1896: Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D minor

THURSDAY, November 19, 2020 – 4:13 AM

It is his longest piece and is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, with a typical performance lasting around 90 to 105 minutes.

Warning: This symphony is insanely long, so start with one movement, and I’ll suggest one first, so start here. With Mahler you want to start in stages. Find something you like, then get to know that first before trying to listen to a whole symphony. There are people who almost worship the music of Mahler. I’m not one of them, so this is not music I turn to first after a day, or when I want to unwind.

This is only about four minutes long, so it’s a great place to start. Then try this next part, which is around 20 minutes long

1896: Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D minor, age 36


  • 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolos, 1st and 2nd doubling piccolos in movements 1, 3 and 5), 4 oboes (4th doubling cor anglais), 3 B♭, A, C clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 2 E♭ clarinets (2nd doubling 4th clarinet),4 bassoons (4th doubling contrabassoon)
  • posthorn (sometimes substituted by a flugelhorn, used only in movement 3, offstage), 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba
  • 7 timpani (two players), bass drum, several snare drums (used only in movement 1, offstage), cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, rute (used only in movement 2),
    6 tuned bells (used only in movement 5, “on a high gallery”), 2 glockenspiels (2nd used only in movement 5)
  • alto solo (used only in movements 4 and 5), women’s choir (used only in movement 5, “on a high gallery”), boys’ choir (used only in movement 5, “on a high gallery”)
  • 2 harps
  • Strings

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

The descriptions of each movement were later abandoned by Mahler, but I included them because people still read about them and perhaps associate them with the music.

1st movement: “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”

The opening movement was written last. It is about 35 minutes long, and today when it is performed often there is a total break after this movement is done. This one movement is longer than most of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart and about as long as some Beethoven symphonies. It starts with eight French horns using the theme that is very like that of the Brahms’ first symphony, 4th movement, but with many changes.. At the apparent conclusion of the development, several solo snare drums “in a high gallery” play a rhythmic passage lasting about thirty seconds, then the opening passage by eight horns is repeated almost exactly.

2nd movement:”What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”

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. This is the first part that Mahler wrote.

3rd movement: “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”

The third movement, a scherzo, uses ideas from Mahler’s early song “Ablösung im Sommer” (Relief in Summer).

In the trio section there is an off-stage post horn (or flugelhorn) solo. A flugel horn is like a fatter trumpet with a more mellow sound that plays in the same key. HERE is the sound of the post horn. The repeat of the scherzo music is unusual, as it is interrupted several times by the post-horn melody.

4th movement: “What Man Tells Me”

In the sparsely orchestrated fourth movement there is an alto singing a setting of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” (“Zarathustra’s roundelay”) from Also sprach Zarathustra.

5th movement: “What the Angels Tell Me”

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. A children’s choir imitates bells and a female chorus joins an alto solo.

6th movement: “What Love Tells Me”

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. Mahler wrote even more music but kept it for the end of his 4th symphony.

A triumphant success

Mahler was called back to the podium 12 times, and the local newspaper reported that “the thunderous ovation lasted no less than fifteen minutes.”

Popular with conductors

Apparently famous conductors love to conduct this symphony.

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