For the Record with George Ellis

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Symphony No1 in D Major by Gustav Mahler

by George Ellis

In my years of undergraduate and master’s-level music training, music by Gustav Mahler was inexplicably not taught. I first came across Mahler’s 1st symphony at National Music Camp in 1994 where I participated in the ABC National Conducting Program. Gianluigi Gelmetti, our tutor, performed this piece with the symphony orchestra at this camp in Melbourne. At rehearsals, I fell in love with the symphony. From then on, I have wanted to conduct it.


Symphony no.1 symbolises Mahler’s struggle with peace and happiness in his life. He was close with his immediate family but these relationships were often volatile. He often fought with people whom he worked for as well. He was often unhappy with life. The heart-wrenching sections in D minor in the symphony represent these dark moods.

The third movement in particular, the famous minor version of Frère Jacques, portrays the depths of despair he often felt. The hauntingly beautiful muted-violin section in G major only leads to the main theme in Eb minor, a particularly dark key – until it returns to the original key of D minor to finish the movement.


 But then in this symphony, Mahler also expressed the joys of life. This is evident in the second movement, in the dominant key of A major – a minuet-like Ländler which is a glorious dance. It shows that Mahler experienced great happiness in his life as well. To this end, the final movement, which begins with a neurotic series of loud percussive bangs from the brass and percussion sections – as if to highlight the turmoil of life – ends with the most triumphant melody in glorious D major. Once Mahler arrives at D Major, about two-thirds of the way through the last movement, he does not let it go. We stay in triumphant D major until the end. It’s as if he is saying he never wants to feel unhappy again and holds on to this glorious sound as long as he can. It is a spectacular finish to a symphony – reminiscent of Beethoven’s final symphony.

As Musical Director of the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra (SUSO) from 2006, it was my ambition to program Mahler’s 1st symphony. But the piece calls for large instrumental forces: for example 4 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, 7 French horns, 2 sets of timpani and so on. We weren’t able to perform the piece on our own, as we did not have these forces.


However in 2008, I was asked to guest conduct the University of New South Wales Symphony Orchestra and the thought came to me to combine SUSO with UNSWO in order to perform the Mahler. I thought to myself, we have 2 flutes, they have 2 flutes – there’s the 4. We have 3 French horns, they have 4, there’s the 7 French horns. We have a set of timpani, they have a set, so we have 2 sets, as needed in the score. And so on.




With the UNSWO membership being 75, and SUSO the same amount, we combined the 150 players and performed the symphony in the Great Hall at Sydney University in 2012. It received a standing ovation led by the Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Karl Kramer, who, as guest speaker, also gave a wonderful introduction to the piece.


In the final glorious D major section, I put my music stand down and just conducted from memory in a state of utter euphoria. I finally realised my dream of conducting this amazing symphony.


It will remain an unforgettable experience.


George Ellis


October 2014 




This portrait of George by acclaimed artist Evert Ploeg was hung at the NSW Art Gallery as finalist in the 2007 Archibald Prize and won the People’s Choice award in Sydney and Melbourne for that year.

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