Mahler Symphony No. 1, Largo (mvt. 3)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 1 (1888/rev. 1896)

Movement 3 Largo–Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen

  • 1st bassoon
  • m 9-35, [10]5 – [10]12, [13]2 – [13]9 (42 total measures)
  • Range (Bb in the staff – high Cb)
  • Bass and tenor clef

Performance issues: Phrasing, Rhythm, Dynamics, High register

PDF of excerpts

About the music: Mahler is a German Romantic composer known for his large-scale works and his manner of handling the orchestral forces at his disposal. There are many occasions within a large work when he chooses not to use the huge combined forces, but instead creates almost chamber music intimacy by writing for a few colors. This movement begins in such a manner; Mahler utilizes all of the low voices available to him as he presents his melodic material is a simple fashion. His theme is reminiscent of the childhood tune, “Are You Sleeping?” and, of course, is the basis for a “round” which Mahler creates in the orchestra. Throughout the excerpt, the dynamic level is pp, the volume increasing only as a result of the layering of entries.

The movement begins with an almost macabre atmosphere established by the muted bass. Overlapping the ending of the bass phrase, the bassoon plays the theme in canon with the muted cello. The next entrances are in other instruments able to produce the same starting pitch; tuba, clarinet, and muted viola. Relief from this octave placement, and the dirge-like melody is provided at [3] when the oboe adds a countermelody to the texture. With the flute entrance which then follows, the range is expanded to an even higher octave and the fabric brightens slightly.

About performing the excerpt: The first excerpt section consists of three eight-measure melodic statements, two in mid-range and one in the upper register. It would be a good practice technique for the teacher and student to superimpose the two different octave versions on top of each other: pitch, phrasing, and rhythmic placement could all be reinforced at the same time. The line could also be played as a round, the second voice experimenting with different points of entry. Dynamic control is demanding in this excerpt because the overall level is pp, and in the high register portion, the student will be less at ease technically, and yet must use good tone and pitch while maintaining the soft volume. The strings play with mutes in this opening portion of the movement and the winds must achieve the same restrained effect.

Rhythmically, the dotted-eighth patterns need exact placement of the sixteenth note; internal subdivision of the beat is the only way to achieve that detail. Technically, probably the most difficult aspect of the passage is the downward octave slur that occurs twice at the end of each eight-measure statement. Flexibility in the embouchure, coupled with air and finger coordination, should produce the desired results. If not, a very light legato tongue may have to be used to assist the downward motion.

The second except passage is a solo countermelody found in the first bassoon part. While the three measure phrase which is the focus of the excerpt is unusual, the short four-note motifs are typical solo wind phrase embellishments, layered on top of an ongoing melodic line. In six flats and at a ppp dynamic level, the third passage will present difficulty, even if studied only as a second bassoon excerpt. The upper octave should be saved for late in the development process when the focus is on the extreme high register. In either octave, the practice effort should be directed toward mastering the fingering combinations: the recommended process is to practice two-note combinations (e.g. eb1 – f1, fl-gb1, etc.), slowly repeating each combination many times in succession and gradually adding speed and lengthening the combinations a note at a time until the whole passage is secure. Practice of the G major scale and arpeggios will also help to establish the fingering patterns.

Terminology: Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen- solemn and measured, without dragging