Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Classical Spotlight: Mahler First Symphony

Everything you ever wanted to know about Mahler's First Symphony but were afraid to ask...the San Antonio Symphony performs Mahler One this Saturday as they welcome their new music director Sebastian Lang Lessing (pictured right).

GUSTAV MAHLER: Born in Kalischt, Bohemia, July 7, 1860; died in Vienna, May 18, 1911

I. Langsam. Schleppend. "Wie ein Naturlaut" - Immer sehr gemächlich (Slow. Dragging. “Like a sound of nature.” - Always very easygoing)
II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (with vigorous movement, yet not too fast)
Trio: Recht gemächlich (well moderated)
III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppend (solemn and measured without dragging)
IV. Stürmisch bewegt (stormily)
INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes (3 doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet, 2 doubling E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani (2 players), bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, harp, and strings
Download the score here at IMSLP.

Audiences in Gustav Mahler's time didn't know what to make of his music. Today, we're used to movies and TV shows that careen from action-packed explosions to romance, from comedy to melodrama. But more than a century ago, when Mahler inserted folk melodies into his enormous symphonies, some listeners thought he was nuts.
Mahler's First Symphony was originally conceived as a tone poem in two parts. Loosely based on Jean Paul's novel Titan, the structure was this: Part I: "From the Days of Youth," Music of Flowers, Fruit and Thorn—1. Spring and No End; 2. Flowers; 3. In Full Sail; Part II: "The Human Comedy"—4. "Stranded!" Funeral March in the Style of Callot; 5. D'all Inferno al'Paradiso (From Hell to Heaven). These titles were accompanied by more extensive programs describing the metaphorical content of each movement. In Jean Paul's Titan we have a youth gifted with a burning artistic desire that the world has no use for, and who, finding no outlet or ability to adapt, gives way to despair and suicide. Mahler apparently saw himself in this figure, as he described this work as autobiographical in a very loose sense. On the other hand the music, some of which Mahler actually accumulated from various earlier works, contradicts this program in so many ways, especially in the triumphant conclusion, that Mahler later withdrew it. He eventually came to scorn the application of specific programs to his symphonies in general.

With the sole exception of Brahms, and possibly Sibelius, there is probably no other composer than Gustav Mahler whose First Symphony represents such a towering achievement. But whereas Brahms was 43 when his First Symphony was completed, and Sibelius was well into his thirties, Mahler was just 28 when he finished his. The gigantic orchestral fresco was begun in 1884 and completed four years later. Mahler subtitled the work “Titan,” after a novel by Jean Paul. The first performance took place in Budapest on November 20, 1889 with the composer conducting. In 1896, Mahler eliminated the so-called “Blumine” (Flowers) movement, which did not resurface until 1959.

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.
When the torrent of notes finally subsides, strings sing a consoling, infinitely tender and yearning song. The violent conflicts return, but this time they result in heroic proclamations from the brass. However, victory and fulfillment are not quite yet achieved. In another long, generally quiet passage, the music slowly gathers momentum, ultimately reaching a towering climax for which Mahler instructs the entire horn section to stand while it delivers fanfares from within an orchestra gleaming in a thousand dazzling, spectacular colors.
In 1899, audiences in Vienna hissed when they heard it; they were used to Brahms and Beethoven. But today, it's hard to resist the pull of a piece that begins like Mahler's First: The strings play a single note spread out over seven octaves. Mahler said it was "like a sound of nature."

For the premiere of his First Symphony (in Budapest in 1889), Mahler tried giving the audience something to think about, something to attach itself to. He told people that his music was loosely based on a novel by the popular writer Jean Paul, a novel called The Titan. After the premiere, Mahler started revising his symphony, and he eventually decided to drop the association with Jean Paul's book. But the name, "The Titan," stuck.

Here is the entire symphony with the NY Philharmonic & Lorin Maazel:

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