Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 1, a challenge

The Bridgewater Hall- Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester begins this weekend, as Gianandrea Noseda leads the BBC Philharmonic in Mahler’s 1st Symphony. The performance takes place at 7:30 PM on the 16th of January, 2010 in The Bridgewater Hall

Even today, the First probably remains Mahler’s most popular piece- a generation ago, it was probably his only popular piece. How times have changed. It was the first Mahler work I heard in concert, and it made quite an impression on me.

A generation ago, a performer might have been tempted to compare it first to other symphonic works by Dvorak, Brahms, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. A musician today is more likely to compare it to the other Mahler symphonies, and the works of people like Bruckner and Shostakovich. In comparison to the symphonies of his predecessors, Mahler 1 looks gargantuan in every way. Longer than just about any symphony since Beethoven 9, the wind section for Mahler’s first symphony is nearly twice the size of that for any of the Brahms, Dvorak or Tchaikovskys- 7 or 8 horns instead of the usual 4, 4 of each woodwind instead of the usual 2-3 and so on.

Now that we live in an age where almost every musician not only knows all of the Mahler symphonies but probably has a set of recordings (or several) at home, the First looks more modest. Compared to Bruckner or Shostakovich, it doesn’t look that massive. It is his shortest symphony, one of his smallest orchestras (although the 4th and 5th are smaller), and in many ways the most accessible technically and musically. How times have changed.

Still, every Mahler symphony has its challenges and its riddles for the performer to come to terms with. It is not a work to underestimate.

Challenges first. On a purely technical level, Mahler 1 includes possibly the most difficult passage for intonation not only in all of Mahler’s output, but in all the symphonic repertoire.

Mahler struggled for some time to find the colour he wanted for the opening. The iconic sound of those octaves and octaves of harmonic A’s (actually, the lowest part is an open string in the double basses) was an idea that only came to him after much struggle, but what an idea! It is surely one of the most magical openings of any symphony. Have a listen.

But, it is also one of the most difficult (you can follow along on a score here). Simply getting all those A’s to speak easily and clearly without any hint of nervous bow shakes is challenge enough, but once in place, they make everything that follows more difficult. One of the advantages of playing with vibrato*  is that the undulation widens the pitch, which makes the tuning a little more forgiving- you are aiming for a larger target. On the one hand, this can dull players sensitivity to tuning, particularly to the tuning of perfect intervals like fourths, fifths and octaves. On the other hand, if an interval isn’t quite flawless, a wee bit of vibrato can make that less of a problem.

In this instance, Mahler has created a pedal point of A’s several octaves deep, completely without vibrato, which creates something like a mile-high wall of overtones- each A not only contains its fundamental pitch, but every note of the overtone series above it, most strongly E’s. That means that all those resonant pitches want to lock in in all those octaves. He has us aiming for an extra small target.

This is all fine until the melody begins in bar 3 with a falling fourth from A to E (the next strongest overtone in the A pedal). Both notes must perfectly match the pitch in the pedal- the E in the winds must be the same as the overtone E in the strings. For a wind player simply to come in pianissimo with an A to perfectly match the pedal takes tremendous concentration and nerves of steel, but in this case, Mahler writes for four solo winds in four different octaves. That means the player can’t only focus on the pedal, but must also match the tuning, and more problematically, the articulation and intensity of their colleagues. The four A’s have to speak together (and the different instruments all tend to speak at different speeds), in tune and be balanced so that we hear the colour of the four instruments. Then, they must move together down a fourth to E, also a perfect interval to the A pedal and just as unforgiving to tune.

Mahler gives us this gesture 4 times, gradually extending the phrase from 2 notes to six to seven. However, he never repeats the instrumentation or registration, which means the players never get to settle in. First, he gives us (building form the bottom) 2 clarinets in octaves, one oboe an octave above the 1st cl and piccolo and octave above that. Next, bass clarinet and cor anglais in octaves, then a pair of flutes in unison and octave above the cor. Then bassoons in octaves with 1st oboe above them. Pity the poor first oboe- first he or she must match the round articulation of the clarinet, and link that dark sound to the brightness of the piccolo. The next time they play, they must match the spikier articulation of the bassoons, balance to their brighter sound, and they’re the top octave rather than a joining part. The last entrance is bass clarinet, cor, oboe and piccolo, yet again, a new combination, requiring minute adjustments of balance, breathing and articulation.

For a conductor, this opening is as much a challenge of psychology as anything else. A good wind section may be so sensitive and perceptive that they can nail this opening, but what if they can only nail 99.9% of it? In something so exposed, confidence is everything. If it’s not perfect, do you take it apart and tune it and rehearse it? Do you give a more emphatic gesture? These might help perfect it, or they might start to lessen people’s confidence. It’s possible the players don’t realize just how hard it is until they start working on it- by the concert, you can convince them that it is harder than they ever knew. On the other hand, you really don’t want someone to realize at the gig for the first time that it is hard, or to get nervous and cause problems that nobody is prepared for. It really is one of those passages that demands you know and trust your players- what works for one orchestra might be completely unhelpful for another.

CD’s can totally blind us to what it takes to play something like this- after all, it sounds simple. If you know the piece only from recordings, you might only have ever heard it perfectly. On the other hand, I’ve probably heard forty or more live Mahler 1’s, in performances by groups ranging from Berlin and the Concertgebouw to youth orchestras and amateur groups. I think I’ve only heard it nailed twice live, and wasn’t necessarily nailed by the groups you would have expected. Should this make you want to huddle at home next to your CD player?

No- Mahler knew this opening was uniquely hard (he conducted the piece several times) and yet never simplified it. That tells us he must have wanted us to be aware of the difficulty, of the fragility of this music. Mahler once compared this movement to Spring, and if you think of these first notes as the fragile first shoots of green after a long winter, the difficulty and risk seems an indispensable part of the music. Such an impulse is not unusual for Mahler- he wrote the opening of the symphony’s 3rd Mvt for solo bass specifically because he knew it would sound like a struggle.

So, that gives us one example of a challenge in this piece? What of the riddles?

Stay tuned


Remember, Mahler doesn’t always want music to “succeed”

I’m conducting Mahler 1 on February 6th. I hope some of you will join us.

*In 1964, Herbert Borodkin, violist with the New York Philharmonic from 1904-09, recalled that Mahler “used a lot more vibrato than most conductors do today. He insisted on it. He asked for it. When you played a melodic tune, you would have to use a lot of vibrato and sing, as he called it.”

The Views expressed in these postings are solely those of the author, and may not reflect the policies and opinions of any other organization, including The Bridgewater Hall or its resident orchestras.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 1, a challenge”

  1. Steve Hicken

    Thanks for this, Ken. Your explanation of what you have to do to make the opening section sound is very vivid.

    However, what really struck me about this post is your description of Mahler’s place in orchestral culture now as opposed to 30-40 years ago. Back then, it was necessary to place Mahler in the context of the compositional world of his time as well as in (the then) current repertoire. Now, Mahler IS the context.

  2. jay bright

    I enjoyed Wm Boughton’s M 2nd with the New Haven Symphony last night and was pleased to find your discussion from the conductors’ & players’ perspectives!

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