So Mahler was not cuckoo, after all

So Mahler was not cuckoo, after all


norman lebrecht

November 18, 2021

Further to yesterday’s lively tweeting on this site, we have received this impressive contribution from Matthijs Boumans, editor of Mahler Nieuws, organ of the Gustav Mahler Society in the Netherlands.

Matthijs has excavated a Dutch article from 1904 by Jac. P. Thijsse, a well-known Dutch conservationist:

Eerst riep hij behoorlijk ‘koekoek’ met een interval van een kleine terts of groote terts, juist als de koekoeksklokken en koekoeksliedjes. Maar langzamerhand werd de terts tot seconde.

First (in May,) he properly whistles ‘cuckoo’ with an interval of a minor third or major third, just like cuckoo clocks and cuckoo songs do. But slowly the third became a second.

Naarmate de zomer vordert, roepen zij minder, het geluid wordt meer kort en heesch, de interval grooter, zoodat ge in Juni en Juli wel kwarten en kwinten te hooren krijgt.

As summer proceeds, (the cuckoos) whistle less, the sound becomes shorter and husky, the interval is larger, so in June and July you can hear fourths and fifths.

So Mahler got it right in his First Symphony.

Here‘s another discussion of Mahler and the cuckoo.



  • Frank says:

    The less said about Mahler, the better. Listening to his drivel is bad enough.

    • Stan says:

      Frank, you don’t have to listen, you have a mind of your own, don’t you?

    • KANANPOIKA says:

      Well, Frank, no one is forcing you to listen to Mahler.

      I’ve always been drawn to the man’s music, but I take a comment by Wolfgang
      Sawallisch with a grain of salt and
      a bit of humour. He was once asked why he programmed so
      little Mahler. He responded: It’s like witnessing an old man fumbling for his keys at his front door.

  • Bird songs can vary quite a bit within a species. They can change from year to year and from bird to bird.

    The songs seem to be learned rather than instinctive so the opportunity for alteration is quite large.

  • MR says:

    Glad to see confirmation of Panchama, the fifth! The opening of Brown Earth by Laura Nyro invariably evokes the opening of the Mahler First Symphony.

  • Gustavo says:

    Mahler was a parrot and a peacock.

    Copying from Hans Rott and displaying completely exaggerated ornaments in his eights symphony.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Give it up, NL. Going on about bird intervals is not going to make converts out of the numerous snarky doubters you harbor at this site. Anyway, there’s no reason everyone should like the same music – it would be a boring world if they did. I think a more interesting conversation about the first symphony, would center around the fact that it does contain the ‘darkness to light’ narrative-trope that was so characteristic throughout much of Mahler’s output. However, it’s contained only within the finale – making it something of a ‘symphony within a symphony’ (a feature that Mahler would embrace again and again). That, and the fact the first symphony originally had an intermezzo type, second movement (“Blumine”), just as the second and third symphonies do have (in the 7th symphony, the ‘intermezzo’ morphed into a pair of separated Nocturnes). Only, “Blumine” was dropped because it greatly disrupted the obvious continuity from the end of the first movement, straight on into the scherzo. It’s interesting to me that in recent times some conductors have reinstated “Blumine”, or performed it as a separate adjunct to the program. Why not! – it’s lovely sounding. Now THERE’S something we can all argue about. Besides, Messiaen took the bird business a whole lot farther.

  • John Borstlap says:

    This means two things:

    1) Mahler heard the cuckoo in midzummer;

    2) Cuckoos are bad in solfeggio.

  • christopher storey says:

    Interesting that there’s not been a single mention of Delius : his cuckoo certainly reproduced the call of the one we hear occasionally ( shortly after dawn) in April/May

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    It’s interesting how a couple of notes can produce so lively a debate.