(Chart referenced in this post)

Meaning in Symphony No. 1

Titles and Program

As we see in the chart taken from Mitchell’s writings, the original title of the symphony was “Symphonic Poem” in two parts. Parts I and II were indicated, but not explicitly titled. The other movements were given brief titles. We know that the premiere performance (Budapest, 1889) was not received well by the public, and so for the Hamburg performance we see named Parts I and II and more elaborate movement titles. We also have the program put in for the Hamburg performance, which indicates that Part I is “From the Days of Youth,” Music of Flowers, Fruit and Thorn.[1] The first movement is nature awakening from sleep, the second movement (Blumine) is still a part of the work, and the third movement translates to “Under Full Sail”.[2] In the first movement the listener hears spring drowsily creeping into the forefront of our aural perception, fading in and out of intensity, but generally escalating. Yet, what happens in the first published score in 1899? The subdivision labeling Part I is dropped, the first movement has no title, the Blumine movement is omitted, and the Scherzo lacks a title. The transformation that we have come across is one of vivid springtime imagery (the world waking up from a deep winter slumber), to pure absolute music.

Does the final title indicating that this symphony is absolute music invalidate the program? This may be so. Four days after the 1896 performance in Berlin, Mahler assures Marschalk that,

The reason for omitting [the program titles and explanations] this time is not only that I consider them to be less than comprehensive—indeed, I do not even believe them to be accurate characterizations—but I have seen how the audience is misled by them.”[3]

Still, these program titles work accurately for the music, regardless of what Mahler said. This leads to another question; not only are we confronted with “what is the correct meaning of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1?”, but “is this work a work of absolute music or program music, or does it lie somewhere in between?” In addition, is the piece “Symphony No. 1” a work with programmatic titles or one without them? Since we can easily find meaning with the program titles, but also since Mahler decided to hide them from us in the final iteration, is Symphony No. 1 a work of absolute music with a history of being programmatic? Is it a programmatic work that is trying to be absolute and has been hiding its programmatic nature from us for a century?

To continue, the second part begins with a funeral march, referencing a processional of animals mourning the woodsman that hunted them. This clearly is programmatic, especially since Mahler has an external stimulus (the picture) that he references. Yet, in the first publication, the funeral march is merely given a tempo indication, and no title. This confuses the matter even more: if the first part can be understood easily as either program music or absolute music, the funeral march’s programmatic beginning but absolute final version does not help one resolve this dilemma. The music itself does not help at all: the contrasting irony of the dour funeral procession with the upbeat, almost celebratory march indicate that the program is there, even though this program is clearly abandoned by Mahler in his lack of a title. The final movement furthers this ambiguity: originally titled “Dall’ Inferno,” this movement now bears no title.

The overall title of the work follows the contour of the movement titles in its journey from the somewhat programmatic “Symphonic Poem”, to “ ‘Titan’, eine Tondichtung in Symphonie-form”, to “Symphonie No. 1 in D-dur”. This is represented in the other movements, which in their titles journey from being blandly programmatic in the Budapest premiere, to densely detailed in the Hamburg performance, and slowly losing their programs until the first publication in 1899.

The Blumine Movement

Lastly, why would Mahler abandon an entire movement of music? Is he reacting to the critical reception of that movement? Are his misgivings being shown? Is removing that second movement truly a way of bettering the piece? Does this movement have any effect on our discussion about programmatic and absolute forces battling for dominance? Here the history of that movement becomes important: it was originally inserted into the symphony (it was pre-composed), and so its removal was easier to execute because it was originally not part of the work. In addition, Mahler had many misgivings about it. Floros writes, “Mahler did not think much of his incidental music. …According to a report of Max Steinitzer, Mahler considered the piece to be ‘too sentimental,’ and was annoyed by it.”[4] Yet, this movement continues the debate about whether the work is programmatic or absolute. While it can be understood as absolute music, it has incidental origins and its musical content made August Beer, the critic at the premiere, perceive it to be a serenade with programmatic elements:

“The following serenade is an intimate, impassioned trumpet melody that alternates with a melancholic song of the oboe. We easily recognize the lovers exchanging their tender feelings in the silence of the night. The two obbligato instruments are very sensitively accompanied by the string quartet.” [5]

A Conclusion About Meaning

I realize that I have not answered the burning questions at hand: what is the meaning of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1? Is it programmatic or absolute? Is there any clarity we can shed on this piece, which contradicts itself musically, fits programmatic elements, but is absolute according to the composer in his Fassung Letzter Hand? And, what does this mean about what constitutes this piece at its essence?

With all of these elements presented: the introduction to Mahler’s output, compositional history of the symphony, table of movement titles, and a survey of the nature of the programmatic, absolute, and formal elements in the symphony, we can retract the statement in the introduction: “[Mahler] naively believed that the emotions he felt while composing would be communicated and felt by the audience at performance.” I argue that since Mahler was a conflicted person, since he received both critical acclaim and disparagement, since his emotional state is impacted by his life events and defines his symphonic output, since he made programmatic references throughout his music but tried to brand himself as an absolute musician, the meaning in this symphony is that we get an extremely detailed view into the heart, mind, and soul of this composer. Gustav Mahler is deeply imbedded in this symphony; his very essence is the essence of the symphony. Through this work, we understand with excruciating intensity how his mind works, how he faced constant contradictions, how he grappled with life and work: he was just like one of us, empowered by his abilities and emotions, but also crippled by constant internal irony and doubt. I do not mean to ignore the details of movement titles and the notes on the page in making these statements, for fear of glossing over details, but I must argue that the meaning of this symphony is that we become closer to another human, with more depth and breadth than any biography could ever convey. Is it not amazing—and the purpose of music—that music provides a personal connection with Mahler’s soul, greater than any descriptive text could? Is not this transcendent of ideas of narrative, clear-cut boundaries, and putting people into categories and “boxes” as our society tends to do? And, is it not fitting that this symphony transcends ideas of program and absolute music, while transcending the structures we put in place to define who we are as humans—and who Gustav Mahler was? Transcendence, oftentimes one of the primary goals of music, is clearly evident here. No matter how many times Mahler revised this work, and no matter how much ambiguity this generates in our minds and analyses, we must remember that this work is indelible, and so is Mahler, because he transcends boundaries, categories, and definitions in this landmark work.

Works Cited

Floros, Constantin. Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies. Translated by Vernon and Jutta Wicker. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993.

Mahler, Gustav. Symphonie Nr. 1, v.1/V. Edited by Karl Heinz Füssl. Vienna: Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft, 1992.

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

Mitchell, Donald. Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years, Chronicles and Commentaries. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1975.

[1] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, trans. Vernon and Jutta Wicker (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 29.

[2] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, trans. Vernon and Jutta Wicker (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 29.

[3] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, trans. Vernon and Jutta Wicker (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 30.

[4] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, trans. Vernon and Jutta Wicker (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 30.

[5] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, trans. Vernon and Jutta Wicker (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 37.