Symphony No. 1 in D Major

Gustav Mahler

Born in Kalischt, Bohemia, July 7, 1860; died in Vienna, May 18, 1911


When Gustav Mahler, age 29, premiered his First Symphony in Budapest on November 20, 1889, the audience responded with tepid applause and scattered boos. At subsequent performances in Berlin and in Vienna the reaction was even more negative. Only audiences in Prague and in Amsterdam (where Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra were creating a Mahler clique) applauded warmly.

Before we start feeling smug about our superiority to those benighted audiences a hundred years ago, consider what kind of music they were used to hearing. Works contemporary with Mahler's First include Brahms' Fourth Symphony (1885), Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony (1886), Dvorák's sunny Eighth (1889), and Tchaikovsky's super-Romantic Fifth (1888). Now forget about all the 20th-century music you've heard, time travel back to 1889, and consider how you might have reacted to Mahler's musical mood swings, daring orchestral sounds, searing dissonances, and shocking mixture of popular and classical idioms if these were the symphonies you were accustomed to. For in what was probably the most remarkable and daring first symphony ever written (only Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique can match its shock value), Mahler revealed himself as fully and radically himself.

Strangely, Mahler had expected an easy success. As he later told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner: "Naively, I imagined it would be child's play for performers and listeners, and would have such immediate appeal that I should be able to live on the profits and go on composing." Yet he was also fully aware of the originality of his artistic vision. Of his first two symphonies he wrote: "My whole life is contained in them: I have set down in them my experience and suffering … to anyone who knows how to listen, my whole life will become clear, for my creative works and my existence are so closely interwoven that, if my life flowed as peacefully as a stream through a meadow, I believe I would no longer be able to compose anything."

When Mahler was composing this work, he would have dearly loved to have been able "to live on the profits," for he was leading a rather precarious existence. There were no summers off or peaceful cottages deep in the woods for him then, and any composing he accomplished had to be done in odd hours, often late at night. He jumped rapidly from one opera house to another, as assistant and eventually conductor. But, despite his unquestioned talent, he found keeping a job difficult. Obstinate and uncompromising, he made a bad subordinate. Symphony No. 1 was composed during the winter of 1887-88 in moments stolen from his work as co-conductor of the Leipzig Stadttheater; by May, he had been forced to resign. By September he had signed a contract with the Royal Opera House in Budapest, but that too lasted little more than a year.

The symphony the Budapest audience heard was different from the one we hear today. Already an innovator in matters of symphonic form, Mahler had originally created a five-movement work divided into two sections: the first comprising the opening movement, a slow movement titled "Blumine" that he eventually tossed out, and the Scherzo second movement; the last, the Funeral March and the fiery finale. He called it a "Symphonic Poem." The subtitle "Titan," after a novel by Jean Paul Richter, was later added, then dropped as Mahler grew uneasy with having non-musical programs attached to his symphonies. Unsatisfied, he returned many times to revise this work: reducing it to the conventional four movements and refining its orchestration. The version we hear now is his last word from 1906.

Mahler admitted to a friend Max Marschalk that the work was inspired by a passionate love: "The symphony begins where the love affair ends; it is based on the affair which preceded the symphony in the emotional life of the composer." Who was the lady? In 1884, Mahler wrote a song cycle for baritone or mezzo and orchestra: Songs of a Wayfarer. It was perhaps inspired by a thwarted affair with a soprano in Kassel, Johanna Richter, and two of its songs figure prominently in this symphony. But the lady might also have been Marion von Weber, the wife of a prominent Leipzig citizen; this scandal probably hastened Mahler's departure from that city.

Mahler marked the slow introduction to the first movement as "Wie ein Naturlaut" — "like a sound of nature." He compared it to life awakening on a beautiful spring morning. A quiet pedal on A, stretched from highest violins to lowest basses, hovers expectantly. Gradually little motives come to life: a pattern of descending fourths in various woodwinds (the interval of the fourth is central to this work), a military fanfare on the clarinets (Mahler grew up in a army garrison town), woodwind bird calls. Then the tempo accelerates, the key solidifies onto D major, and we hear in the cellos the jaunty walking theme of the second song of the Wayfarer cycle in which the disappointed lover strides out into the countryside to drown his grief in nature's beauty. Notice how parts of the theme are tossed chamber-music style from instrument to instrument; this is a Mahler trademark you will hear throughout the work. Later, the walking song returns and gradually builds to a big climax, the only loud moment in this subtle movement. En route to this climax, listen for a series of heavily accented, downward swoops in the violins; this anguished music will return much later in the symphony's finale.

Movement 2 is a robust peasant ländler dance based on the composer's 1880 song, "Hans und Grethe," and likely inspired by his rural Bohemian childhood. The clattering sounds are the violas and cellos striking the strings with the wooden part of their bows. The trio section is very sentimental, even a little boozy, with lurching glissandos for the strings and some tipsy dissonant harmonies for the woodwinds.

The funeral-march third movement in D minor is what really outraged Mahler's first audiences, for it mixes tragedy and levity, "vulgar" music with "serious" symphonic themes in a schizophrenic manner unique to this composer. The stifled sound of a muted solo bass lugubriously introduces the German children's song "Brüder Martin" (better known as "Frère Jacques") as a funeral dirge, which spreads solemnly in canon through the orchestra. Then Mahler abruptly launches an incongruous episode of up-tempo popular music c. 1880, mingling traces of klezmer with the schmaltz of a Hungarian gypsy cafe. And then amid all this craziness, he offers up a lyrical section in G major of great peace and loveliness, using the melody of the last of the Wayfarer songs, in which the unhappy lover finds solace under a linden tree.

"The cry of a wounded heart" (Mahler's description) assaults us in the screaming, violently dissonant opening of the finale. Hysteria reigns for many moments, only to yield unexpectedly to peace: one of Mahler's most beautiful spun-out melodies shared between the cellos and violins. The frenzy returns, but trumpet fanfares hint of triumph to come. But first we return to the slow morning music with which the symphony began. In a final struggle, the heavy downward-swooping violin motive from that movement finds resolution in the trumpet victory theme. Following Mahler's instructions, the seven horn players rise to their feet and play "as if to drown out the entire orchestra" in one of the most thrilling endings in the symphonic repertoire.


Instrumentation: Four flutes, two piccolos, four oboes, English horn, four clarinets, piccolo clarinet, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.


Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2014