at this point in my classical music explorations, i have come to think of gustav mahler as Beethoven reflected in a fun house mirror: the sudden shifts between loud and quiet, the penchant for folksy nature tunes, the rhythmic surprises, the seemingly insane key changes, the triumphant declarations, the impish fiddling with classical traditions, the desire to pack a concert stage with as many musicians and instruments as will fit, the supernatural ability to transform human emotions into notes on paper – Ludwig’s paradigmatic achievements are fully present and accounted for in gustav’s music, only incredibly exaggerated, often grotesque, and frequently so-much-goddamn-fun i can’t stop listening to it.
mahler’s symphony #1 adheres to the traditional four-part scheme, and it’s one of the few overtly traditional things about this work. the first movement emerges from the primordial sludge of dawn, and as the brightness slowly grows, a 2-note cuckoo bird chirp is passed around between a grip of wind instruments while an eyebrow-raising trumpet fanfare is barely detected backstage (this opening alone is worth the price of admission, and it’s only the initial 4 minutes of an hour-long symphony). the beautifully warm cellos eventually give us a pastoral melody to hang onto, which is gradually whipped up into an orchestral frenzy. rinse, lather, repeat. insert one ricola alpine horn brigade, a few abrupt key changes, a side trip to the depths of mordor, multitudes of percussive crashes, and we seem about ready to finish part one… only the swirling 8-cylinder engine of the orchestra (yeah, it’s got a hemi) can’t seem to decide on an ending. after waiting for a classically grand theme that never comes, the movement ends in a flustered game of musical chairs. the very first time i heard mahler #1 like a decade ago, i thought to myself: “oh… oh, I see, it’s gonna be like that, is it?… umm, well – oh, okay…” and promptly returned the cd to its jewel case, leaving it undisturbed for about 6 years. now, after hearing this first movement a hundred times, it never fails to bring a smile to my face and some moisture to my eyes.
“the reverse cuckoo polka” might be a decent working title for the symphony’s part deux – a rollicking number that brings to mind my aunt josie after having one too many glasses of sloe gin fizz at cousin wally’s wedding reception. the dance shifts into a tossed-back-and-forth ocean of strings, and then back to the polka tune that stops dead after a percussive brass fanfare jumps out of nowhere. at this point, it’s as if crazy uncle gustav opens up an unnoticed door in the rental hall and ushers you into a viennese ballroom. under the soft glow of candle-lit chandeliers, a polite and pretty waltz is being performed for the aristocracy. if the listener is beginning to catch onto mahler, though, one suspects that this will not last long. sure enough, a group of rowdy peasants eventually elbow their way onto the dance floor and force the band into a reprise of the original polka – this time with emboldened orchestration and an even more brilliant cymbal-trumpet-capped ending. will all four movements end with a crash-bam-thank-you-ma’am?
the answer is no. opening and closing quietly and creepily, movement #3 famously (at least in the classical music world) transforms the children’s song frère jacques into a minor key funeral dirge. the slow lament continues to unfold even as a few squeaky wind instruments begin to inject some mischief into the somber atmosphere. for a time, the funeral procession is impatiently stopped at a red light, allowing a gypsy-jewish-oom-pah-pah band to pass through. after the unseemly caravan departs, the body of brother john resumes its journey to the graveyard… until this heavenly string melody descends from nowhere, breaking everyone’s hearts. the requiem returns in a slightly higher key and (yep, you guessed it) swirls out of control one last time into a “fiddler on the roof” outtake, whereupon the undertakers open up a can of fisticuffs on the drunk klezmer band, ending the movement with hushed gong rumblings and an ominous pair of thumps from the deep bass drum. [sidebar: take a step back and look at this unstable orchestral mishmash of kid-song-turned-funeral-march that continually suppresses moments of bustling jewish activity… the cb is of the opinion that mahler looks like a fucking prophet 50 years prior to the holocaust.]
lord knows how many napping heads have been snapped back to attention with the opening crash-scream-thud* of this final movement. it’s an insanely aggro sound that cannot be found anywhere else (except in other mahler symphonies, of course). suddenly, as if making up for lost time, the symphony has become über-heroic with a swashbuckling air of balls-out struggle (think luke skywalker and indiana jones jumping the grand canyon in the general lee). analogous to the first movement, one feels as though this musical energy could go on forever, but instead of trying to start, it’s trying to finish. about halfway through at the 10-minute mark, after discarding some lush romantic strings that somehow snuck in, a veritable army of brass and percussion confidently build up a head of steam, unquestionably promising us a complete and victorious climax, but instead of mahler giving his listeners a musical pearl necklace, he stains our headboard and overshoots the fanfare in ridiculously comic fashion. feigning embarrassment, the composer recovers by bringing back themes heard in the very first movement, eventually trying once more to perfect the earlier fanfare that had gone awry. this time around, he shoots – he scores! 17 brass musicians, many now standing in the orchestra (!), lead the successful (somewhat tentative) charge toward the finale. it’s funny as hell, and (spoiler alert!) the ultimate 2-note finale is hilariously reminiscent of (what else?)… a cuckoo call. thanks to maestro carlos and the band for making my month!
*this phrase (along with the cuckoo references) has been totally lifted from the mahler symphonies: an owner’s manual (2004) written by david hurwitz. the book has been an amazingly accessible guide to uncle gustav’s music and this blog posting would be seriously deficient without it. buy a copy now. – cb