Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

Symphony No. 3 (Mahler)

The Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler was written between 1893 and 1896. It is his longest piece and is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, with a typical performance lasting around ninety to one hundred minutes.



In its final form, the work has six movements:

  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) (Comfortably, like a scherzo) [C minor to C major]
  4. Sehr langsam—Misterioso (Very slowly, mysteriously)
  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 the first part of the symphony. The second part 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. In the third symphony this took the form of titles for each movement:

  1. "Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In"
  2. "What the Flowers on 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"

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

There was originally a seventh movement, "What the Child Tells Me", but this was eventually dropped, becoming instead the last movement of the Symphony No. 4.[citation needed]

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 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 metre, 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. 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 great 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.”[cite this quote] 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.

Natalie Bauer-Lechner

Mahler was well acquainted with Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a viola player, during the time period when he composed this third symphony. The structure and content was not revealed by Mahler to the public but he informed Bauer-Lechner about it. She kept a private journal on what he stated about this third symphony. Mahler said, "You couldn't imagine how this will sound!"[cite this quote]


As is usual practice for Mahler, the symphony is written for large orchestral forces consisting of the following:

4 Flutes (all 4 doubling Piccolos)
4 Oboes (Ob. 4 doubling Cor anglais)
3 Clarinets in B-flat, A (Cl. 3 doubling Bass Clarinet)
2 E-flat clarinets (E-flat Cl. 2 doubling B-flat Cl. 4) (E-flat Cl. 1 reinforced in fifth movement when possible)
4 Bassoons (Bsn. 4 doubling Contrabassoon)
8 Horns in F
4 Trumpets in F, B-flat (if possible 2 extra high trumpets for reinforcement)
4 Trombones
Timpani (2 players)
Bass Drum
Snare Drum
Rute or "Switch"
2 Glockenspiels1
Voices (on stage)
Alto solo (used in fourth and fifth movements)
"In the distance"
Post horn in B-flat (sometimes substituted by a Flugelhorn) (used in third movement)
Several Snare Drums (used in first movement)
"In a high gallery"
Four to six Tuned Bells (or Tubular Bells) (used in fifth movement)
Women's Choir (used in fifth movement)
Boys' Choir (used in fifth movement)
2 harps

"Very large complements of all strings":

Violins I, II
Double basses (Some with low C extensions)

1The 2 Glockenspiel parts may be played by two percussionists on one instrument. Today's mallet technique allows the part to be performed by one player holding two mallets in each hand.


Fourth movement

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

Original German
O Mensch! Gib Acht!
Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?
"Ich schlief, ich schlief—,
aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht:—
Die Welt ist tief,
und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.
Tief ist ihr Weh—,
Lust—tiefer noch als Herzeleid.
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch all' Lust will Ewigkeit—,
—will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!"
In English
O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
"I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—,
—seeks deep, deep eternity!"

Fifth movement

Text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Original German
Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang,
mit Freuden es selig in dem Himmel klang.
Sie jauchzten fröhlich auch dabei:
daß Petrus sei von Sünden frei!
Und als der Herr Jesus zu Tische saß,
mit seinen zwölf Jüngern das Abendmahl aß,
da sprach der Herr Jesus: "Was stehst du denn hier?
Wenn ich dich anseh', so weinest du mir!"
"Und sollt' ich nicht weinen, du gütiger Gott?
Ich hab' übertreten die zehn Gebot!
Ich gehe und weine ja bitterlich!
Ach komm und erbarme dich über mich!"
"Hast du denn übertreten die zehen Gebot,
so fall auf die Knie und bete zu Gott!
Liebe nur Gott in all Zeit!
So wirst du erlangen die himmlische Freud'."
Die himmlische Freud' ist eine selige Stadt,
die himmlische Freud', die kein Ende mehr hat!
Die himmlische Freude war Petro bereit't,
durch Jesum und allen zur Seligkeit.
In English
Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: "Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!"
"And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!"
"If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy."
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.


The symphony's first movement begins in D minor, but by its end has defined relative F major as its tonic; and the finale concludes in D major, as would be expected. Throughout the work, traditional tonality is employed in a creative and original manner, but always logical in its ends.

The symphony is sometimes described as being in the key of 'D minor'; the 'New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians', however, represents the progressive tonal scheme by labelling the work's tonality as 'd/F--D' [1]


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').[2] 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 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 is being arranged by Yoon Jae Lee in 2011 for a smaller orchestra. This version will be premiered by Ensemble212 with Lee as conductor in New York on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.


The 1947 UK premiere was not recorded by the BBC, but an off-air recording was made on acetate discs. These were transferred complete onto CD in 2008 and now represent the earliest extant recording of Mahler's Third Symphony.



  1. ^ 'Gustav Mahler', in New Grove, Macmillan, 1980
  2. ^ See facsimile reproduced in the 'Philharmonia' pocket score (Universal Edition)

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