Length: c. 55 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 4 oboes (4th = English horn), 4 clarinets (4th = bass clarinet), 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 7 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 4 timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 1, 1928, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting
Gustav Mahler came of age in the late 1880s, as the long and storied tradition of Austro-German Romanticism reached its peak. As a conductor who regularly performed the great works of that tradition, Mahler knew this past intimately and felt its weight. It can be argued, in fact, that historical self-consciousness fueled his drive to create “super-symphonies” in the same way that, for instance, Milton’s veneration of Homer, Virgil, and Dante drove the creation of the “super-epic” Paradise Lost. All of Mahler’s symphonies, then, aspire to surpassingly grandiose goals.
Like most Romantics, Mahler wrote about himself, and thus his symphonies are autobiographical in the way they explore his spiritual and emotional concerns. The early symphonies often imply the existence of what Mahler called a symphonic “hero,” a protagonist that functions like a central character. The music follows the hero’s experience as he moves through stages of life and faces the challenges that fate sets before him. Mahler’s symphonies therefore operate a bit like vast novels, with individual movements standing as interconnected stages of a bigger story. This means that movements respond directly to other movements and that melodies from one movement often continue developing in later ones, just as literary characters develop from chapter to chapter. We shouldn’t get too carried away with this “symphony as story” angle, however, because Mahler thought not in terms of plot-driven incidents but rather in generalized emotional states unfolding musically.
Mahler finished his Symphony No. 1 in March 1888, telling a friend that it “came gushing out of me like a mountain torrent!” But the process actually went back several years. In 1884, working as an assistant conductor in Kassel, Mahler fell in love with a singer there. The affair ended badly and Mahler wrote some poems about it. He then arranged four of them into a sequence and set them to music, producing Songs of a Wayfarer (1885), his first important piece. The poems in the cycle tell a story of a man who, having lost in love, wanders around until at last achieving solace in death — expressed metaphorically as falling asleep under a Linden tree. Musically the Wayfarer cycle is crucial to the First Symphony because Mahler reused two of its songs in the symphony. But it’s important literarily as well, because, in choosing to reuse these songs, Mahler left clues to the meaning of the symphony.
Sure enough, in early performances he referred to the work as a “Symphonic Poem” or “Tone Poem,” making certain that listeners remain open to verbal explanations. For one early performance he actually wrote out a specific “program.” He named the symphony “Titan” after the novel by Jean Paul, not because it had anything to do with the novel, but because it contained similar moods of gushing youthful Romanticism. He also specified the content of each movement. Overall, Mahler’s story took shape as a sequence of experiences: the first two movements progress from youthful springtime to confident adulthood; the last two progress from death to a battle against sorrow.
Mahler intended the long introduction to the Symphony to evoke a deep winter landscape just before it thaws. The music begins mysteriously with a drone on a single pitch. The strings play harmonics — a technique that transforms the pitch into something disembodied and ghostly. Mahler later said that what he imagined here was “a shimmering and glimmering of the air.” If the effect seems familiar, it should: Beethoven began his Ninth Symphony in a similarly portentous way, and Bruckner, too, often backgrounded his themes with shimmering strings.
To match the bleakness of winter, Mahler imagined a barren music in which isolated bits poke out intermittently from the emptiness. The bits include a sluggish, drooping melody and a hunting call. To reflect a sense of awakening, the first hunting calls sound hollow and distant, while the later ones get closer and warmer. As it unfolds the introduction quivers with expectation and, at the end — right on time — we hear a cuckoo bird heralding the arrival of spring.
The exposition of the first movement begins with music that Mahler described as “Spring and no end.” The music is an instrumental version of the second Wayfarer song. The opening lines of Mahler’s poem go as follows:
I walked across the fields this morning;
Dew still hung on the blades of grass.
The merry finch spoke to me:
“Hey! Isn’t it? Good morning! Isn’t it?
You! Isn’t it becoming a fine world?
Chirp! Chirp! Fair and sharp!
How the world delights me!”
Everything here is sunshine and mirth, major keys and jaunty rhythms. Mahler captures the fecundity of springtime wonderfully in the way his melodies blossom into multiple counterpoints, all scampering in different directions. The orchestra blooms, too, as the main tune in the cello suddenly bursts into Technicolor, popping up everywhere in the brass, winds, and upper strings. In the middle section (the development) the introduction returns and is followed by a pensive version of the spring music. Thus Mahler uses the “winter” music to remind us that life is a cycle — that spring must lead back to winter just as surely as winter led to spring.
The second movement, which Mahler titled “In full sail,” carries the energy of springtime into a bustling Scherzo. Here the hero of the symphony appears in vigorous adulthood.
When the Symphony was first performed in 1888, the audience liked the first two movements but jeered at the third. Some critics were so put off by the second half of the symphony, in fact, that they advised Mahler to stop composing! In the third movement, a funeral march, Mahler perplexed many listeners by throwing together three very incongruent passages that — for purists — sounded unmixable and stylistically inappropriate. The first one is based on a well-known children’s song, known as “Frère Jacques” in France and “Brother Martin” in Austria. Mahler used the Austrian version, which — unlike “Frère Jacques” — moves slowly in a minor key. Presenting the melody as a solo for double bass — a highly unusual color — Mahler made it sound ungainly and alienated. Similar to the introduction, the “Brother Martin” music unfolds as a procession, starting quietly and thinly far away, swelling as it passes in front of us, and then fading as it goes by.
The second passage introduces a schmaltzy, not-so-good Bohemian street bland, playing their hooty wind and brass instruments and banging their cymbals as they escort a casket to the graveyard. This lowbrow intrusion shocked many listeners. Noting its Hasidic character, commentators have assumed that Mahler here was channeling the klezmer music he’d heard in his youth, growing up in a small Jewish village in Eastern Europe. Some also believe that the clash between the Hasidic and the Catholic “Brother Martin” music (the text of which refers to a monk sleeping in as the church bells chime) symbolizes Mahler’s personal difficulty as a Jew struggling to assimilate into an overwhelmingly Catholic culture.
Mahler gave his own explanation for moments like this one. In a conversation with Sigmund Freud, the great founder of psychoanalysis, Mahler late in life recollected a painful episode from his youth, when, after hearing his father abuse his mother, he ran out of the house and smacked right into someone playing a trivial folk song on a hurdy-gurdy. This juxtaposition of the tragic and the trifling marked Mahler for life.
The third passage is based on another song from the Wayfarer cycle. The words to the part of the song used in this movement appear below:
By the road stood a linden tree,
Where, for the first time,
I found rest in sleep!
Under the linden tree
that snowed its blossoms
I did not know how life went on,
and all was well again!
All! All, love and sorrow
and world and dream!
Here, then, at the center of the whole symphony, the music achieves temporary respite. The melody soars lyrically as its rhythms release from time, to float in the heavenly ether. At the conclusion of the movement, however, none of these passages give an inch, and so the conflict continues into the mighty Finale.
Mahler described the beginning of the Finale (which lasts about 20 minutes!) as the “cry of a wounded heart” and it does begin with a piercing wail. A friend of Mahler’s who attended the first performance wrote that a dressy lady nearby was so started by the sound that she dropped her things on the floor. Of the finale as a whole, Mahler explained that here the hero engages “in a most dreadful battle with all the sorrow of the world.” The struggle is long, tense, and complex; but in the end the hero achieves victory when that stark, drooping melody from the introduction — the one from the very beginning of the Symphony — returns as a triumphant hymn.
– Steven Johnson is Professor of Musicology at Brigham Young University. He has written on late 19th-Century and contemporary American music and is the editor of and contributor to The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts.