SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now some music by Gustav Mahler.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

SIMON: This is a recording of Mahler's "Symphony No. 1 in D Major," performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. It's a work the maestro describes as exhilarating, an epic journey. The BSO will perform the piece later this month. And Marin Alsop joins us from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore to talk us through Mahler's "Symphony No. 1." Maestro, thanks so much for being with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, pleasure to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Please put this work in some historical context for us because I guess there's a lot happening every year, but there was particularly a lot happening in Mahler's life in the world when it was written.

ALSOP: Well, you know, what a time to have lived at that turnover from the 19th into the 20th century. I mean, just think of what was going on. Einstein is about to propose his, you know, his original theory of relativity. That's 1905. Or the use of the word automobile is first coined in 1897. The Wright brothers make their first successful flight in 1903, first movies, first subways, and most importantly, plastic and Oreos were invented, you know.

SIMON: I believe in the same cookie, if I'm not mistaken.

ALSOP: Right, there you go. And they never looked back after that.

SIMON: We've been listening to the first movement. Let's hear a little more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

SIMON: This is kind of a walk through the woods, isn't it?

ALSOP: Isn't it nice? It's very pleasant and sunny and sounds like spring time. And, you know, it really belies the enormity of this piece and what's about to happen and the fact that Mahler even gave it the subtitle - he only used it for the first two performances - but the Titan, modestly, as he always did, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

SIMON: Let me ask you about the second movement 'cause when we think of Viennese composers, obviously we often think of - some of us think of famous waltzes. The first symphony plays right into that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

ALSOP: It's so Viennese, isn't it? I mean, you just - you can feel the beer flowing and the coffee going. And you know, for Mahler, popular music of his day, these waltzes and marching band music, things from, you know, outdoors that he would have heard, these really informed every single piece of music he wrote. And he integrated all of this popular music into his ginormous symphonies.

SIMON: And there's kind of - he has sort of a dark twist on a children's song?

ALSOP: Yes, well, this is the movement that caused the huge uproar and controversy. And everyone said when they heard this, this guy is crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

SIMON: We're listening for "Frere Jacques" now. Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?

ALSOP: (Laughing).

SIMON: That is not a cheery version.

ALSOP: It is not at all. And really, people were so offended by this idea of, first of all, you know, darkening this children's song to this degree. But then, you know, using this as the main material for a serious symphony movement was, you know, it was beyond what people could comprehend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

SIMON: Later in the movement, I gather, we hear kind of a suggestion of Mahler's heritage.

ALSOP: Well, Mahler was a Jew living in this time which was quite a, you know - as so often sadly has been, quite a difficult moment in history. And he - you know, he was trying to come to terms, obviously, with his own heritage. And he even converted to Catholicism in an effort to further his own career. Yet that Jewish heritage was present, especially in the music he wrote. You can hear, it almost sounds like a klezmer band at one point in this slow movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

SIMON: One more movement, and let's just - let's just tell everyone, hunker down. Strap yourselves in for this one.

ALSOP: Yeah, look out. Fasten your seatbelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

SIMON: Wow, what was the reaction when people heard that?

ALSOP: I know. Crazy, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: Well, of course, you know, people had been lulled a little bit by this "Frere Jacques" march. And when the last movement blasts out like that - he calls for it to scream, he actually writes in the score - apparently there was - it was first performed in Budapest, and there was a woman who apparently just jumped out of her seat and screamed. So it was, I think, exactly the effect that Mahler wanted to have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

SIMON: Marin, Gustav Mahler was a conductor. What is it like to conduct a piece by a composer who's also - who was also on the podium?

ALSOP: Mahler changed the way people looked at conducting. He was the consummate conductor. And I think because he understood what it felt like to be inside the music, the music he writes for us conductors who follow is so thrilling. You know, it's like, I'm trying to think of what it would be - I imagine it would be like being a lion tamer, you know, and you have a dozen wild animals that you have to get under control. And it goes from that kind of crazy, trying to keep everything within your grasp to, you know, walking up to one of your favorite lions and petting it and, you know, caressing it. That's the gamut it runs. I mean, it's always a little bit of danger, though.

SIMON: Marin Alsop will lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's "Symphony No. 1 in D Major" later this month. Maestro, thanks so much.

ALSOP: Pleasure to be here, Scott. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN D MAJOR")

SIMON: And you can read an essay by Marin Alsop about Mahler's first symphony and hear her conduct that music on our website, NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.