Orchestral Excerpts for the Tenor Trombonist: Mahler Symphony No. 3

By Heinz Fadle • September 01, 1998 • 8 min read


After having studied this symphony with my teacher Professor Willy Walther, who had performed it very successfully with the Berlin Philharmonic under the late Sergiu Celibache, and having performed it more than 30 times myself, I have very strong convictions about this wonderful music. These convictions have quite naturally developed and changed over the years.

While working on these soli it is essential, as with any other excerpt, to know the musical context and background from which the solo develops and stands in. I therefore strongly recommend that the reader listen to as many recordings and live performances as possible. Listen to as many recordings with different orchestras as you can find, and get to know the differences between them before you begin your practice First become an expert on Mahler's third symphony, and then make up your mind as to how you want to perform these excerpts.

First Solo

The trombone solo in the first movement of Mahler's "Symphony No. 3" between rehearsal numbers 13 and 17 is unique in style, phrasing, and importance to the overall musical picture. Although handed to the first trombone by Mahler, it uses exclusively the instrument's middle and low register. There can by no doubt about the coloring and timbre the composer had in mind. Mahler, who is described as being extremely thorough in whatever he did, has left us with very detailed instructions on dynamics, tempi, and expression. The markings for these are in German and require careful translation in order to preserve their exact meaning. (A special "Mahler dictionary" is to be found in one of the earlier ITA Journals.) However, there is still opportunity for individual artistic creativity in the performance of this music.

The first advice to be given to the aspiring student is don't get carried away by the loud dynamics (sempre f and even ff). You want to make a wonderfully rich, unrestricted, carrying and singing sound right from the first entry, where Mahler tells you to lift your bell over the music stand. To do this is most important for a great projection. Triumphant majesty and greatness combined with passion and energy should be the key words for your concept! Articulation should never be hard or edgy -- the many accents over the notes are there to mark their importance and weight. Should you have any problems with this idea, sing the lines in your natural voice and you will find they flow quite easily. Correct and well-organized breathing will make the difference between a good and mediocre performance. My way of organizing the breaths can be seen in the provided excerpts, as marked with red commas. The first two bars from rehearsal number 13 are usually conducted in six (or at least counted as such) for the absolutely rhythmical accompaniment of 2nd and 3rd trombones and tuba. The triplets in the figure should always be played rather fluently, as grace notes to the main note. From the entry of the solo trombone onwards, it is advisable to count in three for the flow of the music.

The entrance at rehearsal 14 requires the trombonist to sustain a rather long a, (notation key) followed by a very short breath, then "falling" into the figure which follows. This phrase finishes with an endless diminuendo on the same a to less than pianississimo. There is nothing you can hide behind if you can't hold that note long enough, or if the tone gets shaky. Here is one good reason to practice long tones daily!

What a wonderful moment it is for the trombonist to produce that ringing pick-up A s which are asked for beginning at rehearsal number 15. They must be so rich and resonant that any fully matured bass trombonist would be proud to have played it themselves!

Never "forget" the diminuendos in this music when they appear at the end of a phrase, and never allow one to happen "accidentally" when there is none indicated -- as in the fourth bar of rehearsal number 15. You have to go into this figure with a slight but determined accelerando, and the same goes for five bars later.

One bar after rehearsal 16 Mahler demands us not to drag the triplets, and he knew what he was talking about! The determination of your accelerando thinking must be still with you until you have reached a Wild five bars after 16. It is there you surprisingly enough begin a crescendo from piano at the same time that your colleagues don't! (They are giving you a chance to get new strength and energy to join them on their dynamic 5 bars later.) The suggested breath mark seven bars before rehearsal 17 is rather useless as it would stop the drive altogether. You have the opportunity to recover once more for one bar, when your section under Mahler's command "Onward" is proclaiming a D major chord in triplets. Afterwards you join them and lead the way to the glorious end with a two bar rallentando, as the music is getting dramatically loud. After this climax, the entire section has to hurry to get the mutes in place for the next important entry, which is only three bars later.

Second Solo

In this second solo section, the first trombonist is well advised to sneak out of the unison phrase six bars before 33, as a very soft and cantabile (sentimental) is just around the corner. For the pick-up F, you have all the time in the world.

Mahler's instruction on the long tone is "Zeit lassen," meaning take your time. (Later he repeats his wish: "Nicht eilen," don't hurry!) You need this time to perform a tasty crescendo and decrescendo on the long notes. Put as much beauty as you can imagine into this melody, and don't hesitate to use a little vibrato. Your colleagues (and maybe even the conductor) will applaud you for it! (I was once asked by an especially "creative" conductor to overdo these crescendi and decrescendi, giving the music a somewhat bizarre touch. Don't ever try arguing taste!)

The portamento markings really mean a singing and very dense legato tone done with support of the tongue. (Remember: this sort of legato was unusual with trombone players in the time of Mahler, so he had to mark it specifically.)

Although Mahler has written the two phrases in bars 11-13 the same, it is legitimate to play the second one as an echo. This will help to increase the dramatic effect and build-up that begins four bars before rehearsal number 34.

Three bars before 34, Mahler brings your colleague in on the eb2 to help you with the breathing. Of foremost importance is keeping the line moving with a slight accelerando and crescendo. This must not be interrupted. Then you slow down again in direction to the Cb - which ought to be played on the valve, as the stretching of the arm into seventh position disturbs the sound even with the best of players! Hereafter, having taken one last short but deep breath, you are ready to the pick-up cb, hold it dramatically long enough to wonder whether the climaxing ffp on the low F will really come out as overwhelming as you imagine it to be!

Third Solo

The third solo in this first movement, which begins one bar before rehearsal 58, is often forgotten in a performer's preparation, as it seems to bring no new real aspects and it even looks simpler that the first.

Now the third trumpet is (hopefully) assisting (not disturbing) you in your opening. This time you are even allowed a diminuendo on each note. At rehearsal 59 you should take notice of the additional rubato and accelerando. The dynamics stay ff this time and there is no one around to assist you!

The diminuendo towards rehearsal 60 cannot be taken back too much as you still want a convincing and carrying sound on the big triplet. Regarding the tempo you are rather free - within certain limits - dictated by taste or a despotic conductor!

Once again your bell has to be lifted for a last ringing signal! After this one - in spite of all the marcato signs - you may lead into the singing line of the second solo again. BUT - it is much lower in the register now and needs much more intensity and expressivo. The very fast dynamic changes from p to f and back again after rehearsal 61 should not be overlooked.

Do not forget that there is now a Bb four bars after 61 and enjoy the big ritardando before the pp two bars later. You are better off taking a short breath before the Bb, as the last a seems endless even if you dare to invest only a tiny crescendo and decrescendo.

Having come this far, you may relax for a while, either smiling contentedly as everybody around you smiles approvingly - or trying to figure out what all the stoney faces around you are trying to hide, but still tell you at the same time. Never think too much of what is behind you, though. There are still plenty of notes and tricky entries before you - and much more wonderful music to be a part of!

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