Gustav Mahler – Symphonie Nr. 1 (Rafael Kubelik)

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1. This is a clear case of cover art-music mismatch, since Symphonie Nr. 1 is about nature and features a male protagonist (hence why it was titled “Titan”) … not sure how the two relate with one another, and not sure that Mahler knew either, but it has nothing to do with a mother and her daughter enjoying the city life. Nice painting, though.

2. This is one of Gustav Mahler’s shortest symphonies; this particular performance clocks in at exactly 50 minutes.

This would be true even if Symphony Nr. 1 were performed with the “Blumine” movement – a slow, lyrical piece that’s sometimes performed separately that originally slotted between the first and second movements before it was eventually cut out because of negative critical reception (critic Ernst Otto Nodnagel called it “trivial”).

3. The second movement (“Under Full Sail”), the shortest, is the most expendable (again: what does this have to do with the concept? The protagonist is supposed to die sometime during this dance scene as his funeral takes place immediately after). Love the section from 1:41 onwards, where the strings start a quick descent before the main theme returns. But half of the movement is devoted to a slow waltz that’s nothing special.

4. The first movement (“Spring and No End”) is the symphony’s second-most evocative section, which is supposed to sound like the “awakening of nature from a long winter’s sleep” and indeed it does, with the strings playing a high-pitched drone and the trumpet fanfare announcing the new season coming from off-stage, and the later, the incorporation of the cuckoo interval (you’ll hear these things again in the fourth movement).

The ending of the first movement and certain parts of the fourth movement (“From the Inferno to Paradise”) are the symphony at its most exciting. The fourth movement comes practically out of nowhere after the quiet conclusion of the preceding movement, opening with a cymbal crash and a dissonant chord. After that, the string melody from 2:32 – 2:40 might be Mahler’s best here, beginning the transition into the fourth movement’s songlike section (3:17-onwards). But for the most part, the fourth movement is really bombastic: climax after climax to signify the hero’s escape from hell.

That being said, the ending is good. Notice the shrill alarm that first starts at the 15:31 mark. Particularly love when the strings start sawing away at the 16:32 mark, letting the horns take care of the melody before returning to that alarm sound as the drums come in.

4. The best (and most evocative) of the four movements is easily the third (“Death March in Callot’s Manner”, inspired by “The Hunter’s Funeral” where animals lead a funeral for a hunter), which is funny because it’s the one that caused the most umbrage amongst listeners when Mahler first debuted Symphonie Nr. 1 (which caused Mahler to shelf it for three years after). Quoting critic August Beer, from the Pester Lloyd:

“The reception of the Symphony was as divergent as the two halves of the work. Our concert audience … listened with alert interest to the first section, and Mahler, who also conducted, received warm applause after every movement. After the Death March the mood changed, and after the Finale there was slight and nevertheless audible opposition.”

“Death March in Callot’s Manner” starts with a timpani beating out a slow march while a solo contrabass plays “Frere Jacques” (also known as “Brother Martin, Are You Sleeping”), transposed on a minor key such that a song that’s traditionally sung by schoolchildren becomes a funeral procession.

From here, Mahler starts introducing the other instruments to first round out the melody and then to start playing counterpoint melodies that eventually completely change the atmosphere from a funeral into the exact opposite, starting at the 2:54 mark where the march picks up, and eventually shifting completely at the 5:20 mark where harps introduce the entire symphony’s prettiest section, before eventually turning back into the dirge it started as. The word “grotesque” is perhaps the one that’s most associated with Mahler, and the third movement is the only time that can be described as such.

5. But regardless, Symphonie Nr. 1’s most memorable bits are when it purposefully recalls other tunes (“The Cuckoo,” “Frere Jacques”) or in flashes (the offstage horns of the first movement, the descending melody of the second, the string transition of the fourth), and that’s not a good thing.

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One response to “Gustav Mahler – Symphonie Nr. 1 (Rafael Kubelik)

  1. Pingback: Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 6 (Simon Rattle) | Free City Sounds·

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