The ink was barely dry on the score of Symphony No. 1 in 1888 when Mahler began to toy with the idea of a new large symphonic work in c. The opening movement was soon completed and named Todtenfeier (Funeral Ceremony), but it then languished among his papers until 1891, the year in which he left the Budapest Opera to become conductor in Hamburg. There he attracted the attention of the great conductor Hans von Bulow (1830-1894), well known as a champion of new music. When Mahler played him Todtenfeier on the piano, however, Bulow covered his ears and groaned: “If what I have heard is music, I understand nothing about music. […] Compared with this, Tristan is a Haydn symphony.”

Todtenfeier (or Totenfeier, Funeral Rites) in its original, intentionally archaicizing orthography, thus betraying its clear sympathies with project of early 19th century Romanticism, is a tone poem written in 1888 that was later re-orchestrated substantially and subject to a few other musical revisions (subtly changed key relationship, deletions of a few bars here and there) to become the first movement of Symphony No. 2.  

Mahler’s Todtenfeier (as he spelt the title) was originally conceived in 1888 as the first movement of a new symphony in C minor; up to that time he had written no large-scale work since his early cantata Das klagende Lied in 1880.

At the urging of Marion von Weber, the wife of the famous composer’s grandson, Mahler returned to composing in Leipzig, which led to the first of the Wunderhorn lieder and the works we know today as the Symphony No. 1 and the first movement of the Symphony No. 2 in C minor.

After completing the latter work, Mahler wrote a programme draft for the first movement:

“At the grave of a beloved person. His struggle, his suffering and desire pass before the mind’s eye. Questions obtrude: what does Death mean? – is there a continuation?”

Mahler conducted the Totenfeier as an independent work only once, on 16 March 1896 in Berlin, viz. after the premiere of the complete Symphony No. 2.

Mahler evidently still had poetical associations with this composition. The programme also featured the Songs of a Wayfarer and the First Symphony; his confidant Natalia Bauer-Lechner recalls, “The substance of all these numbers is so painful and tragic that Gustav himself said: anyone who has heard that must be quite devastated” […].

On that occasion, the Todtenfeier was indubitably played from the handwritten performance material (score and parts) which had been used for the full symphony the previous December; the programme bills the work “Todtenfeier (1st movement from the Symphony for large orchestra in C minor).”

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