Since its founding in 1873, the Cincinnati May Festival – the oldest festival of its kind in North America – has played host to an extraordinary array of music and musicians. Explore notable moments in May Festival history, including the artists, the audiences, and everything in between!
Mahler’s Third Symphony: U. S. Premiere at the May Festival
The May Festival has presented many world and U. S. premieres in its 147-year history, including the very first work at the very first Festival, Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum. One of the more notable works that received a premiere at the May Festival is Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. After long and complex gestation, the work was first performed in 1902, but it did not receive a U. S. performance until the 1914 May Festival – albeit with cuts, at the behest of conductor Ernst Kunwald. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had previously given the U. S. premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 under Franck Van der Stucken in 1905.
Two May Festival concerts were held on Saturday, May 9, 1914: an afternoon “matinee” and an evening concert. The Mahler premiere was offered in the afternoon, and it was only the second time a Mahler symphony had been heard in Cincinnati. Imagine hearing the Fifth in 1905, and no other Mahler symphony for nine years!
Symphony No. 3 is quite long (the first movement alone is longer than almost every Beethoven symphony), but it was preceded at the May Festival premiere by several other works:
Saturday afternoon, May 9 
WEBER: Overture, “Der Freischutz”
BACH: Air, “My Faithful Heart Breaks Forth In Joy”
WAGNER: Overture, “Tannhauser”
Air, “Penelope Weaving a Garment”,
THOMPSON: Night Hymn at Sea
Chorus of Children
MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor
Madame Schumann-Heink and the chorus of children, prepared by Alfred Hartzell, also appeared in the Mahler. Click here to listen to the choral movement, taken from a critically-acclaimed 1998 recording of Mahler’s Third by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Jesús López Cobos with mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the women of the May Festival Chorus (Robert Porco, director), and the CCM Children’s Choir (Ann Marie Koukios, director).
Though history has firmly placed the symphony in the standard repertoire, the Cincinnati Enquirer critic was unforgiving at best in a lengthy review of the 1914 performance:
“In this [first] movement, with all the tricks of orchestral eccentricities piled up beyond recognition, with themes and melodies overturned with studied effects and with the rigid march movement making the whole rhythmically monotonous, Dr. Kunwald made some very welcome cuts – liberal cuts at that. But, no other effect except of shortening was apparent, which is the best proof that there is no symmetry to the composition, and that it is a musical mosaic pieced together rather than one which logically develops.”
“…And, when all was said and done, in spite of its melodious attractiveness at times, the whole affair left the impression of being a great deal of bother about nothing, the striving of a man to say something when he actually had nothing to say…Mahler himself – at least as far as the published score is authority, has nothing to say at all.”
The critic admitted that the quality of the performance was high, but that “it was the fault of none of these [performers] that the work did not score a greater success.” Fortunately for us, history has decided otherwise.
Learn more of The May Festival's history by exploring previous posts from Voices of the Past.
Select a previous post below:
Wagner’s Favorite Soprano at the May Festival
Music for Good Friday at the May Festival
Birgit Nilsson at the May Festival
Concertos and Concerto Soloists at the May Festival
“A voice of spun gold”: Leontyne Price at the May Festival
May Festival: The Leaderboard