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.

Gustav Loved Alma: An Adagietto of Timeless, Undying Love

In 1901, Gustav Mahler held the position of Director of the Vienna Court Opera, which was possibly the most prestigious conducting position in Europe. In that same year, Alma Schindler was a young beauty courted by artistic and aristocratic men throughout Vienna. She was also an artist in her own right — a good musician and talented composer. On November 7, Gustav met Alma at a social gathering. He was 41. She was 22.

Soon after they met, Gustav sent Alma a copy of the fourth movement adagietto from his new symphony in C-sharp minor. Although the adagietto contained no singing and therefore no lyrics, Alma understood the music contained a message. Gustav had sent Alma a love letter written with musical notation. He used the movement as a song without words to dedicate his love to the young woman he had just met. Alma understood the message and reportedly asked Gustav to pay her a visit. Within days, only one month after they met, they were engaged to be married.

In a larger context, Mahler had composed the Adagietto for the beginning of the third and last part of his Fifth Symphony. The first part of the symphony (movements one and two), provides a musical exploration of the various emotions of how people deal with death. The second part (the third movement) provides dance music as a metaphor for life, an expression of how life goes on. The third part (movements four and five) explores the life-sustaining power of love and a reaffirmation of life.

It was the beginning of the third part — the fourth movement’s expression of the power of love — that Gustav sent to Alma. Although the movement is composed in common
duple meter, Mahler scored the music so that groupings of the beat are difficult to hear. It’s not a stretch to say that this can be heard as a metaphor for the timelessness of love.

The fourth movement also provides music that can be heard as an acceptance of death, a feeling that we cannot experience love without ultimately experiencing loss. In the end, Gustav had sent Alma a message of timeless, undying love, a love that would last until death.

Watch the performance I have embedded below and try to hear the Adagietto as I have described it. My interpretation, although quite standard, may not be the only way to hear the movement, but it’s an interpretation that I feel should make sense for most people.

The movement is organized in three sections (ABA).
  • Section A — 0:00
  • Section B — 3:47
  • Section A — 6:32
Maher, Symphony No. 5, Fourth Movement, “Adagietto"
Valery Gergiev conducting the World Orchestra for Peace

The 20 Greatest Symphonies

The September 2016 edition of BBC Music Magazine included a ranking of "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of All Time." The ranking was based on a poll of 151 of the world's greatest conductors, including such notable maestros as Marin Alsop (São Paulo State Symphony), Sir Andrew Davis (Lyric Opera of Chicago), Alan Gilbert (New York Philharmonic), Zubin Mehta (Israel Philharmonic), Peter Oundijan (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), and Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

The conductors who took part in the poll were obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gave the results some credibility. In other words, it was more than just a popularity poll taken from classical music audiences. The conductors were asked to rank their top three symphonies in any order, and based on their selections here are history's 20 greatest symphonies.
  1. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica” (1804)
  2. Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral” (1824)
  3. Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter” (1788)
  4. Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D major, “Farewell” (1909)
  5. Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1894)
  6. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1885)
  7. Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
  8. Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1876)
  9. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” (1893)
  10. Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)
  11. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)
  12. Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883)
  13. Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890)
  14. Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924)
  15. Mozart, Symphony No 40 in G minor (1788)
  16. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A major (1812)
  17. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)
  18. Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877)
  19. Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” (1808)
  20. Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883)
Like all lists of this sort the rankings are not definitive, and the list should primarily serve as food for thought and a topic for entertaining discussion. In thrusting myself into that discussion I want to provide a few of my own takeaways from the list.

1.The ranking offers few surprises, containing a list of the traditional composers and pieces that I would expect. Beethoven leads the pack with five symphonies, followed by Brahms (four), Mahler (three), Bruckner (two), Mozart (two), Berlioz (one), Shostakovich (one), Sibelius (one), and Tchaikovsky (one). (Note that Brahms is the only composer on the list to bat a thousand — all four of his symphonies made the list.)

2. When I first heard about the project, I assumed Beethoven’s Ninth would earn the top spot on the list. I will say, however, that I am thrilled that Beethoven’s Third was chosen the “world’s greatest symphony.” I have taught classes deconstructing both the Third and the Ninth and find that I need much more time to explain what happens in the Third, a symphony that contains an abundance of musical content to analyze. It's a symphony that takes listeners on a journey through a complicated musical narrative that never fails to prompt great discussions after it is over. The first movement provides a roller coaster of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the almost comic anarchy of the final movement gives listeners plenty to think about. The symphony’s message is abstruse and ambiguous, and it's difficult to imagine someone would listen to Beethoven's Third without wanting to hear it again and again and again.

3. I find personal validation in Mahler holding three spots in the top ten, beating out Beethoven and Brahms who each have two. For several years I’ve been tooting Mahler’s magic horn (!) in my music history classes, and now I have a list from
BBC Music to validate my passion. I also love that Mahler’s Ninth is so high on the list, although I am not surprised. Mahler's Ninth juggles a variety of ideas and emotions that in the end become achingly silent. All music eventually goes silent, but only Mahler has ever connected music to silence so elegantly. For me, the end of Mahler’s Ninth sparks the sort of transcendent soul searching that can only come from music.

4. Although I have no significant complaints about the ranking, I would like to provide some of my own honorable mentions: composers and works that I would not have been surprised to see on the list. I have decided to avoid listing additional works by the composers who already made the list.
Regardless of how history's great symphonies are ranked, every symphony listed on this page is worth hearing — every one of them will provide a few of those nice moments that can only come from music.

Just for fun, here's an animated score of the breathtaking first movement of Beethoven’s Third. (The animation comes from the
Music Animation Machine and the recording comes from the Bezdin Ensemble.)



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