Among the innovations one can point to in this symphony are the largest assemblage of orchestral musicians hitherto required in a symphony, and the incorporation of café, pop and gypsy music, especially in the Funeral March. The evocation of nature in a symphony had been realized before (notably in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique), but nowhere else are the very sounds of nature so pervasively and integrally bound up with the symphonic thought than in the first movement of Mahler’s First. The opening moments of the work are unforgettable - that sustained, distant sound of strings spread across a six-octave range vividly suggests the mystery and peace of the night into which are interjected cuckoo calls, far-off fanfares and fragments of still-unformed melodies. Mahler described the passage as depicting the awakening of nature from its long winter sleep. The mood of the lengthy slow introduction is finally dispelled by the sprightly theme of Ging heut’ morgens über’s Feld, (one of the Songs of a Wayfarer, first heard in the cellos), followed by another lusty, outdoorsy theme. The music grows in fervor and intensity, culminating in a mighty outburst from the entire orchestra. The release of enormous, pent-up energy is crowned by three great whoops from the horn section, and the movement continues on its merry way to its ultimate conclusion.
The second movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 is a folk dance. The robust scherzo movement is notable for its heavy rhythmic impulses derived from the Ländler, a rural Austrian dance. Special effects here include the use of the woodwind section en masse (often up to 12 players) in featured roles, breathtaking fanfares from the horns and trumpets, and signals from the “stopped” horns with their bells raised (“stopped” here meaning the players’ right hands are pushed deep into the bells, choking off the sound). A charming Trio, introduced by a poetic horn call, provides gentle contrast.
The third movement is a spooky funeral march, with klezmer accents, based on the "Frere Jacques" melody (“Bruder Martin” in German-speaking lands). The original title of “Funeral March” refers to Mahler’s parodistic portrayal in sound of a mock funeral procession, depicted in a book of Austrian fairy-tales. Beasts of the forest accompany a dead woodsman’s coffin to his grave. The use of a double bass instead of a cello to begin the “Frère Jacques” tune adds a touch of the grotesque. The tune is used as a canon or round, with additional instruments taking up the tune in turn (bassoon, cellos, tuba, etc.) without waiting for the previous one to finish.
After this material has run its course we hear a new, sentimental theme in the oboes, this one also bearing a counter-theme, now in the trumpets. Suddenly the sounds of a country fair intrude, music of a gypsy band with its corny melodies and relentless “um-pah” accompaniment. And then, as if from another world, Mahler offers an interlude of quiet repose - almost a dream sequence - in music of sublime beauty and gossamer textures. Eventually the mournful “Frère Jacques” music returns and the movement slowly recedes into the furthermost reaches of audibility.
Anyone who has dozed off to the third movement’s funereal tread will be instantly and rudely shocked back to his senses with the hellish outburst that opens the finale, one of the most terrifying passages in all music. To Mahler, that opening cymbal crash followed by the roar of drums represented a flash of lightning emitted from a thunder cloud. Strings swirl and rage, woodwinds in their highest registers scream in anguish, brass proclaim terrifying fanfares, and percussion evoke the din of battle and cataclysmic conflicts.