Mahler Symphony No. 1
The Horizon of Enchantment
I first heard Mahler’s music when I was thirteen. It was a delight and, I must say, a shock to hear it for the first time. The First Symphony presented a vision of enchantment. The nature sounds of the opening, the calls of horns in the distance—all of this seemed to create in music a wide horizon over which an entire world of sound was stretched. I felt myself in an enormous landscape, a landscape of music within which the whole dance of human experience and feeling was occurring. Surprisingly, in this landscape I recognized my own feelings and immediately felt myself a part of this world.
The First Symphony shows Mahler at his most characteristic and vulnerable— for here he makes an enormous symphony out of the sonic stuff we all know from our lives. He uses bird calls, the sounds of military bands, folk, salon, and cabaret music. He evokes the sound of voices singing, whispering, humming, and shrieking—all things we recognize as part of the range of human experience. Mahler was like a cinematographer in music, creating enormous soundscapes that include everything we know of life.
Mahler’s first three symphonies are in a sense salvation symphonies, based on the model of works such as Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth. These are works that start in a mysterious or tragic mood and progress toward transfiguration. His First Symphony concerns the voyage from a lonely contemplation of nature to a radiant assuredness about man’s place in the universe. From a spiritual point of view, it is one of the most confidant first symphonies in Western music.
—Michael Tilson Thomas