Gustav Mahler composed most of the score to his Symphony No. 3 in the summers of 1895 and 1896 in a composing hut he had built at the edge of the Alpine lake at Steinbach am Attersee. Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a close family friend, recalled Mahler being overwhelmed with musical ideas for what would become the second movement of his new symphony upon arriving at the idyllic retreat in early June 1895: ‘On the very first afternoon, as he was gazing out of his little house that lay entirely nestled amidst grass and flowers, it was sketched and completed in one sitting.’ During the following ten weeks the composer worked out the musical material for what would become movements 2–6. By mid-August Mahler was able to report to a friend with considerable satisfaction: ‘The summer brought me the Third – probably the most mature and the most unique that I have done up to now.’
Despite a remarkably productive two and half a months, Mahler was not finished with the symphony. He also wanted the work to include material he had conceived some years earlier, more specifically a song and a march. The first, Das himmlische Leben, was a Lied set to a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn that he had completed in 1892 and that he was planning to incorporate as the finale to the symphony. The march likewise reached back to music conceived several years before, probably no earlier than 1893; these ideas, which did not amount to more than a few pages of sketches, he hoped to develop into the first movement for the work when he had time to compose again the next summer.
True to Mahler’s plan, the following summer of 1896 saw the completion of the first movement, yet the enterprise far exceeded the composer’s original conception of weighting and length: ‘It‘s frightening the way this movement seems to grow of its own accord more than anything else that I have done […]. Real horror seizes me when I see where it is leading, the path the music must follow, and that it fell upon me to be the bearer of this gigantic work. […] For this really distances itself too far from all that is past to call it music anymore; it is, rather, a mystical, immense sound of nature.’ Indeed, the opening had now grown into a movement with a duration of approximately 35 minutes. This forced Mahler to drop his plans for Das himmlische Leben as the finale (the song would ultimately serve as the final movement of Symphony No. 4). This, in turn, impacted the structure of the sixth movement whose new role as the conclusion to the work demanded a series of compositional revisions. By the late fall of 1896 the score was finished.
The symphony’s genesis can be dated fairly well in the extant manuscripts to the work. Mahler’s method of composition involved three main stages of notation after initial ideas had been sketched. The ‘short score’ (four to five staves) continuity draft was followed by a preliminary draft of the full score. These first stages were completed in the summers of 1895 and 1896 for movements 2–6 and 1, respectively. The final stage for Mahler, the fair copy, involved preparing clean versions of the scores to each of the movements, a type of mostly routine work that the composer reserved for his spare time during the conducting season. These were finished in Hamburg in the spring and fall of 1896. It is noteworthy that Mahler revised the first and last movements while completing the fair copies (the last of these, the sixth movement, was dated 22 November 1896). The first edition of the score was published by J. Weinberger in Leipzig in the summer of 1902.
A central component of the work that emerged in tandem with its musical composition was its programmatic design. After initial vague associations between musical substance and abstract ideas, Mahler began to identify the emergent symphony with a world-embracing representation of existence itself. ‘But now imagine such a large work that, in fact, mirrors the entire world – one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays.’ Mahler’s personal aesthetics and the particular nature of his inspiration for this work fused into a nearly mystical cosmology. The program went through numerous renderings, but by the end of the summer of 1896 it reached a rather consistent form:
A Summer Noontime’s Dream
Introduction: Pan Awakens
No. I: Summer Marches in (Bacchus Processional)
No. II: What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
No. III: What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
No. IV: What Humanity Tells Me
No. V: What the Angels Tell Me
No. VI: What Love Tells Me.
As Mahler put it: ‘And so my work is a musical poem that goes through all the stages of evolution, step by step. It begins with inanimate Nature and progresses to God’s love!’ This ambitious framework was not an afterthought by the composer meant to lend coherence to the sprawling work. Even before the overall trajectory for the symphony was articulated, the work had taken on clearly cosmological dimensions. Quite early in its composition, Mahler set to work on two texts that betray this preoccupation with profound questions: the Drunken Song of Midnight from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (fourth movement) and Armer Kinder Bettlerlied (‘Es sungen drei Engel’) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (fifth movement), the first a meditation on the human condition and the depth of existence, the second a celebration of arrival in heaven after the redemption of sin.
The monumental qualities of the work – the longest of Mahler’s symphonies – no doubt served as a hindrance to organizing its first full performance. The first partial presentation of the work, the second movement (entitled ‘Blumenstück’), took place in Berlin on 9 November 1896 under the baton of Arthur Nikisch; numerous performances of this movement followed: Felix Weingartner (in Hamburg, as well as a performance of the second, third, and sixth movements in Berlin), Nikisch (again, this time in Leipzig), Mahler himself (Budapest) and Leo Blech (Prague). It was not until 9 June 1902 that Mahler had the occasion to present the world premiere of the entire composition. Richard Strauss used his position as head of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein (All-German Music Association) to afford Mahler the opportunity to present the piece as part of the society’s annual festival, held that year in Krefeld, Germany. The performance turned out to be a noteworthy success, definitively establishing Mahler as a leading composer of his generation.
By the time of the premiere Mahler had disavowed the program to this and all of his instrumental works, thus negating the explanations he had offered for Symphonies No. 1 and 2 and begging many a critic’s questions about the implications of Symphony No. 3. Mahler would, nevertheless, continue to set texts and quote musical materials in his remaining symphonies in ways that suggest – at least on some level – a continuation of the relationship between his concepts and the music he created. The abandonment of a program after Symphony No. 3 was more a recognition of audiences’ all-too-literal understanding of such descriptions, betraying an inability to follow Mahler’s imagination into a realm where, as the composer put it, ‘things no longer fall apart in time and space’, a realm where only music can speak.
Vienna, September 2009