration of the life force, sweeping in with an overwhelming Dionysian power. Mahler related it to the banishment of winter with “the victorious appearance of Helios and the miracle of spring thanks to which all things live, breathe, flower, sing and ripen,” and later, the arrival of summer, “a conqueror advancing amidst all that grows and blooms.” 

The human voice is heard for the first time in the fourth movement with text based on Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” exploring themes of spiritual enlightenment and the transcendence of earthly concerns. In the fifth movement, as the chorus sings of the eternal cycle of life and death, Mahler’s music reaches a powerful and transcendent culmination, offering a vision of hope and redemption beyond the struggles of mortal existence. 

Taken together, Mahler’s Third Symphony is a profound meditation on the mysteries of life and the natural world. Through its rich orchestration, complex thematic development, and profound emotional depth, the symphony invites listeners to contemplate the deepest questions of existence and to find solace and meaning in the beauty of the world around us. In this monumental work, Mahler achieves that goal, creating a musical universe of breathtaking scope and beauty. 

See Mahler’s Third Symphony Live

Don’t miss this great hymn to nature featuring brilliant mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, Women of the Colorado Symphony Chorus, and the Colorado Children’s Chorale, in an epic performance as only Mahler and your Colorado Symphony can deliver.

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