This movement is more or less in sonata form, but I find the most interesting part of the whole thing is the unique sound world that Mahler creates with his orchestra. When most other composers would be thinking about melodies and harmonies at the beginning, Mahler focuses in on sound effects to set the scene … It’s amazing. Have a listen.
(0:00) Long, static introduction. Some have said this is the sound of Mahler’s childhood – high strings for the wind, bird calls, the sound of a military base in the background (the trumpet calls) and mysterious two-note upwards motifs on the woodwinds, and then an even more mysterious descending motif in the flutes.
(1:41) Bit of a French horn moment.
(2:27) Steadily growing cello melody. This rises up (ominously) and turns into …
(3:08) An orchestral version of a song Mahler wrote called “I went out this morning into the fields”. The wordless song strolls merrily along, getting steadily louder and more enthusiastic.
Now, at this point, I have to apologise to any Mahler purists that follow this blog. In nearly every other recording out there, there would be a complete repeat of the song. Apart from the Mahler 6, this is the only known literal repeat in a Mahler symphony, where he asks the orchestra to play the same part over exactly the same. In every other symphony, even if he was repeating a theme, he would always vary it. After all, no experience in life is ever exactly the same as a previous one, is it?
However, perhaps because this was a live recording, Rafael Kubelik (who definitely played the repeat on his more famous recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label) has decided to make a liar of me. He’s skipped the repeat and gone straight into the Development section. Hey, at least we’ll be finished quicker.
(5:10) Back to the sound world of the intro. High strings, cuckoos, etc. It feels as if time is standing still.
(6:48) The mysterious descending motif comes back again mixed with a stealthy climb on the low end of the harp. (May I say, this is probably the best I’ve ever heard this section.)
(8:00) A powerful brass theme enters – but very quietly.
(8:28) This quickly morphs into a return of the song.
(10:17) The music starts to get more agitated, until some spectacularly dark-sounding chords (10:34) arrive on the strings, accompanied by a much closer and louder brass fanfare. Things look pretty grim …
(11:24) … until a classic example of a Mahler breakthrough occurs. Most composers work out musical transitions to logically move the music from one theme to the next. But Mahler, right here in his first symphony, developed his own way of doing things. Instead of a transition, the other theme (in this case, a spectacular brass cavalry call that leads to a loud, joyful recap of the song) bursts out of nowhere – like it’s broken through a wall – into the dark sound world, dispelling the cobwebs and taking us all the way to the end. The movement ends with a bit of a playful joke with the timpanist and then we’re done.
It’s a strange mix – an atmospheric intro, a cheery song and a dramatic brass finale, but you’ve been listening to enough Mahler with me to know that the man likes to throw in everything.
What did you think?
First off, to all my readers out there, Happy New Year! After the rather dark ending of the Mahler 6 which rounded off 2015 for us, you might be happy to know that we’re starting 2016 on a much more joyful note with Mahler’s first symphony.
Hopefully, this is where blogging about the symphonies out of order will start to pay off, because from here on in, the remaining symphonies (and we’ve still got left the 1, 2, 3, 8 and 9) are all huge, moving, and exhilarating pieces of orchestral music. All of these are what I call “money’s-worth” pieces of orchestral music – i.e. if you went to hear them live, they would be almost guaranteed to be a spectacular orchestral concert that will sound better live than any CD recording you have. Huge orchestras, massive walls of sound. If that’s what you want from an orchestra (and many people do), then you’re going to get it in these last ones. (Except maybe the 9, but we’ll talk about that when we come to it.)
But coming up directly next, we have Mahler’s first symphony, one of the most audacious first attempts at a symphony ever attempted. It must be a tricky business for any composer to decide what their first large orchestral work is going to sound like, but I’m not sure anyone ever approached it with the boldness that Mahler did when he created this symphony.
The least you need to know with this piece is that when he first wrote it, Mahler gave it the nickname of “Titan”, named after a (now pretty obscure) German novel of the time called Titan. Thankfully, Mahler dropped that title after the first couple of performances, otherwise I would have to try to explain how the music fits in with the book. But now I don’t.
Another bit of useful pub trivia about the Mahler 1 is that it used to have five movements when it was first created. But Mahler decided that one of the movements (a lovely slow movement with a nice trumpet part) was a bit redundant, and so cut it back to the much more classical four-movement structure that we’re used to. However, a few CDs might throw in the extra movement as a bonus at the end, if you’re lucky.
Structurally, it works like this:
- Movement I – an atmospheric opening featuring bird-calls and military trumpets, leads into a jaunty song, revamped for orchestra.
- Movement II – an old-school Viennese Ländler (a dance, for those of you who haven’t yet seen Sound of Music).
- Movement III – one of the quirkiest slow movements ever created.
- Movement IV – a massive struggle between darkness and triumph.
Musically, it’s one of the greatest mash-ups of style ever created in the 19th century. It’s a strange mixture of classical music, folk songs, Jewish music, howling discordance and epic triumph.
It’s not my favourite, but I find it’s great fun if you don’t have the patience for the really long Mahler symphonies and/or you’re a huge fan of John Williams.
And for a recording, I struggled with this one, because I’ve never quite heard a recording that 100% sells the piece to me. (Except for a live performance I saw a couple of years ago with Donald Runnicles conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, one of the most exhilarating live concerts I’ve ever attended. Sadly, that was not recorded.)
But after Googling around a bit, I’ve heard great things about Rafael Kubelik’s version with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which was a recording of a live concert from 1979, so we’ll give that one a try and see how we go …
See you soon for Movement I!