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Marches Madness: Mahler's Twisted Nursery Rhyme

It's Marches Madness! Throughout this month, we're posting some of our favorite marches — from the concert hall, opera stage and parade ground. Got one we should hear? Played any yourself? Let us know in the comments section.

It's not every day a nursery rhyme gets hijacked by a funeral march and a klezmer band.

But then not everyone has the slightly warped mindset of Gustav Mahler, who somehow thought that plunking the children's round "Frère Jacques" into the funereal third movement of his very first symphony would impress the public.

The pulse of Mahler's march is set by two soft, alternating notes on the kettledrum. The melody, contorted into a minor key, is handed first to a solo double bass. A bassoon picks it up, then a tuba and a flute. Quietly building momentum, the tune is passed around the orchestra, with occasional sardonic commentary from the oboe.

Later, the melody is elbowed out of the way, as if Mahler, in a nod to his Jewish roots, ushers in a raucous klezmer band to sashay through the orchestra. And, for good measure, he inserts a quote from a morose song, "The Two Blue Eyes of My Darling."

It's all ingeniously creepy, but Mahler's early audiences were baffled. Crafting a funeral march out of a children's song was simply distasteful. Like serving champagne with donuts.

Today, Mahler's Symphony No. 1 ranks as one of the most game-changing (and mind-blowing) first symphonies by any composer — thanks largely to one twisted little funeral march.

The 2009 performance here features conductor Gustavo Dudamel in his first official concert as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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