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Classical 101

Mahler's Third Symphony: A Journey into Life, Love and Nature

Moritz Nähr
Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Mahler in 1907

Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler is one of the longest symphonies in the standard repertoire. There may be a few longer ones out there, but this "hymn to life, love and nature" is special. It's a musical journey that can last up to one hour and 45 minutes uninterrupted, but it is a trek well worth taking — especially if you enjoy big, late-Romantic orchestral music.

"The symphony is like the world. It must embrace everything." This is the idea Mahler expressed to Jean Sibelius when they met and discussed their differing views of how a symphony should be constructed.

The six movements of Symphony No. 3 seem to comprise a whole world in sound, and that is one of the aspects that makes this work so fascinating.

It includes grand orchestral statements, sounds of nature, episodes of chamber music-like delicacy and rude interjections of garish marching band music based on childhood memories of the composer, along with serene and profound reflections of love and longing for spiritual truth.

Even though Mahler removed the descriptive titles of the movements before the symphony's first performance in 1902, they are wonderfully illustrative of what this musical journey encompasses. Here's the roadmap:

1. Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In
2. What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
3. What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
4. What Man Tells Me
5. What the Angels Tell Me
6. What Love Tells Me

These titles tell us a lot about the rich world of Mahler's music.

To make this journey yourself, no Google Maps or GPS allowed. You make the trek in your imagination (while you relax in a comfy seat), along with the help of a fine orchestra, conductor, soloist and chorus for the "Third Symphony."


You'll have the opportunity to make this journey with the Columbus Symphony this weekend. The symphony's grand finale concert for the season features Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, with Rossen Milanov conducting, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, the CSO Women's Chorus and Columbus Children's Choir. The concert is one night only, 8 p.m. Saturday, May 20 at the Ohio Theatre.