Origins: Triumph & Tragedy

Mahler's Origins: A "Sonic Goulash"

Parade Ground
Military signals, fanfares, and marches in Mahler’s music express a full gamut of emotion, from triumph to tragedy.
“The military band was the passion of my childhood.”
VIDEO:SFS Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye on Mahler’s fanfare
  • Mahler begins his First Symphony by creating a vast natural landscape through a gradually developing collage of sounds that suggest the natural environment. Soon, however, a distant military signal catches our attention and leads to new vistas across the fields.

  • This same signal is the germ of the jubilant fanfares we hear near the end of the movement, at its climax.

Mahler's Methods

VIDEO:SFS principal trumpet Mark Inouye on playing offstage
From Afar

While offstage effects had commonly been used in opera and theatre to enlarge the depth of the action, symphonies before Mahler’s were usually composed on one sonic plane. To give depth to his world from the very beginning, Mahler asks that the trumpets be placed offstage, in the far distance.

Related Examples
Calls and Signals

Each of the regiments stationed in Iglau had its own band, and each band came from a different corner of Europe. Nevertheless, military signals were the same all over the Empire, and literal quotes of these trumpet calls abound in Mahler.

  • In the Third Symphony, the call of “Fall in!”

  • brings the daydreaming posthorn back to earth.

  • The Fifth Symphony opens famously and strikingly with a haunting trumpet solo that seems to warn us of approaching tragedy. The passage is made up of two common signals, changed from major to minor:

  • the General Appel (General Call)

  • and the call Habt Acht! (Take Care!)

Related Examples

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June 8, 2011

This interpretation seems to differ with the way I perceived that whole opening of the 1st.

Yes, Mahler evokes the quiet and peace of nature, but the fanfare in the distance seemed to tell me that this place where he is is actually near a small town (Iglau?) and in the distance one hears the distant life of the town in this fanfare. Suddenly the gauzy, (with the open fourths) almost pointillist picture comes into focus with the following crescendo and the breaking into the opening theme, based on folksong.