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The Symphony No. 3 in D minor 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)
  2. Tempo di Menuetto (In the tempo of a minuet)
  3. Comodo (Scherzando) (Comfortably, like a scherzo)
  4. Sehr langsam—Misterioso (Very slowly, mysteriously)
  5. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck (Cheerful in tempo and bold in expression)
  6. Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden (Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt)

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.

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.

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, grotesque 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 replaced here by something new. The slow opening can seem to evoke the primordial sleep of nature, slowly gathering itself into a rousing orchestral march. A solo tenor trombone passage states a bold melody that is developed and transformed in its recurrences. Innovation is present everywhere in this movement, including its apparent length. 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.

The third movement quotes extensively from Mahler's early song "Ablösung im Sommer"(Relief in Summer). The fourth is a setting of Friedrich Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" from Also sprach Zarathustra, while the fifth, "Es sungen drei Engel", is one of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs.

It is in the finale, however, that Mahler reveals his true genius for stirring the soul. The construction of it is masterful, and the interplay of a developing chromatic harmony and sonorous string melody, developed and re-orchestrated with perfect grace and poise builds to a conclusion that, though seemingly overblown when heard in isolation, is, in the wider context of the symphony, both musically justified and emotionally overwhelming. The symphony ends with repeated D major chords and timpani statements before one final long chord.

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!"


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

4 Flutes (Fl. 3, 4 doubling Piccolos 1, 2) (4 Piccolos are used in place of 4 Flutes in the first and fifth movements.)
4 Oboes (Ob. 4 doubling Cor anglais)
3 Clarinets in B-flat, A (Cl. 3 doubling Bass Clarinet) (Cl. 1 doubled where possible)
2 E-flat clarinets (E-flat Cl. 2 doubling B-flat Cl. 4) (reinforced in fifth movement where possible)
4 Bassoons (Bsn. 4 doubling Contrabassoon)

8 Horn in F
4 Trumpets in F, B-flat (2 or more high parts may be reinforced with E-flat Trumpets)
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 Bell) (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 piece is performed in concert less frequently than Mahler's other symphonies, due in part to its great length and the huge ensemble required. 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. Despite this, it is a popular work and has been recorded by most major orchestras and conductors.

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 Athensmarker 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 of this work was arranged by Benjamin Britten for a smaller orchestra, a version published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1950.



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