Symphony guide: Mahler’s First

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Gustav Mahler

The Austrian composer's first symphony meshed the imagination and narrative of the symphonic poem with the architectural cohesion of earlier models. His crazily ambitious project changed the genre for ever.

It's one of the most spellbinding moments of symphonic inspiration in the 19th century: the opening of Gustav Mahler's First Symphony. It's not a theme, an idea, a melody, or a rhythm, but a state of being: a seven-octave-spread A, played as quietly and ethereally as possible by the strings, a shimmer of sonority that sounds out the whole compass of the orchestra. It's the symphony as space as much as time, and whatever its familiarity to us 21st century sophisticates, when we hear this music, we should try and recreate some of the sense of wonder that audiences at the piece's premiere in Budapest in 1889 must have felt, when Mahler - not yet 30 - conducted the symphony.

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