Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

GUSTAV MAHLER

BORN: July 7, 1860. Kalischt (Kaliště), near Humpolec, Bohemia (now Czech Republic)

DIED: May 18, 1911. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED: Mahler did most of the work on this symphony in February and March 1888, having begun to sketch it in earnest three years earlier and using material going back to the 1870s. He revised the score extensively on several occasions. The work is played this afternoon according to the second, and last, edition published during Mahler’s lifetime and dated 1906

WORLD PREMIERE: November 20, 1889. Mahler himself conducted the first performance of the work, then called Symphonic Poem in Two Parts, with the Budapest Philharmonic

US PREMIERE: December 16, 1909. Mahler introduced the symphony, by then in its final four-movement form, at a New York Philharmonic concert

INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes (3 doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet, 2 doubling high clarinet in E‑flat), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, bass tuba, timpani (2 players), bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam‑tam, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 53 mins

THE BACKSTORY Once, contemplating the failures of sympathy and understanding with which his First Symphony met at most of its early performances, Mahler lamented that while Beethoven had been able to start as a sort of modified Haydn and Mozart, and Wagner as Weber and Meyerbeer, he had the misfortune to be Gustav Mahler from the outset. He composed this symphony, surely the most original First after the Berlioz Fantastique, in high hopes of being understood, even imagining that it might earn him enough money so that he could abandon his rapidly expanding career as a conductor—a luxury that life would never allow him. But he enjoyed public success with the work only in Prague in 1898 and in Amsterdam five years later. The Viennese audience in 1900, musically reactionary and anti-‑Semitic to boot, was singularly vile in its behavior, and even Mahler’s future wife, Alma Schindler, whose devotion to The Cause would later sometimes dominate a concern for truth, fled that concert in anger and disgust. One critic suggested that the work might have been meant as a parody of a symphony. No wonder that Mahler, completing his Fourth Symphony that year, felt driven to mark its finale “Durchaus ohne Parodie!” (With no trace of parody).

The work even puzzled its own composer. No other piece of Mahler’s has so complicated a history and about no other did he change his mind so often and over so long a period. He changed the total concept by canceling a whole movement, he made striking alterations in compositional and orchestral detail, and for some time he was unsure whether he was offering a symphonic poem, a program symphony, or just a symphony.

When Mahler conducted the first performance with the Budapest Philharmonic in November 1889, he billed it as a “symphonic poem” whose two parts consisted of the first three and the last two movements. (At that time, the first movement was followed by a piece called Blumine, which Mahler later dropped.) A newspaper article the day before the premiere outlined a program whose source can only have been Mahler himself and which identifies the first three movements with spring, happy daydreams, and a wedding procession, the fourth as a funeral march representing the burial of the poet’s illusions, and the fifth as a hard-‑won progress to spiritual victory.

When Mahler revised the score in January 1893, he called it a symphony in five movements and two parts, also giving it the name Titan after a novel by Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763-‑1825), a key figure in German literary Romanticism and one of Mahler’s favorite writers. But by October he announced the work as TITAN, a Tone Poem in the Form of a Symphony.

Before the Vienna performance in 1900, Mahler again leaked a program to a friendly critic, and it is a curious one. First comes rejection of Titan, as well as “all other titles and inscriptions, which, like all ‘programs,’ are always misinterpreted. [The composer] dislikes and discards them as ‘anti-artistic’ and ‘anti-musical.’” There follows a scenario that reads much like an elaborated version of the original one for Budapest. During the nineties, when Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben had come out, program music had become a hot political issue in the world of music. Mahler saw himself as living in a very different world from Strauss, and he wanted to establish a distance between himself and his colleague. At the same time, the extra-‑musical ideas would not disappear, and he seemed now to be wanting to have it both ways. There was no pleasing the critics on this issue. In Berlin he was faulted for omitting the program and in Frankfurt for keeping it.

THE MUSIC Mahler writes “Wie en Naturlaut” (Like the sound of nature) on that first page, and in a letter to the conductor Franz Schalk we read, “The introduction to the first movement sounds of nature, not music!” Fragments detach themselves from the mist, become graspable, coalesce. Among these fragments are a pair of notes descending by a fourth, distant fanfares, a little cry of oboes, a cuckoo call (by the only cuckoo in the world who toots a fourth rather than a third), a gentle horn melody.

Gradually the tempo quickens to arrive at the melody of the second of Mahler’s Wayfarer Songs (one of the most characteristic, original, and forward-‑looking features of this movement is how much time Mahler spends not in tempo but en route from one speed to another). Mahler’s wayfarer crosses the fields in the morning, rejoicing in the beauty of the world and hoping that this marks the beginning of his own happy times, only to see that no, spring can never, never bloom for him. But for Mahler the song is useful not only as an evocation but as a musical source, and he draws astounding riches from it by a process, as Erwin Stein put it, of constantly shuffling and reshuffling its figures like a deck of cards. The movement rises to one tremendous climax, and the last page is wild. Most important, however, and constant is another of the features to which Mahler drew Schalk’s attention: “In the first movement the greatest delicacy throughout (except in the big climax).”

The scherzo is the symphony’s briefest and simplest movement, and also the only one that the first audiences could be counted on to like. Its opening idea comes from a fragment for piano duet that may go back as far as 1876, and the movement makes several allusions to the song “Hans und Grethe,” whose earliest version was written in 1880. The trio, set in an F major that sounds very mellow in the A major context of the scherzo itself, contrasts the simplicity of the rustic, super-‑Austrian material with the artfulness of its arrangement.

The funeral music that follows was what most upset audiences. The use of vernacular material presented in slightly perverted form (the round we have all sung to the words “Frère Jacques,” but set by Mahler in a lugubrious minor); the parodic, vulgar music with its lachrymose oboes and trumpets; the boom‑chick of bass drum with cymbal attached; the hiccupping violins; the appearance in the middle of all this of part of the last Wayfarer song, exquisitely scored for muted strings with a harp and a few soft woodwinds—people simply did not know what to make of this mixture, how to respond, whether to laugh or cry or both. They sensed that something irreverent was being done, something new and somehow ominous, that these collisions of the spooky, the gross, and the vulnerable were uncomfortably like life itself, and they were offended.

Mahler likened the opening of the finale to a bolt of lightning that rips from a black cloud. Using and transforming material from the first movement, he takes us, in the terms of his various programs, on the path from annihilation to victory, while in musical terms he engages us in a struggle to regain D major, the main key of the symphony, but unheard since the first movement ended. When at last he re-enters that key, he does so by way of a stunning and violent coup de théâtre, only to withdraw from the sounds of victory and to show us the hollowness of that triumph. He then goes all the way back to the music with which the symphony began and gathers strength for a second assault that does indeed open the doors to a heroic ending and to its celebration in a hymn in which the horns, now on their feet, are instructed to drown out the rest of the orchestra, “even the trumpets.”—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(May 2019)