Mahler Symphony no. 1 in D, ‘Titan’

This piece has been revisited, and an updated article has been written. Please read it here.  I’ll keep the original article (below) for posterity, but I would suggest reading the new article instead.

I believe the recording above is the same as the one I listened to from this box set by Deutsche Grammophon. If not, go check out that recording, because it’s the one I want.
Hello again, Mahler. Hello, not-so-old friend. It’s been not-so-long.
To this day, if I need to get in the kitchen and cook or clean my heart out, it’s Mahler 2 blaring through my headphones for an hour and a half as I do it. That was not the first Mahler symphony I became familiar with. That title goes to Mahler 5, which I acquired a recording of somehow ages ago. It sat in my CD collection for quite some time, the five movements and long track times putting me off for quite a number of years. Somehow or other, I had the impression that Mahler is long-winded, self-centered, terribly emotional, and doesn’t know when enough is enough, and all of that added to my inability to listen to classical music correctly (to know what to listen for) meant that I found it all terribly boring. The intro to the first movement, mind you, was arresting enough, but then I got bored.
But it came back up somehow in a past string of long, heavy, Romantic symphonies I got attached to and thus began my exploration of one of the greatest musical minds of all time. Mahler 5 could be a good place to start, for sure, but… the first symphony is arguably even better, for hopefully obviously logical reasons.
It’s his first symphony.
Unlike numbers 2-4 and 8 and 9, symphony number one is
without vocal parts (neither a chorus nor solo vocalists here). That was something else I found almost annoying, to be perfectly honest. I know nothing of vocal music or operas or cantatas or Lieder or anything; I am listening to a symphony, and I don’t want you guys singing all up in my music (needless to say, Mahler 2 broke me of that). It felt like having a complete stranger 20 years older than you join you and your three best friends for an evening of food and wine at your house (or something): it just felt totally unfamiliar and out of place. If that is possibly how you may feel about the situation, then Mahler 1 is a great place for you to start. It’s an early work, after some of his vocal pieces, but this one managed to be finished without any lyrics or vocal accompaniment, although some parts of it are inspired by (read: pulled directly from) some of his earlier vocal works.
After I spent some time with Mahler 5, I got curious about different versions and recordings Mahler’s works. This marks the first time I really started comparing recordings and conductors and ensembles, and I started comparing with Mahler 1. The recording I had was Solti’s Mahler cycle with the Chicago Symphony, which many people say is… not their favorite, but I always use it as a place to start for his symphonies. It isn’t awful, and I find it good enough (at least good enough, if not great…?) to get familiar with the piece before moving on to one of the other versions (Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony, Ozawa/Boston, one of the two Mahler cycles of Bernstein) and comparing from there.
I wish I had taken notes or made a bookmark or something somewhere regarding specific Mahler interviews organized by Universal Edition. They interviewed a few dozen of the big conductors in the world of classical music today about their impressions and feelings and memories and thoughts on Mahler and his music, and there was some fantastic insight there, even just for the listener. Seriously, watch these. I may have to go back and find which one it is, but it was interesting enough to hear someone’s impression of Mahler beginning with this first symphony, or to hear someone (I must find out who) describe Bernstein conducting Mahler as having a tendency to “over-gild the lily”, which I would agree on, for the most part. That being said, the more I listened to either of his (the early Sony recording and his later DG recording) the more I favored them over Solti.
Let’s talk more about the history of the piece before even attempting to (unprofessionally) decide on which recording I prefer.
This piece was composed between 1887 and March of 1888, while Mahler was second conductor at the Leipzig Opera, using some material from previous works. Although Mahler himself referred to and thought of it as a symphony, the first two performances (the first being the world premiere on November 20, 1889 in Budapest conducted by the composer) described it as a symphonic poem. The piece was not well received, and it was not until October 27, 1893 that the piece was performed again, serving as the German premiere, again performed by the conductor after some major revisions. The piece had not yet at this point been published, and yet more alterations were made. Those two early performances bore the name ‘Titan’, in reference to the Jean Paul novel, (none of) which I have read. After its final four-movement structure in 1896 and publishing in 1898, though, Mahler never again used the term. But it stuck.
For those first two performances (almost exactly four years apart) as well as the third in Weimar in June of 1894, the piece bore a movement between the current first and second movements titled ‘Blumine’. This piece had originally been written as part of another collection of pieces Mahler wrote in 1884, with all the rest of them lost, save this one. Wikipedia tells me “The addition of this movement appears to have been an afterthought, and Mahler discarded r after the Weimar performance in 1894.” Even this movement was lost until the 1960s. The piece is almost never programmed with this vestigial movement, although Mahler quotes themes from this movement in the fourth movement of the symphony, making me wonder how much of an afterthought it really was.
To clarify, even with the ‘programme’ describing the piece as a symphonic poem, and the name ‘Titan’ Mahler made it clear that “the piece was not in any way ‘about’ the book…” so I’m not sure what purpose, if any, it served, but I suppose I’m glad the cookie crumbled the way it did and we have the symphony in its current form.
There are many themes in this work from Mahler’s earlier song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. These are not just “inspired by” or based on, but fully complete themes and passages plopped right into a symphony setting. Even I recognize them. There’s no need to be familiar with the original works, really; it’s just some more background on perhaps what mood The Young Mahler was in and what emotional palette he drew from for this work.
The first movement opens almost ominously. There’s just this pause where things start to make noise and it feels eerie, but instruments begin to call out and it eases the tension and feels downright pleasant. There are bird calls and springy bouncy steps and just general cheerfulness, and a breathe of fresh air while still maintaining a structured, German drive. Parts of it are even playful. It’s youthful and, at the risk of overusing this word, very pastoral. It just sounds like nature. After the quiet, eerie introduction and some building begins the exposition. Because of the way this movement develops (dare I say ‘blooms’) out of those first quiet few notes, it really does feel organic, familiar, and natural.
The second movement is Mahler’s creative answer to the third-movement minuet/trio, except here it’s not the third movement but the second, and it’s a Ländler, Austria’s precursor to the waltz. It’s fantastically delightful. It’s substantially more stately and regal than the first movement. It feels very proper and polished, but without any stuffiness or pretentiousness. It retains some of the youthful vibrance of the first movement. There’s a beautiful, more peaceful middle section to this movement before the first theme returns and closes the movement cheerfully.
In stark contrast with the first two movements is the third. This movement, when I first listened to it, shocked and stunned me. It is at once darkly, painfully funereal, and deeply beautiful. This strong juxtaposition is haunting and gripping. I listened to this movement alone probably half a dozen times the first day, and it followed me into my sleep. I couldn’t shake it. It opens with a double bass solo playing Bruder Martin (Frere Jacques) in a minor-key, supposed to be played in a parody fashion. The bassoon follows, then cello,  the tuba, and this goes on until the oboe enters with a countermelody as this whole dark procession builds. In contrast with that is a Klezmer-type melody, barely cheerful and extremely Jewish. It falls right back to the original march theme, and we have this progression that goes on for a while. The middle section (marked Sehr einfach und schlicht wie eine Volksweise) is peaceful before jumping back to the funeral march, taking us through the Klezmer theme “suddenly much faster”, then settling down and closing (‘dying’?) out as slowly as it opened.
The fourth movement is the meatiest. The intro is jarring in relation to the quiet dying off from the previous movement, and I suppose this is intentional. It’s violent and impressive. There are a few different sections here. A quiet(er) lyrical section shows up before things pick back up again as at the beginning. Then things get super cool, to me. Mahler plays through and shows us, as if in a montage, little themes and bits of the first movement. It gets intense for a while, but it’s not over yet, and we’re back to lyrical stuff before the final actual climax with material from the beginning, climaxing strongly and assertively. The march-like and fanfare-like bits at the end of this movement really are epic and heroic and inspiring. It’s a towering, powerful triumphant ending, and it’s the first (and probably only) time during the symphony that I feel the name ‘Titan’ feels right or makes sense. It concludes crisply and confidently.
As I said, Solti was my first impression of most of these Mahler symphonies (1-7 at least), and I grew used to Solti’s slower, more torpidly painful tempo of the third movement (Eschenbach does the same here), and about the same with Ozawa. Bernstein’s more brisk take on the funeral march made it feel almost… Lively. Relatively speaking, it felt more like a tumble down a hill than a dirge. As I came to listen to it though, I appreciated it more, as I did with this piece in general. The more I listen to it, the more it grows on me.
I was initially opposed to Bernstein’s interpretations as being…. over-the-top. He’s a musical genius with tons of insight, but I’m not much a fan of people putting too much of their own stamp on a piece, potentially veering too far from or clouding over what the composer had originally intended. But the more I listened, the more Solti (and perhaps Ozawa) seemed to be… uninspired (at least relative to Bernstein). The sound quality or recording quality or something in that Kubelik recording I just couldn’t handle. The brass sounded like toy instruments played into oil drums recorded from a bad cassette tape in a garage or something, but I’ve heard one of his Mahler recordings is. The. Best. I can’t imagine it’s this one. All that being said, I am not an acoustician, not a sound technician, not even a really great musician in any way. But that was how I chose the recording I did.
I feel like this piece is a fantastic introduction to Mahler. I really do love this symphony. I would say it’s one of my favorites, probably. Symphonies 2 and 3 are not good places to start with Mahler, in my opinion. I’m not super familiar with 3 yet, but it’s even longer than 2, which is itself nearly an hour and a half, albeit one of the most heart-wrenchingly gorgeous 90 minutes you’ll probably ever experience. ‘Titan’ is cohesive, straightforward and simple (at least relatively speaking). It’s not as long as some of the rest of Mahler’s works, and is one of the more traditional symphonies (four movements, sonata form, Ländler, slow movement, finale) without chorus or vocals, etc.
There’s something approachable about this symphony as well; in my opinion, it is not especially challenging to the listener, as each movement is easy to understand, and for the beginner, can even stand on its own. It has the scope of feeling and expression and intensity that you would expect from the Mahler name, but there is also a certain youthful vibrance or hopefulness in it. Mahler in general didn’t write feel-good music, but this one really feels positive. It’s a quick hour. At 55-ish minutes, it’s not really much longer than some of Tchaikovsky’s more enduring works, or Rachmaninoff’s second symphony. Those are a few that come to mind. In any case, with all those things in mind, this may be the perfect gateway drug into Mahler.

All the above having been said, I must say that I did not approach Mahler with any semblance of familiarity with Bruckner or Wagner. I’ve never listened to anything of Wagner from beginning to end, and I’m only somewhat familiar with Bruckner’s works. For someone who knows that era and that style (Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner) and understands it and ‘gets’ it, going right to something like Mahler’s second symphony may not be as much of a leap, but for me, the first was a good introduction to the music of this composer, who we will see plenty more of. But slowly. These symphonies take significant time to prepare. Next on the list will probably be number 6, and that one is a long way out.
I’ll say it again. There is something endearing and familiar and cozy and emotionally warming about this piece, and it’s wonderful.

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