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The world’s misery, distress, and irony: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Movement 3

“It’s not every day a nursery rhyme gets hijacked by a funeral march and a klezmer band. But then not everyone has the slightly warped mindset of Gustav Mahler, who somehow thought that plunking the children’s round ‘Frère Jacques’ into the funereal third movement of his very first symphony would impress the public. The pulse of Mahler’s march is set by two soft, alternating notes on the kettledrum. The melody, contorted into a minor key, is handed first to a solo double bass. A bassoon picks it up, then a tuba and a flute. Quietly building momentum, the tune is passed around the orchestra, with occasional sardonic commentary from the oboe. Later, the melody is elbowed out of the way, as if Mahler, in a nod to his Jewish roots, ushers in a raucous klezmer band to sashay through the orchestra. And, for good measure, he inserts a quote from a morose song, ‘The Two Blue Eyes of My Darling.’ It’s all ingeniously creepy, but Mahler’s early audiences were baffled. Crafting a funeral march out of a children’s song was simply distasteful.” (Tom Huizenga, “Mahler’s Twisted Nursery Rhyme“)

“The third movement used to upset audiences, and even today it’s puzzling to those hearing it for the first time. What are we to make of this odd assortment: a sad and distorted version of ‘Frère Jacques’ (Mahler knew it as ‘Bruder Martin’); a lumbering funeral march; some cheap dance-band music remembered by pairs of oboes and trumpets over the beat of the bass drum; and the ethereal closing pages of the Wayfarer songs — heaven and earth all rolled into one? No wonder people didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Mahler’s only clue is ‘The Hunter’s Funeral Procession’ — a woodcut made earlier in the century by Moritz von Schwind, a friend of Schubert — which he claimed was the inspiration for this music. About the vulgar band music Mahler leaves no doubt: ‘With parody’ he writes at the top of the page, just as the drum and cymbal join in.” (Philip Huscher, program notes for a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

“The third movement acts as the slow movement of the symphony’s four movement structure. The extra-musical idea inspiring the movement is taken from The Hunter’s Funeral, an old Austrian folk story. Mahler described the movement in a conversation with Bauer-Lechner in November 1900: ‘On the surface one might imagine this scenario: A funeral procession passes by our hero, and the misery, the whole distress of the world, with its cutting contrasts and horrible irony, grasps him’ . . . . In 1901 Mahler wrote in a letter to Bernhard Schuster: ‘the third movement . . . is heart-rending, tragic irony and is to be understood as exposition and preparation for the sudden outburst in the final movement of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart.’ ” (Funeral March Movement Analysis at


Moritz von Schwind, “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession” (1850)