Creatures of the Landscape

Mahler's Origins: A "Sonic Goulash"

Throughout his life, Mahler returned to the natural environment for inspiration.
“My music is always the voice of nature sounding in tone…”
VIDEO:Creating an orchestral cuckoo

“Even as a child I was struck by birdsong.”

Calls of various birds, real and invented, permeate Mahler’s musical world.

  • In the First Symphony, bird-call motifs are the basis of several themes. The call of the cuckoo appears many times, both as a thematic germ and as a sort of musical exclamation mark.

First Symphony Introduction: Moving on
  • The first time we hear the cuckoo, three quick, raucous cuckoo calls from the clarinet heighten our attention and prod the music into a quicker pace, representing the gradual awakening of the landscape.

Mahler's Methods

VIDEO:Mahler’s orchestral cuckoo
A Special Cuckoo

Why does Mahler change the call of the cuckoo?

  • Compare a call of the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus, 2011)

  • with its depiction in a harpischord piece (Daquin, 1720)

  • with the bird cadenza in the Pastoral Symphony (Beethoven, 1806)

  • with this folk song (Austria, before 1900)

  • and finally with Mahler’s repeated call in the First Symphony (1887)

Related Examples
The Fourth
  • The interval of the fourth unites many themes in Mahler’s first symphonic movement. To allow it to emerge naturally from the falling fourths in the violins, Mahler portrays the cuckoo call with this same interval, which gradually becomes the basis of the movement’s main theme.

Related Examples