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ClassicsOnline Home » MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 1 (Baltimore Symphony, Alsop)
This remarkably original work, with its recurring quotations from the composer’s own songs, notably Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) and Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), is the perfect expression of one of Mahler’s most quoted sayings, “The symphony is a world; it must contain everything”. The opening movement, filled with sounds that Mahler remembered from his childhood, depicts “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter”, and is followed by an exuberant scherzo and trio based on a Ländler. The disturbing slow movement funeral march, based on the children’s song Frère Jacques, is unlike anything that had been heard before, and the symphony concludes with music of thrilling dramatic intensity.
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No 1 in D major
The great Viennese symphonic tradition found worthy successors in two composers of very different temperament and background, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. The latter, indeed, extended the form in an extraordinary way that has had a far-reaching effect on the course of Western music.
Mahler was to express succinctly enough his position in the world. He saw himself as three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew throughout the whole world. The second child, and the first of fourteen to survive, he was born in Kalište in Bohemia. Soon after his birth his family moved to Jihlava, where his father, by his own very considerable efforts, had raised himself from being little more than a pedlar, with a desire for intellectual self-improvement, to the running of a tavern and distillery. Mahler’s musical abilities were developed first in Jihlava, before a brief period of schooling in Prague, which ended unhappily, and a later course of study at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he turned from the piano to composition and, as a necessary corollary, conducting.
It was as a conductor that Mahler made his career, at first at a series of provincial opera-houses, and later in the position of the highest distinction of all, when, in 1897, he became Kapellmeister of the Vienna Hofoper, two months after his baptism as a Catholic, a necessary preliminary. In Vienna he made significant reforms in the Court Opera, but made enough enemies, particularly represented in the anti-semitic press, to lead to his resignation in 1907, followed by a final period conducting in America and elsewhere, in a vain attempt to secure his family’s future before his own imminent death, which took place on 18th May 1911.
Although his career as a conductor involved him most closely with opera, Mahler attempted little composition in this field. His work as a composer consists chiefly of his songs and of his ten symphonies, the last left unfinished at his death, and his monumental setting of poems from the Chinese in Das Lied von der Erde.
Mahler’s Symphony No 1 in D major was completed, in its first version, in 1888, incredibly enough five years before Dvořák’s Symphony ‘From the New World’ and only five years after the last symphony of Brahms. It was first performed the following year in Budapest, where Mahler had been appointed director of the Hungarian opera, before an audience that became increasingly restive as the work proceeded.
For the symphony Mahler had drawn up a programme, although he strongly believed that, whatever literary programme might lie behind a composition, the music should be able to stand on its own, without verbal explanation. No narrative element was given to the first audience in Budapest, but later performances were at first helped by a sketched description of the work:
Part I: From the days of youth – Flower, Fruit and Thorn-pieces (Blumen, Früchte und Dornenstücke)
1. Spring and no end to it. The introduction describes the awakening of nature and earliest dawn.
2. Bluminenkapitel (Andante) (later omitted)
3. In full sail (Scherzo)
Part II Commedia umana
4. Shipwrecked. A dead march in the manner of Callot.
5. Dall’inferno al Paradiso (Allegro furioso), the sudden expression of the feelings of a deeply wounded heart.
The symphony, originally a symphonic poem, although without title, has a more explicit literary source in the work of Jean Paul, an early Romantic writer whose Flegeljahre had had a strong influence on the young Schumann. The programmatic titles of the first two movements are taken from Jean Paul, whose connection with the seventeenth century French artist Jacques Callot is seen in his preface to ETA Hoffmann’s Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier. In short the symphony, in common with Mahler’s early songs, has its literary inspiration in writing of the earliest romantics, in the curiously grotesque ironical world of Jean Paul and in the evocative Des Knaben Wunderhorn of Brentano and von Arnim. The later title of the work, Titan, refers not to the struggle between the ancient gods of Greece so much as to the novel of that name by Jean Paul, in which two “Titans” or Himmelsstürmer, struggle for their aims of intellectual freedom or pleasure.
In its final form the Symphony has four movements, Mahler having discarded the original second movement Bluminenkapitel after the first three performances. The first movement opens with a slow section in which fanfares pierce the summer morning mists, suggesting pictorially the ideas of Mahler’s earlier song Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld (I went this morning through the field) from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), the melody of which provides the first subject. The slower music returns, but nothing is done to dispel the mood of happy serenity, although, as the movement hurries forward again, we may be aware of more tragic implications, Dornenstücke. For the first three performances of his First Symphony Mahler included a second movement Bluminenkapitel (Andante) (Flower Piece), later to be discarded. A scherzo follows, with a Schubertian trio.
After a pause the symphony continues with a solemn funeral march, making satirical use of a minor version of the children’s song Frère Jacques, and easily intelligible in terms of the composer’s explanation. He found the external inspiration for this movement in a satirical picture well known to all children in South Germany, The Huntsman’s Funeral, from an old book of children’s stories. The animals of the forest escort the body of the dead forester to the grave. Hares carry a little flag, with a band of Bohemian village musicians in front, accompanied by cats, toads, crows, and so on, playing, and by stags, does, foxes and other four-footed and feathered denizens of the forest, in comic guise. Use is also made of Mahler’s song Die zwei blaue Augen (My Love’s two Blue Eyes) from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in music of bitter contrast and heartfelt anguish.
The last movement is one of great dramatic intensity. Audiences unfamiliar with the work might well be warned by the example of the first performance in Budapest, when a woman jumped out of her seat in alarm as the movement began, an incident that caused the composer some amusement. A march leads to a more lyrical melody, before a renewed storm of sound, in music that is, as Mahler was to claim, a world in itself.
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