Battle and Triumph

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 playing the fourth movement of Mahler’s First Symphony
  • Mahler responds to the terrifying scream that opens the last movement of his First Symphony with a quick, serious march that bristles with determination. It’s reminiscent of a march that was popular during his childhood, of the kind used to lead troops into battle.

VIDEO:SFS Associate Principal Horn Nicole Cash on taking a stand
  • A different type of march appears after twenty minutes of struggle and turmoil at the symphony’s triumphant finish. This one manages to be both confidently swaggering and hymn-like at the same time. It grows louder and mightier with each repetition, as evidenced by Mahler’s note in the score: “From here to the end, it is recommended to reinforce the horns until the overwhelming hymn-like chorale has reached the necessary volume. All horn players should stand up, to create the greatest possible impact. If necessary, a trumpet and a horn can be added.”

Mahler's Methods

VIDEO:MTT on the march in Mahler’s First Symphony Finale
A Local March
  • The vehement march from the First’s Finale shares several notes with this military march from the 1860’s. Of the kind used to lead troops into battle, it was highly popular during Mahler’s childhood. It’s much squarer than Mahler’s powerful invention.

Related Examples
VIDEO:MTT on Mahler’s daring modulation
A Sudden Leap

Mahler made a daring harmonic leap back to the home key of D Major in the First Symphony’s Finale. He described the creative process that led to the breathtaking moment: Again and again, the music had fallen from brief glimpses of light into the darkest depths of despair. Now, an enduring, triumphal victory had to be won. As I discovered after considerable vain groping, this could be achieved by modulating from one key to the key a whole tone above (from C major to D major, the principal key of the movement). Now, this could have been managed very easily by using the intervening semitone and rising from C to C sharp, then to D. But everyone would have known that D would be the next step. My D chord, however, had to sound as though it had fallen from heaven, as though it had come from another world. Then I found my transition — the most unconventional and daring of modulations, which I hesitated to accept for a long time and to which I finally surrendered much against my will. And if there is anything great in the whole symphony, it is this very passage, which — I can safely say it — has yet to meet its match.

Related Examples