GUSTAV MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D major

Gustav Mahler was born at Kalische (Kalište) near the Moravian border of Bohemia on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. He did most of the work on this symphony in February and March 1888, using some older material. He revised the score extensively on several occasions; the second, and last, edition published during Mahler’s lifetime was dated 1906. Mahler himself conducted the first performance of the work, then in five movements and called “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts,” with the Budapest Philharmonic on November 20, 1889. He eliminated the original second movement (“Blumine”) after a June 1894 performance in Weimar. The Symphony is scored for four flutes (three of them doubling piccolo), four oboes (one doubling English horn), four clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet, two doubling high clarinet in E-flat), three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), seven horns, five trumpets, four trombones, bass tuba, timpani (two players), bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, harp, and strings.

Mahler poured his emotional energies into completing the First Symphony and took an unusually long time to finish the work. At the time, Mahler thought of the work as a programmatic symphonic poem as opposed to a symphony. Yet, despite titling what we now know as his First Symphony a “symphonic poem,” Mahler gave no hint regarding the subject matter of the work. The title of the fourth movement signals that it is a funeral march, but, sonically, it appears to be a parody of a funeral march, and not a real funeral march. Mahler gave no explanation for this. Understandably, one critic recognized Mahler’s “genuine musical gifts,” but found the work overstepped “artistic moderation” and lacked “a unifying underlying note.”

The first version of the work is now lost. For the second version Mahler composed, performed in 1893, Mahler offered more guidance. In fact, he went overboard with programmatic description. He gave the work a title, “Titan,” which Mahler derived from the title of a massive four-volume novel by the German romantic author Jean Paul—the pen name of Johann Paul Friedrich Richter. Then, when he performed the work in Berlin in 1896, he gave it a form markedly similar to the one we know today. No longer was the work a tone poem, but a “Symphony in D for large orchestra.” He removed the original second movement and deleted the programmatic titles. As he wrote to a friend in 1896, he had learned from unhappy experience how misleading programmatic titles were, as each listener interprets titles in a different way.

So for all practical purposes we have a traditional symphony that is very untraditional in its content and expressive quality. The introduction takes its cue from Beethoven, growing gradually from almost nothing (“like a sound of nature,” Mahler says of the opening bars, containing that single A spread over seven octaves), followed by fragments of melody—bird calls, fanfares, a horn melody. The “cuckoo call” that appears frequently is a descending fourth, an interval that forms one of the most prominent musical ideas in the Symphony. Hints of human intrusion in the form of distant fanfares gradually grow more assertive. Suddenly we are presented with a melody similar to the Songs of a Wayfarer, “Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld,” which becomes the principal material of the first movement.

The A major scherzo, a comfortable Austrian Ländler liked at once by even the first audiences, conjures up the vigor of a peasant dance, with reference to Mahler’s own song “Hans und Grethe” from his Lieder und Gesänge, composed in 1880. The Trio, in F, is by contrast far more nostalgic and delicate.

The third movement unsettled most early listeners, who found Mahler’s ironic treatment of death disturbing. Timpani softly plays a march beat, reiterating the descending fourths; over the rhythmic pattern, a solo double bass eerily intones the melody we have all sung as Frère Jacques—but in the minor key! The hushed stillness, the muffled drums, and the use of a chil-dren’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 music” 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 suitable for the opening gesture. This finale aims to move from doubt and tragedy to triumph, and it does so first through a violent struggle to regain the home key of the Symphony, D major, not heard since the first movement. Mahler does so with an extraordinary theatrical stroke: a violent 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, harmonically jarring. So this passage 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 all else with the song of joyous triumph. —© Steven Ledbetter