Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony 1’: The First Movement

The only way I can really start my new blogging website is with Gustav Mahler, a composer who is very dear to me. Mahler’s first symphony is the foundation of my third year dissertation at university, and what a massive work it is! I find it a work that requires concentration upon listening, or the true musical gems can be missed. Mahler’s music is something that pushed musical boundaries slowly throughout both his conducting and composing careers respectively.  The first symphony was written between late 1887 and early 1888, with this being the first of his colossal works. In the first symphony the running theme throughout is nature and this is really heard a lot in the first movement. The performance direction at the beginning is “Wie ein Naturlaut” which translates into “Like a natural sound.” With the movement being in a modified sonata form (starting with a prolonged slow introduction) the slow awakening motifs, such as the descending 4th’s and the awakening fanfare, first heard in the clarinet family, really give a mysterious opening to this movement. In true Mahlerian style, the movement is very much highlighting the winds and brass, in particular flute, oboe, trumpets and horns. My favourite section of this movement has to be the exposition. With a direction marking of “Always very leisurely” with a new song theme being played by lower strings and bassoon it gives a very different feel from the mysterious 62 bar opening beforehand. The embellishment from the flutes offers a truly happy light above the leisurely strings below. The cuckoo theme, primarily played in the upper woodwind, returns and at this point the music (nature) is awake and celebrating life.

Small steps musically seem to have been taken in this symphony to breakaway from the lyrical ways of true romanticism. Nearer the end of the exposition section Mahler writes the strings a much more disjointed theme, leaping 7th’s and 9th’s, while a select few parts of the rest of the orchestra play slightly different versions of that disjointed theme. At the end of the exposition section we hear a new Tirilli motif which is first heard in the upper woodwind, with it being especially prominent in the flutes. 5-6 bars later the whole orchestra is playing that new motif, which with the orchestra being at least 100 people strong, makes a huge sound with a glorious thick texture. Moving into the development section, however, we hear a much thinner texture, shadowing back to similar motifs from the start of the movement. The Tirilli motif has been taken on fully by the flute now and a semi-quaver variation is played throughout the first part of the development section. Variations and developments are, of course, made to other themes such as the descending fourths, the cello cantibile theme and the main song theme from the exposition. I find Mahler’s use of chromatic harmony very interesting, for instance shifts from D Major to Db Major and then back again within a rather short space of time.

The breakthrough section which leads into the coda at the end of the movement really highlight’s Mahler’s ability to write for a very large orchestra, with all parts being accounted for and playing an important role. Interlocking fanfare themes and chromatic motifs are brought together to highlight the potential of such a large orchestra. Tension is then built up from ascending themes and the upper string section building up to the first nature theme for the last time. The general pauses at the end of the piece are used as a dramatic tool to heighten the tension even more, even though Mahler only writes for woodwind and brass at this point. The full orchestration in the last three bars is colossal and with a strong tonic ending it really creates excitement within the movement. I find that Mahler’s use of woodwinds and brass incredibly favourable (being a brass player myself) as it shines a light on the potential of those families of instruments as well as all the incredible things strings can do. The winds are not just used for embellishment, but for introducing themes, creating textures and giving the theme of nature a balanced and perhaps a more accurate output. His use of harps is also intriguing as they’re used throughout the whole symphony, giving a lot of stability, especially when heading into new keys.

The inclusion of instruments is important as it can offer lots of alternatives when it comes to textures, sounds and themes. Mahler at the time of writing this symphony would have been about 27 years of age, which is just incredible given the clarity and the sheer area he covers in this work. The first movement really hones in on the theme for this work and highlights the capabilities of a mass orchestra. The first movement is probably my favourite movement of the four, as it is gentle, yet offers excitement and a look into Mahler’s mind. In future blogs I will look into the other movements of this wonderful symphony.

That’s my mini-tour of Mahler’s first symphony, movement 1 complete. Watch out for more to come on this symphony!

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