Mahler “Symphony No. 1 in D Major”

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan” (1887-1896)

Mahler’s first symphony was originally premiered in 1889 as a five movement symphonic poem in two parts, but the lukewarm response from both critics and the public nearly doomed it to oblivion. In an effort to make the work more accessible, Mahler made a few adjustments, including retitling the movements and adding the subtitle “Titan.” While this was more successful, Mahler was not entirely satisfied, and in 1896 he premiered the final version of the work, eliminating the second movement and all of the descriptive movement titles.

However, Mahler had already published his program; the bell could not be unrung. And indeed many generations of audiences have been helped by his descriptions, for which reason it is appropriate to reprint Mahler’s words, although it is worth noting that the composer felt that they could be misleading if taken too literally:

Part I

‘From the days of youth,’ flower-, Fruit- and Thorn-pieces

MOVEMENT 1: ‘Spring and no end’ (Introduction and Allegro Comodo).
The Introduction depicts the awakening of Nature from the long sleep of winter.

MOVEMENT 2: ‘With full sails’ (Scherzo)

Part II

MOVEMENT 3: Stranded! (A funeral march in ‘the manner of Callot’.)
The following might explain this movement: the external inspiration for the piece came to the author from a parodistic picture well known to all children in Austria, from an old children’s book: the animals of the forest accompany the dead huntsman’s bier to the grave; hares escort the little troop, in front of them marches a group of Bohemian musicians, accompanied by playing cats, toads, crows etc. Stags, deer, foxes and other four-legged and feathered animals follow the procession in comic attitudes. In this passage the piece is intended to have now an ironically merry, now a mysteriously brooding mood, onto which immediately…

MOVEMENT 4: ‘D’all Inferno al Paradiso’ (“From Hell to Heaven,” Allegro furioso)
follows, like the suddenly erupting cry of a heart wounded to its depths

The symphony begins with a pianissimo drone in the strings, in a piercingly high register, while winds play a theme (utilizing descending fourths, a favorite technique of Mahler’s to open a movement) in octaves. This desolate passage was borrowed most recently in Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life, where it depicted a variety of empty yet sublime spaces. As Mahler wrote to his colleague Franz Schalk, “The introduction to the first movement sounds of nature, not music!”

(from left corner: “Frühling und Kein Ende!” [Spring without end!]

“Langsam! Schleppend! [Slow! Dragging!])

The second movement is a joyful scherzo, where the third movement is a funeral march reminiscent of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.” The timpani opens the movement by tapping out a series of fourths; eventually a single double bass enters with the children’s tune “Frère Jacques” (known in English as “Are You Sleeping, Brother John?”), playing so high in register that the sound is almost sickly, and in the minor mode. Eventually the funeral march fades away and Mahler mimics the sound of a klezmer town band, only to completely abandon the idea in favor of quoting a melody from his earlier song cycle Songs of the Wayfarer (whose tunes he often recycled in his earlier symphonies). But eventually the peaceful melody gives way, and the death march that opened the music also closes it.

The final movement follows without pause, beginning with Mahler’s depiction of the wounded, crying heart. After the violent opening, interrupted briefly by a lyrical passage, Mahler transitions from C major to D major, arriving finally with a victorious chorale in the horn section in the section that unmistakably heralds victory over the struggle and emergence into Paradise.

[Back to the concert program]

~program notes by Jessica Davis, copyright 2012
for permission to republish, contact theexplicatrix@gmail.com

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