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Musical Features of Mahler’s III Symphony Analytical Essay

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Updated: Jan 19th, 2020


The third symphony by Mahler is recognized as one of his longest and most amazing works. The third symphony implements the composer’s aesthetical views concerning the structure, contour, tune and acoustic material of musical works and combines the influence of Nietzsche’s philosophical framework with Mahler’s reconsideration of religious imagery.

The third symphony amazingly combines the conventional musical features and original experiments with the form and content. On the one hand, Mahler used traditional patterns for the movements of his works. On the other hand, the prolonged time periods reduce the impact of the listeners’ formal expectations and shift the emphasis towards the musical content of the symphony.

The unexpected contrasts between the acoustic materials within the same movement added special appeal to the symphony without destructing its integrity. Mahler’s outstanding sense of form allowed him to conduct these experiments without fear of destroying the inner working of his composition. He considered the structure of a musical work as a separate universe with complicated inner relations between its segments.

On the other hand, the interpretation of Mahler’s works is impossible without taking into consideration the cultural, philosophical and historical contexts of his epoch. Taking into account the amount of quotations and allusions in the third symphony, it can be stated that this musical work should be viewed not only in its integrity but also within the variety of related contexts.

Along with aesthetical value of the musical composition and acoustic material, Mahler’s third symphony can be regarded as a cross road of trends, while each of its six movements are intended to communicate the composer’s philosophical messages to the listeners.

Musical composition of the third symphony

Written between 1893 and 1896, Mahler’s third symphony is recognized as one of the longest ever written musical compositions due to about one hundred minutes with typical performance.

The author’s initial intention was to compose this symphony out of 7 movements which changed up to the moment of the symphony completion, and the final version consists of six movements. The first movement typically lasts for about thirty minutes and can be regarded as the first part of the whole symphony. The second part consisting of the remained five movements has duration of up to seventy minutes.

Initially, the symphony was accompanied with a program intended to clarify the inner working of the composition and communicate the composer’s philosophical messages to the listeners.

Though Mahler withdrew this program afterwards, it is valuable for getting insight into the architecture of the composition and the role and symbolical meaning of each movement. Entitled as Ein Sommermorgenstraum (German for A Summer Morning’s Dream), the third symphony had appropriate titles for each of its movements.

Thus, the first movement bore the title Summer Marches In, while What the Flowers and Meadows Tell Me, What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me, What the Night Tells Me, What the Morning Bells Tell Me and What Love Tells Me were the titles for the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth movements accordingly (Niekerk 201).

Through the analysis of these titles, it can be stated that in contrast to traditional symphonies patterns, the structure of the composition under consideration is not cyclic, but rather progressive depicting a musical journey through the symphony universe.

The peculiarities of the composition can be regarded as specific structural device affecting the listeners’ perception of the musical themes in general. The six seemingly disjointed movements in fact belong together and are united by complex inner relationships.

The opening movement entitled as Summer Marches In represents an unconventionally slow introduction. The sounds of the eight unison horns intertwined with the outcroppings of recitative contrast to the main violin solo which resembles the spring-like life force.

Later on in this movement, this life force is developed into the traditional march. A pastoral episode with its twittering incorporated into this movement adds some special appeal and produces the impression of a double development section. The opening movement with all its contrasting components introduces the listeners into the universe of Mahler’s symphony.

The title of the second movement (What the Flowers and Meadows Tell Me) is aligned with its form. The dainty minuet was appropriate for representing vegetable nature of the discussed processes in nature. This elegant and essentially static form of minuet follows the ABABA pattern and makes this movement ever-changing similar to summer nature.

The third movement entitled as What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me uses a scherzo bustling for rendering the animal sounds. The main allegro of this movement uses the song Absolung im Sommer as its main theme.

Listening to this section, the audience is expected to imagine the dead Cuckoo contrasting to the joy of life in the rest of the animals which is subdued only with the shadow of a man beyond the horizon. The sounds at the end of this movement reveal the animals’ fear which first makes the sounds still, but then unexpectedly ends with final eruption.

In contrast to the three first movements, the fourth one entitled as What the Night Tells Me lacks activity. At first it may seem that the stirrings bring the listeners back to the opening of the symphony, but this impression is delusional. This time the stirrings convey the meaning of warning the man and reveal not the birth of life but rather the birth of intellect.

The musical content of the fifth movement was intended to answer the main question What the Morning Bells Tell Me. Juxtaposing the sacred and profane motives in this movement, Mahler emphasizes this contrast for expressing his controversial religious feelings.

The bell sounds intoned by children reproduce the Angels’ song about the Last Supper. The climax included into this movement appears to be momentarily threatening though does not keep the listeners under pressure too long. After the imaginary storm cloud passes away, the climax is replaced with the joyous singing which is followed by silence.

What Love Tells Me as the title of the sixth movement explains the overall tension as the dominating pattern within this part. Composed from a set of variations, the sixth movement builds up the volcanic pressure and expresses love in all its beauty at the same time. The intertwining melody unites the blocks of the sixth movement with a single theme and intensifies the cumulative dramatic impact.

Regardless of the relative disparity between the moods, structures and colors of the six movements, as a whole, they exhibit exceptional structural unity as it is expected from a traditional symphony.

Peculiarities of the form

Though most Mahler’s symphonies follow conventional patterns, the peculiarities of the form and the manipulation of the structures can be regarded as a separate musical device adding special appeal to compositions.

To begin with, all opening movements of Mahler’s symphonies are based on sonata form. Regarding the massive first movement of the third symphony, the composer admitted that it had “the same scaffolding and construction…as found in Mozart and, expanded and exalted, in Beethoven, but which were actually created by the venerable Haydn” (Freeze 188).

However, as to the first movement of the third symphony, the difficulties with defining its form cam be explained with its huge size.

The gigantic proportions caused the difficulties with making the form of the whole piece apparent to the listeners. For the purpose of preserving the effect of the conventional form, Mahler highlighted the structural divisions through eliminating transitions between the sections and incorporating the musical gestures into the movements’ structure.

Another characteristic feature of the third symphony is the implementation of the rotational form. The rotational form can be defined as the organizational principle based upon the repetition of certain motives. The first set of motives comprises a cycle which is repeated for producing the impression of rotation.

The radical independence between the theme groups is a peculiar feature of the third symphony. Regardless of the stability within the basic sequence, separate motives can be based upon any developmental patterns. The flexibility of the symphony framework allows allotting structural significance to the most distinctive motives.

The large proportions used in the third symphony make the role of the listeners’ formal expectations insignificant. Reducing the role of the background knowledge for the subjective perception of the aesthetics of the symphony, the time scales emphasize the importance of the mutual relations between idioms and sounds. “Mahler gives them unprecedented structural significance: the primary structural marker is idiom” (Freeze 193).

With the climax episodes integrated into the structure of most movements, they can seem as separate complete pieces. However, the detailed analysis of their structural composition allows defining the transition segments which play an important role in establishing the integrity of the whole symphony.

Thus, disregarding the conventionality of the implemented form, the structural composition of Mahler’s third symphony can be regarded as a separate musical feature. Apart from structural significance of particular distinctive motives, the time scales reduce the importance of the listeners’ formal expectations and background knowledge.

Based on conventional patterns, the rotational cycle, the complex structure and the variety of musical gestures intensify the listeners’ impression from the musical composition, making the modified for, and the correlation between the sounds and idioms an impressive musical device.

Characteristics of acoustic material

The acoustic material used by Mahler in the third symphony extends the traditional patterns dictated by orchestra. As it has been mentioned above, particular distinctive motives, such as booming drum motives from the first movement, for example, have become structurally significant features of the whole composition. Increasing the coloring of his symphony, Mahler upsets the orchestra balance, crossing the traditional boundaries of classicism.

Mahler’s genius sense of the form allowed him conducting experiments with the structure, manipulating the acoustic material at his discretion and emphasizing the individual voices at the expense of the total sound without reducing the aesthetic value of his works.

In a standard situation, Mahler can afford himself placing a prolonged upper-voice melody, creating contrasting extremes. Despite all the conventional limitations, Mahler combines unbroken upper-voice melody with other elements tough these contrasts were not essential for the overall composition.

Mahler’s peculiar attitude towards the form can be explained with not only his position of innovator, but also his views concerning the inappropriateness of symmetrical relationships to musical themes. Regarding the works of art as separate universes with their unique internal processes and rules, Mahler takes into consideration the impact of the time and space parameters while working on the third symphony.

The discovery of the beautiful coloring of the trombone solo can be considered as an important Mahler’s contribution to the overall musical aesthetics of his epoch. The contrast between the solo trombones and the chorale produced the effect of the deliberated sounds which however were valuable for expressing the main idea of a particular movement.

Disregarding the misbalance between the chorale and the unexpected solos, the musical content of the movements corresponds to the listeners’ expectations as perceived from the movement titles. Thus, the third symphony has become Mahler’s first experiment with solo trombones which made a significant contribution to the overall coloring of the whole musical composition.

Mahler’s nonconventional approach to pauses and rhythm is another significant feature of the acoustic material deserving serious consideration. The rhythm and the over-long pauses are meant to reinforce the overall impression from the melodies and motives. The pauses within the third symphony are frequently defined as prose-like and can be regarded as meaningful.

In general, Mahler’s unique sense of the form predetermined the success of his experiments with the extension of the classical boundaries, combination of the sounds which previously were regarded as incompatible and the prominence of particular solos. The unconventional treatment of the acoustic material increased the overall coloring of the third symphony and became a contribution to the musical aesthetic of the early twentieth century.

Nietzche’s influence reflected in musical features

Along with the German Romanticism and particularly its notion of a new mythology, Nietzsche’s philosophical theories have become an important source of inspiration for Mahler in composing his third symphony. Particular instances of Nietzsche’s influence can be found within the musical features of this work of art.

While some theoreticians call Nietzsche the key figure in Mahler’s intellectual development in general, the evidence that the composer was under the influence of the great philosopher while working on his third symphony can be found in the musical features of the musical work itself. “Mahler is said to have read Nietzsche particularly intensively during the composition period for the Third” (Niekerk 207).

Apart from the choice of the title of Die Frohliche Wissenschaft for the symphony as the direct reference to the philosopher’s work, the choice of the main themes and motives developed in the symphony under consideration can be regarded as the results of the Nietzsche’s influence on Mahler’s views and aesthetical sense.

Analyzing the representation of the idea of community within the third symphony, it can be stated that it is not limited to the humanity dimension, but is rather extended to the exploration of all levels of nature for defining the people’s place within it. A similar framework for applying the community concept to the rest of the universe can be found in Nietzsche’s theories.

In that regard, it can be stated that the six movements of the third symphony represent Mahler’s view of the hierarchical order of nature. Analyzing the author’s programmatic notes for the symphony, each movement of the symphony can be interpreted as a walk within a particular hierarchical level of nature.

The first movements of the symphony represent the nature’s ability to produce the sounds without the human interference. Mahler uses special acoustic and structural devices for showing the effect of the man’s appearance in the world of nature and animals’ reaction to it.

The use of the religious imagery in the fifth movement of the third symphony can be regarded as another instance of the philosopher’s influence upon the composer. Thus, the profound philosophical basis and effects of Nietzsche’s influence can be found behind the programmatic notes, main themes and motives developed within Mahler’s third symphony.

The themes of the hierarchical order of nature and the relations between the nature and the human world along with Mahler’s subjective representation of the religious imagery are the main philosophical underpinnings of the third symphony which can be regarded as the reflection of Nietzsche’s influence upon Mahler’s views in general and the aesthetics of the third symphony in particular.

The Christian joy replacing the quest for eternity

Regardless of the evident influence of Nietzsche’s works upon the motives and even composition of the third symphony, Mahler has extended the frames of the philosopher’s framework, particularly through replacing Nietzsche’s idea of the quest for eternity with the motives of Christian joy.

The crossroads of different traditions can be found within the symphony’s composition, namely at the juncture between the different song themes (Knapp 152). The motive of the bell rings which was introduced at the first movement obtains a growing significance within the following movements and can be regarded as an indicator of the Christian motives in the third symphony.

The title of the fifth movement which according to various interpretations can be translated as What the Morning Bells Tell Me or What the Angels Tell Me contains the main religious imagery of the whole symphony. The rhythm and contour of this movement as well as the bell rings are supposed to express the author’s attitude towards the musical interpretation of the religious motives.

Analyzing the dominating mood of this movement, it can be stated that the implemented patterns and contrasts within the acoustic material were intended to communicate the idea of Christian joy as opposed to the quest for eternity propagated by Nietzsche.

The cheerful tone of this movement can be explained with the 17th century church hymn which was put into its basis (Knapp 156). The old hymn was focused on the redemption of sins and the relief which can be found in religion.

These themes of finding the relief in religious beliefs were borrowed by Mahler for his third symphony and predetermined the composition and the dominating tune of the fifth movement. The children’s choir imitating the bells was accompanied by the female solo and added special appeal to the instrumental solo.

In general, the fifth movement of the third symphony can be regarded as the crossroad between Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas, the church hymns of the 17th century and the motive of Christian joy replacing the idea of questing for eternity.

Combining the elements of the church song, children’s and female choirs, the composer achieves the effect of the cheerful tune dominating within the movement and reflects the religious imagery of Christian joy.

Allusions and quotations in the third symphony

The analysis of the symphony under consideration is impossible without proper consideration of the philosophical and socio-cultural context of the epoch within which the third symphony was created.

In that regard, along with the analysis of separate movements, the internal links between various segments of the symphony as well as the stylistic allusions and quotations from other works need to be taken into account for defining the overall aesthetic value of the third symphony in its complexity.

The tail motive of the second movement can be found in the fourth and second movements, while the tail motive of the first movement is not repeated. This simple melodic and rhythmic contour contributes to the overall integrity of the third symphony though the same motives can receive different interpretation due to the surrounding elements.

Thus, the tail motive of the second movement obtains a different sounding within the context of the fourth and sixth movement. On the other hand, this quotation appeals to the listeners’ feelings for creating the associations with the prior movements and reinterpreting the acoustic material in accordance with the new musical content.

Thus, the internal relationships between the different segments of the symphony and the incorporation of specific quotations of motives into the succeeding movements emphasize the overall integrity of the work of art, contribute to the listeners’ overall impression and demonstrate how the same material can change its sounding and meaning due to the musical context.

Regarding the musical allusions, it can be stated that Mahler’s third symphony contains allusions to military marches and operetta which are recognized by the listeners in the whole composition and cannot be underestimated.

The use of the military marches for depicting the nature processes required proper consideration of the programmatic notes for avoiding the misinterpretation of the composer’s messages and intentions. Though most marches used by Mahler are deformed, their military connotation is obvious and contributes to the general mood of the symphony.

To emphasize the military allusions, Mahler uses trumpets, cymbals and bass drum for creating the military associations in the audience. Operetta music became another significant source for the allusions incorporated into the symphony under consideration and intertwined with marches.

It is significant that for creating the allusions from the light marches of operetta, Mahler uses mostly instruments which are not traditional for the Austrian military band, namely flutes, cellos, oboes, timpani, triangle and others which can be explained with the composer’s intention of creating the contrasts and making certain themes distinctive and structurally significant.

The use of quotations for creating the links between the various parts of the symphony allowed emphasizing the integrity of its compositions and involving the listeners into the process of active interpretation of the music contours and structures.

Along with the internal links between the different segments of the symphony and its inner working, the allusions from the military marches and operetta music have become a delicate touch contributing additional opportunities for interpreting the musical content of separate movements and the third symphony in general.


In general, it can be concluded that every element in the structure of Mahler’s third symphony, its acoustic material and movements can be regarded as meaningful and conveying not only author’s aesthetical views, but also his philosophical ideas, mostly drawn from Nietzsche’s heritage, but partially reconsidering the philosopher’s assumptions.

The combination of conventional structural patterns and original musical gestures allowed creating an unprecedented mix of tradition and innovation within the patterns used in a musical work.

Treating the composition of his third symphony as a separate universe, Mahler afforded himself to create contrasts of acoustic materials and incorporate unexpected musical gestures which surprisingly did not destroy the overall integrity of the symphony.

The programmatic notes for the six movements of the symphony convey Mahler’s philosophical ideas which were put into the basis of the work. The beauty of nature, the relations between the animal and humane worlds, the death and relief which can be found in religious beliefs are only some of the motives developed in the symphony.

Taking into account the allusions from military marches and operetta music incorporated into the movements, the programmatic notes are essential for preventing the misinterpretation of the author’s intentions and meaning of particular elements of composition.

As a combination of musical traditions and philosophical frameworks, Mahler’s composition of the third symphony can be recognized as a significant and influential event in the history of music.

Extending the conventional patterns, incorporating the unexpected musical gestures and conducting experiments with choirs, contours and tunes, Mahler managed to express his philosophical ideas and preserve the integrity of the whole work.

Reconsidering the traditional formal and philosophical frameworks while working on his third symphony, Mahler created a separate universe with its inner processes and cannons which was one step ahead of his epoch but cannot be analyzed without considering its historical context.

Works Cited

Freeze, Timothy. “Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony: Program, Reception, and Evocations”. The University of Michigan, 2010. Web.

Knapp, Raymond. Symphonic Metamorphoses: Subjectivity and Alienation in Mahler’s Re-Cycled Songs. Wesleyan University Press, 2003. Print.

Niekerk, Carl. “Mahler contra Wagner: The Philosophical Legacy of Romanticism in Mahler’s Third and Fourth Symphonies”. German Quarterly, Spring 2004, 77(2): 118-209. Print.

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