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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) – Symphony No. 1

[1681 words]

“It’s an astonishingly accomplished First Symphony, especially for one so young.” I’ll admit, the symphony itself is astonishing, but the fact of its accomplishment isn’t – when someone immensely talented prepares well and works hard, the conclusion is foregone. Mahler beavered away for years at compositional muscle-building, trying all sorts: chamber music, songs, opera, and three symphonies. Unfortunately, the self-critical youngster binned the bulk of these, reprieving only the fabulous cantata Das Klagende Lied and the lovable Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit.
Having lived on the breadline as a student, and aware that composing would be scarcely less impecunious, Mahler pursued the rich pickings of the opera house. He thereby awakened a sleeping dragon – his exceptional interpretative talent. During 1883, a ballooning conducting career devoured his “free time”, leaving his creative Muse high and dry.
But not for long. The unhappy outcome of a tempestuous affair with Johanna Richter provoked his impatient Muse beyond endurance, compelling him (December 1883) to start writing the cathartic Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (“LEFG”). However, events then took an unexpected turn – Mahler, supposedly bereft of free time, started work on a symphony!
This affair and other factors had conspired to guide Mahler to an extraordinary remedy. In what amounts to a “co-composition”, both works shared LEFG’s materials and the symphony’s orchestration. Thereafter, by sticking to these two radical but complementary forms, he could work more efficiently without sacrificing expressive scope. He effectively declared, “From now on, my music will be either song – the simplest, most intimate form – or symphony – the most complex, most public. I need nothing in between.”
Even so, the symphony received only sporadic attention until, in 1888, he became embroiled in another passionate affair, with Marion von Weber, the composer’s granddaughter-in-law. Provoked by resonances with that earlier affair and the interrelated works, he polished off his First Symphony in six weeks flat [see footnote].
Mahler’s was the first truly revolutionary symphony since Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Already, Mahler was forcing the jaws of consonance and dissonance fully apart, at one extreme sending your sweet-tooth into transports of delight, at the other setting your teeth on edge. Already, his orchestral technique ingeniously exploited a huge orchestra to create a sound – already recognisably a registered trade mark in Das Klagende Lied (written 1878-80!) – that seems to hail from a different planet altogether.
Melodically, Mahler widened the “Nationalist” principle, harvesting styles such as “martial”, “urban popular” and “Jewish” – in fact, anything audible was fair game. For his favoured melodic medium he resurrected linear polyphony, where medium and melody predetermine harmony. Mahler, setting the polyphonic cat amongst the melodic pigeons, knew exactly what he was about (c.f. “sets your teeth on edge”). Unwittingly, he’d also laid the foundations for Schoenberg’s serialism.
Most early audiences and critics, for whom a thoroughly modern symphony meant Brahms’s Third and a truly outlandish symphony Bruckner’s Seventh, heard only a strident mish-mash. The trees of their affronted sensibilities prevented most from seeing the wood of Mahler’s formal processes. Yet, behind their wicked unconventionality, these were as comfortingly robust as those of Brahms.
In the First, as in virtually all his symphonies, Mahler used a dramatic scenario as a structural framework, projecting Liszt’s “symphonic poem” principle across multiple movements. Each movement is individually characterised, its structure blending programmatical features with artfully adapted classical forms. However, Mahler went further, melding the movements into a symphonic unity. When he declared, “A symphony must be like the World – it must contain everything!” he could have added, “and everything must fit together.”
What’s really nifty is his method – amalgamating the new-fangled Wagnerian leitmotif and Lisztian thematic transformation. Playing “God” to his symphonic “World”, he fashioned thematic cells from musical clay; these he mutated, cultured, migrated across movements to mingle and mate with the “locals”. Mahler, you might say, brought a whole new meaning to the term “organic development”.
Mahler regarded his programmes not as audience aids, but solely as construction tools. Given the “co-composition”, it’s hardly surprising that the First Symphony’s programme is the LEFG scenario writ large. In LEFG, the lad is a helpless prisoner of his juvenile self-pity. However, the symphony’s more worldly-wise composer expanded the scenario from “the mess our hero is in” to “how does he sort himself out”, inviting comparison with Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio.
An aural blockbuster like this doesn’t need a bald, blow-by-blow account. Instead, follow Malcolm Arnold’s advice: “Just listen to the bloody music!” For your subsequent enlightenment – preferably with the music still ringing in your ears and fortified by a mug of cocoa (or something stronger) – I’ve tried to portray Mahler’s principles in practice, sketching out the contribution of LEFG, the genealogy and exploits of the main motives, and speculatively fleshing out Mahler’s “secret” scenario.
1. Langsam, Schleppend (Long, drawn out). In the breathtaking “pre-dawn” (first subject), we hear the very sound of stillness. Nature, though, is far from still. From the haze of “A”s emerges a miniscule falling motive (A). A mutates, first forming a descending chain (B), then a shimmering fanfare (C), before itself acquiring cuckoo cockiness. Soon, A blossoms (horns) into dreamy dawn (D) whilst, underground, it distends into a slithering worm (E).
A’s provenance emerges when the cuckoo-ing becomes the sturdy tread of Ging Heut’ Morgen, LEFG’s second song. In the song’s sunshine (second subject), the lad who’s loved and lost takes solace amid the joys of Nature and the teeming felicities of Mahler’s writing. His descent into depression (“It’s a happy World. Will happiness be mine? Never!”) is charted in the static, chimerical development, which extends the scenario beyond LEFG:
Our maudlin hero drifts into reverie, dreaming of bestirring himself. The sunshine (reprise) beckons. He struggles to escape the slough of despondency. Hence release, when it comes, is exceedingly eruptive. However, his headlong romping gradually becomes fearful flight. He is caught, and pummelled (A) into wakefulness.
A’s interval isn’t a third, but the more dissonant fourth. Propagated by those pervasive progeny, this undermines diatonicism’s firm foundation. That bloodcurdling “struggle” crescendo, a crucial structural device, dramatically illustrates this: E1 – an aggressive derivative of E – worms in, then C slashes across the increasingly agonised texture. Finally A, stark and naked, screeches repeatedly over a seething E. It’s not so much music as a protracted scream.
2. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Lusty and coarse, but not too fast) contrasts two related dances: the rustic Ländler, whose clodhopping accompaniment is dominated by A’s fourth, sandwiches its urban, up-market progeny, the Waltz. Mahler re-used this idea in his Fifth Symphony, to convey a worrisome disparity between himself and his bride. So, he probably cadged both idea and purpose – programmatically, let’s say the lad realises he’s lost out because the dainty damsel disdained his clumsy courting.
Instead of a counter-subject, the opening Ländler has a development section, whose increasingly bizarre sound, owing as much to Mahler’s astringent harmony as to his scoring, reflects the lad’s nightmare of realisation. Then, during the Waltz-trio, up pops a cute little twiddle, courtesy of the Jugendzeit song, Hans und Grethe. As the song’s a Ländler and concerns a lad whose amatory advances succeed, this innocuous twiddle cutely rubs salt into the wound.
3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemn and measured, but not dragging). Over plodding tympani, a solo double-bass creaks out the tune of Bruder Martin (otherwise known as Frère Jacques). Well it might – Mahler, replacing the song’s “morning bells” by “mourning bells”, renders the robust round as an abysmal dirge, attended by decidedly unpleasant peasant dances. Mahler’s image is of “The Huntsman’s Funeral”, whose cortège consists of his former prey come to dance on his grave. Although he uses materials from the final LEFG song – that plodding pulse, a halting woodwind fanfare – his allusion is to LEFG’s third song where the lad, seeing his love in everything, is tortured by “a glowing dagger in [his] breast”, and wishes himself on his bier, his eyes closed forever.
The entire closing stanza of LEFG appears, a shaft of purest sunlight, the restorative spur: “By the road stood a linden tree / Where I first found rest in sleep. / . . . / I was oblivious to life / and all was well again!” Our hero sees the light, which suggests he pull himself together. As the requiem resumes, he starts “pulling” – a theme first protesting (trumpets), then haring off (clarinets), leaving the lament lingering alone.
4. Stürmisch bewegt (Stormy and rough) erupts, according to Mahler, “like the cry of a sorely wounded heart,” an apt enough response when pierced by a “glowing dagger”. The first movement provides virtually all the materials. Concluding a metamorphosis from “worm” to “warrior”, E1 becomes a vehement march (first subject), proving that our hero’s done with suffering self-inflicted slings and arrows. D is the template for another “dawn” (second subject), betokening passionate self-renewal. This precipitates an urgent “goal-seeking” mission.
Suddenly, the clouds part, revealing a buoyant E1 haloed by fanfares. Lunging onwards, our hero apprehends his “goal”. This, formed from the self-effacing B intertwined with the first subject, blossoms – then withers away! The succeeding “flashback” is no idle reminiscence, but our hero reflecting on what went wrong.
The clues lie in the first movement echoes. That “dream” was prophetic: “Here’s your spell for success, but beware! Cast it carelessly and, as you’ve seen, it’ll turn on you.” He realises his mistake (surging second subject): over-hasty, he’d misread the spell, and grabbed his goal in the wrong key. Carefully, he now casts it as prescribed. Massed horns ring out, in both jubilation and the right key, heralding the release of his spirit. He romps headlong, rowdily rejoicing, to a bright new beginning. Right – so what means that final, peremptory A?
Mahler’s symphonies evinced three remarkable achievements. Firstly, his “scenarios” generated musical melodramas, high adventures staged in the “theatre between your ears”. Secondly, he harnessed an impressive technical arsenal to forge closely-knit, “absolute” structures. Thirdly, through arcane wizardry, he wedded these uncomfortable bedfellows. Remarkably, in what we must consider his first effort, this mind-boggling concept is fully-formed and functional. Maybe I was wrong about that “astonishing”?
© Paul Serotsky, 2008
Footnote: As with most of his music, the symphony was subject to much revision, including the excision of Blumine, the second of its original five movements. For anyone who’s interested, there is a very serviceable recording of the 1893 (Weimar) version, which very closely approximates Mahler’s original: Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Zsolt Hamar, Hungaroton HCD 32338.

© Paul Serotsky
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