Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Musical World Awaits

Late-Romantic Austrian composer Gustav Mahler said,  “The symphony must be like the world.  It must embrace everything.”  This evening on Symphony at 7, we’re presenting one that comes pretty close to doing that. It’s the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, Symphony No. 3 in D minor by Gustav Mahler, in our series Mahler on Mondays.

We are up to the third week in our series of Mahler symphonies in the order of  releases from the least to the most number of recordings available.  As mentioned before, there is undoubtedly some duplication of individual symphonies because the numbering includes box sets as well as single releases.  When we started, the numbers I had were, 74 releases for Symphony No. 8, 78 for Symphony No. 7, and now, 91 for the Third Symphony.

The Third Symphony, first performed in 1902, features a large orchestra and a vocal part for mezzo-soprano and choral parts for women and children based on texts by Nietzsche and the folk-poetry collection The Youths Magic Horn.  There are autobiographical references to marching bands Mahler heard as a child, and to universal spiritual themes, a  fascinating blending of the banal and the profound that helps make his music unique.  The symphony is in six movements, and the titles he originally gave them suggest a kind of map through this expansive territory: Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In, What the Flowers in 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.

This symphony can be experienced as pure music, or as the titles might suggest, a kind of symbolic evolutionary journey from inorganic matter (Mahler thought of calling the opening of the first movement “What the Mountain Rocks Tell Me”) through all the forms of life, spiraling upward to spiritual transcendence.  Indeed, the long, purely instrumental final movement provides a fitting apotheosis to end this magnificent symphonic journey.

I hope you can join me for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on Symphony at 7.  Here’s just a bit of the opening: