|Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)|
I especially enjoy the accessibility of Mahler's First Symphony. It has always been an easy symphony to get my students to appreciate before moving them forward to more difficult pieces by Mahler.
For my students, I have outlined Mahler's First Symphony in its entirety, However, for this blog I will keep things brief and instead provide only a synopsis of the symphony's program, followed by a short list of what to listen for in the music.
The "Story" within Mahler's First Symphony
The symphony begins in with an awakening of Nature and the anticipation of a new day. This awakening is followed by a section in which we meet the symphony's hero, a wayfarer who loves life and loves the world. After several statements of the hero's joyful attitude throughout the first and second movements, we learn in the third movement of the dark struggles the hero faces, struggles that were foreshadowed in the first movement. In the third movement we also listen to the hero gain wisdom and peace of mind sitting under a linden tree next to a grave. During the fourth and final movement, the hero is thrust into the Inferno. Life is not easy and the struggles that life brings might easily crush the hero's spirit. However, we learn through the Victory Motif in the trumpets and the Paradise Motif in the French horns that the hero's spirit (a metaphor for the human spirit) will endure. Even in death, the hero finds victory.
What to Listen for in the Music
1. Mahler quotes himself liberally. Understanding Mahler often begins with knowing other pieces of music he has composed. In the First Symphony, for example, the main theme of the first movement (4:18 on the video below) comes from a song Mahler wrote titled "Over the Fields I Went This Morning" from Songs of the Wayfarer. The theme represents the joy of being alive, especially when living in harmony with Nature. ("I love this world so much," sings the Wayfarer.) In the third movement Mahler provides the music from a song titled "The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved," (30:37-32:08 on the video below), which also comes from Songs of the Wayfarer. The song is about the tranquility that a tired traveler finds under a linden tree. (Listen to this section and learn how Mahler can break you heart!)
2. Anticipation of music to come. Mahler often uses themes and motifs to foreshadow what will come later in his symphonies. An astute listener will not be surprised by the sudden and shocking trip into the Inferno that begins the fourth movement of his First Symphony. Mahler had foreshadowed this trip during the first movement (13:21-14:30 on the video below).
3. The Undertow. No matter how much joy or peace of mind Mahler provides with his music, we are often reminded of the "undertow" that threatens all human beings. In the midst of an idyllic awakening of Nature at the beginning of the First Symphony, Mahler uses a terrifying chromatic bass motif (3:30 on the video below) to remind us of the pain that life can bring . (Mahler certainly understood life's pain – eight of his siblings died in infancy, two more as young adults, and his daughter at age four.)
4. The Breakthroughs! Mahler is a master at providing extended sections of stress and tension followed by musical "breakthroughs." In short, Mahler provides many goose bump moments that will thrill and inspire you. (Start at 44:00 on the video below. Listen for the breakthrough at 44:47 followed by the Victory Motif in the trumpets at 45:04 and the Paradise Motif in the French horns at 45:17.)
For your information, the video below shows Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a complete performance of Mahler's First Symphony.
00:44 – beginning of first movement
16:20 – beginning of the second movement
25:07 – beginning of the third movement
35:40 – beginning of the fourth movement
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death in 1911, Deutsche Grammophon conducted an internet poll to select the greatest recordings of Mahler’s Symphonies. The results of the poll led to a 13-disk collection of Mahler's nine symphonies gathered together in a set titled Mahler: The People’s Edition. Buy the set and listen to legendary recordings at a reasonable price. The recording selected for Symphony No. 1 is performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik. I give it the highest recommendation.