Charlotte and I were delighted to find Mahler 1 was playing at Symphony Hall last month. We went to see it and were spellbound from start to finish. Each of the movements are so distinctive from one another. The last time I wrote a classical AOTM was my favourite recording of the Bach violin concertos, which took some hours of research. Alas I do not have such a luxury at my disposal so I shall write about this symphony briefly.

Mahler’s first four symphonies are often classed as his “Wunderhorn” group owing to thematic and emotional links with settings of songs from the anthology of German folk poems “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“Youth’s Magic Horn”). Strictly speaking, the First Symphony doesn’t fulfil this criterion for inclusion as a “Wunderhorn” symphony as its thematic and emotional links are with Mahler’s first song cycle, “Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen” (“Songs of a Wayfarer”), of which both words and music were written by him under the influence of first love and rejection. But it’s a useful classification because the Wayfarer songs and the First Symphony do inhabit the same thought and sound world of symphonies 2,3, and 4. Musicweb

The first movement starts with a glorious a seven-octave-spread A, played “as quietly and ethereally as possible by the strings, a shimmer of sonority that sounds out the whole compass of the orchestra” according to the Guardian.  Mahler first conducted this in 1889 in Budapest. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the audience. Mahler wrote in 1893 that the first movement represented the waking of Nature after a long winter.

The second movement is a lot of fun, with a dance-like motion evolving into crescendoing (yes that is a word) dynamic and tempo and then back to a waltz.

The third movement is based on the tune of Frère Jaques. It starts off slowly but picks up beautifully over the course of ten minutes. Mahler described this movement as a satiric cartoon of “The Hunter’s Funeral” turned into musical life, a vision of a hunter’s coffin drawn by animals.

…with a slow movement that incorporates street bands, klezmer inflections, and the tune known as “Frère Jacques”, and whose final movement will rail against the cosmos with symphonic music’s most terrifying expressionist outburst, and which, at the end of its drama, will find a sheer musical joy that’s both a transcendence of the bodily and the spiritual, in the most uninhibited, tumultuous noise the orchestra had yet made. Guardian.


The fourth movement is described by the composer as “Dall’inferno” or, ‘from Hell’. The opening is breathless and breathtaking. It continues throughout on the theme of ‘a great cry from a wounded heart’, which the conductor has ascribed to it. This recording is taut, without any hint of over expression or exaggeration. The middle section is deceptively calm and calming after the outburst from the beginning, but one does not rest easy for long, with the final minutes erupting in devastating fashion.

…the achingly moving slow music at the centre of the finale that balances the terrifying cry into the abyss the movement opens with, the way Mahler paces the final climax, storming the orchestral heavens with an apotheosis of D major. Guardian

By 1896, Mahler referred to Symphony No.1 as simply “Symphony in D Major”, so as not to limit its potential meaning. Whichever nomenclature we choose, this piece is an absolutely staggering all encompassing experience. It still captures, in this recording, the freshness and excitement it has in 1889. Mahler 1 holds an eternal quality, standing on the musical shoulders of Bruckner and Beethoven, morphing these two main influences into something large and frightening. It shocked Charlotte and I to our core, leaving us both stunned and speechless for many minutes afterwards, as we drifted on a cloud down Broad Street in the dark.