Mahler Symphony No. 1 Program Notes
When he completed his first symphony, 28-year-old Gustav Mahler was the second conductor of Leipzig’s opera house, working his way up the fairly meritocratic German opera house system. This system continues today: opera houses are ranked, with conductors and singers rising if they excel. Mahler was in Kessel before, and his next appointment would be in Prague. Extraordinarily talented as a conductor and administrator, Mahler would rise to the top within seven years, as director of the Vienna Court Opera (therefore also leading the same musicians who make up the Vienna Philharmonic, and serving the empire that ruled most of central and Eastern Europe until World War I).
During his tenure in Vienna, Mahler would need to take summers off to compose, but in Leipzig, he had time to write this symphony alongside his rehearsal and performance responsibilities. He initially called it Titan: A Tone Poem in the Form of a Symphony, drawing a plot to the hefty novel 1800 novel by Jean Paul Richter (sometimes Jean Paul). Mahler and members his generation with the same kind of Liberal Arts education he’d received appreciated Titan for its casual references to wider culture. Early in the book, for example, it refers to a ghostly “grave digger’s scene” (Hamlet) and “lands of future inheritance… a sort of Botany Bay” (Britain’s settlement of Sydney, 12 years earlier). In some ways Titan echoes Voltaire’s 1759 Candide - a young man’s journey of discovery and self-discovery also serves as a vehicle for philosophical criticism of current movements. Voltaire criticized the Age of Reason, and Jean Paul certain Romantic philosophers. English-speaking readers can now find the 1864 translation by Boston-area Unitarian minister Charles Brooks, online at Project Gutenberg.
First Movement: Langsam. Schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut. Slowly. Trailing. Like the sound of nature
The symphony opens nearly inaudibly, with a unison “A” hum in the strings, spread across seven octaves. (As the tuning note of an orchestra, A begins every performance, and is also the dominant note in the Symphony’s key of D.) This very soft opening gives way to the sound of birds, and distant hunters - offstage trumpets.
The symphony’s innovations are framed by classical form: a new section, marked “very leisurely,” emerges, and traditional first-movement Sonata form, becomes clear. Mahler quotes his orchestral song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer, the melody from the opening song, I walked this morning over the fields - concerning the waking natural world and its joy. Only the song’s last line reveals the sadness of the poet, who can’t rejoice.
Although Mahler follows the classical Sonata form, it is compromised by literary allusions, and ends obstreperously, as do some of the novel’s chapters (or “Jubilees,” as Jean Paul obtusely calls them).
Second Movement: Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell. Strong movement, but not too quickly
This vigorous scherzo seems to poke fun at the Minuets of dim nobles. The softer, Trio section is genteel, suggesting sensuous Viennese waltzing. While Mahler was not yet working in Vienna, he had studied there, aged 15-18 at a Conservatory then at Vienna University, and knew Waltz style well.
At some louder moments, Mahler instructs wind players to raise their instruments into the air while playing. Mahler surely knew, as musicians will normally agree, this doesn’t raise their volume (since most of the sound comes out the front), but makes it a little more difficult. It’s likely the undeniably effective visuals of raised wind instruments were Mahler’s intention.
Third Movement: Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen. Solemn and measured, without dragging
In his (later abandoned) program, Mahler identified this movement with an Austrian children’s story, in which forest animals undertake a hunter’s funeral procession, with musical cats and Bohemian musicians providing musical assistance. Mahler uses a round, based on the children’s song known in English as Brother John, or Frère Jacques in French, to suggest mortality, by setting it into a minor key. Mahler, himself, was exposed to infant mortality - of his parents’ 14 children, seven survived infancy.
Whether Mahler was thinking of the hunter’s funeral for this movement or not, his musical influences probably derive from his own childhood. His father’s brewery/distillery was in Iglau, a mining town about 100 miles north of Vienna, but in the Kingdom of Bohemia. Now within the Czech Republic, the town is called Jiklava.
Michael Tilson Thomas, in his PBS documentary series “Keeping Score,” visits Jiklava and its town square, commenting “this enormous great square right in the middle of [the town - ] down every street another little destination of his life with its own special flavor - the synagogue that way, his parents’ house and tavern that way, the church where he was a chorister that way, the school he attended every day that way. In this space all the richness of all the military music - the drills - the parades - all the different bands, [would have been] competing with one another.”
Fourth Movement: Stürmisch bewegt. A stormy tempo
One of the qualities that make Mahler’s symphonies resonate with audiences is the way he bridges the gap between absolute music (a symphony with no obvious plot) with tone poems (where a plot is provided by the composer). It’s problematic in a piece like Titan, since he removed the plot in favor of an absolute music title (in 1890: Symphony in D).
This movement’s original title was From Hell to Paradise, in Italian, Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso, to reference both Dante Alighieri and Liszt’s Dante Symphony. Long after removing the title, he relayed this plot to his friend, violinist Nathalie Bauer-Lechner:
“The last movement, which follows the preceding one without a break, begins with a horrible outcry. Our hero is completely abandoned, engaged in a most dreadful battle with all the sorrow of this world. Time and again he and the victorious motif with him is dealt a blow by fate whenever he rises above it and seems to get hold of it, and only in death, when he has become victorious over himself, does he gain victory. Then the wonderful allusion to his youth rings out once again with the theme of the first movement.”
Not only is F minor significant to Liszt’s symphony, it is also a stormy key in many other works, including Beethoven’s Op. 95 String Quartet (Serioso). In the first movement of the Beethoven, and in this Symphony the second melody is in D-flat major, meant to evoke Paradise. Some listeners may find echoed in the Adagietto love letter to Alma Mahler in his Fifth symphony.
Approaching its end, the movement returns to the first movement’s Naturlich material, before ending with an exceptionally joyous final minute, built on the descending fourth intervals which were present for the symphony’s opening moments.
Born: July 7, 1860, Kaliště, Czechia
Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria