The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1 in D major "Titan"

About the Work

Photo of Gustav Mahler Composer: Gustav Mahler
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

"To write a symphony means, to me, to construct a world with all the tools of the available technique," wrote Gustav Mahler. The World in a Symphony-the experiences, qualities and meaning of life enfolded in tone. Mahler, the most ardent of the Romantics in his belief in the bond between human existence and music, spent his career pursuing this lofty aim. He once said, "My whole life is contained in them [i.e., the first two symphonies]: I have set down in them my experience and my 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." Mahler certainly had a full share of rocks and rapids in the stream of his life: deaths of loved ones, including a child, only weeks apart; a critical heart condition that precipitated his premature death at the age of 50; severe bouts of depression that led him to seek the counsel of Sigmund Freud; and great difficulties in finding acceptance for his works. Though those experiences were still in the future when he wrote this First Symphony, Mahler nevertheless embodied profound thoughts and emotions in this early work. Written during his tenure as conducting assistant to the great Arthur Nikisch at Leipzig, the D major Symphony reflects Mahler's concerns with romantic love, with establishing himself as a creative artist, and with finding a musical language proper to express his inner turmoil.

Though he did not marry until 1902, Mahler had a healthy interest in the opposite sex, and at least three love affairs touch upon the First Symphony. In 1880, he conceived a short-lived but ferocious passion for Josephine Poisl, the daughter of the postmaster in his boyhood home of Iglau, and she inspired from him three songs and a cantata after Grimm (Das klagende Lied "The Song of Lamentation") that contributed thematic fragments to the Symphony. The second affair, which came early in 1884, was the spark that actually ignited the composition of the work. Johanne Richter possessed a numbing musical mediocrity alleviated by a pretty face, and it was because of an infatuation with that singer at the Cassel Opera, where Mahler was then conducting, that not only the First Symphony but also the Songs of the Wayfarer sprang to life. The third liaison, in 1887, came as the Symphony was nearing completion. Mahler revived and reworked an opera by Carl Maria von Weber called Die drei Pintos ("The Three Pintos," two being impostors of the title character), and was aided in the venture by the grandson of that composer, also named Carl. During the almost daily contact with the Weber family necessitated by the preparation of the work, Mahler fell in love with Carl's wife, Marion. Mahler was serious enough to propose that he and Marion run away together, but at the last minute she had a sudden change of heart and left Mahler standing, quite literally, at the train station. The emotional turbulence of all these encounters found its way into the First Symphony, especially the finale, but, looking back in 1896, Mahler put these experiences into a better perspective. "The Symphony," he wrote, "begins where the love affair [with Johanne Richter] ends; it is based on the affair that preceded the Symphony in the emotional life of the composer. But the extrinsic experience became the occasion, not the message of the work."

The "message" of this work, and of all Mahler's symphonies, is that life comprises a countless number of feelings and sensations, a ceaseless ebb and flow of sentiments gliding together, combining, then disappearing in the marvelous complex of the emotional life of the individual. In each of his symphonies, this world of experience is mirrored in a wide spectrum of musical styles, from child-like simplicity to transcendent profundity- folksong beside fugue, parody beside pathos, tempest beside tranquility. Mahler spread wide the boundaries of the symphony as a form, as had Beethoven a century earlier, to include an unprecedented wealth of emotion within a single work. Of his initial foray into the genre, he wrote, "My First Symphony will be something of which the world has never heard the like before."

The Symphony begins with an evocation of a verdant springtime filled with the natural call of the cuckoo (solo clarinet) and the man-made calls of the hunt (clarinets, then trumpets). The main theme, which enters softly in the cellos after the wonderfully descriptive introduction, is based on the second of the Songs of a Wayfarer, Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld ("I Crossed the Meadow this Morn"). This engaging, folk-like melody, with its characteristic interval of a descending fourth, runs through much of the Symphony to provide an aural link among its movements. The first movement is given over to this theme combined with the spring sounds of the introduction in a cheerful display of ebullient spirits into which creeps an occasional shudder of doubt.

The second movement, in sturdy triple meter, is a dressed-up version of the Austrian peasant dance known as the Ländler, a type and style that finds its way into most of Mahler's symphonies. The simple tonic-dominant accompaniment of the basses recalls the falling fourth of the opening movement, while the tune in the woodwinds resembles the Wayfarer song. (Note particularly the little run up the scale.) The gentle trio, ushered in by solo horn, makes use of the string glissandos that were so integral a part of Mahler's orchestral technique.

The third movement begins and ends with a lugubrious, minor-mode transformation of the European folk song known most widely by its French title, Frére Jacques. It is heard initially in an eerie solo for muted string bass in its highest register, played above the tread of the timpani intoning the falling-fourth motive from the preceding movements. The middle of the movement contains a melody marked "Mit Parodie" (played "col legno" by the strings, i.e., tapping with the wood rather than the hair of the bow), and a simple, tender theme based on another melody from the Wayfarer songs, Die zwei blauen Augen ("The Two Blue Eyes"). The mock funeral march of this movement was inspired by a woodcut of Moritz von  Schwind titled How the Animals Bury the Hunter from his Munich Picture Book for Children.

The finale, according to Bruno Walter, protégé and friend of the composer and himself a master conductor, is filled with "raging vehemence." The stormy character of the beginning is maintained for much of the movement. Throughout, themes from earlier movements are heard again, with the hunting calls of the opening introduction given special prominence. The tempest is finally blown away by a great blast from the horns ("Bells in the air!" entreats Mahler) to usher in the triumphant ending of the work, a grand affirmation of joyous celebration.

"The Symphony has the typically unique power," summarized Bruno Walter, "which the youthful work of genius is able to exert by means of its superabundance of emotions, by the unconditional and unconscious courage to use new ways of expression, and by the wealth of invention. It is alive with musical ideas and the pulse beat of fervent passion."