About the Artists/Music
Symphony No. 1 in D Major, “Titan” (Original Version)
– Gustav Mahler
Born May 7, 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia
Died May 18, 1911, in Vienna, Austria
This work was premiered on November 20, 1889, in Budapest, but was revised in 1893-96, and again in 1906. It is scored for two piccolos, four flutes, four oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, four clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, seven horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two timpanists, percussion, harp, and strings.
Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are among the most grandiose works ever composed for orchestra. Although the composer’s detractors claim that the works are longwinded, each of the symphonies provides a glimpse of the grandeur of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Building upon the musical advances of Richard Wagner, Mahler’s music usually deals with profound subjects – religious crises, redemption through love, and the spiritual (almost Zen-like) elements that too often go unnoticed in daily life. Although these visionary works stand alone as monolithic accomplishments, detailed study shows that they are interrelated – e.g., the fallen hunter who is the subject of the funeral march in the First Symphony is ushered into the afterlife in the glorious Second Symphony (Resurrection). However, this type of dissection is unnecessary to simply enjoy Mahler’s symphonies on a purely musical level – an experience that provides great variety and carries an intense emotional impact.
Collectively, Mahler’s first five symphonies are known as the Wunderhorn Symphonies because of their use of musical ideas drawn from Mahler’s own settings of Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim’s poetry published in 1808 under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). Mahler found an existential quality to these folk-infused verses that seemed to reach into the very soul of his own musical and personal philosophy. They came to represent every aspect of life from birth to death and beyond. Perhaps no other composer wrote so much of the human experience into such a vast panorama of works as Mahler did into his nine symphonies and the songs from which many of themes are drawn.
The Mahler symphonies are difficult to categorize. One of the most perplexing dilemmas is discerning how many he wrote. There are nine numbered symphonies and a fragment of a tenth. However, his majestic Song of the Earth is also a symphony, even if not numbered. More troublesome for scholars is the evidence that Mahler composed at least four symphonies prior to the one he designated as Symphony No.1. These works, lost during the bombings of World War II, were never published.
The work called Symphony No.1 was begun in Leipzig, where Mahler served at the opera as an assistant to conductor Artur Nikisch. Conceived initially as a symphonic poem in two parts, the symphony follows an elaborate outline tracing the life of a Bohemian peasant hero – the “Titan.”
First Part: From the Days of Youth
Second Part: Human Comedy
Although Mahler eventually dispensed with the title and individual movement names, they are still helpful in understanding Mahler’s musical language. For example, the first movement begins with a sustained A spanning several octaves. In the measures that follow, he presents birdcalls, as if the symphony awakens with the birds at dawn. The main theme of the exposition is “As I went in the morning over the field” – borrowed from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. Spring awakens and life begins anew.
The “Flora” movement, which Mahler eventually entitled “Blumine,” is sometimes performed as an individual work on concert programs, but is rarely included in modern performances of the symphony. Originating from music Mahler had written some years before, he eventually dropped it from the symphony. The resulting four-movement work is equally balanced into two halves – the first part expressing the joy of youth, while the second part examines death. The dilemma for modern performers and audiences is that “Blumine,” all by itself as a stand-alone work, is worthy of performance.
Although it was part of the original version of the First Symphony, Blumine had an earlier history that makes it unique among Mahler’s works. It was originally composed for a June 23, 1884, Royal Theater presentation in Kassel, Germany, of a series of tableaux representing scenes from the comic poem by Victor von Scheffel entitled Der Trompeter von Säckingen (“The Trumpeter of Säckingen”). Although the score is lost, Mahler’s writings verify that much of the music of Blumine was included in the production. After it was excised from the First Symphony, Mahler continued to revise the movement as late as 1906. Shortly thereafter, he gave the score to a student, Jenny Feld Perrin, whose family sold it through auction to Mrs. James M. Osborn. She donated it to the New Haven Symphony, which kept it in the Yale University Library. Publication finally took place in 1968.
Mahler described the piece as “a sentimentally indulgent movement, [a] love episode,” which seems to be a fitting description. The work begins with a murmur in the strings from which a trumpet solo emerges. As is typical with Mahler’s slow movements, the overall atmosphere is one of reverence and increasing emotional intensity. A contrasting middle section relies more heavily on woodwind solos. True to the standard ABA structure of symphonic second movements, the work ends with a return to the opening material. A short coda provides a suitable conclusion with a final gesture of the violins reaching upward into their highest range.
Mahler continues his celebration of springtime with a movement that is an Austrian ländler, a heavy-footed, almost clumsy, peasant dance. A second section is much gentler, but the opening section returns to round out the movement with a sudden burst of energy.
Somewhat more disturbingly, the next movement represents a hunter being carried to his grave by a procession of forest animals. Based on a popular illustration by Jacques Callot that Mahler remembered seeing in his youth, the movement is set as a funeral march based on a grotesque transformation of “Frere Jacques,” played in the ghostly upper register of a double bass. Mahler’s association of childhood and death, though shocking to modern audiences, reflects the tragic fact that several of Mahler’s siblings died in childhood, as did his daughter Maria several years after he composed this work. He would revisit this theme to devastating effect in the Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”) which he completed in 1905 – two years before his daughter died. In the same movement, the tragedy is tempered by the second theme, a festive peasant dance reminiscent of Mahler’s Eastern European Jewish heritage.
The finale is a thing of wonder. As usual, Mahler begins with an existential crisis and proceeds to create an apotheosis. Not only is the problem finally understood, it is transcended in a glorious manner. After the initial outburst, distant military themes are heard. Before long, these gel into a rousing march. A lilting and lovely middle section presents a lyrical theme in the strings. In one of the symphony’s greatest surprises, the opening material from the first movement returns in a compressed form. The birdcalls are joined by military signals that are not quite as distant anymore. Mahler’s final measures are magnificent in their scope and orchestration with the brass section playing at full force.
Mahler’s First Symphony is a heroic representation of a fallen hero – the “Titan” – tracing his life from birth to death, and to the afterlife. The same hero is the subject of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 in C minor, “Resurrection,” in which the hero’s eternal reward receives a glorious musical treatment.
© 2016 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin