Mondays with Mahler Concludes with Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler, at the time of his First Symphony(Photo: Wikipedia)
Gustav Mahler, at the time of his First Symphony(Photo: Wikipedia)

Our countdown of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler concludes with his Symphony No.1 this evening on Symphony @ 7.  We’ve been presenting the nine completed symphonies in the order of number of releases available on CD, from the fewest to most.

To recap the journey over the last nine Mondays: we started with No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand), which, according to Archive Music, has a total of 74 releases (actually quite a high number when you think of what’s required for a performance of that work).  Symphony No. 7 has 78 releases, No. 3, 91, No.6, 101, No.9, 110, No. 2, (Resurrection) 123, No. 4, 126, No. 5, 130, and this evening, ending the entire series, Symphony No. 1, which has 160 releases available.

As mentioned at the outset, there’s a whole lot of Mahler out there.  Its remarkable that these gargantuan Late-Romantic works (surely the symphony equivalent of Wagner’s operas) are so popular among a devoted core of listeners.  Many people have speculated why this is, but I believe Leonard Bernstein summed it up best in the 1960′s when the Mahler boom really got going.  He said that Mahler’s music speaks to us because it is music for an age of anxiety, the modern (or should I say post-modern?) era we now live in.

Continuing wars, economic uncertainty, social upheavals and cultural conflicts make being hopeful and optimistic challenging and difficult–but it is important to try anyway.  This music resonates with those feelings.  In Mahler’s time at the beginning of the 20th Century, old certainties were also being challenged, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire would soon unravel, leading to the First World War.  Mahler’s music expresses a wide range of emotions, from existential anxiety and fears, to hopes and dreams, spiritual longings, and sometimes fulfillment in transcendental visions of great beauty.  It’s all there in these amazing symphonies.  Although many of these works were slow to gain the status they have today, Mahler famously said, “my time will come.”  And indeed it has.

The First Symphony had a long genesis, but basically it was written between 1884 and 1888, starting as a five movement symphonic poem, then got the name “Titan,” with descriptive titles for each movement.  Mahler dropped the second movement (named Blumine) and titles, eventually just calling it Symphony No. 1.  He once said, “the symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything.”  Mahler certainly started big with his First, since it is nearly an hour long in most performances.

The symphony opens with a magical evocation of the awakening of nature, with bird songs, hunting horns and distant fanfares, and the 1st movement then builds to a great climax.  The 2nd movement is a rustic scherzo in Laendler form, the 3rd movement, a solemn funeral march on a minor key version of the French children’s song “Frere Jaques,” and the large, tempestuous and dramatic 4th movement brings the work to a close.

If you enjoyed the other Mahler symphonies in this series, I hope you’ll join me for this final presentation as we wrap up our Mondays with Mahler on Symphony @ 7 on Classical 101.

 

 

 

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