In its final form, the work has six movements, grouped into two Parts:
The first movement alone, with a normal duration of a little more than thirty minutes, sometimes forty, forms Part One of the symphony. Part Two consists of the other five movements and has a duration of about sixty to seventy minutes.
As with each of his first four symphonies, Mahler originally provided a programme of sorts to explain the narrative of the piece. He did not reveal the structure and content to the public. But, at different times, he shared evolving versions of a program for the third symphony with various friends, including: Max Marschalk, a music critic; violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a close friend and confidante; and Anna von Mildenburg, the dramatic soprano and Mahler's lover during the summer of 1896 when he was completing the symphony. Bauer-Lechner wrote in her private journal that Mahler said, "You can't imagine how it will sound!"
In its simplest form, the program consists of a title for each of the six movements:
Mahler, however, elaborated on this basic scheme in various letters. In an 1896 letter to Max Marschalk, he called the whole "A Summer's Midday Dream," and within Part One, distinguished two sections, "Introduction: Pan awakes" and "I. Summer marches in (Bacchic procession)". In a June 1896 letter to Anna von Mildenburg, Mahler reaffirmed that he conceived the first movement in two sections: I. What the stony mountains tell me; II. Summer marches in. In another letter to Mildenburg from Summer 1896, he said that "Pan" seemed to him the best overall title (Gesamttitel) for the symphony, emphasizing that he was intrigued by Pan's two meanings, a Greek god and a Greek word meaning "all."
All these titles were dropped before publication in 1898.
Mahler originally envisioned a seventh movement, "Heavenly Life" (alternatively, "What the Child Tells Me"), but he eventually dropped this, using it instead as the last movement of the Symphony No. 4. Indeed, several musical motifs taken from "Heavenly Life" appear in the fifth (choral) movement of the Third Symphony.
The symphony, particularly due to the extensive number of movements and their marked differences in character and construction, is a unique work. The opening movement, colossal in its conception (much like the symphony itself), roughly takes the shape of sonata form, insofar as there is an alternating presentation of two theme groups; however, the themes are varied and developed with each presentation, and the typical harmonic logic of the sonata form movement—particularly the tonic statement of second theme group material in the recapitulation—is changed. The symphony starts with a modified theme from the fourth movement of Brahms' first symphony with the same rhythm, but many of the notes are changed.
The opening gathers itself slowly into a rousing orchestral march. A solo tenor trombone passage states a bold (secondary) melody that is developed and transformed in its recurrences.
At the apparent conclusion of the development, several solo snare drums "in a high gallery" play a rhythmic passage lasting about thirty seconds and the opening passage by eight horns is repeated almost exactly.
As described above, Mahler dedicated the second movement to "the flowers on the meadow". In contrast to the violent forces of the first movement, it starts as a graceful menuet, but also features stormier episodes.
The third movement, a scherzo, with alternating sections in 2
4 and 6
8 meter, quotes extensively from Mahler's early song "Ablösung im Sommer" (Relief in Summer).
In the trio section, a complete mood changes from playful to contemplative occurs with an off-stage post horn (or flugelhorn) solo.
This posthorn episode closely resembles standardised posthorn signals in Austria and Prussia of the time. The posthorn melody is suddenly interrupted (in measure 345) by a trumpet fanfare representing a literal quotation of the Austrian military signal for falling out (Abblasen). Another important quotation in the movement is a Spanish folk melody of jota aragonesa used by Mikhail Glinka in Caprice brillante and by Franz Liszt in Rhapsodie espagnole. Most probably it borrowed here from Ferruccio Busoni's transcription of the Rhapsodie for piano and orchestra, as the harmonies are almost identical and passages are equally almost similar. Busoni himself was the first to remark on this quotation in 1910.
The reprise of the scherzo music is unusual, as it is interrupted several times by the post-horn melody.
At this point, in the sparsely instrumentated fourth movement, we hear an alto solo singing a setting of Friedrich Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" from Also sprach Zarathustra ("O Mensch! Gib acht!" ("O man! Take heed!")), with thematic material from the first movement woven into it.
The cheerful fifth movement, "Es sungen drei Engel", is one of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, (whose text itself is loosely based on a 17th-century church hymn, which Paul Hindemith later used in its original form in his Symphony "Mathis der Maler") about the redemption of sins and comfort in belief.
Here, a children's choir imitating bells and a female chorus join the alto solo.
Of the finale, Bruno Walter wrote,
In the last movement, words are stilled—for what language can utter heavenly love more powerfully and forcefully than music itself? The Adagio, with its broad, solemn melodic line, is, as a whole—and despite passages of burning pain—eloquent of comfort and grace. It is a single sound of heartfelt and exalted feelings, in which the whole giant structure finds its culmination.
The movement begins very softly with a broad D-major chorale melody, which slowly builds to a loud and majestic conclusion culminating on repeated D major chords with bold statements on the timpani.
As is usual practice for Mahler, the symphony is written for large orchestral forces consisting of the following:
Text from Friedrich Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra: the "Midnight Song"
Text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians represents the symphony's progressive tonal scheme as 'd/F—D' More casually it is described as being in D minor. The first movement certainly begins in this key but, by its end, has defined the relative F major as the tonic. The finale concludes in D major, as might be expected. Throughout the symphony, traditional tonality is employed in an enterprising manner with clear purpose.
The piece is performed in concert less frequently than Mahler's other symphonies, due in part to its great length and the huge forces required. Despite this, it is a popular work and has been recorded by most major orchestras and conductors.
When it is performed, a short interval is sometimes taken between the first movement (which alone lasts around half an hour) and the rest of the piece. This is in agreement with the manuscript copy of the full score (held in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York), where the end of the first movement carries the inscription Folgt eine lange Pause! ("there follows a long pause"). The inscription is not found in the score as published.
The final movement was used as background music in one episode of the 1984 television series Call to Glory and on an episode of the BBC's Coast programme, during a description of the history of HMS Temeraire. It also served as background music (in full length) during the "Allegory" segment of the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics opening ceremony cultural show.
A section from the Fourth Movement "Midnight Song" features in Luchino Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice, where it is presented as the music that Gustav von Aschenbach composes before he dies.
The second movement was arranged by Benjamin Britten in 1941 for a smaller orchestra. This version was published by Boosey & Hawkes as What the Wild Flowers Tell Me in 1950.
The Adagio movement was arranged by Yoon Jae Lee in 2011 for a smaller orchestra. This version was premiered by Ensemble 212 with Lee as conductor in New York on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Subsequently, Lee arranged the five remaining movements for smaller orchestra as part of his Mahler Chamber Project. The orchestral reduction of the entire symphony was premiered in October 2015 by Ensemble 212, mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim, and the Young New Yorkers' Chorus Women's Ensemble.Performance of second, third and sixth movements: 1897, Berlin, conducted by Felix Weingartner.
Premiere of the complete symphony: June 9, 1902, Krefeld, cond. by the composer.
Dutch premieres: Oct. 17, 1903 in Arnhem; five days later Mahler led the Amsterdam premiere with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
American premiere: May 9, 1914, Cincinnati May Festival, cond. by Ernst Kunwald.
New York premiere: Feb. 28, 1922, New York Philharmonic cond. by Willem Mengelberg.
British premiere: Nov. 29, 1947, BBC Symphony Orchestra in a broadcast cond. by Adrian Boult; this was not recorded by the BBC, but an off-air recording was made on acetate discs and transferred to CD in 2008: the earliest extant recording of the symphony.
First radio studio recording: 1950, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, choirs, Vienna Symphony Orchestra cond. by Hermann Scherchen.
First commercial recording: 1951, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, choirs, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. by F. Charles Adler.
First public performance in Britain: Feb. 28, 1961, St. Pancras Town Hall, cond. by Bryan Fairfax.