Edo de Waart's Finale: Mahler Symphony No. 3

Program Notes

For his final concert as MSO music director, Maestro Edo de Waart has chosen Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, the composer’s great paean to the Universe. As we immerse ourselves in Mahler’s sound world, we’re afforded the opportunity to enjoy his two most-favored genres: song and symphony. It is an experience to be savored.


Symphony No. 3 in D minor

Gustav Mahler
(Born 7 July 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia (now Kalište, Czech Republic); Died 18 May 1911, Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1895-96

First performance: 9 June 1902; Krefeld, Germany

Last MSO performance: June 2010; Edo de Waart, conductor; Kellley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano; MSO Women’s Chorus; Milwaukee Children’s Choir

Instrumentation: 4 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet,

4th doubling E-flat clarinet), E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons ( 4th doubling contrabassoon), 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba,

2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, rute, snare drum, suspended cymblas, tam tam, tambourine, triangle), 2 harps, strings

Approximate duration: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Just imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world—one is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe... My symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard! In it, the whole of nature finds a voice.   

 –Gustav Mahler

From its impassioned, massive opening movement to the vast tranquility of the closing sixth, nature’s striking beauties and affecting expressions of humanity’s deepest emotions pervade Mahler’s colossal Symphony No. 3. The chronology of its composition is somewhat convoluted. Suffice it to note that his concept of the symphony evolved over time; he created, then discarded, seven different scenarios before finally settling on this blueprint:

Part 1

1.  Pan Awakes; Summer Marches In

Part 2

            2.  What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me

            3.  What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me

            4.  What Mankind Tells Me

            5.  What the Angels Tell Me

            6.  What Love Tells Me

The bulk of the work was composed in the summer of 1895—in a small hut designed to Mahler’s specifications, on the edge of a meadow and right on the banks of the lake at Steinbach am Attersee, c. 20 miles east of Salzburg. The following summer, he wrote the huge opening movement. (An earlier scenario had called for seven movements, with a setting of the poem “Das himmlische Leben” (Life in Heaven) as the finale. When Mahler realized the first movement was growing hugely, he laid aside his finale, later using it to close the Fourth Symphony.)

Though Mahler subsequently withdrew the programmatic titles listed above—and indeed, one can experience this as edifying “absolute” music—they offer insight into his way of thinking. (A few years earlier, composing the Second Symphony, Mahler had suffered writer’s block after setting down the first movement; only after devising a program was he able to complete the work.) We’re granted entrance into his world of ideas, his emotions, and the various associations that generated the musical choices he made as he wrote. We can take what we find useful from the titles, then later discard them as props we no longer need, because this epoch-making symphony speaks for itself. It is a transformative pilgrimage that begins with nature awakening after a snowy winter; then we move upward from plants to animals to humans to angels and end with the most transcendent thing of all—God’s love.     

The first movement—the largest of all Mahler’s purely instrumental movements—occupies roughly one-third of the symphony’s length. Eight unison horns announce the first magnificent theme, but the music soon descends into a long, slow introduction. In its layout, there are characteristics of both sonata and rondo form; essentially, though, it is a skirmish between two quite divergent marches, one slow and foreboding, the other bright and festive. In the midst of the proceedings is a grand declamation for the trombone, the longest and most dramatic trombone solo in any symphony. In the movement’s struggle between darkness and light, the latter emerges victorious.

Beginning with the second-movement Blümenstuck, the first music Mahler wrote for this symphony, what ensues is, except for the finale, a set a character pieces. The “flower piece” is a delicate minuet of classical refinement; its scampering middle sections presage music from the “Life in Heaven” song dropped from this symphony and used in the Fourth. Some time after the completion of this movement, Mahler reputedly remarked with surprise that the basses play pizzicato throughout.       

The composer employs his song “Ablösung im Sommer” (Relief in Summer) for the scherzo-like third movement. Its text, from the folk collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), tells of how the nightingale fills in for the dead cuckoo when summer comes. Mahler’s three-page ditty is hugely expanded into a joyous, drunk-with-life gambol. The cavorting birds and beasts are then quieted by a distant posthorn, but the movement concludes with a great outburst of sound.           

“Oh, man! Take heed!” warns the mezzo-soprano soloist in the fourth movement, a setting of “Midnight Song” from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra). (The text was also set to music by Lukas Foss in his Time Cycle.) Low strings create a rocking feeling, with the harp accenting a few of their notes. Each of the poem’s eleven lines is to be imagined as coming between two of the twelve strokes of midnight.           

The fifth movement likewise employs a rocking device, as the children’s chorus imitates the ringing of bells (“bimm, bamm”). Again, the text is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and again the Fourth Symphony’s “Life in Heaven” is foreshadowed. The women’s voices deliver most of the text, though the soloist returns to play the role of a penitent and the children join in the admonition, “Liebe nur Gott” (Love God only).

If we choose to follow Mahler’s original program for the Third Symphony, we might hear the spacious closing Adagio as an apostrophe to Divine Love—his drafts bear the superscription “Father, behold my wounds! Let not one soul be lost!” Otherwise, its performance instructions—”Slow. Calm. Deeply felt.”—tell us all we need to know. “If a composer has forced on his listeners the feelings which overwhelmed him,” stated Mahler, “then he has achieved his objective.”

Recommended Recording: Michelle DeYoung; Bernard Haitink, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO Resound)  

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.