Philharmonia Orchestra Logo



Mahler - Symphony No. 1 (1888)

  • 1. Langsam, schleppend - Wie ein Naturlaut
  • 2. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell
  • 3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen
  • 4. Stürmisch bewegt

Mahler suggested that his First Symphony and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen arose from similar situations and the degree of overlap between them is certainly striking. For a start, the symphony takes some of its material from the song cycle - the main theme of the first movement is derived from the carefree walking song 'Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld', and the dream vision at the end of the cycle reappears in the third movement of the symphony. But just as the songs were composed in the wake of Mahler's failed relationship with Johanna Richter, so the symphony was completed, at fever pitch in the spring of 1888, following the ending of his affair with Marion von Weber (wife of the composer's grandson). In fact, it seems likely that the beginnings of the symphony go back to Mahler's time in Kassel, and thus overlap with the composition of the songs. In its original form it had five movements, including an Andante (Blumine) composed in 1884 as part of Mahler's incidental music for the verse play, Der Trompeter von Säkkingen. Later, after he had removed the movement, clearly the music to a love scene, Mahler referred to it as his hero's 'blunder of youth'.

The première, in November 1889, was conducted by the composer in Budapest where Mahler had recently become Artistic Director to the Royal Hungarian Opera. Clearly undecided as to what kind of work he had written, Mahler presented the work as a 'Symphonic Poem in Two Parts', thus aligning himself with the modernity of Richard Strauss rather than the more conservative tradition of Brahms. But critics and public alike were perplexed by the abrupt changes of mood, especially between the spring-like atmosphere of the first three movements (Part I) and then the sudden reversal of character in Part II, with its funeral march and highly dramatic Finale. Not for the last time, there was a demand for the composer to provide a more helpful commentary to his music.

The work languished for four years without a further performance, until 1893 when a revised version was performed in Hamburg, but Mahler's ambivalence about the nature of his work was still unresolved. He referred to it both as a 'Tone Poem in Symphonic Form' and as a 'Symphony'. Stung by the critics' comments at the première, he now provided programmatic titles for each movement and the whole work was now titled 'Titan', apparently in reference to a novel by Jean-Paul Richter. Part 1 (From the Days of Youth: Flower, Fruit and Thorn pieces) consisted of three movements: 1. Spring without end; 2. Blumine; 3. Under full sail. Part II (Commedia humana) was made up of 4. The Huntsman's Funeral Procession, a Death March in Callot's Manner; and 5. 'Dall' Inferno al Paradiso'.

By the time of the work's fourth performance, in Berlin in 1896, Mahler had removed the Blumine movement altogether, and presented the work simply as a 'Symphony in D major for full orchestra', but his anxiety about explanatory programmes persisted. For the Viennese première in 1900, Mahler ensured that his own comments on the movements were fed to a leading newspaper by his friend and confidante, Natalie Bauer-Lechner. Even so, critics reacted badly to the sense that this was indeed programmatic music, but with the programme withdrawn. One called it 'a satire of the symphony' while others dubbed it, in comparison with Beethoven's Eroica, a sinfonia ironica. One listener recorded in her diary: 'An astonishing jumble of styles - and an ear-splitting, nerve-shattering din. I had never heard anything like it. It was exhilarating, but no less irritating.' That was the impression of the young Alma Schindler; she became Mahler's wife less than four months later.

If a symphony should contain the whole world, as Mahler was famously to suggest, it is fitting that his First Symphony begins as if it were the beginning of the world. The slow introduction is marked Wie ein Naturlaut (like a sound of nature) and is one of Mahler's most sustained landscape evocations - a musical depiction of dawn in which the distant sound of horns and military fanfares overlap with bird calls against a background haze of string harmonics. Mahler described it as the awakening of nature out of the long sleep of winter, ushering in 'spring without end'. What follows is an exuberant Allegro, based on the bright energy of the second Gesellen song. But the divided world of the song cycle is not left behind; the sunny Allegro is cut short by a return to the slow introduction, and the central development section sees yet another return to this mysterious landscape. The lonely wanderer can still be heard in the mournful dialogue between the cellos and a forest bird (solo flute). In Mahler's music the beauty of nature is often the site of human loneliness but also the threshold to new life. The return to the Allegro is marked by a quiet horn call; by the end of the movement it is given fortissimo in great youthful whoops.

The second movement opens with an energetic country dance, derived from one of Mahler's earliest songs ('Maitanz in Grünen', or 'Hans und Grete'). Mahler's real fondness for the heavy-footed pleasure of this Ländler is clear; to the traditional folk material he adds a new contrasting section, more chromatic and stormy, which acts as a foil to the return of the rustic simplicity of the opening. This is a staged village scene, not the real thing, and Mahler's movement is not hard to hear in terms of a scene from an opera - or operetta. The village dance of the outer sections gives way, in the central Trio, to more intimate exchanges - as if the chorus disperses to frame a rather flirtatious and slightly tipsy scene between the soloists. This is based on a slow waltz, characterised as sentimental and wistful by the sighing glissandi in the strings and the constant elasticity of the tempo.

The start of the third movement remains shocking even to modern listeners. A timpanist beats out a mechanical rhythm, over which a solo double bass plays the children's song, 'Bruder Martin' ('Frères Jacques') in a minor key. The macabre effect of playing a nursery song as a funeral march is enhanced by the thin tone of the double-bass - an early example of Mahler's use of the grotesque. It must have been utterly bewildering to Mahler's first audience - as if an old tramp had walked out to sing on the stage of the Court Opera. But worse is to come, because the march is later interrupted by what seems like a band of street-corner buskers, the two different musical types grating awkwardly against one another. Into this nightmare, however, is inserted the vision from the end of the Gesellen songs - just another kind of unreality in Mahler's dreamscape. The title supplied for this movement offers some background to the strange nature of this imaginative world. The Huntsman's Funeral was a picture by Moritz von Schwind in a popular children's fairytale book, in which the hunstman's cortège is formed by the animals of the forest. With the phrase 'in Callot's manner', Mahler signalled his sense of kinship with the weird and distorted tales of another of his favourite authors, ETA Hoffmann.

This weird fantasy world is interrupted by the Finale erupting, in Mahler's words, as a 'sudden outburst of despair from a deeply wounded heart'. A storm of orchestral violence is unleashed here, completely at odds with the symphony so far. When this eventually subsides into a brooding silence, it is followed by one of Mahler's most beautifully shaped melodies. The marking for the strings is sehr gesangvoll (very songful), a direction he used when he wanted instruments to imitate the tone of a singer. It appears like a distant vision of a longed-for goal - but firmly in parenthesis. Taken as a whole, the Finale presents a complex narrative of anticipated breakthroughs, interruptions and re-beginnings. A chorale theme in D major suggests that victory may be in reach, before the music collapses back to nothingness and a return to the mysterious state of nature with which the whole symphony began. The mood is more melancholic now - the wandering lad is older and wiser - but the encounter with nature becomes a threshold to eventual victory. As the falling fourths rain down in the repeated horn phrases of the chorale, like the tolling of bells, it is hard not to be swept along by the sense that, in this music, Mahler has made real his vision. If the Gesellen songs were about loss, then the First Symphony is about returning to that earlier loss and making it good.

© Julian Johnson