Sunday, August 19, 2007

Reading Mahler's 1st

Austrian composer Gustav Mahler's (1860-1911) First Symphony in D Major is often erroneously given the nickname "Titan." I see this subtitle on both my CD of the piece and the cover of my Dover Miniature Score. Though Mahler himself gave this title to the work, it is not correct; such is the complexity of the story behind this Symphony.

Mahler originally wrote this piece in 1888, and it premiered the following year, billed as a symphonic poem. Between 1889 and 1894, while the piece had three performances, Mahler tinkered with it. He inserted a fifth movement (after the first two), a piece called Blumine which was originally part of some incidental music for a play; later Mahler changed his mind and cut the movement again. For two of the first three performances of this "tone poem" he also gave the movements programmatic titles in reference to the novel Titan by Jean Paul; afterward he retracted this as well. Revisions and name changes continued until 1896 when it was finally designated as a symphony, it was published three years later under the title Symphony No. 1 - period. Mahler's revisions changed not only a few notes and details of orchestration; it changed the entire structure of the piece, and its purpose accordingly. So the composer himself repudiated any hint of "programme" outside the absolute music of the symphony.

Titan or no, it is a huge work, lasting for nearly an hour, and requiring an orchestra of considerable size. For example, on the very first page of the score the strings are divided into 9 parts! There are also parts for 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, and 3 bassoons; though some of the above players must occasionally switch to piccolo, English horn, and any of five different types of clarinet. There are 7 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a tuba. Five percussion players are required, including two timpanists, plus enough hands to play a triangle, various cymbals, a gong, and a bass drum. And don't forget the harp! With doublings and reinforcements it can easily add up to 100 instruments.

Movement I begins with a chilling slow introduction, notable for the open-octave A's in harmonics on the strings, played very, very softly. This sonority strikes me as very creepy, like the icy stillness of a moonless, starless night. Perhaps Mahler meant to bring to mind the openings of some of Beethoven's symphonies, such as the 4th and 9th (we have yet to discuss them here, so I will say no more about them). Fragments of themes begin to coalesce like cosmic dust swirling together, including what sounds like signals from a distant battle, until finally the sun comes out in the form of a cheerful, easygoing tune. Here Mahler recycles the music from his song cycle for baritone and orchestra, Songs of a Wayfarer. Mahler was constantly re-using his songs in his symphonies, with and without lyrics. Here are the words to the song Mahler quotes in this movement, so you can have an idea of what he was getting at:
As I walked this morning over the field,
Dew still hung on the grass;
The merry finch spoke to me:
Hey you! Chink?
Good morning! Hey chink? You!
Is it not a lovely world?
Cheep! Cheep!
Lovely and bright!
How the world pleases me!

Also the bluebell in the field
Rang its morning greeting
To merry good things
With its chime, ding-a-ding,
Is this not a lovely world?
Ding, ding,
Lovely thing!
How the world pleases me! Hey ho!

Bloom and bird, great and small,
Good day!
Is this not a lovely world?
Hey, you! Chink!
Lovely world!
Now will my good fortune also begin?
No, no;
This, I know,
Can never, never bloom for me!
Until the last four lines, it sounds all right. Clearly Mahler, who wrote the words as well as the music, was a bit morbid in his mind. The exposition section of the symphony, if I may call it that - the part that gets repeated, at least - sounds entirely cheerful from one end to the other. After the repeat, however, the music plunges directly back into the eerie opening atmosphere, which must be very hard to play in tune (to judge by the one live performance I have heard). Again one hears fragments coalescing together, building up to the return of the main theme. The development divides itself between the song and the fanfare music, growing more and more sinister until the recap breaks out. The rest of the movement is an upward ramp of energy, growing in both magnitude and momentum toward an ending which goes past euphoria to a kind of joyful hysteria.

The "robust, animated" second movement is a dancelike scherzo movement which I dare you to listen to without humming the tune afterward. It has a very masculine, if not martial, feel. The main scherzo part, in A major, has a more chromatic middle section over a hurdy-gurdylike bass. The opening theme returns to for an ecstatic wrapping-up before the gentler (and also more chromatic and "modern"-sounding) Trio. I noticed the same trumpet phrase, both in the Scherzo and the Trio, sounding like an alien element. I wonder what Mahler was driving at, there. Anyway, the Scherzo returns, this time without the contrasting middle section, driving to another spectacular ending.

Movement III is a Funeral March marked "solemn and measured, without dragging." It begins with an unusual contrabass solo introducing the Austrian nursery-song "Bruder Martin," which is a round like "Row, row, row your boat." "Bruder Martin" is so similar to the French round "Frère Jacques," except for being in a minor key, that many non-Austrian listeners are fooled into thinking Mahler altered "Frère Jacques" and then diabolically wove it into a dirge. This is a profound misinterpretation of a movement that is not seriously meant as a tragic funeral march, but rather as a sardonic satire. For example, just as the dirge-round reaches maximum density, the oboist introduces a jaunty new melody right on top of it. It is as if one of the mourners at a funeral forgot himself and started whistling a cheerful tune.

Then, as the funeral procession comes to a halt, Mahler indulges in an even sharper bit of satire, lampooning a maudlin folk melody. The score is even marked "mit Parodie" at the point where the tackiness becomes obvious, particularly as the bass drum and cymbals are directed to sound like a one-man band. The picture this creates is of a local amateur band doing its best to sound solemn, but repeatedly slipping into the mannerisms of a polka. After this episode, the opening round, complete with oboe theme, makes a brief reappearance, like a rondo refrain. Then comes a sweet, dreamlike episode, quoting material from the end of another Wayfarer Song titled "The two blue eyes." The lyrics that originally went with this music were:
On the street stands a linden tree,
Where I for the first time rested in sleep.
Under the linden tree,
Which snowed its blossoms over me,
I knew not what life does [i.e., the pain it inflicts];
All, all was well again - all, all!
Love and sorrow and world and dream!
The phrase heard in the flutes at the end of this section (bars 110-112) is actually the final accompanying notes of the same song, based on the opening notes of its melody. It seems a little out of place here, quoted out of context, but somehow in my imagination it seems related to the second theme of this movement (the very beginning of the town band episode). After this wordless song stanza comes another refrain, with the round and the countermelody that was first introduced by the oboe, plus a new countermelody in the trumpets. The tacky town band returns, now overlapping with Bruder Martin, and as the movement dies away the last theme that is distinctly heard is the oboe countermelody, now chiefly in the bassoon.

Movement IV follows without a pause with a stormy atmosphere. After a preface-like passage, the horns and brass announce a strident theme that is then ripped up into motivic fragments. Until now Mahler has used his vast orchestra mainly as a palette, from which he selects a variety of color combinations; for much of this movement, however, the full forces are in play, creating extended passages of massive volume and enginelike energy. The intro music from the first movement returns, first in a sketchy, varied form, and later in a more literal quote; the fragmentary theme heard at the beginning of the whole work (constructed out of descending fourths) appears complete and triumphant, like a butterfly fresh out of chrysalis; and the final time we hear the open-octave-A's with battle-signals, they are at full volume and finally resolve to the tonic D in an extended and forceful closing passage that will shake the earth under you.

IMAGES: Mahler; a bunch of Austrian landscapes and an Austrian state funeral. P.S. Yes, I realize this symphony isn't listed on Assignment Two. Consider it a freebie! EDIT: Here is a nice video of the third movement being performed by Ukrainian musicians under the baton of Arkady Leytush:

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