Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony 1’: The Third Movement

So here we are, the most controversial movement of this wonderful symphony, the third movement. Why is it controversial you ask? Well after a two-bar delicate timpani tonic-dominant ostinato (that plays throughout a lot of this movement) we hear a a double bass solo. This was one of the first times for this instrument to be utilised in such a way, especially as Mahler writes it in a middle-high range of the instrument. Not only has Mahler used a strange choice of instrumentation here, but what’s that melody we hear? It sounds a bit like Frère Jacques doesn’t it? Well that’s because it is! Mahler based the recurring melodic theme on ‘Bruder Martin’ which is more commonly known nowadays as Frère Jacques. Due to this movement being a funeral march, with the extra-musical idea behind it being a hunter’s funeral and the procession of animals that follow, Mahler writes the recurring melody in a minor mode (D). Textural layering is Mahler’s trick here as he creates a musical round by adding in a bassoon, then cellos and then tuba. A strange menagerie of lower-range instruments are heard until figure 3 (bar 19) where we hear a thicker texture as those lower range instruments come together (along with violas and a clarinet in lower ranges). Also at this point a lone oboe plays a staccato counter-melody to the nursery rhyme round heard underneath. 

After a lot of textural layering and the whole orchestra getting a line of Frère Jacques a new section is prepared by a ritarded ascending quaver motif played by the oboes. The swaying dotted quaver movement in this transitional section picks up the speed somewhat, though its still held back. Another fairly strange instrumentation choice in this small section as there is a full string section plue oboes, two trumpets and two horns. 8 bars later we reach the parody link where Mahler comically writes for a Klezmer band. Klezmer comes from Jewish traditions which originate from Eastern Europe, which coincides with Mahler’s Jewish heritage. Mahler was born in Bohemia in 1860 under an Austrian empire, where his family were in a German-speaking minority, as well as being Jewish. Mahler’s use of a small Klezmer band here really shadows his heritage and throughout this movement you can certainly hear the Jewish heritage. His use of Turkish cymbals as well as unconventional and frankly awkward accompaniment for the strings at this point adds to the celebratory feel of this section. Klezmer bands were traditionally used for celebrations such as weddings, birthdays etc so this feel is a dramatic change of mood from the previous funeral march.

The Klezmer theme returns a couple more times, as does hints of the melodic theme of Frère Jacques. Which takes us to figure 13 (b.113) where Mahler modulates from D minor to G major and then down to Eb minor. This Eb minor section is a return of the opening canon with a thicker texture, though still marked at pp. This section acts as a recap to all of the themes heard so far, but of course they sound slightly altered due to the modulation. A then highly unconventional modulation takes place at figure 16 (b.138) when Mahler modulates from Eb minor back to the home key of D minor. D minor at this point is a very distant key from Eb minor so is a somewhat bizarre choice to go back to it so soon. At this point also both the Frère Jacques theme (played by lower woodwind and the whole string section) is matched by a variation of the Klezmer theme in the upper woodwinds. It has been said that this section represents the coexistence of triviality and tragedy in real life. Which coincides with the hunter’s funeral and the procession of animals extra-musical idea. This section is suddenly much faster until a diminuendo section slightly further on which brings the music down to a very soft volume as well as condensing the instrumentation to a very delicate ending with the last two bars only being played by triangle and double bass on the first beat of both bars marked pp. 

One of my favourite things about this movement is the friction between the parody sections and the more serious funeral march. Both want to be played, but only once do the themes actually clash together within the music. Mahler’s bizarre instrumentation at points really hones in on one of my favourite things about him as a composer, and that’s all to do with the inclusion of instruments. For instance Eb clarinet, double bass and tuba in this movement get some big solos which really show off the potential of the instrument.

This movement is particularly interesting when trying to find an interpretation of the symphony that you like.  For me, my all time favourite interpretation of Symphony 1 is actually a slightly newer interpretation from 2009 by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under the baton of the great Claude Abbado. Aside from the technical mastery and absolutely wonderful playing by the orchestra, I feel like the intentions of Mahler are really understood by both Abbado and the orchestra. In terms of this movement recently (2014) the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, under the baton of the young conductor Daniel Harding, performed Symphony 1 and for the first time in history Harding chose for all 8 of the double basses to play the ‘solo’ of Frère Jacques at the start of the movement. Now for me this doesn’t work as I believe the round only works when its one instrument on top of another to create an eerie and mysterious air for the start of this funeral march. However, it has been reviewed that it is an innovative and new way to interpret the opening passage of this movement. I find the beauty of this movement is Mahler’s careful handling of texture and by adding 7 double basses to a solo just doesn’t cut the mustard for me! 

This movement is fantastic to listen to in and of course out of context as it provides anticipation, comedic value and a great segue into the fiery and frankly triumphant fourth movement. Mahler’s heritage making an appearance in the form of music in this movement is also a highlight for me as it offers another window into the composers life, which I find an important element to really get into and understand a piece of music, especially instrumental.

If you’re interested in hearing the different interpretations of this movement they’re all on YouTube so do take a listen and let me know which one you prefer!

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