A Quick Guide to Mahler’s Symphonies

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Gustav Mahler was one of the great masters of the symphony, both as a composer and as a conductor. A student of Anton Bruckner, Mahler grew up in a Jewish household in Austria, though he converted to Catholicism for work opportunities. He was influenced by psychology, Wagner, and German folk culture.

His 9 symphonies are massive, multifaceted works which have challenged the forms, traditions, and capabilities of symphonic music and in this post, we’ll take a look at them all.

Symphony No. 1 – The “Titan” Symphony

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic – ‘Mahler’s Symphony 1’

Premiered in 1889, this symphony is the first of four symphonies inspired by Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poetry.

The first movement, Langsam, schleppend, Immer sehr gemächlich (slowly, dragging, restrained throughout), begins with a slow introduction highlighting the woodwinds, settles into a pastoral scene complete with Cuckoo calls, and culminates with a rapturous coda.

A dance movement follows, titled Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell, (moving strongly, but not too fast), which centers on a ländler, a predecessor to the Viennese Waltz.

The slow third movement, Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Somber and intentional, without dragging), is a funeral march based on the folk song “Frère Jacques,” which builds from an solo bass into a klezmer-infused celebration of life and death.

Beginning with a cataclysmic eruption, the fourth movement, Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch (Stormily agitated — Energetic), is filled with contrasts, juxtaposing sweet lyrical sections with blasting brass fanfares.

Symphony No. 2 – The Resurrection Symphony

Mariss Janson conducting the Concertgebouworkest – ‘Mahler’s Symphony 2’

Premiered in 1895, the Resurrection symphony is centered on the composer’s beliefs about an afterlife.

The first movement, Allegro maestoso, is a somber funeral march, set in a modified sonata form and containing the Dies Irae plainchant.

Following a healthy pause (Mahler indicated five minutes in the score), the second movement, Andante moderato is an Austrian folk dance called a Ländler.

The third movement is a scherzo, titled In ruhig fließender Bewegung (with quietly flowing movement), which is introduced by two timpani strikes that build into an homage to Jewish folk music.

Mahler’s first use of voice in a symphony, the fourth movement, Urlicht (Primal Light), features an alto singing a Wunderhorn song with a warm orchestral accompaniment.

The fifth movement, Im tempo des Scherzos, lasts over half an hour and consists of two sections: an orchestral introduction and a choral section based on the poem Auferstehung by Klopstock.

Symphony No. 3

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic – ‘Mahler’s Symphony 3’

The longest symphony in the standard orchestral repertoire, Mahler’s Third Symphony was completed in 1896 with 6 movements.

The first movement, Kräftig. Entschieden (strong and decisive), begins with a horn-led march depicting Summer’s advance.

Contrasting the first movement, the second movement, Tempo di Menuetto, presents a quiet and lilting minuet, depicting flowers in a meadow.

Comodo. Scherzando, a “comfortable” Scherzo, is used for the third movement, describing the voices of animals in the forest.

The fourth movement, Sehr langsam—Misterioso, features an alto singing “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, informing the audience of Man’s subtle intentions.

Heralding the voices of the angels, the fifth movement, Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck (Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression), uses a 17th century hymn sung by both adult and children choirs to preach redemption and belief.

The final movement, an unusually conclusive adagio, Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden (Slowly, tranquil, and deeply felt), is considered one of the finest movements in symphonic literature.

The premiere received a standing ovation for over fifteen minutes.

Symphony No. 4

Bernard Haitink conducting the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra – ‘Mahler’s Symphony 4’

The last of the Wunderhorn Symphonies, this piece was completed in 1900.

Bedächtig, night eilen, the first movement, is interspersed with cheerful sleigh-bells, and follows a dramatic sonata form.

The second movement, a scherzo titled In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Leisurely moving, without haste), features a violin tuned sharp to represent a skeleton violinist leading the orchestra in a death dance.

Next is Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peacefully, somewhat slowly), a tranquil theme and variations.

The final movement, Sehr Behaglich (very comfortably), presents a child’s imagining heaven, and follows a strophic song structure instead of typical symphonic organization.

Symphony No. 5

Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – ‘Mahler’s Symphony 5’

Written between 1901 and 1902, this symphony is particularly known for its Adagietto, a movement often performed alone.

The first movement, Trauermarsch. In gemessenem Schritt. String. Wie ein Kondukt (intentionally paced, strict like a funeral procession), responds to Beethoven’s fifth symphony, reversing the iconic four note opening and declaring it with a trumpet’s blast.

The second movement, Sturmisch beweget, mit größter Vehemenz, follows many of the same themes through exciting and dramatic twists and turns.

Scherzo, the third movement, morphs between a waltz and a ländler with an enchanting style.

The most famous movement of the symphony, Adagietto features only the string section and a solo harp, and is thought to be a love song for Gustav’s wife, Alma.

Rounding out the symphony is a contrapuntal masterpiece, Rondo Finale, which develops small, opening musical ideas into a myriad of textures.

Symphony No. 6 – The “Tragic” Symphony

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic – ‘Mahler’s Symphony 6’

Written following the birth of his second daughter, the Sixth symphony was premiered in 1906.

The work begins with Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig, a standard sonata-form which employs military march bombast and occasional moments of pastoral peace.

Typically the Andante Moderato follows, a delicate and tranquil movement that provides a necessary break from intensity.

The third movement is typically the Scherzo. Wurtig, a march in 3 beats that features a trio with irregular meters.

The final movement, Finale Sostenuto – Allegro Moderato – Allegro Energico is infamous for its use of a large wooden hammer during the performance, striking twice and hinting at a third before the end of the piece.

Symphony No. 7 – “Song of the Night”

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic – ‘Mahler’s Symphony 7’

Often considered a journey from dusk until dawn, this symphony was completed in 1905.

The first movement, Langsam – Allegro resolute, ma non-troppo is a sonata form steeped in drama and iconography.

Two movements of Nachtmusik (Night music) follow, separated by the scherzo.

The first Nachtmusik represents a walk through the night, incorporating a variety of dances and marches.

The symphony’s Scherzo begins quietly with subdued strings and winds, before building up to a nightmarish waltz full of shrieks and phantoms.

The second Nachtmusik encapsulates a rural atmosphere that eventually awakens to bird calls.

The Rondo Finale consists of a set of eight variations and a climactic coda.

The movement uses blatant brass and sarcastic dances as the day begins.

Symphony No. 8 – “Symphony of a Thousand”

Valeri Gergiev conducting Munich Philharmonic – ‘Mahler’s Symphony 8’

Composed in a single writing binge in 1906, the symphony requires one of the largest ensembles in the symphonic repertoire, complete with choir and organ.

The first movement,Veni creator spiritus, is a pastiche of a Bach motet, wrapped up with 20th Century polytonality using a variety of choral styles.

The five subsequent movements comprise the second part, which follows Goethe’s Faust’s ascension to Heaven, with lush, nearly Wagnerian operatic material.

These movements work their way through an orchestral prelude presenting themes expanded on in later movements, an exposition featuring a baritone as Pater Profundus, and three developments representing angels, Gretchen’s prayers, and a soliloquy by Doctor Marianus.

The symphony ends with the ascension, wrapping up themes from across the work, as Faust enters heaven.

Symphony No. 9

Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra – ‘Mahler’s Symphony 9’

Completed in 1909, this is the last symphony Mahler completed, and was premiered posthumously in 1912.

The piece begins with an Andante comodo, which centers on a funeral march but opens into a polyphonic section of bird calls leading into the second movement.

The second movement, Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb, combines dances beginning with a Landler and morphing into something unrecognizable.

Rondo-Burleske, the third movement employs baroque counterpoint combined with dissonant mania.

The final movement, Adagio. Sehr langsam und notch zurückhaltend, presents an elegy that slowly dies away, hinting at the composer’s mortality.

Conclusion

Mahler’s symphonies are immense works of the stage that have enthralled their audiences, and have influenced composers such as Shostakovich, Schoenberg, and Britten.

Even today, audiences rush to hear these symphonies performed, to be taken on a journey of emotional extremes, musical mastery, and to peek at the world of Mahler’s imagination.

Just for a bit of fun at the end, here’s a great video of various conductors conducting Mahler with different levels of enthusiasm. Hope you enjoy!

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Written by Izaak Walton
Izaak Walton is a violinist and violin teacher based out of Denver, Colorado. Izaak received a Master’s in Violin Performance at the University of Denver, and a Bachelor’s in Violin Performance from the University of Georgia. Exposed to a variety of violin methods and musical styles, Izaak built passions for music history, literature, and violin technique.