Composer's life: Born in Kalištĕ, Bohemia, July 7, 1860; died in Vienna, May 18, 1911
Year completed: First version, 1889. Final revision, 1906.
First performance: Budapest, November 20, 1889 (5-movement original version), Mahler leading the Budapest Philharmonic
First BSO performance: Symphony Hall, Boston, November 23 and 24, 1923, Pierre Monteux conducting
The score of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 calls for 4 flutes (3 of them doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet, 2 doubling E-flat clarinet), 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 (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses).
Gustav Mahler’s first contribution to the genre of the symphony, which he was to dominate and change drastically, took an unusually long gestation period to reach its final form. His first two symphonies seem to have changed character in the composer’s mind over a period of years and several performances; he may have begun active composition on the First Symphony as early as 1884. Much of the concentrated work of shaping the score in its first version took place under the impetus of Mahler’s troubling involvement with a married woman, Marion Mathilda von Weber, the wife of a German soldier, Captain Carl von Weber, who was the grandson of the composer of the popular opera Der Freischütz, Carl Maria von Weber. Mahler and Marion even planned to run away together, but in the end, Mahler did not show up at the appointed rendezvous. He poured the emotional energies thus released into compositional activity, completing the work that we now call the First Symphony and writing the first movement of what we now call the Second.
But Mahler was not prepared to call either piece a symphony; in his mind, both of them were symphonic poems, that is, program music with some kind of story to tell (whether made explicit or not). It took him several versions to recognize that he was in fact making a contribution to the most prestigious of all orchestral forms. At the premiere of the First in Budapest on November 20, 1889, the work had five movements (not the present four), arranged into two large parts. And, though he indicated that the work was a “symphonic poem,” he gave no hint as to its nature or subject matter. The critics, though recognizing Mahler’s “profound sensitivity and genuine musical gifts, combining a wealth of lively imagination with highly developed powers of organization,” still found the work to overstep “artistic moderation” and to “lack a unifying underlying note.” Evidently Mahler decided that he needed to offer more guidance to his listeners, though in his next performances—in Hamburg and Weimar, in 1893 and 1894, respectively—he went rather overboard with programmatic description. Now the work itself had a title (“Titan, a tone-poem in symphonic form”), as did each of the two parts and five movements, while the fourth movement was treated to a virtual essay.
This was clearly overkill. When Mahler performed the work in Berlin in 1896, he gave it a form substantially like that in which we know it. No longer is it a tone poem, but a “Symphony in D for large orchestra.” He deleted the division into two parts, removed the original second movement (the “Blumine” movement), and deleted the programmatic titles, for reasons he explained to the critic Max Marschalk in 1896: “[M]y friends persuaded me to provide a kind of program for the D major symphony in order to make it easier to understand. Therefore, I had thought up this title and explanatory material after the actual composition. I left them out for this performance, not only because I think they are inadequate and do not even characterize the music accurately, but also because I have learned through past experiences how the public has been misled by them.”
Mahler had drawn his discarded programmatic ideas from the works of a favorite German romantic author, Jean Paul (the pen name of Johann Paul Friedrich Richter [1763-1825]), whose best-known novel, a massive work in four volumes called Titan (completed in 1803), dealt with a heaven-storming idealist whom Mahler clearly sought to emulate in referencing him as the title for his symphony. The odd title “Flower-, Fruit-, and Thorn-pieces” that Mahler gave to Part I in 1893 derived from another Jean Paul book, the eccentrically titled Flower-, Fruit-, and Thorn-pieces, or The Marital Condition, Death, and Wedding of the Advocate for the Poor F. St. Siebenkäs (1796-97). And in eliminating the “Blumine” movement, he did not do so simply to reduce the work to the standard four movements of a symphony; rather, he came to realize that the musical material for that movement, derived from incidental music he had composed for J.V. Scheffel’s play Der Trompeter von Säckingen, simply was not part of the sound-world of his Symphony No. 1. But since Mahler himself insisted that he had invented all the explanations for his piece only after the fact, we can conveniently ignore them when considering the symphony as a work of art.
Thus, for all practical purposes, we have a symphony in the “traditional” four movements—though very untraditional in so many aspects of its content and expressive quality. Mahler’s introduction takes its cue, in his own way, from Beethoven, growing gradually from almost nothing (“like a sound of nature,” he says of the opening bars, containing but the single pitch, the dominant A, spread over seven octaves), followed by fragments of melody—bird calls, fanfares, a horn melody. The “cuckoo call” that appears so frequently is a descending fourth, an interval that forms one of the most constant musical ideas of the symphony. Gradually all of this takes coherent shape and picks up tempo, suddenly presenting us with a melody familiar from the Songs of a Wayfarer: “Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld,” which becomes the principal material of the first movement, reappearing several times with its emotional quality affected by the character of the linking materials, particularly of the single powerful climax of the movement.
The A major scherzo, a comfortable Austrian Ländler straightforward enough to assure that even the first audiences would like it, conjures up the vigor of a peasant dance, with reference to Mahler’s own song “Hans und Grete,” composed in 1880. The Trio, in F, is far more nostalgic and delicate by contrast.
The third movement unsettled most early listeners. Mahler’s ironic treatment of death was too new and too disturbing. Timpani softly play a march beat, reiterating the descending fourths that are so frequent a motif in this symphony; over the rhythmic pattern, a solo double bass eerily intones the melody we have all sung as “Frère Jacques”—but in the minor mode! The hushed stillness, the muffled drums, and the use of a children’s tune in this context all contribute to the uncanny mood of the movement. By contrast a strain of what listeners today may recognize as “klezmer” overlays the march with an unexplained mood of parody. A turn to a consoling passage in G major (the closing strains of the Wayfarer Songs, representing a gentle acceptance of death) does not last; the opening materials return to emphasize death as a fearsome specter.
Mahler once described the finale as “the cry of a wounded heart,” a description that is particularly apropos for the opening gesture of the movement. This finale aims to move from doubt and tragedy to triumph, and it does so first of all through a violent struggle to regain the home key of the symphony, D major, not heard since the first movement. Mahler first does so with an extraordinary theatrical stroke: a violent, gear-wrenching shift from C minor directly to D major in the full orchestra, triple-forte. But this “triumph” has been dishonestly won; it is completely unmotivated, in harmonic terms, too jarring, too unsatisfactory. So even though this passage seems at first to be the victorious conclusion, it ends in a return to the inchoate music of the symphony’s very opening, this time building gradually to the truly jubilant conclusion, for which Mahler requests that all the horns, playing the “chorale resounding over everything,” stand up so that the melody may make its proper effect and, if possible, drown out everything else with the song of joyous triumph.
Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.