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The genesis of Mahler’s First Symphony was protracted – 15 years separate his first thoughts from his final revision. During that time, the young composer went from apprentice to journeyman to master. In 1884, when he first scribbled down themes that would eventually find their way into the Symphony, Mahler was conductor of the opera in Kassel, a moderate post; by the time the work achieved its final form, he was director of the Court Opera in Vienna. The years in between had taken him to Prague, Leipzig, Budapest (where the First Symphony premiered in its original, five-movement version in 1889), and Hamburg, as well as a two-month stint as a guest conductor at Covent Garden in London. The Symphony, too, had seen as many cities: After its Budapest premiere, Mahler revised it for performances in Hamburg (1893) and Weimar (1894), finally excising an entire movement and premiering the work in (nearly) its present form in Berlin in 1896. The version published in 1899 reflects further revision, primarily to the work’s orchestration.

Several facts about Mahler the composer emerge in connection with this Symphony. First and foremost, his activities as a composer of songs were inextricably intertwined with his work as a symphonist. In this case, themes from his Songs of a Wayfarer, which he started in 1883, play a central role in the First Symphony’s opening and third movements. Mahler also needed an extramusical stimulus to get started on his symphonies, but would later discard that program, usually a mark that the work had achieved its final form. Here, Mahler began with an elaborate program derived from early German Romantic writers Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann – writers whose ecstatic nature imagery and descriptions of the grotesque and macabre certainly left their mark on Mahler’s music – and the Italian medieval poet Dante Alighieri – the Symphony’s finale at one time bore the descriptive title “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso.” The visual arts also played a role, especially the woodcut The Hunter’s Funeral Procession (1850) by Moritz von Schwind, in which the animals of the forest carry the bier of the dead hunter, a key impetus for the third movement funeral procession.

But Mahler eventually distanced himself from these influences, leaving a four-movement Symphony with an opening sonata-allegro, a spirited and earthy dance movement, the funeral procession, and a finale whose storm dissolves in light. And though a product of his journeyman years, the Symphony, in its final form, already affirms Mahler’s complete mastery, an unequivocal announcement that the wayfarer has definitely arrived. — John Mangum