"The emphasis on my personal experience…corresponds to the peculiar ideas embodied in the whole work."
Mahler escaped his day job as a conductor and built himself a composing hut where he could pursue his true passion. No doubt his surroundings inspired his Third Symphony: "In it Nature herself acquires a voice and tells secrets so profound that they are perhaps glimpsed only in dreams!" he wrote to a friend.
In spite of Mahler's frequent extra-musical references, he was leery of assigning a specific "program" to his music. About the titles he originally gave the movements of his Third Symphony, he wrote: “Those titles were an attempt on my part to provide non-musicians with something to hold on to and with a signpost for the intellectual, or better, the expressive content of the various movements and for their relationships to each other and to the whole. That it didn’t work (as, in fact, it could never work) and that it led only to misinterpretations of the most horrendous sort became painfully clear all too quickly. It’s the same disaster that had overtaken me on previous and similar occasions, and now I have once and for all given up commenting, analyzing all such expediencies of whatever sort.”
In the Scherzo of the Third Symphony, Mahler uses the arresting sound of the postman's signal to transform our sense of time and space. Everything goes still, and as if in a daydream, we hear a gentle posthorn signal played from offstage. The high notes evoke the piercing cry of a yodeller in the mountains.
The lyrical interlude of the Third’s Scherzo begins as if fragments of Tyrolean or Bohemian melodies are drifting up from the posthorn player’s unconscious. But soon Mahler mischievously lets the daydreaming solo meander into something strangely close to a popular Spanish tune of the time, the Jota aragonesa.
Many composers wrote fantasies on this melody in the nineteenth century. Here is an excerpt from the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt's Rhapsodie espagnole.
In Mahler's Scherzo, the violins smilingly answer with the Jota itself. By stretching out the tune, Mahler improbably turns it into a friendly vision. A modern American analogy would be adapting La Cucuracha for use as an inspirational hymn.