This first movement, if you remember from the last post, started life as Mahler’s Funeral Rites music. I can’t think of many other classical pieces that assaults its listeners like this one does …
(0:00) The whole thing begins with a tense vibration (a tremolo) on the violins . Under that, the low strings play an urgent theme. Like a vast thunderstorm, this music continues, growing in power and violence, as more and more instruments enter. Throughout it all, however, the low strings never stop playing. It climaxes in a mighty brass crash (2:40), which dies away on the woodwinds.
(3:09) A more gentle theme tries to enter on the violins, but the low strings are still hinting at trouble underneath and gradually this new gentle theme gets hijacked, and (4:19) we return to the tremolo of the opening.
(4:51) Then soon a military march emerges. It has a vaguely heroic sound, but it too gets hijacked, this time by the brass, which drag the whole theme down in a noisy passage of crashing cymbals and drum rolls. Everything becomes quiet again, and we wait to see what has happened in the aftermath . . .
(5:53) With the low strings providing the beat, a new march emerges – a funeral march. It is very quiet, with the woodwinds singing in a lonely desolate manner over the top. Also listen out for the harps which come in right at the end of the march. They play a kind of tolling sound, like a bell.
(7:05) And then, while the tolling continues, the strings again attempt the gentle theme. And this time it works! Gently soaring, and then moving into the brass and the woodwinds, we move into a miraculous passage of delicate beauty, like an oasis in the middle of a storm. One of the joys of listening to Mahler’s music, is that even in the middle of the worst circumstances, there will be flashes of beauty. (Like life, really.O
(9:15) Gradually, however, the music starts to change. It’s still quiet, but it gradually morphs into another quiet funereal tune. (10:36) Then after that, the brass enters, and we head into another loud passage. As earlier, a heroic military march tries to win the day. But it gets stifled again, this time in an even more chaotic passage. (11:27) With crashing cymbals and pounding drums, the whole music literally seems to sink into the floor.
(11:47) But then, the gentle music starts again. However, it’s only the harps and flutes this time, so it sounds very small and vulnerable, when we consider the kind of devastation it has to match. More instruments join in, and the music comes to a happy little ending of its own.
(12:55) But we start to hear trouble brooding. With a crash, the opening urgent theme begins again on the low strings. This time, however, the music sounds even darker.
(13:20) Another funeral march begins, again with low strings providing the rhythm, and lonely woodwinds singing over the top. (14:25) As the music builds, the brass play a tune that sounds vaguely like an anthem of some sort. (This is actually – spoiler alert – a small hint of the music that the choir will sing at the end of the symphony.) The first four notes of this tune would have also been famous to its listeners – those four notes opened a famous Gregorian chant from the 13th century, the Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath – have a listen here to the original) and ever since then, composers had been borrowing those four notes any time the wanted to drop a hint about the Day of Judgement. All of which just adds to the weight of this movement, right?
(14:48) Triumphantly, the music swells up, again attempting to be heroic. Again, it gets taken over by a whirl of cymbals, discordant notes and pounding drums. Horrible brass take over, rushing the music along to the most horrendous climax imaginable:
(16:20) A hideous chord (group of notes), made up of as many clashing notes as possible, plays over and over. Musically it is like being hit hit over the head with a sledge hammer and it’s meant to leave an audience cringing in their seats. Unlike our traditional Western concept of death, where we sanitise things, Mahler presents us with death in all its devastation and horror.
(16:47) When this is over, Mahler returns to the music of the opening. So the urgent strings enter again. Everything’s a bit shorter than the first time, but we hear all the familiar parts we know: the brass climax (18:10), and the gentle oasis music (18:36). This time, however, there is an edge of sadness to the oasis music which wasn’t there the first time. It’s as if, confronted with the fact of death, the music now has a sad outlook on life.
Mahler himself said that in this movement he was looking down into an empty grave and asking the questions: “What’s the point of life? Why are we even born if all we’re going to do is die? What’s the meaning of it all?” (Remember these questions: they become important later.)
(21:24) The gentle theme leads into another funeral march again – very slow, solemn and quiet. It builds up to one last climax from the full orchestra again. (Listen out for the tam-tam – a huge gong – which lets out a massive sound at this climax.)
(23:40) The music dies away into a lonely and bleak passage. At the very end, a trumpet sounds out one last note, which for a split second sounds like it might be triumphant. But it quickly turns sour and with a rush, the orchestra plays a descending scale, and ends with three low plucks on the strings, “like dirt being thrown on a coffin” as one conductor described it.
For several years after I first heard it, it was the Twin Towers I would see in my head during this movement, because that seemed to fit the devastating sound world Mahler constructs. Other people might hear different things. But whatever your experience of it, this is the darkness that is waiting to be overcome in the final movement – overcome by resurrection.
But first, the music takes an unusual detour – which you will hear when we come back for the second movement. See you soon!