Origins: Countryside

Mahler's Origins: A "Sonic Goulash"

Throughout his life, Mahler returned to the natural environment for inspiration.
“My music is always the voice of nature sounding in tone…”
VIDEO:MTT on the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony

wie ein Naturlaut

As a boy, Mahler loved to escape from the town and ramble in the ravine just outside the town walls, where his father would often find him in rapt attention to the sounds around him.

  • The opening minutes of his First Symphony evoke a vast natural landscape gradually coming to life. This atmospheric music also returns at two critical points in the symphony’s outer movements.

As if Spoken by Nature...

"In this movement the whole of nature finds a voice."

  • The first thing we hear is the note A played over six octaves. An ethereal sound without melody, rhythm or harmony, it encircles us like a horizon.

  • This intimate yet expansive “sound of silence” becomes a backdrop for the woodwind's echoing exchanges of a simple falling fourth. Soon these fourths link up with one another in a mysterious chain.

  • That ends on a thorny B flat. At the same time the dreamy calm is broken by a distant hunting call in the clarinets.

  • The mystery deepens as a sudden loud cry in the oboes tugs us back to the note A.

Mahler's Methods

Outdoing Beethoven

All composers of the late 19th century felt an indebtedness to Beethoven and his nine symphonies. Here, in the opening to the First Symphony, Mahler even seems to draw attention to the fact that he’s standing on Beethoven’s shoulders.

  • Compare the natural buzz of the opening of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

  • to Mahler’s calm “A” at the opening of his First Symphony.

  • Now compare the descending thirds of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony

  • to the descending fourths of Mahler’s First Symphony.

Related Examples
Creating the Shimmer
  • After the premiere of his First Symphony, Mahler found that the opening “sounded far too substantial for the shimmering and glimmering of the air that I had in mind.” So he changed the instrumentation to the whispery sound of string harmonics. He continued revising the instrumentation for five more years before the symphony’s publication.

Related Examples