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…”
  • “ I am three times homeless...”

    Many commentators have detected “something Jewish” about Mahler’s lyrical utterances, for instance, his frequent use of sighing motifs in his melodies. Certainly, this gesture is a natural expression of melancholy and is liberally used in music of gypsies, Jews, and people from the outlying areas of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Here, at a moment of grave stillness in the development of the first movement of the first symphony, the cellos “sigh.”

VIDEO:Baritone Thomas Hampson sings "I have a burning knife"
  • Another musical sigh occurs in the Wayfarer song “I have a burning knife” (Ich hab' ein glühend Messer) when the lover describes his feelings about the loss of his love to another: “Such pain! It cuts so deeply…”

Mahler's Methods

VIDEO:SFS Associate Principal Cello Peter Wyrick on the glissando
Happy or Sad?

Mahler pushes his orchestra to emulate the expressivity of the human voice. He marks his parts with very detailed dynamics, bowings, articulations, and other instructions. Here, he gets the cellos to sigh by playing glissando, sliding from one note to the next. In the First Symphony, the rest of the orchestra stand still while the cellos ask a searching question, using the alternation of major and minor harmonies to convey the expressive meaning.

Related Examples