Mahler, Gustav: Symphony Number 1 in D

By the end of the first semester of my sophomore year in college in 1974, I had pretty much had it with my dorm. Nowadays, I recognize that my own aloofness had a large role to play in this. Even I have a tendency to label as a nerd someone who lives too much in an effete, overly intellectual world, cut off from others. At the same time, I believe it was Henry Steel Commager who first wrote about the anti-intellectual streak in us Americans. And I can’t honestly say that my fellow dorm mates would have voted me Mr. Congeniality.

Take Saturday nights. That was a bigger party night than Fridays, since you didn’t have classes to get in the way of your spending the day stoned, finding where the good parties would be, or buying booze for your own bash. I usually spent the day in the library and would come home to unwind preferably with a martini. If I wanted to be gregarious, I’d put on some classical piece and magnanimously open my door as an invitation to my fellow dorm mates to come in for a chat. One such night as I sat, maybe listening to today’s piece, the guys down the hall were having a terrific rave-up. On a trip to the communal toilet, I ran into one of the guys who, drunk, lit into me with a salvo of invectives.

“You’re so superior! You think you’re better than anyone else. You never join in.”

I was non-plussed. I never actively harbored any grudges against them as people; I just got mad at them when they interfered with my sleep. I tried to explain to him that I harbored him no ill-will, indeed that I thought he and his chums were quite likeable and only wished him well. He blinked and his friends dragged him away.

Later that evening back in my room, one of them, noted for his clownish drunken behavior, stumbled down the corridor and seeing my open door stopped and fell flat on his face in my doorway. His friends stood in the hallway laughing. He turned his face skyward to me and said “Hi Kurt!” and started to go green. “Hey, get him out of here!” I yelled to them. “He’s going to puke!” but it was too late, and he spilled the contents of his stomach on my carpet.

So you can imagine how excited I was shortly thereafter, when my French teacher, Starr, told me about a dorm called the French House. It was situated in an old part of campus dedicated to graduate dorms, and like the Spanish, Russian, German houses it was a place where you were supposed only to speak a foreign language.

I went along and paid a visit to the dorm, which was a long, low two-story edifice built during the Second World War for G.I.s studying languages. The language houses sat in a small meadow, clustered around a small creek, and it had a nice pastoral feeling about it. You had to apply, and Starr recommended me, so I got an interview with the admission board. I didn’t speak French very well, which they soon noticed, so they asked me why I wanted to live there. That was easy–I couldn’t afford a junior year abroad, so I wanted to live there to learn French. They accepted me, and that made living in my hi-rise dorm for the rest of the semester bearable.

Now thinking back on the pastoral setting of the French house, Mahler’s Symphony Number 1 in D seems kind of fitting. Written between Mahler’s 24 and 28th years, it is an astoundingly mature work, even if he manages to weave in some very naïve themes. This work for me has strong natural associations. Perhaps it is the use of a two-note, cuckoo motive in the first movement or the other twiddly bits in that movement that make me think of a walk in the woods or a sunny meadow. Mahler entitled the first movement, “Spring without End,” which means he was trying to evoke the wonder of nature in his musical images.

To me the entire symphony is full of surprises. In the fourth movement he builds an entire orchestral fugue around the theme, “Frere Jacques. In the third movement, he uses the familiar theme, “Three Blind Mice,” and later he launches off into a march led by a clarinet that sounds a bit like a Klezmer band. He also borrows from himself, using a theme in the first movement from his own “Songs of a Wayfarer.” The last movement sometimes seems a bit over the top in its full blown, almost hyper Romanticism. Hey, but who isn’t full of swagger in their late teens and early twenties? From what I’ve said above, you know I can’t go pointing any fingers.

Mahler Biography

Download MP3s or buy CD of Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

4 Responses to Mahler, Gustav: Symphony Number 1 in D

  1. BugsDeRoo says:

    When you began your “dorm”ant tale of woe, I thought you were speaking of life at la maison, but then you clarified the context. When in Mahler’s piece did the young man explore the “Green Period” to which you refer in your story?


  2. kvennarad says:

    Mahler has never really been my ‘bag’, although I do know (this movement of) this symphony. To me it is wholly Jewish. The Klezmer tune emphasises rather than introduces this element. The Jewish input to European ‘high’ culture has been impoverished – almost totally eradicated – since the early-mid 20c. No need to say how come, but it has left Europe bereft of some colour.

    I would like to share a little piece of Romanian-Jewish music with you. This ‘Doina’ is supposed to be played at a wedding feast, with the intention of making the bride cry, so that her eyes will look beautiful as they fill with tears.


    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks, I’ve heard this on another recording by a Klezmer orchestra. Even though I always liked Mahler’s 1, and the Adagio from his 5, I didn’t really truly appreciate him until I heard the soprano movement from his 3rd symphony. (3rd or 4th movement). She sings a poem you probably know.


  3. susanissima says:

    Entertaining, as always, sir. Thank you.


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