(Chart referenced in this post)

Compositional History of Symphony No. 1

Most sources agree that Mahler wrote the majority of this symphony between January 20, 1888 and the end of March that year.[1] At this time, Mahler was a proponent of creating music based on building blocks—arranging and rearranging structures (especially pre-existing ones) to create novel works/aggregate structures. Following this, Mahler’s first symphony is almost entirely based on pre-existing material, a technique commonly employed by Mahler in his early symphonies. Mahler writes to Natalie Bauer-Lechner that “…composing is like playing with building blocks, where new buildings are created again and again, using the same blocks. Indeed, these blocks have been there, ready to be used, since childhood, the only time that is designed for gathering.”[2] The first movement and middle section of the slow movement incorporate the music of two songs from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), written by Mahler in 1884. The second movement (now usually omitted in performance) entitled Blumine, was originally incidental music for a performance of Joseph Victor von Scheffel’s play Der Trompeter von Säkkingen (The Trumpeter from Säkkingen). Motives from Mahler’s song Hans und Grete of 1880 are in the Scherzo, and Todtenmarsch in Callot Manier (the penultimate movement) is based on the folk song Bruder Martin. The Finale has motifs borrowed from Liszt’s Dante Symphony (1856) and Wagner’s Parsifal (1882).

This symphony was originally conceived as program music, and Mahler conducted the premiere of the then-titled Symphonic Poem in Two Parts (i.e. a tone poem) in Budapest on November 20, 1899. The parts were originally labeled as follows:

Part I: 1. Introduction and Allegro comodo. 2. Andante. 3. Scherzo.

Part II: 4. A la pompes funèbres; attacca. 5. Molto appassionato.

The premiere was an abject failure. While Mahler branded this as a programmatic work, he did not include program notes. The audience seemed capable of understanding the first half as absolute music in the absence of these notes, yet the funeral march that begins the second half was jarring and appeared incongruous with the rest of the work. This led the critics to believe that the program was tenuous and the two halves do not really complement each other. The audience was confused and left disillusioned by the juxtaposition of the broad, expansive, universal second half that contains the funeral march and intense finale.

After the failure of the premiere, Mahler abandoned the work for three years, only returning to it in 1893 for a performance in Hamburg. Determined not to have another failure on his hands, Mahler extensively revised the work. While the Budapest autograph is lost, we do know that his revisions in the musical content were mainly in instrumentation and were drastic. In a letter to Richard Strauss on May 5, 1894, Mahler writes, “As a whole, everything has become more slender and transparent.”[3] One example is that the pedal A in the strings that opens the piece was changed to a series of harmonics instead of fingered notes.

Yet, the above paragraph notes merely technical aspects. Mahler also introduced new movement titles, and introduced a program that served for the 1893 performance in Hamburg and the 1894 performance in Weimar:

1st Part. “From the Days of Youth,” Flower-. Fruit- and Thorn-pieces.

  1. “Spring without End” (Introduction and Allegro comodo). The Introduction depicts Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.
  2. “Blumine” (Andante).
  3. “In full sail”” (Scherzo).

2nd Part. “Commedia humana”.

  1. “Aground” (Funeral March “in the manner of Callot”). The following may serve as an explanation: The external stimulus for this piece of music came to the composer from the parodistic picture, known to all children in Austria, “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession”, from an old book of children’s fairy tales: the beasts of the forest accompany the dead woodsman’s coffin to the grave, with hares carrying a small banner, with a band of Bohemian musicians, in front, and the procession escorted by music-making cats, toads, crows, etc., with stags, roes, foxes and other four-legged and feathered creatures of the forest in comic postures. At this point the piece is conceived as the expression of a mood now ironically merry, now weirdly brooding, which is then promptly followed by:
  2. “Dall’ Inferno” (Allegro furioso), the sudden eruption of a heart wounded to the quick.[4]

The picture referred to in the program for Movement 4 is below:

schwind_begraebnis-the-hunters-funeral-procession-march-des-jagers-leichenbegangnis-ein-totenmarsch-incallotsmanier

[5]

This program was devised by Mahler to make the symphony easier to understand. In March 1896, Mahler wrote to the critic Max Marschalk,

“…at the time my friends persuaded me to provide a kind of programme for the D major symphony in order to make it easier to understand. Therefore, I had thought up this title and explanatory material after the actual composition.”[6]

The revised score, edited movement titles, and added program resulted in the second performance in Hamburg on October 27, 1893 being a success, but there was a divided reaction to the June 3, 1894 performance conducted by Richard Strauss in Weimar. Those who disliked all or part of the 1894 performance seem to have honed in on the still glaring disparity between the first and second halves.

Mahler’s indecisive nature about movement titles and program, as well as his mixed feelings about the second movement (Blumine), seem to have reached a tipping point after the 1894 performance where, despite all of his efforts in doubling down on the symphony as a programmatic piece, he was still receiving a divided audience reaction at best. To continue that 1896 quote to the critic Marschalk, Mahler writes:

“…at the time my friends persuaded me to provide a kind of programme for the D major symphony in order to make it easier to understand. Therefore, I had thought up this title and explanatory material after the actual composition. I left them out for this performance [Berlin, 3/16/1896, conducted by Mahler], not only because I think they are quite inadequate and do not even characterize the music accurately, but also because I have learned through past experiences [no doubt, at Hamburg and Weimar] how the public has been misled by them.”[7]

One particular critic, count Ernst Otto Nodnagel, called the Blumine movement “trivial”.

With all of these critical and emotional effects on Mahler’s already tenuous relationships to the movement titles and the program, Mahler decided to make a change and brand himself as an absolute musician in this symphony. He went through the symphony and made major revisions.

Mahler removed the program, changed the title to “Symphony in D Major”, and dropped the second, “Blumine,” movement. These changes, along with a reinforced orchestral apparatus, re-orchestration, and many instrumentation changes before the first publication in 1899, became what we now know as Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major. To proceed further, it is worth noting that Mahler originally considered the Blumine movement too sentimental, but he had decided to insert it anyway into the symphony (it was prewritten music that he placed in as a second movement). Mahler may have masked his shame at its poor reviews by making a confusing statement that its key was related too closely to the other movements (even though it is closely related—the autograph is in C major). It is also possible that his re-presentation of the symphony as absolute music made him want to have the symphony be the standard four movements. It also resembles salon music, something Mahler may have disliked in the symphony’s serious context. Overall, Mahler likely felt, and had reinforced by critics such as Nodnagel, that the Blumine was not at the level of quality of the other movements.

These changes were drastic; the removing of an entire movement and rebranding the symphony entirely for the second time were Mahler’s attempts at turning this symphony into a success. Mahler’s attempts paid off, but this rebranding and his constant modifications and tenuous relationship between movement titles/programs and the nature of his works would persist to a great degree until after the composition of the fourth symphony. As Donald Mitchell notes in Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years, Chronicles and Commentaries, it is clear from this and other analyses that form and especially movement titles were oftentimes uncertain and unsettled in Mahler’s mind (until after the composition of the fourth symphony). This is illustrated in the attached movement title chart, taken from Mitchell’s book.[8]

[1] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, trans. Vernon and Jutta Wicker (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 26.

[2] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, trans. Vernon and Jutta Wicker (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 25.

[3] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, trans. Vernon and Jutta Wicker (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 27.

[4] Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years, Chronicles and Commentaries, (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1975), 157.

[5] “Mahler Symphony 1,” GustavMahler.com, accessed April 22, 2016, http://gustavmahler.com/symphonies/mahler-symphony-1.html.

[6] Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years, Chronicles and Commentaries, (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1975), 160.

[7] Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years, Chronicles and Commentaries, (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1975), 160.

[8] Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years, Chronicles and Commentaries, (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1975), 158-159.