Sunday, January 17, 2021

Mahler - Symphony No.1 In D Major

Gustav Mahler  worked his way up through many opera houses in Europe until he became director of the Vienna Court Opera, one of the most prestigious opera houses in Europe. He was best known in his lifetime as a conductor, and it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that his music became more well known.  This was partly due to his music being very modern (for the times), complex, most of the symphonies need a very large orchestra, and the works are lengthy. It also didn't help his cause when his music was banned during the Nazi era in Europe because of his Jewish heritage.

Composing for Mahler remained a part-time activity for most of his life, undertaken during the opera and concert off-season. Later in life he would do his composing in a small hut that he had built by the lake and away from his main house.

The 1st Symphony was completed in 1888.  He originally called it a two-part tone poem but after the premiere he made extensive revisions and called it his first symphony.  One of the decisions he made was to reduce it to a more traditional 4 movement symphony when he eliminated one of the middle movements.  The symphony calls for a very large orchestra, over 100 players.

I. Langsam, schleppend (Slowly, dragging) Immer sehr gemächlich (very restrained throughout) - Mahler was greatly influenced by a book of German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or The Youth's Magic Horn. He set some of these poems to music throughout his life beginning with four songs that he called  Lieder eines fahrended Gesellen, or Songs of a Wayfarer.  The opening movement of the first symphony uses the music of one of these songs,  Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld, or I Went This morning Over The Field. Mahler gave detailed tempo designations to the movements of this symphony. The movement opens in D minor with the note A played on the strings, the violins playing in high harmonics.
This note is held for an appreciable time and played at a very low dynamic level. A two-note motif is heard alternating in the woodwinds amid this primeval sound, which leads to another 6-note descending motif heard in the bassoons and oboes. A fanfare in triplets is heard in the clarinets. The motifs are heard again in the woodwinds and lead to another fanfare in trumpets that are off-stage to give the impression of distance. Clarinets imitate a cukoo's call with the two-note motif, and the horns also have a short melody to add. The music slowly builds in volume and after a short section of brooding sounding music,begins to lighten in mood as the two-note motif leads to the beginning of the exposition with the tune of the song Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld heard in the cellos. The tune is taken up by various instruments and developed until it reaches a climax. The exposition is heard once again.
The development section begins slowly with the opening high-pitched drone on the strings as motifs return and modulate into different keys. The music lightens and the horns take up another fanfare before the main theme returns. It slowly builds and modulates to a minor key as the tension increases until the recapitulation begins with a blaze of horns and trumpets and the first theme is heard. The two-note motif persists in the coda until the movement to a thunderous conclusion.

II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving strongly, but not too quickly), Recht gemächlich (restrained) - The second movement, in the key of A major, is a German Ländler, a dance form that Mahler used frequently in his other symphonies. The original version of the 1st Symphony had 5 movements, the extra movement being inserted between the first movement and this movement. Mahler eventually removed this Andante movement with the name of Blumine (Godess of Flowers) after negative criticism, but there are a few references to it in the rest of the symphony that Mahler did not change. The secondary theme of the Ländler is a reference to the theme of the missing movement. The trio is more lyrical in its themes. The Ländler returns is a shortened version with heavier orchestration, and ends in a crash.

III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemnly and measured, without dragging), Sehr einfach und schlicht wie eine Volksweise (very simple, like a folk-tune), and Wieder etwas bewegter, wie im Anfang (once again somewhat more agitated, as at the start) - The third movement is based on the folk tune Frere Jaque (Bruder Martin in German), and is an example of Mahler's morbid sense of humor as it is transformed into a funeral march.  It begins with a solo double bass playing the tune along with a timpani:
 Mahler retains the tune as a round, as instruments take turns playing it before the previous rendition is through.  A counter melody is introduced, and then the mood changes as a cymbal and bass drum punctuate a new melody with the orchestration of a Jewish Klezmer band, perhaps as a bow to Mahler's Jewish heritage. Mahler accentuates this music with broad tempo changes and hesitations. The next section changes to a more gentle and lyrical mood. After this section, the beginning march returns in different orchestration. The movement slowly draws to a close with the tempo decreasing, and the march fading away. 

Hunter's Funeral Procession by Moritz von Schwind
Tradition has it that Mahler was inspired for this movement by a woodcut by the artist Moritz von Schwind that depicts a group of animals of the forest marching with the corpse of a hunter for burial. An ironic picture, and one that Mahler would have appreciated.

IV.  Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch (Stormily agitated – Energetic) -  With the previous movement ending practically inaudibly quiet, the opening of this movement is a jump starter. With a triple forte cymbal clash, the orchestra begins a loud introduction that will attempt to sort out some of the music heard in the first movement. The driving strings settle into a passionate version of the very first theme heard in the first movement, and after this is given a frantic treatment, there is a gradual lessening until a new expansive lyrical theme in D-flat major appears. 

The development section begins with fragments from the first movement opening, and then grows into a frenetic march. This march continues until a fragment from the discarded 'Blumine' movement appears, and leads to more of the first theme material, which in turn leads back to the frantic march. 'Blumine' returns once again, and leads to the first theme. This goes to a repeat of the very mysterious beginning of the first movement, Snatches of motifs are heard from the 2nd movement as all grows hushed. 

Themes are brought back and expanded until the second theme gets a brief return treatment. The first theme dominates the coda, with the horns adding strong punctuation until the fanfares from the first movement return in a rousing ending. 

Mahler once said, "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything."  His music is big in every sense of the word; in expression, forces used, length and complexity.  And each one of his symphonies is like a world unto itself.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your informative website. I'll just point out that "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" (Songs of a Wayfarer) is not a setting of texts from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" but rather authored by the composer himself. The style of the Wayfarer poems however are somewhat similar to and perhaps inspired by Des Knaben Wunderhorn.