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Symphony No. 1

About the Work

Gustav Mahler
Quick Look Composer: Gustav Mahler
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Dotian Levalier, harp/Mahler's First Symphony Jun. 7 - 9, 2007
© Richard Freed

The composition of his First Symphony occupied Mahler from 1885 to 1888; he conducted the premiere in Budapest on November 20, 1889, and revised the score four times between then and 1907. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on March 7 and 8, 1950; Leonard Slatkin conducted the most recent one, on June 25, 2005, at Wolf Trap.

The score calls for 4 flutes and 2 piccolos; 4 oboes and English horn; 3 clarinets, piccolo clarinet and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, tam-tam, harp, and strings. Duration, 52 minutes.
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When Mahler introduced his First Symphony, in the second month of his second season as director of the Budapest Opera, the work was not billed as a symphony, but under the title "Symphonic Poem in Two Parts," and there were five movements, one more than we hear in the present concerts. Part I comprised the first two movements as we know them now, but separated by an Andante which Mahler eventually dropped from the score. Part II was made up of the last two movements, headed À la pompes funèbre and Molto appassionato, respectively, and played without pause. The premiere was not anyone might call a success. There was booing as well as polite applause, and the critic Viktor von Herzfeld, one of Mahler's close friends, did not let that friendship get in the way of a tirade he summed up with the observation, "All of our great conductors . . . have themselves eventually recognized, or have proved, that they were not composers. . . . This is true of Mahler also."

The movement that gave the most offense was the penultimate one, the Funeral March that begins with the double bass intoning a minor-key variant of a familiar tune (the nursery song known in French as "Frère Jacques" and in German as "Bruder Martin")and proceeds through a chain of exotic motifs, rhythms and colors such as never heard or imagined in a symphony before. This section was said to reflect both Jewish and Gypsy influences. One of the tunes in the tender second section, which Mahler had used in 1884 for "Die zwei blauen Augen," the last of his four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer"), is virtually identical with a Jewish liturgical theme that was well known in Central Europe at the time, and may represent a boyhood recollection on the composer's part.

Whatever its source, this tender theme must have been the least distressing part of the Funeral March movement to the work's early audiences. As Mahler's biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange notes, however, that at the time the First Symphony was composed "the emotions he needed to express were so overpowering that he was not much concerned with his future listeners' reactions."

Four years after the Budapest premiere, when Mahler conducted his First Symphony in Hamburg, where he had become director of the Opera in 1891, he sought to make it more accessible by giving descriptive titles to the work as a whole (Titan, evidently after the novel by Jean Paul, though Mahler said the music had no relation to the book), to its two large divisions, and to each individual movement. By then (1893) he had revised the work twice, eliminating the Andante in the first and restoring it in the second. Part I now bore the title "From the Days of Youth" and its component movements were headed "Spring without End," "Blumine" (another title taken from the works of Jean Paul, usually rendered in English as "Flower Piece" or "A Chapter of Flowers"), and "Under Full Sail." In Part II, titled "Commedia humana," the movements were headed "Funeral March after the Manner of Callot" and "Dall' Inferno al Paradiso." The Funeral March was still puzzling to the audience, if no longer offensive. Later the same year Mahler elaborated on the titles of the movements, heading the problematic one "Stranded," and describing in some detail the well known woodcut which had the piece. Actually by Schubert's friend Moritz von Schwind, though attributed by Mahler to Jacques Callot, it was called The Hunter's Funeral, and depicted a coffin borne through the woods by animals of the field in solemn procession, with smaller animals and birds singing to the accompaniment of a band of Bohemian musicians.

Eventually Mahler abandoned the notion of using any titles at all. From 1894 onward he called the work simply "Symphony in D major (No. 1)," and in 1896 he permanently discarded the Blumine movement, which he had adapted from a serenade he composed in Kassel in 1884 as part of a series of tableaux vivants based on Victor von Scheffel's pageant-play Der Trompeter von Säckingen. Scheffel's play, introduced in 1854, was enormously successful; in the 1870s both the forgotten Hans Kaiser and Brahms's friend Berhard Scholz wrote operas based on it, and in May 1884, just a month before the presentation of Mahler's tableaux vivants in Kassel, Victor Nessler's operatic treatment, with a libretto by Rudolf Bunge and some input from Scheffel himself, was given its premiere in Leipzig. Nessler's folk-flavored opera quickly became as popular as the play itself and Mahler was obliged to conduct it several times, his distaste for it deepening with each performance.
Curiously, although Mahler eliminated all descriptive titles from the score of his First Symphony, he did permit his confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner to give the critic Ludwig Karpath a fairly detailed program for the work in its four-movement form, which was printed in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt on the occasion of the Viennese premiere in 1900 (by which time Mahler had moved from Hamburg to the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera). This program described "a strong, heroic man, his life and sufferings, his battles and defeat at the hands of Fate," a scenario "conceived and composed from the standpoint of a defenseless young man who easily falls prey to any attackers." It may be summarized as follows:

The first movement evokes a "dionysiac feeling of jubilation . . . in the midst of Nature, in a forest where the sunlight of a lovely day sparkles and shimmers." The sprightly tune that grows out of the mysterious opening is that of "Ging heut' morgen übers Feld," the first of the Wayfarer songs. At the end "the hero bursts out laughing and runs away."

In the second movement "the young man roams about the world in a more robust, strong and confident way." This is more or less a szherzo, in the form of a Ländler, the rustic Austrian forerunner of the waltz whose echoes are found in the works of Schubert and Bruckner. In the trio Mahler borrowed from another of his own songs, "Hans und Grethe," this one not from the Wayfarer cycle.

The Funeral March, already described, is not so much a lament as a picture of "biting irony," in which "all the coarseness, the mirth and the banality of the world are heard in the sound of a Bohemian village band, together with the hero's terrible cries of pain." The movement's dying measures are broken off by the "terrifying shriek" that beings the finale, an eruption Mahler described further as "the outburst of a wounded heart."

In a letter to Bruno Walter, his former assistant and subsequently his chief apostle, Mahler, who by then had introduced seven of his symphonies and was taking up his duties with the New York Philharmonic, wrote, "Both the Funeral March and the storm that breaks out immediately afterward strike me as burning accusations hurled at the Creator." According to the 1900 scenario, the

hero is exposed to the most fearful combats and to all the sorrows of the world. He and his triumphant motifs are "hit on the head again and again" by Destiny. . . . Only when he has triumphed over death, and when all the glorious memories of youth have returned with themes from the first movement, does he get the upper hand, and there is a great victorious chorale!

The theme of that chorale, which appears for the first time in the middle of the final movement and returns in the great heaven-storming coda, would appear to echo the phrase "And He shall reign for ever and ever" in the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel's Messiah. To a certain generation of listeners, however, it may suggest itself as having been adapted by the composer known as Mana-Zucca (née Augusta Zukerman, 1887-1981), who happened to have been born at the time Mahler was composing his First Symphony, for her song "I Love Life," once a familiar baritone encore piece. That title, in any event, might serve as a motto for this enduringly inspiriting symphony.