By Ricky O’Bannon
The question for every trumpet player who performs the famous solo in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is what instrument exactly should they play?
During the scherzo movement, a contemplative melody wafts over the orchestra from somewhere unseen. The solo is played offstage, which requires timing and trust between the performer and conductor leading the rest of the orchestra.
Mahler wrote that the solo should be in the style of the post horn — a valveless brass or copper instrument that mail carriers traditionally used to signal the arrival of the mail in Europe.
The sound and style Mahler chose for the solo would have been well known to European audiences of his time. The post horn is synonymous in parts of Europe with the mail, and images of the instrument are still often used as a symbol of the post office.
BSO Principal Trumpet Andrew Balio said that postmen would often improvise or play well-known melodies on the horn to entertain those along their delivery. This even resulted in some reprimands from their superiors to stop playing “vulgar” opera arias that the post office thought undignified.
“How far we’ve come,” he said.
Balio, who will perform the solo in an upcoming performance, said the solo is usually played with a flugelhorn. The flugelhorn — possibly best known for its use by Chuck Mangione — has a mellower sound than the trumpet, but performers also have the option of using a cornet, a modern version of the post horn or even a traditional trumpet, which requires the player to dampen its usually bright tone.
Balio talks more about the history of the post horn and Mahler’s solo below.