Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony 1’: The Fourth Movement

So here we are, the fourth movement, we’ve finally made it to the last movement of Mahler’s first symphony! If you’ve listened to the symphony before reading my blog you’ll probably be aware that all of the musical exploration in previous movements make the last movement worth the wait! Entitled ‘From the inferno to paradise’ the start of this movement certainly highlights the inferno. Due to the third movement acting as a segue (for dramatic purposes it seems) into the fourth movement, it really heightens the tension that Mahler had spent the past 36 minutes trying to create.

An incredibly powerful fortissimo F minor chord is played by the woodwinds and brass a beat after the cymbal crash at an ear-ringing fff. The strings then provide a run of quintuplets and sextuplets which head towards an exciting ascending semi-quaver run into a fff tremolo. An extremely subtle hint is made towards Liszt’s Dante Symphony by the brass section with a cross symbol theme in a minor mode being played. Mahler was a massive fan of Lizst, with him being one of his biggest influences throughout his composing career. The famous triplet run down within this movement is also based on a theme from the Dante Symphony. At this point the triplets represent the inferno, with the orchestra coming together on the triplets and then the strings doing some incredibly fast and technical runs underneath the main triplet theme.

This movement is written in a very loose sonata-allegro form. So by figure 6 (b.62) we’ve entered the exposition section (still currently in F minor). The upper brass and woodwind play the main fanfare theme at this point which return quite a lot within this movement, especially nearer the end. The texture throughout this section is incredibly dense as there are so many instruments accounted for. This for me really hones in on the idea of an inferno, a fiery, thrilling and exciting part in the music/story. Once again Mahler uses dynamics as an aid to make the music interesting and variable. By figure 12 (b. 143) we hear a ‘swelling’ kind of sound from the brass and lower woodwind sections with the use of quick crescendos. This all leads up to figure 14 and 15 which act as a transitional section into the secondary section at b.175. The mood is brought down a lot and the whole section is marked Molto riten. Chromatic movement is also something that has been used a lot to create interesting modulations within movements, for instance at b.175 Mahler has modulated to Db major to mark the start of the secondary section. Slightly further on he modulates to G minor in order to mark the start of the development section.

Hints from the first movement in particular are shadowed within this movement, and by the time we get to b.254, otherwise known as the development section, we can hear a lot of ideas being varied from all of the movements. The development section takes a lot of Mahler’s ideas, as well as from Liszt’s Dante Symphony and creates an exciting build up to figure 25 (b.290) where Mahler has modulated from G minor to C major to showcase the new ‘victorious theme.’ As well as Liszt being a large influence on Mahler, Richard Wagner was also a favourite of the composer. A rhythmic variation from Wagner’s Parsifal Opera is quoted at figure 26 of this movement. For further development, a chromatic modulation occurs at b.317 where the piece goes to C minor for the second part of the theme. By figure 30 (b.337) the texture is incredibly dense with every instrument playing, and mostly in higher registers to create a shrill, yet exciting variation.

A variation from Liszt is heard once more and is used as a transition into the next section of the development. Back in C major by b.371 the woodwind and strings are in unison with descending semi-quaver patterns. This very quickly modulates to D major, which is where we reach the realm of the paradise. A new chorale theme is played, which is a fantastic unifying theme at this point on in the work. This theme recurs until the main theme from the first movement returns in a different turn of events where the music is brought back down. The descending 4th’s theme returns in the strings, while the awakening fanfare, the cuckoo and the tirilli theme is brought back in slight variation. I’ve always thought of this part to mean that nature is paradise and all of the movements thrown together creates a paradise. Small nods to each movement are made in this movement and I feel its the coming together of the paradise.

The secondary transition into F major at figure 41 (b.458) is interesting as it is a condensed orchestration at a much slower tempo. However, for me this section is not sad at all, its a realisation of the beauty of nature within music. Above the low drones of the lower strings, the violins have a beautiful lyrical melody, which is Mahler’s appreciation of romanticism. After a lot of build up and the use of octave changes the F minor main theme returns again at figure 45 (b.533). Intensification of the main theme is then heard and stretched through a fair amount of time as octave drops and fanfares are culminated together to create a syncopated main theme. Within this build up one of my favourite interjections is from the violas at b.540. The very contrasting ff marked quaver motif is played above the very sparse foundation. It emphasises the violas and really gives a nice deep sound to the mix of instruments.

After a run of dramatic triplets Mahler then modulates back to D major into a section marked “Utmost Strength.” Interlocking fanfare themes are heard across the whole orchestra, which creates an incredibly powerful and rich timbre. The chorale theme returns once more above the technical semi-quaver runs from the strings underneath. A new section begins at figure 56 (b.657) which is marked “Triumphal.”  This leads to the coda at figure 59 (b.696) which is a massive explosion of music and the complete opening up of the paradise. Varied triplet themes and the chorale theme interlock together to create one of the most incredible sounds I have ever heard. The tremolos from the strings on the last few bars of the movement build up to an incredibly dramatic D major chord three bars from the end and then an two-note octave drop in the tonic in the last bar. This is one of the most powerful endings and is probably my favourite as it honestly makes me well up every time! The powerful triple stops in the string section and the force of the whole orchestra really gets into me. Heck I’ve cried too many times to dare count!

One of my favourite interpretations, which you see in a lot of different versions, is at the Triumphal section the whole horn section stands up with the bells in the air. I remember going to see this symphony live at Sheffield City Hall with the Hallé Orchetsra playing and it was one of the most incredibly fulfilling moments when the final sections of the fourth movement were played. I remember just tearing up due to happiness and thinking “yes this is exactly why I study music, because it makes me feel like this!” This symphony is the basis of my dissertation for my last year at university, with the focal point being modernism and reception. It is a piece of music that is very dear to me and I urge anybody to listen to it because it brings me so much happiness (pretty much everyday!).

My recommendations for performances would be:

Lucerne Festival Orchestra – Claude Abbado 2009





Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony 1’: The Third Movement

So here we are, the most controversial movement of this wonderful symphony, the third movement. Why is it controversial you ask? Well after a two-bar delicate timpani tonic-dominant ostinato (that plays throughout a lot of this movement) we hear a a double bass solo. This was one of the first times for this instrument to be utilised in such a way, especially as Mahler writes it in a middle-high range of the instrument. Not only has Mahler used a strange choice of instrumentation here, but what’s that melody we hear? It sounds a bit like Frère Jacques doesn’t it? Well that’s because it is! Mahler based the recurring melodic theme on ‘Bruder Martin’ which is more commonly known nowadays as Frère Jacques. Due to this movement being a funeral march, with the extra-musical idea behind it being a hunter’s funeral and the procession of animals that follow, Mahler writes the recurring melody in a minor mode (D). Textural layering is Mahler’s trick here as he creates a musical round by adding in a bassoon, then cellos and then tuba. A strange menagerie of lower-range instruments are heard until figure 3 (bar 19) where we hear a thicker texture as those lower range instruments come together (along with violas and a clarinet in lower ranges). Also at this point a lone oboe plays a staccato counter-melody to the nursery rhyme round heard underneath. 

After a lot of textural layering and the whole orchestra getting a line of Frère Jacques a new section is prepared by a ritarded ascending quaver motif played by the oboes. The swaying dotted quaver movement in this transitional section picks up the speed somewhat, though its still held back. Another fairly strange instrumentation choice in this small section as there is a full string section plue oboes, two trumpets and two horns. 8 bars later we reach the parody link where Mahler comically writes for a Klezmer band. Klezmer comes from Jewish traditions which originate from Eastern Europe, which coincides with Mahler’s Jewish heritage. Mahler was born in Bohemia in 1860 under an Austrian empire, where his family were in a German-speaking minority, as well as being Jewish. Mahler’s use of a small Klezmer band here really shadows his heritage and throughout this movement you can certainly hear the Jewish heritage. His use of Turkish cymbals as well as unconventional and frankly awkward accompaniment for the strings at this point adds to the celebratory feel of this section. Klezmer bands were traditionally used for celebrations such as weddings, birthdays etc so this feel is a dramatic change of mood from the previous funeral march.

The Klezmer theme returns a couple more times, as does hints of the melodic theme of Frère Jacques. Which takes us to figure 13 (b.113) where Mahler modulates from D minor to G major and then down to Eb minor. This Eb minor section is a return of the opening canon with a thicker texture, though still marked at pp. This section acts as a recap to all of the themes heard so far, but of course they sound slightly altered due to the modulation. A then highly unconventional modulation takes place at figure 16 (b.138) when Mahler modulates from Eb minor back to the home key of D minor. D minor at this point is a very distant key from Eb minor so is a somewhat bizarre choice to go back to it so soon. At this point also both the Frère Jacques theme (played by lower woodwind and the whole string section) is matched by a variation of the Klezmer theme in the upper woodwinds. It has been said that this section represents the coexistence of triviality and tragedy in real life. Which coincides with the hunter’s funeral and the procession of animals extra-musical idea. This section is suddenly much faster until a diminuendo section slightly further on which brings the music down to a very soft volume as well as condensing the instrumentation to a very delicate ending with the last two bars only being played by triangle and double bass on the first beat of both bars marked pp. 

One of my favourite things about this movement is the friction between the parody sections and the more serious funeral march. Both want to be played, but only once do the themes actually clash together within the music. Mahler’s bizarre instrumentation at points really hones in on one of my favourite things about him as a composer, and that’s all to do with the inclusion of instruments. For instance Eb clarinet, double bass and tuba in this movement get some big solos which really show off the potential of the instrument.

This movement is particularly interesting when trying to find an interpretation of the symphony that you like.  For me, my all time favourite interpretation of Symphony 1 is actually a slightly newer interpretation from 2009 by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under the baton of the great Claude Abbado. Aside from the technical mastery and absolutely wonderful playing by the orchestra, I feel like the intentions of Mahler are really understood by both Abbado and the orchestra. In terms of this movement recently (2014) the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, under the baton of the young conductor Daniel Harding, performed Symphony 1 and for the first time in history Harding chose for all 8 of the double basses to play the ‘solo’ of Frère Jacques at the start of the movement. Now for me this doesn’t work as I believe the round only works when its one instrument on top of another to create an eerie and mysterious air for the start of this funeral march. However, it has been reviewed that it is an innovative and new way to interpret the opening passage of this movement. I find the beauty of this movement is Mahler’s careful handling of texture and by adding 7 double basses to a solo just doesn’t cut the mustard for me! 

This movement is fantastic to listen to in and of course out of context as it provides anticipation, comedic value and a great segue into the fiery and frankly triumphant fourth movement. Mahler’s heritage making an appearance in the form of music in this movement is also a highlight for me as it offers another window into the composers life, which I find an important element to really get into and understand a piece of music, especially instrumental.

If you’re interested in hearing the different interpretations of this movement they’re all on YouTube so do take a listen and let me know which one you prefer!

Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony 1’: The Second Movement

So after the downright exciting and powerful ending to the first movement of Mahler’s first symphony, we come to the second movement. Another modified structure, Mahler uses the framework of a minuet and trio, though replacing the minuet with an Austrian folk dance in 3/4 called a Ländler. The Ländler section of this movement is in A Major, with the trio section modulating to F Major.

The movement starts with a strong forte bass motif consisting of a two bar phrase which emphasises the tonic and dominant of A Major. The Ländler theme itself is first heard 9 bars into the movement with an off-beat quaver pick up from the whole woodwind section. This is another example of Mahler utilising the wind sections to create a fuller and ultimately inclusive section of the orchestra. In my personal opinion, this movement is my least favourite of the four due to neither of the sections going anywhere adventurous like in any of the other movements of this work. However, Mahler does play around with performance techniques in this movement, such as dynamics. Near the end of the Ländler movement at figure 11 there is a transition section where only lower strings play a chromatic quaver motif and decrescendo from to ppp. Then at figure 12 the woodwind and upper strings return with the initial Ländler theme at a quaint pp. This though is then interrupted, bizarrely, by a bassoon marked ff which is a great contrast from the rest of the orchestra who are marked pp. Further on between one bar the orchestra go from pp to ff, which creates a dramatic explosion of musical genius that heads towards the next section of the movement.

To settle into the new trio section of this movement, Mahler writes a 4 bar transition for one horn. The horn plays a slow two-note motif to settle the impending slow waltz into a comfortable speed. The trio, which sees the Ländler theme manipulated subtly underneath by the 2nd violins and violas, starts as a quaint and quiet section until Mahler uses texture and dynamics to create a bigger force within the movement. The initial Ländler theme returns with great force at the end of this movement and once again the movement is brought to a fiery end with a full orchestral tonic quaver.

Interestingly in the first three performances of symphony 1 were harshly criticised, and one fairly big reason for this was the second movement that was in place before the Ländler and Trio were written. The title of this second movement was Blumine which means ‘Goddess of Flowers.’ This movement was a condensed orchestra with the prominent feature being a trumpet solo. This may have been a refreshing change in orchestration for the work, however, for me I prefer larger ensembles for a symphony as I find that I connect with a bigger sound much easier. After this cut to the work, Mahler’s initial programme notes which outlined very ambiguously the story of the work was also cut as Mahler didn’t like the thought of it stinting people’s opinions of the music. A more ‘open to interpretation’ path was then followed from this point onwards. One more aspect that was cut after the third-fourth performance was the title of the work itself. Initially called Titan, the title was cut and it was then on published as ‘Symphony 1.’

This movement is an interesting one, not my personal favourite though but nonetheless it offers an interesting twist on the minuet and trio structure, as well as highlighting the powerful forces of performance directions. I find the movement fits well within the context of the whole symphony, however, out of context it doesn’t have as much sparkle as the other movements.

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!