A Debut Symphony That Embraced The World

Apr 12, 2014
Originally published on April 17, 2014 9:55 am

Conducting Gustav Mahler's First Symphony is an exhilarating and demanding task. Although it's one of his shortest symphonies (at about 55 minutes), it is an epic journey that requires countless hours of analysis and examination of the score. Still, it is a thrilling process to peel back and reassemble the many layers of Mahler's music.

As the re-creator, my challenge is to discover the narrative of the piece and then figure out why Mahler wrote every note, why he chose every musical gesture and how each one fits into the overarching story.

A starting point for me is to try to understand the context of the composer's life, both personal and societal. Mahler's career was coming into full swing at a monumental moment in history — the dawn of the 20th century. Just think of it: The first use of the word automobile occurs in 1898; the Wright brothers make their first successful flight in 1903; Einstein first proposes his theory of relativity in 1905; the first movies are made; the first subways constructed and Sigmund Freud emerges with his revolutionary views on the human psyche.

It was quite a heady moment for an artistic genius like Mahler, who emerged as a bridge between the 19th-century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the new century. Leonard Bernstein called him "the prophet of the 20th century" and, as you might expect, Mahler was not without ambiguity, conflict, ambition, aspiration, fear, hope, conceit and almost every other important human emotion. They are all parts of Mahler and his music, and that is exactly what he was aiming at. "A symphony must be like the world," he said. "It must contain everything."

Creating music was a complex undertaking for Mahler, fraught with layers of aspiration, doubt and even conceit. His knowledge of music was unparalleled and his First Symphony brings together the great traditions of the past with the advances of his time, while paving a new path to the future.

While Mahler's existential goals in his Symphony No. 1 are universal, it is also an intensely personal piece, reaching back to his childhood and his formative years, as Freud would later discuss with him during their single four-hour meeting.

Mahler was introduced to music through street songs, dance tunes, folk melodies and the trumpet calls and marches of the local military band. All of these elements from his childhood are present in this ambitious symphony. It's my job to draw those elements out and highlight them for the listener.

The symphony begins with a single pitch played by the strings. It is the note A, which the orchestra has just tuned to, so the audience already unknowingly has that exact pitch strongly in its ear. My first responsibility is to motivate this note. Should the listener notice that the piece has started? Should the note emerge from a distance, or perhaps from the dawn of civilization? Should it be audible at first? For me, this A is the sound of universality and eternity, so I ask the orchestra to play as though it has already been sounding for millenniums.

Next the winds come in on the A and move down a fourth to the pitch E. This is the first major happening and needs to be filled with portent and anticipation. It's much more than just playing the note A then E. How the musicians move from note to note impacts how the listener will react. Gradually, Mahler adds another new note, an F — and another (C) and another (D) and yet another (B-flat) and then safely back to home base (A). Things are starting to happen, but we haven't even left the first page of this score containing more than 200 pages.

Mahler takes that opening interval of the fourth and uses it to create little fanfares that sound as though they are emanating from the nymphs in the forest, starting with clarinets and then passing to trumpets positioned offstage. I spend a lot of time determining exactly where those offstage trumpets should be. The balance for the listener is critical; I want you to just hear them and wonder where that music is coming from. If they are too loud the effect is ruined.

From that interval, Mahler builds the main theme of the movement — a comfortable walk in nature, starting with the fourth and then continuing stepwise. How long the notes are played gives the listener a sense of the main character's pace, his attitude toward life.

Mahler looked to nature for his personal faith, much like Beethoven did, and delved into philosophical literature to evolve his own story. Like everything about Mahler: complicated and simple simultaneously.

This is a small window into how I approach this amazing score, from working with the musicians to conveying the story to the listeners.

Every moment in the First Symphony is motivated and important, all the way to its irresistible Hollywood ending, when Mahler instructs the horns to stand up to play the final measures. It is visually and aurally spine-tingling and captures that over-the-top abandon that personifies Mahler's music.

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Now some music by Gustav Mahler.


SIMON: This is a recording of Mahler's "Symphony No. 1 in D Major," performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. It's a work the maestro describes as exhilarating, an epic journey. The BSO will perform the piece later this month. And Marin Alsop joins us from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore to talk us through Mahler's "Symphony No. 1." Maestro, thanks so much for being with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, pleasure to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Please put this work in some historical context for us because I guess there's a lot happening every year, but there was particularly a lot happening in Mahler's life in the world when it was written.

ALSOP: Well, you know, what a time to have lived at that turnover from the 19th into the 20th century. I mean, just think of what was going on. Einstein is about to propose his, you know, his original theory of relativity. That's 1905. Or the use of the word automobile is first coined in 1897. The Wright brothers make their first successful flight in 1903, first movies, first subways, and most importantly, plastic and Oreos were invented, you know.

SIMON: I believe in the same cookie, if I'm not mistaken.

ALSOP: Right, there you go. And they never looked back after that.

SIMON: We've been listening to the first movement. Let's hear a little more.


SIMON: This is kind of a walk through the woods, isn't it?

ALSOP: Isn't it nice? It's very pleasant and sunny and sounds like spring time. And, you know, it really belies the enormity of this piece and what's about to happen and the fact that Mahler even gave it the subtitle - he only used it for the first two performances - but the Titan, modestly, as he always did, of course.


SIMON: Let me ask you about the second movement 'cause when we think of Viennese composers, obviously we often think of - some of us think of famous waltzes. The first symphony plays right into that.


ALSOP: It's so Viennese, isn't it? I mean, you just - you can feel the beer flowing and the coffee going. And you know, for Mahler, popular music of his day, these waltzes and marching band music, things from, you know, outdoors that he would have heard, these really informed every single piece of music he wrote. And he integrated all of this popular music into his ginormous symphonies.

SIMON: And there's kind of - he has sort of a dark twist on a children's song?

ALSOP: Yes, well, this is the movement that caused the huge uproar and controversy. And everyone said when they heard this, this guy is crazy.


SIMON: We're listening for "Frere Jacques" now. Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?

ALSOP: (Laughing).

SIMON: That is not a cheery version.

ALSOP: It is not at all. And really, people were so offended by this idea of, first of all, you know, darkening this children's song to this degree. But then, you know, using this as the main material for a serious symphony movement was, you know, it was beyond what people could comprehend.


SIMON: Later in the movement, I gather, we hear kind of a suggestion of Mahler's heritage.

ALSOP: Well, Mahler was a Jew living in this time which was quite a, you know - as so often sadly has been, quite a difficult moment in history. And he - you know, he was trying to come to terms, obviously, with his own heritage. And he even converted to Catholicism in an effort to further his own career. Yet that Jewish heritage was present, especially in the music he wrote. You can hear, it almost sounds like a klezmer band at one point in this slow movement.


SIMON: One more movement, and let's just - let's just tell everyone, hunker down. Strap yourselves in for this one.

ALSOP: Yeah, look out. Fasten your seatbelt.


SIMON: Wow, what was the reaction when people heard that?

ALSOP: I know. Crazy, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: Well, of course, you know, people had been lulled a little bit by this "Frere Jacques" march. And when the last movement blasts out like that - he calls for it to scream, he actually writes in the score - apparently there was - it was first performed in Budapest, and there was a woman who apparently just jumped out of her seat and screamed. So it was, I think, exactly the effect that Mahler wanted to have.


SIMON: Marin, Gustav Mahler was a conductor. What is it like to conduct a piece by a composer who's also - who was also on the podium?

ALSOP: Mahler changed the way people looked at conducting. He was the consummate conductor. And I think because he understood what it felt like to be inside the music, the music he writes for us conductors who follow is so thrilling. You know, it's like, I'm trying to think of what it would be - I imagine it would be like being a lion tamer, you know, and you have a dozen wild animals that you have to get under control. And it goes from that kind of crazy, trying to keep everything within your grasp to, you know, walking up to one of your favorite lions and petting it and, you know, caressing it. That's the gamut it runs. I mean, it's always a little bit of danger, though.

SIMON: Marin Alsop will lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's "Symphony No. 1 in D Major" later this month. Maestro, thanks so much.

ALSOP: Pleasure to be here, Scott. Thank you.


SIMON: And you can read an essay by Marin Alsop about Mahler's first symphony and hear her conduct that music on our website, NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.