This is Mahler's longest symphony, in six movements and lasting nearly two hours. Mahler's concept of the symphony as a world unto itself finds its complete exposition here in the highly diverse styles and elements, creating problems of continuity and coherence that he did not completely solve. The primary theme of the Third is Nature and Man's place therein, and its principal literary inspirations are Das Knaben Wunderhorn (as in the previous symphony) and Nietzsche. As in the Second Symphony, Mahler added words and voices to expand his means of expression and used material from one of his earlier Wunderhorn Songs. The original program ran like this: "The Joyful Knowledge: A Summer Morning's Dream." I. Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In; II. What the Meadow Flowers Tell Me; III. What the Creatures of the Forest Tell Me; IV. What Night Tells Me (Mankind); V. What the Morning Bells Tell Me (the Angels); VI. What Love Tells Me; and VII. The Heavenly Life (What the Child Tells Me). Ultimately, Mahler dropped the seventh movement and used it as the core around which he built the Fourth Symphony. The sum of this program represents Mahler's cosmological hierarchy at this point in his life and the Third Symphony as a whole is his most specific example of "world building" in artistic terms.
Kräftig. Entschieden. (Strongly and Confidently). This is the single longest sonata-form movement ever written. Mahler sets bizarre, primordial, and harsh brass and percussion rumblings depicting Pan's awakening in opposition to pastoral music of bird calls and light fanfares over tremulous strings and woodwind trillings. These elements are transformed into the ultimate example of Mahler's symphonic military marches. The entire movement covers a vast soundscape of imagery, from bold, assertive proclamation to harsh and grotesque fugal passages, to despairing outcries, to a lighthearted and popular sounding march tune.
Tempo di Menuetto. (Minuet Tempo). This is a light and folk-like dance movement in the style of the comic Wunderhorn Songs. It stands in sharp contrast to the weighty first movement.
Comodo. Scherzando. Ohne Hast. (Moving, Scherzo-like, Without Haste). This movement quotes extensively from Mahler's song Ablösung im Sommer (Relief in the Summer) about a dead cuckoo. Its comic vein is interrupted twice, once by a sentimental posthorn solo, and later by a dramatic outburst symbolic of the great god Pan's intrusion into the peaceful summer.
Sehr langsam. Misterioso. Durchaus ppp. (Very Slow, Mysterious, Pianissimo Throughout). Here Mahler moves into a more metaphysical realm by setting Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" in this slow and haunting movement.
Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck. (Happy in Tempo, Saucily Bold in Expression). Boys and women's voices are used here to sing this angel's song about the redemption of sin from Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Mahler imitates church bells to delightful effect in this innocent and uplifting movement.
Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden. (Slow, Peaceful, Deeply Felt). A majestic and awesome Adagio concludes the symphony in a hymn-like paean on love. It rises to a powerful climax as "Nature in its totality rings and resounds."