Jonathan Kim
World of Gustav Mahler

The Fourth Movement of Mahler‟s Third Symphony: A Reading Followed by Discussion

The orchestra is seated on the stage while the audience watches the standing
figures of the conductor and alto singer. It is silent, and then after the slightest motion
made by the conductor, the harps and double basses start the beginning of the
movement in unison with each other. The basses deviate into a soft, lulling, up and
down oscillation of a major second from A to B. It is like the slightest rocking of a small
boat on cold, dark water at midnight. A brief pause as the water stills, and then the boat
starts rocking once more, but now with the variance due to nature‟s unpredictability.
Here, Mahler has disrupted the sense of time by switching between time signatures of
2/2 and 3/2, using slurs over bar lines, and fragmenting/elongating the presented
motive. The singer‟s lips part as her voice enters the placid sonic landscape with the
orchestra. She sings the A the harp and basses were playing previously on “O
Mensch/O Man” while the orchestra underneath her swings back and forth from major to
minor. The first motive of the rocking boat originating from the basses is then
reintroduced with horns, but now with much more presence and substance. All the
while, the tonality is in a constant flux between major and minor. A pause.
A drone of a low A vibrates from the harps and basses, the brass sings a pitch in
the air and violins follow with a streak of brightly lit sound. The singer calls out to the
audience, “Gib Acht, Gib Acht/Take heed, take heed”. The story is about to be told.
The horns play a beautiful transcendental melody, in which the singer joins and sings in

unison with. The question is, “Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht/ What says the deep
midnight?”, and upon arrival of the word “night”, the harmony becomes minor. Then the
oboe morphs into the bird of death and caws out once, twice, and then a third time.
Below the perched bird rests the strings which have been reduced to mere tension in
the night; a hazy, foreboding mist hovering above the ground.
“Ich schleif, Ich schleift/I slept, I slept” the singer cries. Once again, the brass
sings a pitch in the air, which is then followed by the violins, which are now a cutting
character in the air, rather than the bright light heard before, due to the now minor,
foreboding atmosphere. The oscillating motive comes back with the horns and bright
major harmony, which is then mimicked by the cellos, and then the whole orchestra.
The death crow of the night is replaced by a nightingale, as the oboe now sings out
three times above the major harmony of the orchestra.
“Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht/From a deep Dream have I awoken”, says the
singer. She is accompanied by the orchestra, and her voice climbs higher and then
back down, as if stretching after waking from her deep slumber. She follows by saying
“Die Welt ist tief/The World is deep”, and the call and response of the brass and violin is
now echoed again, but this time with the violins first and with a minor harmony,
reflecting the tragedy of the world she has woken up to. Briefly now, winds and brass
utter a variant on the first oscillating motif. And she sings, “Und tiefer als der Tag
gedacht/And deeper than the Day has thought”. The brass follows her and she grows in
this phrase, expressing depth, and transitioning back into a major harmony on the word
“tiefer”. As she lands on the last syllable of “gedacht”, the harp brushes a solid, stable
major chord, generously giving an arrival point.

And now, the violins sing, with the brass singing as well. Use of the oscillating
theme is being recycled in all parts. After a brief moment of indulgence, the violins
switch the harmony back to minor, which is then followed up by the dreaded bird of
death, who now takes a bitter variation at the end of the third caw. Another transition
takes place as the oscillating motive weaves itself back into the picture, circling through
the strings, sweeping from one section to the next. Now reminiscent of the beginning of
the movement, the low strings are now oscillating with the thudding of the harps. It is a
“O Mensch/O Man “, she mourns as the orchestra changes harmony underneath.
She repeats, but this time the orchestra is now in a major tonality, followed by the horn‟s
oscillating motive variant in a major key. Low strings and harps lull underneath until
everyone is silent but them.
The harps then reenter in with the low strings, who are oscillating now at a
perfect fourth. The call and response of the brass and violins starts once more, first in
major then in minor. “Tief, tief/Deep, deep” she says. Followed again by “Tief ist ihr
Weh/Deep is its pain”, tailed by a violin solo and then the cawing of the crow, but now
only twice, until a solo horn comes in and climbs up a minor third to the note that the
oboe was cawing, and then finishes the last call. “Tief ist ihr Weh/Deep is its pain”
again, and the solo violin once more, but this time with more fervor as he climbs up
towards the sky, and back down. The singer joins in lust, “Lust—tiefer noch als
Herzeleid/Joy-deeper still than Heartache”. The three separate soloists, horn, singer
and violin, all sing simultaneously, displaying a unity and entwining of character. They

sing out with sentimentality until a landing point of a clear major harmony is in the air,
and the orchestra marks this point with a small nod.
The horns and winds now oscillate at multiple and larger intervals, still in the
major harmony with the sense of tranquility, with the faint tremolo of strings underneath.
“Weh spricht: Vergeh/Pain says: Pass away!” she cries out, as the solo violin comes in
response to her with an arched, swooping phrase. “Weh spricht: Vergeh!” she cries out
again, but more intensely as the harmony has shifted to minor. The solo violin responds
to her once more, but now even more dramatic, climbing swooping even higher, as a
refusal to pass away.
This bleeds quickly away as the singer preaches “Doch all Lust will Ewigkeit,—
will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit/ But all Joy seeks Eternity,—seeks deep, deep Eternity!" Harps
are reintroduced into the scene, the main melody is being sung by the singer along with
all the violins, the brass are playing the counter melody, and the whole orchestra is alive
together. This is the full realization of the scene with the solo violin, singer, and horn.
However, it does not last forever, as the tonality slides back into minor, and the bird of
death calls out three times, for the final time, with the bitter bite at the end. And then a
full circle is made as the strings start oscillating again, going lower and lower through
the ranks of the orchestra, becoming more and more still, as if going back into rest as
the sun approaches, concluding the 4
movement of Mahler‟s 3
That is the end of Gustav Mahler‟s 4
movement of his 3
symphony, just before
the bells and voices of the 5
movement are sounded. This symphony was written
between the years of 1893 and 1896, when Mahler was in his mid-30s. The piece is
one of his longest works, with the first movement encompassing a half-hour. The text of

this movement is taken from Friedrich Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra: the
"Midnight Song". Mahler‟s thoughts, emotions, questions, and answers regarding life
and death are all embedded into this piece of music.
In this movement, the dichotomy of Apollo/dyonisian, yin/yang,
stillness/movement, eternal/finite and night/day can be heard. It manifests itself in this
piece in multiple forms. The first being the constant change from major to minor.
Throughout the entire movement, Mahler goes back and forth between the two in
unpredictable ways. The only clues that would help the listener predict what is next in
terms of harmony would come from the text. Mahler changes between major and minor
most noticeably on certain key words and phrases. For example, when the alto singer
asks the question “Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht/ What says the deep midnight?”, the
harmony changes from major to minor on the word „night‟ which highlights the contrast
between night and day.
The contrast between major and minor tonality can also be heard in the signature
„bird of death‟ oboe solos that are heard in this movement multiple times. This
intervallic oscillation of a minor third is heard once as a major third and occurs right
before the phrase “Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht/From a deep Dream have I
awoken”. This passage is sung with the accompaniment of the orchestra and is livelier
than the previous phrase of “Ich schleif, Ich schleift/I slept, I slept”. Instead of the minor,
foreboding atmosphere of sleep, the singer has a melodious line that allows her to
stretch her metaphysical body after awakening from her deep slumber.
In addition to this, an example of the dichotomous relationship between eternity
and brevity is the line “Doch all Lust will Ewigkeit,—will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit/ But all Joy

seeks Eternity,—seeks deep, deep Eternity”. This is the climax of the whole movement,
where the whole orchestra is accompanying the singer, either playing in unison with her
vocal line, or providing a counter melody or harmony. The trinity of voice, violins and
horns that have been occurring throughout the entire movement so far come to its full
realization at this point. This grandeur lasts only a brief movement though and falls
back into minor, as the „bird of death‟ is heard for the final time. This is Mahler playing
with the concept of eternity, and then breaking it back down to mortality.
Finally, the concept and polar distinction between stillness and movement is
heard once again at the end. After the final phrase of „Eternity‟, which also represents
movement due to its flowing melodious nature, the movement comes to a full circle as
the piece ends with an oscillating interval of a second in the low strings. This is how the
movement started: in stillness. And after moments of movement/life, this is how the
piece dies out.
These dichotomous relationships are a part of Mahler‟s philosophy and
personality. According to Bruno Walter, “everyone who knew Mahler will recall how
often his expression would change suddenly from cheerfulness to gloom. It was as
though he was reproaching himself for having lightly forgotten some sorrow”.
quick changes from cheer to gloom are prevalent in his work, as outlined above. This
can be cited as one of the reasons as to why Mahler writes such polar distinctions in his
music. The mood of the composer comes out in his piece. Bruno also writes that
Mahler, “moved by the mystery of human destiny changing between grief and joy…made
Nietzsche’s Mitternachtsgedicht the poetic theme for the nocturnal music of the fourth

Bruno Walter, Gustav Mahler (New York: Knopf, 1972), 145.

movement”, giving reason as to why Mahler chose this text.
However, there is more to it
than that.
Mahler was a man of many problems and questions. He was always searching
for answers and trying to find legitimacy in the ones he found, whether it is by reading
and studying philosophy, or discussing and delving into science. Not only that, but life
was quite dark in his view. Bruno Walter recalls, “„What grim darkness underlies life,‟ he
said to me once, deeply affected and his distracted countenance still marked by the
spiritual paroxysms from which he had emerged. He went on to speak in broken
accents of the tragic dilemma of human existence. „Whence have we come? Whither
are we bound? Is it true, as Schopenhauer says, that I willed this life before I was
conceived? Why do I fancy I am free, when my character constricts me like a prison? To
what purpose is all this toil and suffering? How can cruelty and evil be the handiwork of
a loving God? Will death at last reveal the meaning of life?‟”.
It is only natural for
Mahler, a man with music as his medium of expression, to write a movement like the 4

movement of the Third Symphony with these questions in mind.
This was his was of deliberating his problems and questions, and sharing his
views to the world. In a letter to Natalie, he writes that in this Third Symphony of his, he
has plumbed “the very roots of Nature, which music can reach like no other art or
He believed in his ability to convey the essence of life through music. In a
way, this may seem a bit egocentric, conveying such a powerful, relentless,
unpredictable force into a sonic sculpture. This can hint in a slight way at some of
Nietzsche‟s influence on Mahler at the time with the concept of the ubermensch.

Walter, 131.
Walter, 146.
Gustav Mahler, Alma Mahler, Knud Martner, Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler (New York: Farrar, 1979), 44.

As to why Mahler would write such a work that dives into such deep waters that
may actually be bottomless, Walter gives reason why. He claims “his spirit never knew
escape from the torturing question-For What? It was the driving impulse of his creative
activity. Each work was a fresh effort to find the answer, and even when he found it, the
old, unassuageable longing would rise anew. His nature was such that he could not
hold an achieved spiritual position; none had constancy”.
This shows the unrelenting
curiosity of Mahler, but also his determination to find a truly fulfilling answer to his
problems and questions. If there was the slightest rattle of doubt or fallacy prevalent, it
was back to the drawing board, and back to the composition of a score. In writing
music, thoughts were written out. Careful consideration went into each piece, meaning
something, whether it is divine or earthly does not matter, but at the least, meaning
something powerful, that rang true within his heart at the time of writing it.
At the point in his life when he was writing the Third Symphony, Mahler was still
searching for answers to his questions of life and death, and toying around with the
ideas and philosophies that were available to him. One of the philosophers was
Nietzsche. According to Lebrecht, “Nietzsche is the pop philosopher of his day, a fount
of quotable asperities. Mahler is drawn to his theory of “eternal recurrence,”… Does he
really believe in this fatalistic creed? Does he believe anything in Nietzsche? Not for
longer than it takes him to compose it…Along with the mystic scientist Fechner, whose
animal souls infuse the third movement, Nietzsche fulfills a passing need”.
insists that Mahler was merely intrigued by Nietzsche as he offered possible solutions to
the problems and questions that he had.

Walter, 147.
Norman Lebrecht, Mahler Remembered (New York: Norton, 1988), 210.

Floros goes even further than Lebrecht stating that “the intellectual content of the
Third Symphony is diametrically opposed to Nietzsche‟s philosophy”.
This makes
logical sense seeing how Mahler was a large follower of Schopenhauer‟s principles,
which happen to go against many of Nietzsche‟s concepts. Schopenhauer‟s principle of
the dissolution of individual will, which stems from orientalism, goes against Nietzche‟s
idea of the ubermensch, the ultimate male figure. Perhaps the idea of the ubermensch
was an entertainment of sorts, for at this time Mahler was a male of steadily increasing
rank and respect. This idea may have catered to his ego for a brief moment of time.
However, this was definitely a passing need, as blue quote says. In his book Style and
Idea, Schoenberg comments on one of Mahler‟s later works: “His Ninth is most strange.
In it, the author hardly speaks as an individual any longer. It almost seems as though
this work must have a concealed author who used Mahler merely as his spokesman, as
his mouthpiece. This symphony is no longer couched in the personal tone. It consists,
so to speak, of objective, almost passionless statements of a beauty which becomes
perceptible only to one who can dispense with animal warmth and feels at home in
spiritual coolness”.
This passage screams the principle of Schopenhauer‟s principle of
free will. And by the time close to his death, Mahler had come to a point where he had
shed his ego in writing music.
However, despite Mahler not agreeing with Nietzsche‟s philosophies and ideas,
he was still influenced by Nietzsche to the point where he was inspired by it to use as
text. Ludwig Schiedermair, a musicologist who knew both Strauss and Mahler in his
youth wrote, “like Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler was affected by Nietzsche’s spirituality. It is

Constantin Floros and Reinhard G. Pauly, Gustav Mahler: The Symphones (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1933), 92.
Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea (New York: Philosphical Library, 1950), 33.

not that either tried to dissolve and convert Nietzsche’s ideas directly into music, but rather that
they were inspired by them to produce basic ideas of their own work”.
He makes the
differentiation of being affected by a philosophy, and prescribing to one. In agreement to this,
Bernard Scharlitt, a Viennese musician and critic wrote “To my remark that he and
Strauss shared a point of contact in having set Nietzsche to music, Mahler retorted: „the
explanation is simply that we both, as musicians, sensed what might be called the
“latent music” in Nietzsche‟s mighty works. His Zarathustra is born of the spirit of music,
absolutely “symphonic” in its construction‟”.
This was when Mahler was known to
oppose Nietzsche‟s philosophy, nearly a decade after writing his Third Symphony.
Despite this, it is clear that he had a certain respect for some of Nietzshe‟s work while
being opposed to the ideas behind it.
Mahler‟s ideas and questions of life evidently changed over time, which is
reflected by his music. This is seen from the change between his earlier writings and
his 9
Symphony, as encapsulated by Schoenberg earlier. The 4
movement of his
Third Symphony represents a time of questioning and ego. His later works show more
reflection rather than searching, but the same concepts and ideas from this particular
movement are seen in the later works. In the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde,
the same concepts of dichotomy are seen, as well as the stillness of the low drones,
and the use of an alto singer. Not only that, but the „bird of death‟ is again featured, as
well as oscillating lines and fluxes in tonality. His song Um Mitternacht, another song of
the night, also shows pieces of the Third Symphony‟s 4
movement, particularly the
constant changing of meter results in an undermined pulse at the beginnings of each.

Mahler, Gustav, Richard Strauss, and Herta Blaukopf, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss: Correspondence (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1984), 120.
Lebrecht, 210.

Listening to a composer‟s work is different when the listener has a well-
developed understanding of the composer. Knowing the philosophies of the composer,
their life experiences, and the zeitgeist of when they were alive all help the listener
achieve another level of perception. Mahler was a troubled man who held many
questions with many possible answers throughout his life. He carried these same
questions throughout his life, writing music as his way of discussing his ideas on these
problems. The discussion of these ideas changed over time and can be seen in his
writing. However, many of the themes and ideas in this 4
movement of his Third
Symphony are seen in his later works. Nietzsche to Mahler was merely only one
answer to his harbored questions that he would only consider for a brief moment. The
fact remains that Mahler was inspired by Nietzsche when it came to writing the 4

movement, and that Mahler respected parts of Nietzsche‟s work, even when he did not
necessarily believe in the ideas that were behind it. Whatever the case may be,
Mahler‟s work should be studied closely because the questions that he had on life and
death are the questions that every human on earth harbors inside them as well. We
can choose to ignore them or embrace them and search for the truth. Otherwise, for
what is life if you remain asleep throughout it?

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