Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

Symphony No. 1

Program from 1909 Carnegie Hall premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 1

The Carnegie Hall and US premiere of Mahler’s First Symphony took place on December 16, 1909, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by the composer.

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Upcoming Events

Tue, Feb 9, 2010 at 8 PM
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, Music Director and Conductor
MAHLER Symphony No. 1, “Titan”

The Symphony at a Glance

Mahler’s triumphant First Symphony, the work that introduced the composer’s staggering talent to the public, encountered fierce critical resistance at its premiere but is now firmly entrenched in the standard repertoire. With its wide spectrum of orchestral colors, echoes of nature, quirky funeral music, and final message of hard-earned victory, the symphony offers the listener a veritable epic novel in sound.

The Symphony In Depth

The composer of Das Lied von der Erde, comprising six songs, termed “a symphony for alto and tenor soloists and large orchestra,” but even in less explicit cases there is a consistent link between the development of Mahler the songwriter and Mahler the symphonist. The interweaving of genres is evident already in the First Symphony and what might be called its companion work, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), which dates from the period between 1883 and 1885, when Mahler was second conductor at the Opera House in Kassel.

The song cycle, for which Mahler wrote his own folk-style texts, had been born of his ill-starred love for one of the singers in Kassel, Johanna Richter. “I have written,” he said, “a song cycle dedicated to her … Their burden is this: a man who has found only sadness in love goes forth into the world a wanderer.”

By 1886, when he was busily engaged in writing the First Symphony, Mahler was installed as Arthur Nikisch’s assistant conductor in Leipzig. He was also in love again (and hopelessly again) with Marion, the wife of Carl von Weber, the composer’s grandson. As before, frustration was deflected into musical creativity. But Mahler himself cautions against too strong an insistence on the circumstantial origins of the work: “I should like to stress that the symphony goes far beyond the love story on which it is based, or rather, which preceded it in the emotional life of its creator. The external event was only the occasion—so cannot be the subject of the work.”

By the time of its early performances, the work had evolved partway from specific stimulus to universalized creative response. At the premiere, it was presented not yet as a fully abstract symphony but as a “symphonic poem in two parts.” For the next two performances (Hamburg, 1893; and Weimar, 1894), reacting to the premiere’s mixed reception and wishing to make the music more comprehensible to the public, the composer supplied titles for the two parts and for each of the then five constituent movements. But these titles, and the overall title “Titan” (after a novel by Jean Paul Richter), are general rather than narrowly personal in character:

Part I. From the Days of Youth
1. Spring Without End
2. Blumine (from Blumen—“flowers”)
3. Under Full Sail

Part II. Human Comedy
4. Funeral March in the Manner of Callot
5. From the Inferno to Paradise

It was after the Weimar performance that Mahler removed the Blumine movement and decided to present the work henceforth as a four-movement symphony without descriptive titles, because, he said in a letter, “they are quite inadequate and do not even characterize the music appropriately, but also because I have learned through past experience how the public has been misled by them.”

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 1 (III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen)

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 1 (III. Sehr einfach und schlicht wie eine Volksweise)

The tune Mahler turned to for his funeral march (Audio 1), incidentally, is a D-minor version, dimly heard at first on muted solo bass, of the old round “Bruder Martin,” known outside the German-speaking countries as “Frère Jacques.” It is in the consolatory G-major middle section of this movement (Audio 2) that the symphony makes one of its two main references to the material of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The closing section of the last song, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz,” is reworked here in an exquisitely scored passage contrasting two unmuted solo violins with other small string groups, some muted, others unmuted. Mahler’s text in the song version makes it very clear that the “rest under the linden-tree” of which he is speaking is the same kind of rest Schubert and his poet Wilhelm Müller were thinking of in the Winterreise song “Der Lindenbaum”: the rest of death.

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 1 (I. Langsam. Schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut)

The other movement in the symphony that leans heavily on Fahrenden Gesellen material is the first. It begins with an introduction (“Slow—Dragging—Like a sound of nature”) founded on an A, spread over six octaves in the strings. The unfathomable depth of this magical opening is enormously enhanced by the use of harmonics, which Mahler added after the first performance because the plain string notes did not “shimmer and glimmer” as he had intended. Out of the mysterious hush, Mahler gradually builds up a theme based on the symphony’s characteristic melodic fourths.(Audio 3). (One of the theme's multiple entries, intertwined on muted and unmuted horns, clarinet, and English horn, uncannily foreshadows the methods of Minimalism, if that association is not too absurd for a composer as resolutely maximal as Mahler.)

Audio Audio Excerpt 4

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 1 (IV. Wieder vorwärts drängend)

Audio Audio Excerpt 5

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 1 (I. Immer sehr gemächlich)

Audio Audio Excerpt 6

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 1 (II. Kräftig bewegt)

Audio excerpted from Carnegie Hall presents Leonard Bernstein: The Mahler Symphonies / Sony Classical

It is this same theme, transmuted from minor to major, that will provide the rumbustious junketings that end the finale (Audio 4), some 50 minutes later. But meanwhile, at the start of the main first movement, it becomes, by the most natural transition, into the theme of the second of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Audio 5). This source supplies most of the material for the movement, which is by turns cheerfully leisurely, brooding, and heroic; its atmosphere also influences the bustling ländler-style second movement (Audio 6), with its indolent and charming trio.

By the end of the symphony these country airs have been left far behind. After the bitterness of the third movement and the passionate outburst that begins the fourth, nothing less than a heaven-storming conclusion will satisfy Mahler.

—Bernard Jacobson
© 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation