Rustic Instruments

Mahler's Origins: A "Sonic Goulash"

The many folk traditions Mahler encountered gave him a rich source of songs, dances, and legends.
“The Bohemian music of my childhood home has found its way into many of my compositions.”
VIDEO:Mahler's evocation of a folk instrument
  • Mahler introduces the funeral march of the third movement with a bass solo whose sound evokes a more primitive folk instrument, the bass fiddle. The town of Iglau was renowned for the famous fiddles made there. Moreover, Mahler would have witnessed an interesting local custom at the end of Fastnacht (Fasching), the dances and parties that precede Lent. At the stroke of midnight, the bass fiddle was dressed up in old women’s clothes, and buried, to the sound of a funeral march.

VIDEO:MTT on the meaning of this movement

This movement was inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Fantasy Pieces in the Manner of Callot, a collection of supernatural stories that was also to influence Carl Jung’s theory of the “collective unconscious.” It was also partly inspired by a famous engraving, “The Huntsman’s Funeral,” that depicts a procession of forest animals bearing the dead body of their enemy, the hunter.

Mahler's Methods

VIDEO:SFS principal bass Scott Pingel on his approach to playing the bass solo in Mahler’s First Symphony
Dressed as Strangers
  • Mahler underscored the importance of tone color to aesthetic impact when he wrote about the Funeral March of his First Symphony: “In the March movement the instruments are disguised and go round dressed as strangers. Everything has to sound deadened and muffled, as if ghosts were parading past us. Making sure that each new entry of the canon theme comes over distinctly, with a surprising tone color that attracts attention, caused me a real headache! Eventually I got the instrumentation right, resulting in that weird, otherworldly effect you noticed today. And I don’t think anyone has yet managed to work out how I achieve it.”

Related Examples
Funeral Rites

Both Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies raise the question of whether Mahler intended his music to have particular extra-musical meanings. Throughout his life, Mahler struggled with whether and how to explain his music to the public. He originally named his First Symphony the Titan, and gave the movements the following titles:
—Spring without end
—A chapter of flowers
—With full sails
—Stranded! A funeral march in the manner of Callot
—From hell to heaven, as the sudden expression of a deeply wounded heart.
By the time of the music’s publication in 1898, he had withdrawn the second movement as well as these titles. Yet he returned to explanation in the Second Symphony, expounding his concept that the hero of the First Symphony is borne to his grave in the funeral music of the Second and that “the real, the climactic dénouement [of the First] comes only in the Second.”

Related Examples
Fairy Tales
  • Scary and spooky folk tales were an important thread in Mahler”s childhood experience. His first large-scale work, Song of Sorrow (Das Klagende Lied), is based on a story of a man who kills his brother, only to be confronted at his own wedding by the accusing voice of the dead man sounding from a flute made of bone: "A miracle, what now began, what strange and sorrowful singing! It sounds so sad and yet so beautiful. Whoever hears it wants to lose himself in sorrow! Oh sorrow, sorrow!"

Related Examples