The Symphony No. 1 in D major by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was mainly composed between late 1887 and 03-1888, though it incorporates music Mahler had composed for previous works. It was composed while Mahler was second conductor at the Leipzig Opera, Germany.
Although in his letters Mahler almost always referred to the work as a symphony, the first two performances described it as a ‘Symphonic poem’ or ‘Tone poem’.
The work was premiered at the Vigado (large hall) Budapest in 1889, but was not well received. See 1889 Concert Budapest 20-11-1889 – Symphony No. 1 (Premiere).
Mahler made some major revisions for the second performance, given at Hamburg 1893 Concert Hamburg 27-10-1893 – Symphony No. 1, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Premieres). Further alterations were made in the years prior to the first publication, in late 1898.
Some modern performances and recordings give the work the title Titan, despite the fact that Mahler only used this label for two early performances, and never after the work had reached its definitive four-movement form in 1896.
In its final form, the symphony has four movements:
The movements are arranged in a fairly typical four-movement setup. Normally, the Minuet-Trio is the third movement and the slow movement the second, but Mahler has them switched, which was also sometimes done by Beethoven. The keys are D major for the first movement, A major for the second, D minor for the third, and F minor for the last, with a grand finale at the end in D major. The usage of F minor for the last movement was a dramatic break from conventional usage.
For the first three performances (Budapest, Hamburg and Weimar), there was an additional movement, Blumine (‘Flower piece’), between the first and second movements of the piece as it now stands. This movement was originally written in 06-1884 as the opening number ‘Ein Ständchen am Rhein’ in Mahler’s incidental music for a series of seven tableaux vivants based on Joseph Victor von Scheffel (1826-1886)‘s poem ‘Der Trompeter von Säckingen’, which, Blumine aside, has since been lost.
The addition of this movement appears to have been an afterthought, and Mahler discarded it after the Weimar performance in 1894, and it was not discovered again until 1966 when Donald Mitchell (1925-2017) unearthed it. The following year, Benjamin Britten conducted the first performance of it since Mahler’s time at the Aldeburgh Festival.
The symphony is almost never played with this movement included today, although it is sometimes heard separately. In the 1970s, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra made the first recording of the symphony by a major orchestra to include Blumine. Currently some 20 recordings exist that include Blumine; however, most of them combine it with the revised edition of the other movements, thus making a “blended” version of the symphony that was at no time authorised by Mahler.
Nevertheless, Mahler quotes the main theme from the Blumine movement in the final movement, as well as other themes from the other movements, so it is more in keeping with Beethoven’s own practice in his ninth symphony of quoting themes from the first, second, and third movements early in the final movement. (Beethoven gives the impression of rejecting the earlier themes, after he quotes them, and then introduces the famous ‘Ode to Joy’ theme.)
Interestingly, the five-movement version generally runs around an hour, just as Mahler’s later symphonies (except for the fourth symphony) are an hour or longer in length. Mahler actually followed a precedent, established by Beethoven in his ninth symphony and by Anton Bruckner in many of his symphonies, of lengthier, more detailed development of the themes, usually resulting in a performance time of an hour or more.
Under this early five-movement scheme, the work was envisioned by Mahler as a large symphonic poem in two parts, and he wrote a programme to describe the piece, but without adding any further title for the 1889 Budapest premiere. The first part consisted of the first two movements of the symphony as it is now known plus Blumine, and the second consisting of the funeral-march and finale.
For the 1893 Hamburg and 1894 Weimar performances, Mahler gave the piece the title Titan after the novel by Jean Paul (1763-1825), although Mahler specified that the piece was not in any way ‘about’ the book; the nickname is often used today, but properly only applies to those two versions.
The opening of the third movement features a double bass soloist performing a variation on the theme of “Frère Jacques”, distinguishing it as one of the few symphonic pieces to use the instrument in such a manner. Mahler uses the song, which he cites as ‘Bruder Martin’, changed from major to minor, thus giving the piece the character of a funeral march. The mode change to minor is not an invention by Mahler, as is often believed, but rather the way this round was sung in the 19th and early 20th century in Austria.
Mahler’s symphony as ultimately published exists in the traditional four-movement form. The first movement is in modified sonata form. The second is a scherzo and trio based on a Ländler, a traditional Austrian waltz. The third is a slower funeral march, and the fourth serves as an expansive finale. Initially, there existed an additional 2nd movement, entitled Blumine but it was removed by Mahler for the final publication in 1899.
In the first performances, the following program notes were attributed to the symphony:
Part I: From the days of youth, ‘youth, fruit, and thorn pieces’:
- Spring and no end. This introduction describes the awakening of nature at the earliest dawn.
- Flowerine Chapter (Andante).
- Set with full sails (Scherzo).
Part II: Commedia umana:
- Stranded. A funeral march in the manner of Callot.
- Dall’inferno al Paradiso, as the sudden expression of a deeply wounded heart.
These programmatic notes were dropped starting with the 1896 performance in Berlin, because Mahler did not want the audience to be misled by such notes and their inherent ambiguities.
Lied in the symphony
One of the most important marks that Mahler left on the symphony as a genre is the incorporation of another important genre of the 19th century; the German lied. In his first symphony, Mahler borrowed material from his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, thus innovating the symphonic form and potentially answering questions about programmatic and personal elements in the music.
Although some of Mahler symphonic predecessors experimented with lyricism in the symphony, Mahler’s approach was much more farreaching. Through the use of the second lied of his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen cycle, Lied 2: Ging heut’ Morgen uber’s Feld, we can see how the composer manipulates the song’s form to accommodate the symphonic form.
Within the symphonic movement, the ‘Ging heut’ Morgen’ melody is a bright exposition in contrast with the slower and darker introduction. Although the song plays a similar role in the song cycle, being surrounded by darker-themed songs, Mahler changes the order of the strophes as originally found in the song. Of the three verses, the more relaxed third verse is used at the beginning of the exposition, whereas the more chromatic and rhythmically active first and second verses are found in the closing section, helping build the energy to the end of the exposition.
In the third movement of the symphony, the quotation of the Lied 4: Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz demonstrates the subtlety with which Mahler combined the two genres. Within this funeral march, we can see the composer’s union of form and meaning, and also elements of a programme.
In the last verse of the song cycle, the speaker acknowledges the painlessness of death, saying, “(under the linden tree) I knew not how life fared, (there) all was good again!” This melody is employed as a countermelody to the ‘Frère Jacques’ theme in the minor mode, but the counterpoint that Mahler uses is unconventional, and the two melodies are never properly consolidated.
This unresolved counterpoint has been interpreted as a conflict between the ‘Frère Jacques’ theme’s Catholic implications and the, Jewish klezmer qualities of the “Die zwei blauen Augen” theme, thus alluding to a social conflict of which Mahler was very aware.
The subtlety and implications of Mahler’s incorporation of the Gesellen song into the funeral march bring us to the issue of programme. The composer’s ideas about programmatic content are not concrete.
The matter of subjectivity comes up when discussing what meanings Mahler intended the lieder to bring to the orchestral work. Looking at the programmes that he provided, one can see many connections between the song cycle and the symphony’s programmatic elements, but then it must also be taken into consideration that Mahler later removed the programmes.
Among this uncertainty though, it is clear that some narrative elements that are associated with the poet and composer of a lied were transferred from the song cycle to the symphony. The lack of words, makes it much more difficult for the composer to be subjective in the symphony, so a more universal message must be found. The composer’s comments about the ‘world’ that a symphony creates seems to reinforce this idea.
- 001-054 Introduction in F minor (Stürmisch bewegt) [Stormily moving]: Inferno.
- 055-142 First complex of themes in F minor (Energisch) [Energetic]: Inferno.
- 143-166 Sequences of swelling brass sounds (Mit großer Wildheit) [With great ferocity]: Inferno.
- 167-174 Transition.
- 175-237 Secondary section in D-flat major (Sehr gesangvoll) [Very songlike].
- 238-253 Epilogue in D-flat major (Langsam) [Slowly]: Recall of the slow introduction of the main section and inferno motif.
- 254-289 First part in G minor (As at the beginning).
- 290-316 First statement of the “victorious” motif in C major, pianissimo.
- 317-369 Second part in C minor.
- 370-427 Second entrance of the “victorious” motif (Pesante) (Modulation from C major to D major) and Chorale theme in D major (Paradiso).
- 428-457 Recall of motif of the main section (very slow); Mahler, “wundervoller Anklang an die Jugend des Helden” [“wonderful allusion to the hero’s youth”].
- 458-532 Secondary section with transition in F major.
- 533-573 Main theme in F minor (Tempo I): the Inferno image now has been moved to the distance (ppp).
- 574-622 Intensification of material from the main section.
- 623-695 Höchste Kraft (Utmost strength): breakthrough, third occurrence of the ‘victorious’ motif and Chorale theme in D major (Paradiso).
- 696-731 Coda.
Score New York
Mahler last conducted his own First Symphony on 1909 Concert New York 16-12-1909 – Symphony No. 1 and 1909 Concert New York 17-12-1909 – Symphony No. 1, when he led the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO/NPO) in the work’s United States premiere.
After his death in 1911, the score that he used in those performances remained in the Philharmonic Orchestra’s Library and was stamped accordingly. It was used in later Philharmonic performances, and bears markings by Bruno Walter in 1933 (see note on top of the title page: “49 minutes B.W.”) and Leonard Bernstein in 1959 or 1962 (see page 3, bottom left corner: “L.B.” among others.