The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 1: Movement III

This image by Moritz von Schwind of a group of animals having a funeral procession for a hunter was possibly the inspiration for the third movement of the Mahler 1.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Atmospheric nature sounds, trumpet and bird calls, happy song about walking, and a bit of drama at the end. Movement II – All dancing all the way.

Now, from what I’ve been able to gather, audiences at the first performance of this symphony really liked the piece up until now. The first two movements went down well, and there also used to be an additional extra movement in second place called Blumine which Mahler later cut out. (We’ll have a listen to that in another blog post.)

Then this movement begins and apparently the crowd went a bit frosty. We’re not exactly sure why, but my speculation is that it’s the strangeness of the elements that are combined in this movement. (And the next movement is even more off the charts.) And it’s also possible that they objected to the use of Klezmer music in the movement as well, thus giving the movement a distinctly Jewish feel to it that is quite different from the more generally Austrian sound so far in the symphony.

That’s the controversy. To listen to nowadays, though, this movement is really quite awesome. It’s creepy and beautiful all at the same time. Mahler has said that the reason for the strangeness is because he was inspired in this music by the picture at the top of this post. It’s a bizarre image, full of irony and contradictions. For starters, you have all the forest animals conducting the hunter to his grave, weeping profusely – not really something you’d expect the forest animals to be doing. In addition, if you look on the far right, you have a small band of cats playing music and singing as if it’s a bit of a jaunty procession as well.

It’s these mix of contradictions that are all thrown into this movement. So without further ado, let’s have a listen.

(0:00) Slow drumbeat, then the double bass with a quiet minor-key song. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve all heard the major-key version of it at some time. For the Germans of the time, it was “Brüder Martin”, for the French “Frère Jacques” or most of us in Australia would know it as “I Hear Thunder“. Gradually works its way up from the lowest instruments to the higher ones. It’s melancholy, but in a very quirky way. (Just like the picture, really.)

(1:20) A leaping counter-melody in the woodwinds over the top.

(2:40) The Klezmer music. Crazy, isn’t it? It shouldn’t work so well, but it does.

(3:34) Even more upbeat tavern-style music before dying out.

(5:48) Beautiful middle section. This is also another Mahler song called “The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”, which came from a collection of four songs written by Mahler called Songs of a Wayfarer. (The song used in the first movement about walking through the fields also came from this set, so if you wanted to track it down to listen to an example of Mahler’s songs, you’d probably enjoy it.)

(8:08) Back to more of the outer section material – funeral march, Klezmer, etc. – which carries us through to the end.

I can vaguely understand the audience’s initial outrage, but surely we can all agree nowadays that this is a beautiful piece of music?