Gustav Mahler wrote that “composing is like playing with building blocks, where new buildings are created again and again, using the same blocks. Indeed, these blocks have been there, ready to be used, since childhood, the only time that is designed for gathering.”

Part of the task of listening to his symphonies lies in disassembling the building blocks to question and better understand them; for this composer who once lay on Sigmund Freud’s couch, it is no surprise that some of the answers stretch back into childhood. 

Moritz von Schwind, The Hunter’s Funeral Procession, 1850, Woodcut, New York Philharmonic on Google Arts & Culture.

Take his Symphony No. 1, performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic this Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Mahler’s first major work draws inspiration from Moritz von Schwind’s The Hunter’s Funeral Procession (1850), a strange little woodcut that Mahler would have encountered as a youth in popular books of German fairy tales. In it, we see the eponymous procession, but the hunter’s pallbearers are the animals of the forest: deer, rabbits, wolves, and so forth, heads thrown back in melodramatic sorrow. Are they actually mocking their erstwhile pursuer? It seems so. The woodcut’s irony touches on the carnivalesque, antinomian spirit that lies at the heart of the German folk and fairy-tale tradition. Mahler, who was fascinated by that tradition and ruminated on it constantly throughout his work, instilled that spirit in his first symphony. 

Compared to his later herculean offerings, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 is a refreshingly concise essay, clocking in at under an hour and divided into four eminently digestible and enjoyable movements. Like scaffolding, a thematic program helped Mahler construct the work gradually over the course of fifteen years before he felt the symphony could stand on its own and he could discard any explanation of its symbolism. 

The symphony shocked many in its day, and there are many moments that still do not fail to seize our attention as listeners. The opening is one such: a drone across seven octaves, the strings, many playing harmonics, hover over a whisper-thin A. Mahler introduces us to a harrowing figure built on a descending fourth interval—accentuated by the LAP’s gurgling woodwinds—a motif that will return many times over to haunt the symphony’s joyous passages. Whooping hunting horns, placed offstage, interrupt, and we then enter a cheerful pastoral interlude. Traditional sonata form takes hold, and all is smooth sailing, though that incessant descending fourth lurks in the background. The sonata development falters and stagnates, and a bass drum heralds a numinous, chromatic passage of harp and strings that plumbs the depths of the soul. Hunting fanfares break through once more—has the hunter caught sight of his quarry? The movement ends in an affirmative climax and the pastoral feeling is restored.

The second movement is built around a Ländler, a German country dance and ancestor of the waltz. It is no pretty thing, but rather fun and raucous; Mahler is flipping musical and social custom on its head by substituting a folk dance for the typical stately minuet. Here the LAP’s cellos and basses delivered elephantine bowing and gargantuan sheets of sound, burlesque and exaggerated to a point I have rarely heard and I think as Mahler intended.

The centerpiece of Mahler’s first symphony is its third movement, a funeral march, and a creation every bit as topsy-turvy as the woodcut from which Mahler drew inspiration. A slow bass drum announces the entrance of a solemn procession, followed by the forlorn tones of a double-bass solo. But something is already chillingly askew—the melody is the popular children’s song “Frère Jacques” cast in the minor mode. Mahler takes this theme and develops it with macabre delight, but as with von Schwind’s woodcut, an antagonistic tension comes into play. We hear the approach of clarinets, growing clearer and then joined by trumpets. At first this new ensemble is appropriately funereal, but it soon casts off its pretense and switches to an irreverent oom-pah-pah beat, giving an ambience not unfamiliar to the New Orleanian who has witnessed a Second Line funeral march down the streets of the French Quarter. It is also of an unmistakably Jewish flavor, compared by many critics to the traditional klezmer music that Mahler would have encountered throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is much material here—with the vying strains of klezmer revelry and “Catholic” mock-seriousness—for the biographer of Mahler (a Jewish convert to Catholicism) to unpack. 

I would have liked to have heard this movement played by the LAP with as much abandon as I heard them use in the second movement; as it was, the tone was a touch reserved in the klezmer passages. I turn to Kubelik’s perennial 1968 recording for a reading that drives home the carnivalesque delight—and the jarring contrast—of the band’s intrusion into the solemn funeral march.

Almost all of the symphony’s melodies find recapitulation in the final movement, a typically Mahlerian apotheosis of the hero’s struggle, cast by Mahler in Danteian terms as “From Inferno to Paradise.” A foretaste of the final triumphant theme is given and then snatched away; the chilling A chord from the first movement rears its head once more, its friend the descending-fourth figure following close behind, as they both struggle to suppress the abandon of the recurrent hunting theme in the brass, which hoot and holler like a pack of excited dogs. Victory is finally sighted, and, after an elevator-like modulation through crashing symbols from minor to major and up a whole step, Mahler sets loose the closing melody, a stratospheric recasting of the “He shall reign for ever and ever” section from the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s Messiah.

Dudamel and company delivered a technically dazzling performance, though one that lacked at times a certain Mahlerian humor and burlesque verve I tend to look for in this symphony. Dudamel also seemed to force a somewhat reductive paradigm of delayed gratification throughout: beginnings of movements were noticeably slow, sometimes dragging, as in the first and third movements, tempi accelerating unorthodoxly towards the grand climaxes at the movements’ ends. But the payoffs were undeniably grand, and, when the horn section rose to its feet in the last measures of the finale, the result was as volcanic as it should be.

The symphony was preceded by the New York premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s Altar de cuerda for violin and orchestra, featuring the nineteen-year-old Spanish violinist María Dueñas. Its three movements draw inspiration from hypothetical blendings of Old and New World architecture. Dueñas’s playing was technically skilled, switching from icy harmonics to machine-gun-rapid bowing and col legno. Complementing this was a diverse orchestration that offered wildly oscillating glissandi as well as mysterious whines and rumbles courtesy of a dramatis personae chock-full of oddball instruments, including Tibetan singing bowls, temple block, mark tree, crotales, guiro, and (the by-contrast-pedestrian) whip. Mahler himself turned heads in his day by orchestrating for sleigh bells, mandolin, whip, cowbell, and hammer. (“My God, I’ve forgotten the motor-horn! Now I shall have to write another symphony,” a contemporary caricature chortled.) He just might have approved.

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