Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

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Symphony No. 3
by Gustav Mahler
Mahler Foto 22.jpg
Mahler in 1898
KeyD minor
Composed1896 (1896): Steinbach
Date9 June 1902 (1902-06-09)
Location Krefeld
Conductor Gustav Mahler
PerformersOrchester des Allgemeines Deutschen Musikvereins

The Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler was written in 1896, [1] or possibly only completed in that year, but composed between 1893 and 1896. [2] It is his longest piece and is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, with a typical performance lasting around 90 to 105 minutes. It was voted one of the ten greatest symphonies of all time in a survey of conductors carried out by the BBC Music Magazine. [3]

Gustav Mahler Late-Romantic Austrian composer

Gustav Mahler was an Austro-Bohemian late-Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 his compositions were rediscovered by a new generation of listeners; Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers, a position he has sustained into the 21st century. In 2016, a BBC Music Magazine survey of 151 conductors ranked three of his symphonies in the top ten symphonies of all time.



In its final form, the work has six movements, grouped into two Parts:

  1. Kräftig. Entschieden (Strong and decisive) D minor to F major
  2. Tempo di Menuetto (In the tempo of a minuet) A major
  3. Comodo (Scherzando) (Comfortable (Scherzo)) C minor to C major
  4. Sehr langsam—Misterioso (Very slowly, mysteriously) D major
  5. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck (Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression) F major
  6. Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden (Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt) D major

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!" [4]

Natalie [Natalia Anna Juliana] Bauer-Lechner was an Austrian violist who is best known to musicology for having been a close and devoted friend of Gustav Mahler in the period between 1890 and the start of Mahler’s engagement to Alma Schindler in December 1901. During this period, she kept a private journal which provides a unique picture of Mahler's personal, professional and creative life during and just after his thirties, including an exclusive preview of the structure, form, and content of his third symphony.

Anna von Mildenburg Austrian opera singer

Anna von Mildenburg was an eminent Wagnerian soprano of Austrian nationality. Known as Anna Bahr-Mildenburg after her 1909 marriage, she had been a protégé of the composer/conductor Gustav Mahler during his musical directorship at the Hamburg State Opera. In 1898, Mahler took her to the Vienna Opera, where she established herself as one of the great stars during his celebrated tenure there as music director.

In its simplest form, the program consists of a title for each of the six movements:

  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"

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)". [5] 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. [6] 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." [7]

All these titles were dropped before publication in 1898. [8]

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. [9]

Symphony No. 4 (Mahler) symphony by Gustav Mahler

Symphony No. 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler was written in 1899 and 1900, though it incorporates a song originally written in 1892. The song, "Das himmlische Leben", presents a child's vision of Heaven. It is sung by a soprano in the work's fourth and final movement. Although typically described as being in the key of G major, the symphony employs a progressive tonal scheme.

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.[ clarification needed ] 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.

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

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.

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

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.

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

The third movement, a scherzo, with alternating sections in 2
and 6
meter, quotes extensively from Mahler's early song "Ablösung im Sommer" (Relief in Summer).

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

In the trio section, the mood changes from playful to contemplative occurs with an off-stage post horn (or flugelhorn) solo.

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

This posthorn episode closely resembles standardised posthorn signals in Austria and Prussia of the time. [10] [11] 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). [12] [13] 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. [14] [15] Busoni himself was the first to remark on this quotation in 1910. [16]

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" ("Zarathustra's roundelay") from Also sprach Zarathustra ("O Mensch! Gib acht!" ("O man! Take heed!")), with thematic material from the first movement woven into it. [17]

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

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.

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

Here, a children's choir imitating bells and a female chorus join the alto solo.

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

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.[ This quote needs a citation ]

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.

The last movement in particular had a triumphant critical success. The Swiss critic William Ritter, in his review of the premiere given in 1902, said of the last movement: "Perhaps the greatest Adagio written since Beethoven". Another anonymous critic writing in the Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung wrote about the Adagio: "It rises to heights which situate this movement among the most sublime in all symphonic literature". Mahler was called back to the podium 12 times, and the local newspaper reported that “the thunderous ovation lasted no less than fifteen minutes.” [18]

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)


The symphony is scored for large orchestra, consisting of the following:


Fourth movement

Text from Friedrich Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra : the "Midnight Song"

Fifth movement

Text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn


The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians[ who? ] represents the symphony's progressive tonal scheme as 'd/F—D' [19] 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, the tonic major, which is not unusual for minor key, multi-movement works. Throughout the symphony, traditional tonality is employed in an enterprising manner with clear purpose [ vague ].

Editions and Performance

The piece is performed in concert less frequently than Mahler's other symphonies[ citation needed ], 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"). [20] The inscription is not found in the score as published.

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.

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.

In other media

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 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 work is also referenced in the pop singer Prince's song ("Gustav Mahler #3 is jamming in the box") Good Love from his Crystal Ball album & the Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack.



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  1. Walter, Bruno; Tanner, Michael (26 Nov 2017). Gustav Mahler. p. 32.[ full citation needed ]
  2. Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, translated by Vernon Wicker (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993) ISBN   1-57467-025-5.
  3. "Beethoven's Eroica voted greatest symphony of all time | Music". The Guardian. Retrieved 2017-11-27.
  4. Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Recollections of Gustav Mahler, English trans. by Dika Newlin (1980, Faber & Faber), 52.
  5. Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler, English translation by Stewart Spencer, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 275.
  6. Franz Willnauer, ed, Gustav Mahler: 'Mein lieber Trotzkopf, meine suesse Mohnblume': Briefe an Anna von Mildenburg, (Vienna: Paul Zsolnay Verlag, 2006), 132. ISBN   3-552-05389-1
  7. Franz Willnauer, ed, Gustav Mahler: Briefe an Anna von Mildenburg, 142.
  8. Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler, 275.
  9. Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler, 276.
  10. p. 136
  11. Hiller, Albert. Das große Buch vom Posthorn. Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofens Verlag, 1985. page 80-81
  12. Emil Rameis, Die österreichische Militärmusik—von ihren Anfängen bis 1918, rev. ed., ed. Eugen Brixel in Alta Musica 2 (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1976), 183, 188
  13. Jason Stephen Heilman, "O du mein Österreich: Patriotic Music and Multinational Identity in the AustroHungarian Empire" (PhD diss., Duke University, 2009), 198.
  14. page 113.
  15. Morten Solvik, "Biography and Musical Meaning in the Posthorn Solo of Mahler's Third Symphony," in Neue Mahleriana: Essays in Honour of Henry-Louis de La Grange on his Seventieth Birthday, ed. Günther Weiß (Berne: Peter Lang, 1997), 340–44, 356–59.
  16. Ferruccio Busoni, Von der Einheit der Musik: von Dritteltönen und junger Klassizität, von Bühnen und anschliessenden Bezirken (Berlin: Max Hesse, 1922), 152.
  17. Lee, Jennifer. "Time as a circular spectrum and the retrospective device in Gustav Mahler's Symphony no. 3 (1895-1896)" (PDF). Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  19. "Gustav Mahler", in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980).
  20. See facsimile reproduced in the "Philharmonia" pocket score (Universal Edition)

Further reading