In 1895/96, Mahler composed the symphony in D Minor with alto solo, women’s and boys’ choir after words by Friedrich Nietzsche and verses from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”. At that time, Mahler was a very busy conductor at the municipal theatre of Hamburg and conducted also the subscription concerts in Hamburg.
As in the second and Fourth Symphony, Mahler used also in this work texts from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” and own previous lieder based on this texts. In the third movement, the lied “Ablösung im Sommer” is treated as motif. In the fourth movement, the voice develops in a free recitative (words from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”). The fifth movement (lasting only four and a half minutes) follows without transition, a setting to music of the naive-pious “Armer Kinder Bettlerlied” from the Wunderhorn.
With its six movements and the enormous apparatus composed of solos, choirs and orchestra, the Third Symphony departs from the usual symphonic system. Its duration (one and a half hours) is also uncommon.