While Mahler’s more monumental later symphonies tend to dominate the attention, his 1st symphony is also most affecting, bearing all the hallmarks of his style, with its extreme contrasts of spiritual and mundane (wiki; de La Grange; Tom Service).
Mahler, still only a junior conductor, had recently moved from posts in Prague and Leipzig to Budapest, where he directed the premiere in 1889.
The symphony opens with a primordial hushed unison A seven octaves deep. The bursts of energy (both bucolic and stormy) that emerge are constantly disrupted by mystical passages referring back to it (e.g. from 9.38 in the Tennstedt performance below—including the famous ppp low F entry on the tuba at 11.07!).
The mood of the Ländler that follows (rustic, but never simply jovial) is again disrupted by the funeral dirge of the slow movement, reflecting the recent losses of Mahler’s parents and sister, with the “sepulchral whine” of a solo muted double bass in a minor version of Bruder Jakob/Bruder Martin/Frère Jacques (cf. Bill Bailey’s recasting of the Match of the day theme!).
This too is interrupted by a “sudden twist into ribaldry” evoking klezmer—an early glimpse of Mahler’s incorporation of what wasn’t yet “world music” (see Norman Lebrecht on Mahler 4; cf. Mahler and the mouth-organ, and Mahler 10), with the band directed to play “like miserable village musicians” (Discuss…). For Lebrecht it evokes Chagall’s Fair at the village (1908); from the same year is The death.
Chagall, The death.
In the finale, misterioso moments in the strings continue to punctuate the exuberance of brass fanfares—like this distant memory of the gorgeous lyrical passage that replaced the turbulent opening of the movement:
From 52.38 in Tennstedt version below.
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Here’s a selection of performances on disc. Dimitri Mitropoulos made the first recording in 1940, with the Minneapolis Symphony:
(cf. his live recording in 1960).
John Barbirolli with the Hallé in 1957:
Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony in 1961:
And here are three live performances:
Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Phil in 1974 (I do like these Humphrey Burton films—even if the cool font doesn’t exactly compensate for the lack of women in the band):
Klaus Tennstedt live with the Chicago Symphony in 1990—showing why musicians so revered his conducting:
And the equally revered Claudio Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2009 (horns with two especially magical muted ppp entries from 10.50—and standing at Mahler’s behest for the final triumphal fanfares, as with Tennstedt!):
While such conductors continue to retain a quasi-mythical status, these performances also illustrate a transition from the age of the remote dictator to a more collegial ethos.
We can’t now unhear the whole soundscape of the 20th century, or even Mahler’s later symphonies; but the 1st is even more moving in the light of his later path.