It was composed while Mahler was second conductor at the Leipzig Opera, Germany. Although in his letters Mahler almost always referred to the work as a symphony, the first two performances described it as a symphonic poem or tone poem. The work was premièred at the Vigadó Concert Hall, Budapest in 1889, but was not well received. Mahler made some major revisions for the second performance, given at Hamburg in October 1893; further alterations were made in the years prior to the first publication, in late 1898. Some modern performances and recordings give the work the title Titan, despite the fact that Mahler only used this label for two early performances, and never after the work had reached its definitive four-movement form in 1896.
In its final form, the symphony has four movements. The movements are arranged in a fairly typical four-movement setup. Normally, the Minuet–Trio is the third movement and the slow movement the second, but Mahler has them switched, which was also sometimes done by Beethoven. The keys are D major for the first movement, A major for the second, D minor for the third, and F minor for the last, with a grand finale at the end in D major. The usage of F minor for the last movement was a dramatic break from conventional usage.
For the first three performances (Budapest, Hamburg and Weimar), there was an additional movement, Blumine (flower piece), between the first and second movements of the piece as it now stands. This movement was originally written in June 1884 as the opening number – "Ein Ständchen am Rhein" – in Mahler's incidental music for a series of seven tableaux vivants based on Joseph Victor von Scheffel's poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen, which, Blumine aside, has since been lost. The addition of this movement appears to have been an afterthought, and Mahler discarded it after the Weimar performance in 1894, and it was not discovered again until 1966 when Donald Mitchell unearthed it. The following year, Benjamin Britten conducted the first performance of it since Mahler's time at the Aldeburgh Festival. The symphony is almost never played with this movement included today, although it is sometimes heard separately. In the 1970s, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra made the first recording of the symphony by a major orchestra to include Blumine. Currently some 20 recordings exist that include Blumine; however, most of them combine it with the revised edition of the other movements, thus making a "blended" version of the symphony that was at no time authorised by Mahler.
Nevertheless, Mahler quotes the main theme from the Blumine movement in the final movement, as well as other themes from the other movements, so it is more in keeping with Beethoven's own practice in his ninth symphony of quoting themes from the first, second, and third movements early in the final movement. (Beethoven gives the impression of rejecting the earlier themes, after he quotes them, and then introduces the famous "Ode to Joy" theme.) Interestingly, the five-movement version generally runs around an hour, just as Mahler's later symphonies (except for the fourth symphony) are an hour or longer in length. Mahler actually followed a precedent, established by Beethoven in his ninth symphony and by Anton Bruckner in many of his symphonies, of lengthier, more detailed development of the themes, usually resulting in a performance time of an hour or more.
Under this early five-movement scheme, the work was envisioned by Mahler as a large symphonic poem in two parts, and he wrote a programme to describe the piece, but without adding any further title for the 1889 Budapest premiere. The first part consisted of the first two movements of the symphony as it is now known plus Blumine, and the second consisting of the funeral-march and finale. For the 1893 Hamburg and 1894 Weimar performances, Mahler gave the piece the title Titan after the novel by Jean Paul, although Mahler specified that the piece was not in any way "about" the book; the nickname is often used today, but properly only applies to those two versions and should not be used in connection with the definitive final version.
The work includes two themes from Mahler's song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1883–1885), and the available evidence also seems to indicate that Mahler recycled music from his abandoned opera project Rübezahl.
The opening of the third movement features a double bass soloist performing a variation on the theme of "Frère Jacques", distinguishing it as one of the few symphonic pieces to use the instrument in such a manner. Mahler uses the song, which he cites as "Bruder Martin", changed from major to minor, thus giving the piece the character of a funeral march. The mode change to minor is not an invention by Mahler, as is often believed, but rather the way this round was sung in the 19th and early 20th century in Austria.