At the age of 20, Gustav Mahler had but one aim in life: to become a composer. He would later be appointed to the same jury which, in 1881, had rejected his work for the Beethoven Prize in Vienna, all because of his long career in the hell-like “galleys” of the Theatre. At the end of his life, he said to the young Alban Berg, “If you want to compose, stay away from the theatre!”
But what else could a young musician do to survive at such a time? Rich in ambition and talent, but not money?
Yet Gustav Mahler was a born composer: Das Klagende Lied, the great Ballad or Cantata for soloists, choirs, and orchestras, which he put forward for the famous prize, demonstrated this, at least in his eyes. But since the infernal judges of the time decided otherwise, he would have to find another way to make his talent known. At the age of twenty, Mahler immersed himself into his conducting role with an almost fanatical fervour and enthusiasm. As a result, he stopped writing music for four years, his theatrical activity leaving him little time to devote to anything else. He did not put pen to paper again until 1884, when powerful emotions arising from a family crisis gave him no other outlet. It was four years earlier that Das Klagende Lied had seen the light of day in similar circumstances. It seems that love alone, and particularly unhappy love, was the catalyst for allowing the young Mahler to “find his way”, that is to say, the catalyst for the creation of his composition.
In 1884, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was written in the wake of his unfortunate passion for an opera singer, whom he met while working at the Opera House in Kassel. This orchestral song cycle, however, did not see the light of day for some twelve years. During this time, another case of doomed love – this time involving a married mother of four – triggered more creativity: “These emotions had become so powerful that they suddenly burst out like a raging torrent of water.” In January 1888, Mahler was 27 years old. He was conductor at the Leipzig theatre. The inspiration came from none other than the wife of Weber’s grandson, who entrusted Mahler with unfinished outlines for a comic opera by the great Karl-Maria. It was thanks to him, and the completion of Die drei Pintos, that Mahler enjoyed the first great triumph of his career as a composer, largely due to its creative nature as well as the way in which he recreated it. His romance with Marion von Weber plunged him into a state of dark despair, due to the intensity of his feelings of loving someone passionately while, at the same time, shamelessly betraying the laws of friendship. The closure of the Leipzig Opera House for a few days at the beginning of 1888 – while Germany mourned the death of its Emperor, William I, gave Mahler the opportunity to work tirelessly. Started in January, the First Symphony, then known as the “Symphonic Poem”, was completed in March. At this time, it still included five movements since Mahler had inserted a brief and somewhat superficial andante which he borrowed from an ancient piece of theatre music.
The first performances
“In my complete state of oblivion,” Mahler later confided, “I thought I had written one of my most daring pieces of work, and naively and childishly believed that it would be an instant success and that I would subsequently be able to live a quiet and comfortable life from the royalties.” So much for the illusions of a young composer! The following summer, he visited Prague, Munich, Dresden, and Leipzig, and moved heaven and earth to have his works performed. However, his efforts were in vain. He eventually had to conduct the first performance himself at the Budapest Philharmonic. This took place on 20th November 1889. And even then, his Symphonic Poem was only included in the programme because its composer was none other than the already celebrated director of the Hungarian Opera. Alas, on the evening of this unfortunate première, the public’s bewilderment quickly gave way to silent indignation. The Finale outbursts left the audience in a daze and the last note was followed by deathly silence. This silence was broken by some timid applause interspersed with whistling and booing. Mahler realised that the performance had fallen on deaf ears. Even his closest friends were dismayed. “Afterwards, everyone beat a hasty retreat, terrorised, and nobody dared tell me what they thought about my work!” Critics were just as hostile as the public. He was accused of deliberately indulging in nonsensical bizarrerie, crazy cacophony, brazen vulgarity. In a word, he had defied everything that music stood for. Lonely and in a state of despair Mahler wandered the Hungarian capital “like a condemned man or plague victim”.
In 1891. Mahler left Budapest for Hamburg where he was appointed first conductor at the Stadt-Theatre, one of the most important German opera houses. One evening in October 1893, he led the first “popular concert in philharmonic style” in a Hanseatic concert hall. It was composed exclusively of pieces that had never been heard before, including “Titan, A Poem in Symphonic Form”. The audience’s reaction was slightly more favourable than in Budapest, but Hamburg critics again accused Mahler of a total lack of discernment in his choice of material, of giving free rein to his ‘subjectivity’, and of ‘mortally offending the sense of beauty’.
After a third setback in Weimar, Mahler tried again on 16th March 1896, this time in Berlin. The work was henceforth shorn of its Andante and was given the definitive title of ‘First Symphony’. Up until the end of his life, Mahler conducted this cursed Première at irregular intervals. He willingly named it his “child of pain” because it continued – for a long time – to disappoint and shock even those listeners that were already familiar with his style and language. The curse of this ‘Sinfonia ironica’ (the term was invented by the Viennese critic Max Kalbeck) hung over it long after Mahler’s death. During the 1920s and 30s it experiences some degree of popularity, but this was mainly because of its relatively modest proportions in comparison to his other symphonies and the smaller amount of orchestral resources it called for.
The revised version of the First Symphony had four movements:
The deleted movement was called “Blumine” – Andante allegretto.
The First Symphony premièred on 20th November 1889 at 7:30 PM. It took place in the Redoubt concert hall at the Budapest Municipal Palace. It was performed by the Budapest Opera Orchestra and conducted by Mahler.
To enable the public to understand it more easily, Mahler drew up several ‘versions’ of his ‘Symphonic Poem’ (which later became a Symphony) and all were more or less along the same lines. From the start, he made it clear that the original title of the work—’Titan’—had nothing to do with the famous novel by Jean Paul Richter, and that the famous harmonic at the beginning of the piece was there to evoke a morning scene in the forest, as the summer sun ‘vibrates and sparkles’ through the branches. The 1893 version, when the Andante was still part of the piece, was as follows:
Part One “The Days of Youth. Flower, fruit, and thorn pieces”
Part Two “Human Comedy”
By simply reading this text, which devotes more space to the grotesque Funeral March than to all the other movements, shows that Mahler was aware of its originality and feared that it might puzzle the audience. This could also be said for the entire piece with its mixture of sorrow and irony, the grotesque and the sublime, tragedy and humour. None of this can be explained without the literary references that Mahler himself readily provided from the very beginning. Not only are some of the original ‘titles’ of the movements borrowed from Jean Paul, but the whole piece is reminiscent of German romantic literature and finds its themes and underlying inspiration in the permanent conflict that existed between the idealism and realism depicted in the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jean Paul; the conflict between the demands of a mind expressing the cult of beauty and goodness and the demeaning realities of everyday life. The 1893 ‘version’ mentions Hoffman and the French engraver Jacques Callot (1592-1635) as sources of inspiration, although it must be said that the most well-known ‘Huntsman’s Funeral’ engraving was in fact the work of the Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind, a friend of Schubert and Grillparzer.
|Composed in 1888, the First Symphony was completely revised in Hamburg, by Mahler, in January 1893. It was at this point that he deleted an episode from the Finale (just before the coda) and replaced it with one of the score’s most astonishing passages, the furious unison of violas which gradually brought back the first theme. But, as he did with all new performances of his works, he would later introduce many other detailed modifications. The most important took place in 1897, the date of a first edition; others took place in 1906, when the final version appeared at Universal Edition.
|The orchestration of the First Symphony, as we know it today, roughly dates back to 1897. It includes quadruple woodwind, but also several brass instruments -7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, 1 tuba-, as well as two timpani and a lavish percussion. The refinement, and the sometimes novel sounds contained within, never cease to amaze, and all the more so since the majority of the most daring sound inventions are already found in the 1893 manuscript. When asked about it by his loyal friend Nathalie Baeur-Lechner in 1900, Mahler replied: “It’s all about how the instruments are used. In the first movement, their timbre is submerged by an ocean of sounds, as are these luminous bodies which become invisible because of the very radiance they emit. Later on in the March, the instruments appear to be disguised, almost camouflaged. Here, the sound needs to be muffled, dampened down, to give the impression that we are seeing shadows or ghosts pass by. Each entry of the canon must be clearly perceptible. I wanted its colour to surprise and attract attention. I went to a lot of trouble to make this happen. I made such a good job of it that you, yourself, experienced a feeling of strangeness and disorientation. When I want a sound to become disturbing after being repressed, I don’t entrust it to an instrument which can play it easily, but to one which has to make a greater effort to produce the sound, to one which can only achieve it when under pressure and somewhat forced. Often, I even make it go beyond the natural limits of its range. This is how the double bass and bassoons have to squawk in the treble and the flutes are sometimes forced to run out of steam in the lower register, and so on … “
|One of the most characteristic features of Mahler’s creation is the close link between the lieder and the symphonies, the lieder ing, so to speak, the living source which nourishes the symphonic flow. In the First Symphony, the thematic material of the initial
Allegro is almost entirely borrowed from the second eines fahrenden Gesellen Lieder, just as the second Trio of the Funeral March is simply a quotation from the concluding passage o f the last piece from the same cycle. To afford the whole piece a greater cohesion, Mahler constructed most of his themes from an ascending or descending fourth. We can hear this fourth right from
the start as the awakening of spring is conveyed by the cuckoo song (slightly transformed here since the bird’s song is actually a falling third).
|-1-Langsam. Schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut. [Slowly. Dragging. Nature theme.] 4/4, D minor
|Few musicians have succeeded in evoking the romantic magic that depicts the awakening of nature so simply and poetically; its birdsong, its legendary horns and its distant fanfares. We think we can see the young Mahler here, in the way he once described himself; a child, lost in his dreams, motionless in the heart of the forest, in a trance-like state, sensitive to the slightest sound, whether coming from near or far. Between the development and the return of the first movement, this introduction was to be entirely recapitulated with numerous modifications; so typical of Mahler.
|Immer sehr gemächlich. [Very restrained throughout, 2/2, D major
|In this Allegro, which is almost entirely monothematic, Mahler tirelessly amplifies and develops the second of the eines
fahrenden Gesellen Lieder without ever giving the impression of effort or repetition. This “Symphonic Fantasy” always seems to flow with spontaneity and a gay abandon; art at its finest.
|-2- Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell. [Moving strongly, but not too quickly.] 3/4, A major
|This Scherzo is arguably the most rustic of all Mahler’s ländler, but it’s also one of the most delectable. Several motifs are borrowed from a lied composed by Mahler at the age of twenty, Hans und Grete. In the Recht gemächlich trio (Etwas langsamer als im Anfang) [Very leisurely (somewhat slower than the beginning)], F major, the dance becomes more graceful. Here you can catch a glimpse of Bruckner’s influence, no doubt because the ländler and waltzes are drawn from the same sources of Austrian folklore.
|-3- Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen. [solemnly and measured, without
dragging.] 4/4, D minor
|This grotesque funeral march is undoubtedly the most fascinating piece in the whole work. Even today, its originality is still
truly astounding and even prophetic in many respects. It’s no wonder Mahler confused and offended many listeners of the time. The canon (“Frère Jacques”, in D minor) is exposed by the solo double bass in a very shrill register. The bassoon, cellos, tuba and various other instrumental groups then take their turn. Just as Mahler wished, the sounds are “disguised and camouflaged”. Soon after, the oboe takes over the canon with the first grotesque motif. The crescendo that gradually follows does not come from the
nuances, but from the gradual increase in the number of instruments being played. Soon after, everything comes to an end with the arrival of the Musikanten (village musicians), who introduce an element of deliberate “banality” and “vulgarity” with their popular tunes. Here, the simple and stripped bare “street music” makes its first encroachment on the sacrosanct nature of
the scholarly symphony. It’s easy to understand how the guardians of musical order and decorum were deeply offended. It is of
course an “imaginary folklore” of which one would be hard pressed to find the source of in collections of popular songs of the time.
|After a return to the march, we pass immediately from the grotesque to the sublime with “Auf der Strasse steht ein Lindenbaum”, an integral quote from the coda of the last of the eines fahrenden Gesellen lieder. The divine string melody oozes for an extended period of time in G major. It has barely come to an end when the march inexorably resumes, this time in E flat minor, a key that couldn’t be further from that of the rest of the movement. The Musikanten re-perform their first song, after which a very short and simple transition takes us back to the initial D minor tone and the canon. Here, in his well-known contrapuntal style, Mahler adds the second “tune” which this time has become hyper-expressive. It all ends with a long ghostly diminuendo followed by the sudden explosion of the Finale, one of the most well-known “surprises” of the symphonic repertoire (together with the one that opens the development of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetic Symphony).
|-4-Stürmisch bewegt. [Stormy. With great vehemence.] 2/2, F minor / D major
|A grand dramatic finale, in sonata form and with an almost expressionistic force, completes the Symphony. It is preceded by a brief introduction, but this time a quick one, which exposes most of the thematic material in a somewhat fragmented
format. The main theme, characterised by determination, pride and a warlike ardour, is at the origin of this large family of ascending motifs which, in all of Mahler’s work and up until the Song of the Earth, appear each time, as if suggesting a higher
order or an aspiration towards transcendence.
|We have often noted the somewhat Tchaikovskian character – a somewhat rare occurrence in Mahler’s work – of the second thematic element (Sehr gesangvoll [very songful], D flat major). However, the ecstatic immobility of this long violin song can only belong to the Mahlerian universe. Its character is so far removed from the first theme that Mahler was obliged to exclude it
completely from the development which followed. The only element of contrast would be created at the end, with an unexpected reminder of the introduction from the first movement, from which the return of the second theme followed naturally. This, in itself,
heralded a comeback.
|The framework of this finale is not easy to grasp in the beginning, but it fascinates us today with its grandeur, flamboyance,
outrageousness and excesses, with influences more akin with Berlioz and Liszt than Bruckner. Moreover, the most surprising thing about this First Symphony is not only the modernism of language and instrumentation, but the total break it achieves with its
recent past and in particular with the world of Wagner, a composer that Mahler idolised, and the way in which it reconnected with the sources of German romanticism, such as the novels by Jean-Paul and the short stories of Hoffmann, as well as Schubert’s Lieder and Weber’s operas. Mahler really had been right when he complained to Richard Specht about the curse that had haunted him at the very start of his creative career: had Beethoven’s style, in his early works, not been similar to that of Haydn and Mozart? Had Wagner’s work not, at the very beginning, been close to that of Meyerbeer? Why then had he, Mahler, been constrained from the age of twenty to be so totally himself?