When I was in high school, WOSU-FM, the classical radio station in Columbus, used to broadcast symphony orchestra concerts on weeknight evenings. One night, slaving away on homework, I heard an incredible sound pouring forth from the speakers of my radio. I hadn’t realized that such music was possible, and I wasn’t sure what to think. It was unfamiliar to me, and I remember trying to puzzle out who the composer might be. After a thunderous ending, applause erupted, and the announcer explained than Daniel Barenboim had led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. I had heard the music I now write about.
As an experiment, largely hypothetical, I trolled some orchestra websites to see whether, in the next year or so, I would be able to see in concert, in America, the Mahler symphonies I have yet to hear in live performance, the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth (the answer, financial considerations aside, would appear to be “no”). What I did find was that the First Symphony is by far the most commonly performed of Mahler’s work in this country.
Why might this be? Its size, perhaps. It is Mahler that still fits the second half of a program rather than taking an entire concert by itself. It requires no voices, yet still has the grand sonorities and climatic utterances that thrill audiences. It is, in a way, Mahler without the difficulties of Mahler. Orchestras that would never consider the Sixth or the Seventh happily program the First.
To the movement at hand. I have a feeling that the opening sonorities–a cymbal crash, followed by a diminished seventh chord scored piercingly in the winds, with a low bang in the timpani and strings–has been shocking audience members out of their slow-movement-reveries since the premiere. The upper strings answer with a rhythmically treacherous lick from high to low and back, so that the brass can introduce a motive that appears throughout the movement, answered duly by sinister descending chromatic triplets. Two more times, taking longer each time, the upper strings give this cadenza-like material, each time becoming more winded. It is the bass solo from Beethoven’s Ninth gone horribly wrong, or inverted. My Forms students could cite this as an example of phrase extension by interpolation. The final violin soliloquy overlaps the winds’ chromatic motives and leads to the countermelody at rehearsal 6, the entrance of the main theme for this movement (do-re-fa-sol).
Despite the sprawling, multi-faceted nature of this movement, like any good Austro-German composer, Mahler is sparing in his use of motivic material. The other important motives in the material introduced in this (for Bernstein) twenty-minute span are all derived from the theme at rehearsal 6, either by inversion or by multiple transformations. At rehersal 8, where Bernstein slows the tempo despite no indication for it, we reach a developmental section (rehearsal 9 instructs “zuruckhalten” or roughly, “ritard,” however).
The music so far has been in the rather remote key of F minor; Mahler touched on this key in earlier movements, but never dignifying it with a key signature. This third-relationship between keys is something to look for in Mahler’s subsequent work. The inclusion of “Blumine,” by the way, brings yet another key center to the piece (C major). Perhaps we see another possible reason for its eventual omission.
The melody at rehersal 11 is related to the rehearsal 6 motive by inversion (although not precise). Measure 149 begins a fascinating transitional section–as though the movement has run out of steam, but for a few last gasps. One wonders more about Mahler’s program for this piece. We relax into the still-more-remote key of D-flat major. A brilliant orchestrational moment at rehearsal 17 sees the oboe taking over the melody from the strings, which step into the middleground, only to step back a few measures later. The handoff here is sublime.
Rehearsal 18-19 is a study in effective string doubling, with the violas saving the day (with this and another passage down the road, I think the violas here demonstrate their usefulness and become the orchestrational heroes of the piece).
At rehearsal 21, Mahler begins to bring back large swathes of material from the first movement, beginning with the spooky chromatic melody from rehearsal 3 in that movement. Almost a third of this movement is material recalled from the first movement, making this piece cyclical in a way that dwarves the use of motto themes by Berlioz and Tchaikovsky. Over the next few decades, some last movements become recapitulations in their own right–the first examples I can think of are Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Orff’s Carmina Burana. In both these cases, the first movement isn’t merely repeated, but augmented, and it seems possible that this movement was the inspiration.
Note the fantastic dovetailing at rehearsal 24. This is the kind of technique that makes this piece treacherous for the less-experienced player.
At rehearsal 26, the music presents a tiny chorale for trumpets and trombones in C major, and then continues in C major. This chorale returns on two other occasions, more forcefully each time, and also moving the music into D major, the key of the symphony.
Between the second and third “attempts” to bring the movement to an end, another large chunk of the first movement reappears–the portion that leads to the climax of that movement. Perhaps the most memorable moment in the first movement is the tutti fanfare, and that is what is brought back here. Instead of the rousing horn melody from the first movement, we are given the brass chorale, fully-voiced and leading us to the home stretch. The music stays firmly in D major this time, and we are brought to the triumpant conclusion. Compositionally, there is more repetition here than I would consider appropriate, but it has been, afterall, nearly an hour since we started into Mahler’s paracosm.
Strangely enough, while as a teenaged I at first was thrilled by the bigness of this ending, I now find the little moments most fascinating–I leave you with two of them. The measure before rehearsal 40 gives us a preview of coming attractions–a string moment that sounds like it stepped out of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Then, before rehearsal 45, the violas, my heroes for this movement, lead a transition to the final energetic music that is just perfect.
So–on to another, much bigger piece this month. I am gratified that I have demonstrated that I can pull ideas and compositional techniques from a piece on this scale. With one exception, they only get bigger from here, but I entreat all of you to come with me on this trip. Now, for two months of the Second, beginning, as Mahler said, with the Titan’s funeral march.