Mahler’s First Symphony: Victory and Paradise

Gustav Mahler’s symphonies rank among the most challenging and rewarding pieces of music ever composed. If you listen to them often enough and gain the familiarity that comes with repeated hearings, you should gain a deeper understanding of the unique emotional power of Mahler’s music. Mahler, quite simply, composed some of the most inspirational and spiritually satisfying music you will find.

I especially enjoy the accessibility of Mahler's First Symphony (1888) and its relatively easy-to-follow musical narrative. It has always served me well as an introductory work for humanities students before progressing to more difficult pieces of music, whether those pieces are written by Mahler or other composers.

The "Story" within Mahler's First Symphony

Mahler’s First begins with an awakening of Nature and the anticipation of a new day. This awakening is followed by a section in which we meet the symphony's hero, a wayfarer who finds much beauty in the world. We learn in the third movement, however, that the hero must confront the darkness. We also learn in the third movement how the hero gains wisdom and peace of mind sitting under a linden tree next to a grave. During the fourth and final movement, the hero is thrust into The Inferno. Life is not easy and the struggles that life brings might easily crush the hero's spirit. We learn through the
Victory Motif in the trumpets and the Paradise Motif in the French horns that the hero's spirit (a metaphor for the human spirit) will endure. Even in death, the hero finds victory.

What to Listen for in Mahler’s First

1. Mahler quotes himself liberally. Understanding Mahler’s First requires us to know other pieces of music Mahler has composed. In the First Symphony, for example, the main theme of the first movement (4:18 on the video below) comes from a song Mahler wrote titled "Over the Fields I Went This Morning.” The theme represents the joy of being alive, especially when living in harmony with Nature. ("I love this world so much," sings the Wayfarer.) In the third movement Mahler quotes a song he composed titled "The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved” (30:37-32:08 on the video below). The song is about the tranquility that a tired traveler finds under a linden tree. (This section of music serves as a great example of how Mahler can break your heart.)

2. Anticipation of music to come. Mahler often uses themes and motifs to foreshadow what will come later in a symphony. An astute listener of his First Symphony should therefore not be surprised by the sudden and shocking trip into the Inferno that begins the fourth movement. Mahler foreshadowed this trip during the first movement (13:21-14:30 on the video below).

3. The Undertow. No matter how much joy or peace of mind Mahler provides with his music, we are often reminded of the "undertow" that threatens all of us. In the midst of an idyllic awakening of Nature at the beginning of the First Symphony, Mahler uses a terrifying chromatic bass motif (3:30 on the video below) to remind us of the pain that life can bring. (Mahler certainly understood life's pain – eight of his siblings died in infancy, two more died as young adults, and his daughter died at age four.)

4. The Breakthroughs! Mahler is a master at providing extended sections of stress and tension followed by musical "breakthroughs." In short, Mahler provides many goose bump moments that will thrill and inspire his audiences. (Start at 44:00 on the video below. Listen for the breakthrough at 44:47 followed by the Victory Motif in the trumpets at 45:04 and the Paradise Motif in the French horns at 45:17.)

Movement 1 – 00:44
Movement 2 – 16:20
Movement 3 – 25:07
Movement 4 – 35:40

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra


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To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death in 1911, Deutsche Grammophon conducted an internet poll to select the greatest recordings of Mahler’s Symphonies. The results of the poll led to a 13-disk collection of Mahler's nine symphonies gathered together in a set titled Mahler: The People’s Edition. Buy the set and listen to legendary recordings at a reasonable price. The recording selected for Symphony No. 1 is performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik.