I have no idea if this was the kind of field that Mahler was talking about when he wrote the song about walking in the fields that features in this symphony. But it’s a nice picture, don’t you think? (Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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?

3 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 1: Movement I

  1. No Mahler ever sounds as good just on a recording. Hadn’t though Kill Bill, though.

    That said, if you watch Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, the opening part of this movement is used in there a couple of times. (Somewhere in the first 20 minutes.)

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