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ClassicsOnline Home » MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 1 in D Major, "Titan" (Tintner Edition 13)
Gustav Mahler (1864–1911)
Symphony No. 1
Although Mahler studied piano and composition at the Vienna conservatory - where he was considered mediocre at the latter - he soon discovered that he had a talent for conducting. After working in Ljubljana and Olomouc he moved to Kassel, and here he fell in love with Johanna Richter. The relationship failed, and Mahler wrote his first great work, the song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). In the same year, 1884, he began his first symphony, into which he incorporated two of the songs from the Wayfarer cycle; the first movement, marked Wie ein Naturlaut (Like a sound of Nature), begins with “Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld” (This morning I walked over the fields). Mahler completed it in 1888 in Leipzig, where he was second conductor, while in love with Marion von Weber, the wife of Carl Maria von Weber’s grandson.
Mahler originally conceived the work as a symphonic poem in five movements, a grand conception of over an hour and using a very large orchestra: although the work uses one of his smaller symphony orchestrations, it is nevertheless scored for four flutes (two doubling piccolo), four oboes (one doubling cor anglais), four clarinets in B-flat, A and C (with doubling instruments bass clarinet and E-flat clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), seven horns, five trumpets, four trombones, tuba, two timpani, three percussionists, harp and strings. It was in this form, and with a detailed programmatic explanation, that Mahler conducted the première in Budapest in 1889. The first part of the symphony was well received, but the fourth movement, the funeral movement incorporating “Frère Jacques” in a minor key, was too unusual and the performance was not a success. After the third performance of the work Mahler eliminated the second movement (“Blumine”) and the explanations, and revised it into the form it is known today.
“Mahler is like a few others, a very few others, who seem to leave nobody neutral,” said Georg Tintner in the 1970s. “There are either those who think he was the new Messiah in music, or those who think that he was no good at all. And the truth of course, as always, is not in the middle, it is nearer the Messiah than no good at all, but it isn’t either black or white. He was a man who—and I think that is probably his greatest side—who told us in his music exactly what he felt. When he felt vulgar thoughts his music is vulgar; when he felt noble thoughts his music is equally noble. And I think this utter and complete honesty this laying bare of his soul, is what makes him so attractive nowadays. Mahler tried to show himself as he was altogether, with all his negative and positive sides, and as such he is perhaps the first modern artist.
“There is another element in his music, which is so familiar to us. It is what the Germans call Angst. Anxiety is not the same, Angst is much more. It is not just fear, it is unreasonable, unreasoned, unmotivated fear. Seemingly unmotivated fear that is in the works of Franz Kafka, and that is in Mahler. That sort of insecurity, that feeling: what’s going to happen—why am I so afraid?
“There is yet something else. And to me that is the most moving of all. I come back again to that infernal Jewish question, because I have to. There is a tremendous desire in Mahler, and therefore in Mahler’s music, to be just like anybody else. And therefore he all his life tried to write folk music, popular music, and the Songs of a Wayfarer is an admirable example. It is seemingly music of the people, just as they would sing in the street, something like that but! It never rings completely true. The music rings true, utterly true, but that effort to be just like anybody else, just like one of the people, that does not ring true.
“There is something else that is also a rather touchy subject, but dependent on everything else. This is the famous “banality” in Mahler—intentional and hurtful banality. The Jewish self-hate may well have to do with the fact that he has been thought for so long to be inferior in intellect and all the rest of it that however much we want to deny it, something remains.
“In Mahler you find a lot of that intentional cheapening, of that self-hatred. I want to remind you of the movement in the First Symphony which has the canon on “Frère Jacques” with the double bass solo feared by all double basses; nobody can ever forget that movement. It is very gloomy, strong and cleverly counterpointed with subdued colours; and suddenly the oboes and then helped by the trumpets start a tune of such disastrous cheapness that one winces hearing it—and Mahler knew just as well as you or I that it was disgusting. It is a sort of self-loathing, I can’t describe it in any other way, but it is a very important ingredient of his music and it would be completely wrong, even if you could, to make a cut there and continue at that magical recapitulation. The movement is in D minor and the recapitulation starts in E-flat, which fools everybody who has not absolute pitch. Between these two themes is this dreadful tune. Perhaps people like me are more sensitive to its awfulness, and I want to point this out as it is no use glossing over this sort of thing as it is terribly important and in fact these negative sides may be more important than the “bell-ringing” Mahler in the finale of the Second Symphony, and most of the Eighth Symphony.
“It may well be that that part of Mahler is one of the most valuable. Because he was the first who dared to be vulgar when he felt he was vulgar. Others like Kurt Weill took that up, almost exaggeratedly, and cheapened themselves for most of the time. But I think Mahler with all these characteristics enriched not only music but humanity as a whole, by just being totally honest and showing us signs which we would rather forget about ourselves.”
© 2010 Tanya Tintner
Special thanks to Aaron Z. Snyder for the sound restoration.
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