Mahler's Origins: A "Sonic Goulash"

Mahler’s Jewish heritage gave him both specific musical sources and an ear for the outsider’s voice.
“Always an intruder, never welcomed…”
VIDEO:MTT on Mahler’s experiences in his family's tavern
  • In the third movement of Mahler’s first symphony the opening funeral march is suddenly interrupted by two “folk bands” playing music that has variously been described as klezmer, or gypsy or, simply, “eastern European.” To many of Mahler’s contemporaries, the sounds of these “outsiders” challenged the artistic integrity of the “serious” German symphony.

VIDEO:A traumatic childhood incident

The juxtaposition of emotional extremes goes back to a childhood experience often referred to by Mahler: during one particularly bitter fight between his parents, in panic Gustav ran out of the house into the street and nearly collided with an organ grinder who was playing “Ach, du lieber Augustin.” Later, the nineteen-year-old wrote to a friend: “The greatest intensity of the most joyful vitality and the most consuming yearning for death dominate my heart in turn, very often alternate hour by hour.”

Mahler's Methods

VIDEO:SFS principal clarinet Carey Bell on the “sassy” clarinet
Sassy Winds
  • Mahler’s non-traditional approach to traditional instruments gives them new roles. He takes the squeaky E-flat clarinet, so familiar to him from military bands of his childhood, and makes it the cheeky leader of a dance band — in the slow movement of a symphony!

Related Examples
The Outsiders
  • Two musics collide in the slow movement of the First Symphony, when the jaunty music of the dance band (orange notes) violently jolts the funeral march (purple notes) into a quicker tempo.

Related Examples