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Views And Reviews: Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) – Symphony No. 1

...At the time this work was conceived, the symphonic cutting edge belonged to the likes of Bruckner’s Seventh and Brahms’s Third. This bears thinking about. Notwithstanding all that had gone on in the world of Music in the intervening 50-odd years, Mahler’s was the first truly revolutionary symphony since Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Everything about it – other than its accomplishment, that is – is indeed astonishing...

Even if you are familiar with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.1, Paul Serotsky will “open’’ your ears and increase your delight in this wonderful composition.

For those new to Mahler, and other great composers, Paul has the special gift of being able to make you itch to listen to the works featured in his brilliant essays.

“It’s an astonishingly accomplished First Symphony, especially for one so young.” Something like that was said, not of Mahler but of Shostakovich. Not that it matters, because it’s equally true of them both. It’s also false! Don’t get me wrong – the works themselves are astonishing, but the accomplishment isn’t. When someone immensely gifted and capable assiduously learns his craft and works his socks off, the conclusion is usually foregone.

For years Mahler beavered away at compositional muscle-building. He tried his hand at all sorts, ranging from chamber music through songs and opera to no fewer than three symphonies. Unfortunately for us, the intensely self-critical Mahler binned the bulk of these juvenilia. He reprieved only the fabulous cantata Das Klagende Lied and the lovable Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, although a piano quartet movement and a symphonic prelude somehow side-stepped his waste-bin.

Having had his fill (if that’s the right word) of living on the breadline whilst a student, and aware that composing would be scarcely less impecunious, Mahler made a bee-line for the rich pickings of the opera house. As it happened, he thereby awakened the hitherto sleeping dragon of his extraordinary interpretative talent. Consequently, during 1883, a ballooning conducting career devoured pretty well all his “free time”, effectively putting paid to his compositional explorations, and leaving his creative Muse high and dry.

But not for long. The unhappy outcome of a tempestuous affair with Johanna Richter provoked his impatient Muse beyond endurance, compelling him (December 1883) to start writing the cathartic Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (“LEFG”). However, events then took an unexpected turn. Mahler started work on – of all things – a symphony! How did he square this major undertaking with his lack of “free time”?

It seems that this affair and other factors – such as those favoured juvenilia, his radical temperament, and indeed the struggles and successes of his practical career – had conspired to guide Mahler to an extraordinary resolution. In what amounts to a “co-composition”, the song-cycle supplied basic materials for both works, and likewise the symphony furnished the orchestration.

Thereafter, by sticking to these two radical but complementary forms, he could both work more efficiently and satisfy the expressive demands of his Muse. We get the distinct impression that Mahler was effectively declaring, “Right, this is how it has to be: from now on, all my music will be either song – the simplest, most intimate of forms – or symphony – the most complex and most public. For my purposes, there need be nothing in between.”

Nevertheless, there were teething troubles. Because of the ever-growing demands of his practical career, the symphony received only sporadic attention until, in 1888, he became embroiled in another passionate affair, with Marion von Weber, the composer’s granddaughter-in-law. Provoked by resonances with that earlier affair and the intimate inter-relation of the symphony to the song-cycle, he polished off his First Symphony in six weeks flat [see footnote].

At the time this work was conceived, the symphonic cutting edge belonged to the likes of Bruckner’s Seventh and Brahms’s Third. This bears thinking about. Notwithstanding all that had gone on in the world of Music in the intervening 50-odd years, Mahler’s was the first truly revolutionary symphony since Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Everything about it – other than its accomplishment, that is – is indeed astonishing.

Already, Mahler was forcing the jaws of consonance and dissonance fully apart. At one extreme his harmony sends your sweet-tooth into transports of delight, at the other – straining tonality to breaking-point – it sets all your teeth on edge. Already, his orchestral technique ingeniously exploited a huge orchestra to create a veritable kaleidoscope of luminous colours. Thus his sound – recognisably a registered trade mark even in Das Klagende Lied (written 1878-80!) – here seems to hail from a different planet altogether. This was appreciated by early audiences, although, I fear, not in the sense that I intend!

Melodically, Mahler inclined towards the principles of Nineteenth Century nationalism, but cast his net wider than was normal, harvesting styles such as “martial”, “urban popular” and “Jewish” – in fact, to him anything audible was fair game. As his favoured melodic medium, Mahler resurrected linear polyphony. This was nothing like the backward step it seems. In polyphony, the medium and materials together determine the harmony. Mahler, in setting the polyphonic cat amongst the melodic pigeons, knew exactly what he was about (see “sets your teeth on edge” above). Unwittingly, he’d also laid the foundations for Schoenberg’s serialism.

Most early audiences and critics, for whom a thoroughly modern symphony meant Brahms’s Third and a truly outlandish symphony Bruckner’s Seventh, heard only a rag-bag of strident mish-mash, something like what Comrade J. Stalin was later to call “muddle instead of music”.The trees of their affronted sensibilities prevented most from seeing the wood of Mahler's formal processes." Yet, behind their wicked unconventionality, these were nevertheless every bit as comfortingly robust as those of Brahms.

In the First, as in virtually all his symphonies, Mahler used a “programme” – a dramatic scenario – as a structural framework. In effect, this is simply Liszt’s “symphonic poem” principle, projected across several movements. Each movement is individually characterised, endowed with an internal structure that blended programmatical features with artfully adapted classical forms. However, Mahler refused to let it go at that – he wanted to meld the movements into an overall symphonic unity. When he famously declared, “A symphony must be like the World – it must contain everything!” he might usefully have added, “and everything must fit together.”

What’s really nifty is his method. He amalgamated the new-fangled techniques of Wagnerian leitmotif and Lisztian thematic transformation. Playing the part of “God” to his symphonic “World”, he fashioned thematic cells from musical clay; these he mutated, cultured, migrated across movements to mingle and mate with the local materials. Mahler, you might say, brought a whole new meaning to the term “organic development”.

Mahler regarded his programmes not as audience aids, but solely as construction tools. Generally, he kept them to himself, and soon withdrew any he had been rash enough to disclose. Given the close ties, it’s hardly surprising that the First Symphony’s programme is essentially the LEFG scenario writ large. In LEFG, the lad is a helpless prisoner of his morbid, juvenile self-pity. However, the symphony’s more worldly-wise composer expanded the scenario from “the mess our hero is in” to encompass “how does he sort himself out?” In this respect, Mahler’s scenario resembles that of Berlioz’s composite Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio.

Because Mahler’s First is a symphonic spectacular to outshine any latter-day “blockbuster movie”, a bald, blow-by-blow description would be more or less redundant. So, instead, here’s a complementary illustration of Mahler’s principles in practice. There are two main angles. Firstly, I’ve tried to outline the “family tree” of the thematic materials, and secondly – building on LEFG, Mahler’s personal circumstances and, most of all, the music itself – I’ve dreamt up a somewhat speculative scenario.

1. Langsam, Schleppend (Long, drawn out). In the breathtaking “pre-dawn” (first subject), we hear the very sound of stillness. Nature, though, is far from still. From the haze of “A”s emerges a miniscule falling motive (A). A mutates, first forming a descending chain (B), then a shimmering fanfare (C), before itself acquiring cuckoo cockiness. Soon, A blossoms (horns) into dreamy dawn (D) whilst, underground, it distends into a slithering worm (E).

A’s provenance emerges when the cocky cuckoo-ing becomes the sturdy tread of Ging Heut’ Morgen, the second of LEFG. In the song’s smiling sunshine (second subject), the lad who’s loved and lost takes solace amid the joys of Nature and the teeming felicities of Mahler’s writing. His descent into depression (“It’s a happy World / Will happiness be mine? / No! Never, never can it be so.”) is charted in the static, chimerical development, during which we go beyond the LEFG scenario:

Our maudlin hero drifts into reverie, dreaming of bestirring himself. The sunshine (reprise) beckons, but he struggles to escape the slough of despondency. Hence release, when it comes, is exceedingly eruptive. He romps headlong through the green meadows, but gradually his ecstatic frolics turn to fearful flight. He is run down, and pummelled (A, tympani) into wakefulness.

A’s interval isn’t a third, but the more dissonant fourth. Propagated by those pervasive progeny, this undermines diatonicism’s firm foundation. That this is uncomfortable for devotees of classical harmony, but heaven-sent for lovers of high drama, is perfectly illustrated by the bloodcurdling “struggle” crescendo: E1 – an aggressive derivative of E – worms its way in, then C joins the fray, slashing across the increasingly agonised texture. Finally A, stark and naked, screeches repeatedly over a seething E. It’s not so much music as a protracted scream. It’s also a crucial device – watch out for the finale’s “spell for success”.

2. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Lusty and coarse, but not too fast). From the outset, A emphatically insists that this is no “interlude”. So, how does this movement fit into the scenario? What are the clues? It contrasts two related dances: in the outer sections the rustic, naive, welly-shod Ländler, and in the trio section its urban, sophisticated, up-market progeny, the Waltz.

Mahler re-used this idea, on a grander scale, in his Fifth Symphony, where he was apparently alluding to what he saw as worrisome disparities between himself and his bride. If he actually cadged the intent as well as the idea, we could conveniently extend our speculative scenario: “the lad realises why he’s lost his love – the dainty damsel disdained his clumsy courting, and waltzed off with someone smoother”.

There are two circumstantial clues. In the opening Ländler episode, Mahler pointedly sidesteps the expected classical counter-subject. Instead, he launches a fully-fledged development section, whose increasingly bizarre sound – owing as much to his astringent harmony as to his scoring – makes an apt metaphor for the lad’s nightmare of realisation.. Throughout, but most obviously during the Waltz-trio, a cute little twiddle keeps popping up. This comes from the Ländler-style Jugendzeit song, Hans und Grethe. Because the song concerns a lad whose amatory advances are successful, this innocent twiddle is cutely rubbing salt into the wound.

3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemn and measured, but not dragging). Over plodding tympani (A again), a solo double-bass creaks and groans through the tune of Bruder Martin (better known to the likes of thee and me as Frère Jacques). Well he might – Mahler, replacing the song’s “morning bells” by “mourning bells”, renders the robust round as an abysmal dirge, attended by decidedly unpleasant peasant dances.

Mahler’s image is of “The Huntsman’s Funeral”, at which the cortège consists of his jubilant former prey, come to dance gleefully on his grave. Although Mahler uses materials from the final LEFG song – notably that plodding pulse and a halting woodwind fanfare – his allusion is to LEFG’s third song where the lad, seeing his lost love in everything around him, is tortured by “a glowing dagger in [his] breast”, and wishes himself on his bier, his eyes closed forever.

At the movement’s heart, the gloom is penetrated by a shaft of purest sunlight. The entire closing stanza of LEFG appears, as a restorative spur: “By the road stood a linden tree / Where I first found rest in sleep. / . . . / I was oblivious to life / and all was well again!” Our hero sees the light, which tells him he’s being a dope, and he should pull himself together. In the resuming requiem, he starts “pulling”, which is felt in a theme that first protests (trumpets), then hares off (clarinets), leaving the lament lingering, playing itself out to an empty house.

4. Stürmisch bewegt (Stormy and rough) erupts, according to Mahler, “like the cry of a sorely wounded heart,” an apt enough response for any unwilling recipient of the business end of a “glowing dagger”. The first movement provides virtually all the materials. Concluding a metamorphosis from “worm” to “warrior”, E1 becomes an exceedingly vehement march (first subject), demonstrating that our hero’s done with suffering self-inflicted slings and arrows. D is the template for another “dawn” – the second subject, whose mature lyricism betokens self-belief passionately renewed, and which precipitates an urgent “goal-seeking” mission.

Suddenly, the clouds part, revealing a buoyant E1 haloed by fanfares. Lunging onwards, our hero apprehends his “goal”. This, formed from the self-effacing B intertwined with the first subject, blossoms – then withers away! The succeeding “flashback” is no idle reminiscence, but our hero withdrawing, reflecting on what went wrong.

The clues lie in the echoes of the first movement. That “dream” was prophetic: like a fairy godmother, it said, “Here’s your spell for success, but beware! Cast it carelessly and, as I’ve shown you, it’ll turn on you.” He realises his mistake (surging second subject): over-hasty, he’d overlooked the spell altogether, and grabbed his goal in the wrong key. Carefully, he now casts it as prescribed – with electrifying results! Massed horns ring out, in both jubilation and the right key, heralding the release of his spirit. He romps headlong, in an ecstasy of rowdy rejoicing, into a bright new dawn. Right – so what means that final, strangely peremptory A?

Mahler’s symphonies evinced three remarkable achievements. Firstly, his “scenarios” generated musical melodramas, high adventures that are staged in the “theatre between your ears”. Secondly, he harnessed an impressive technical arsenal to forge closely-knit, “absolute” structures that are true symphonies, however you care to define that elusive term. Thirdly, through some arcane wizardry, he managed to wed these uncomfortable bedfellows. Remarkably, in this, which must be counted Mahler’s very first foray into the form, this mind-boggling symphonic concept is fully-formed and functional. Maybe I was wrong about that “accomplishment”?

© Paul Serotsky, 2008

Footnote: As with most of his music, the symphony was subject to much revision, including the excision of Blumine, the second of its original five movements. For anyone who’s interested, there is a very serviceable recording of the 1893 (Weimar) version, which very closely approximates Mahler’s original: Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Zsolt Hamar, Hungaroton HCD 32338.


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