Revisit: Mahler Symphony No. 1 in D major

performed by the Chicago Symphony orchestra under Pierre Boulez

Here we are, beginning a whole new journey sort of all over again.

I started listening to Mahler’s symphonies not in any real order, and more out of curiosity or fascination than actual interest, but at the time, listening repeatedly and then trying to share my thoughts on the piece and what I perceive it to be about, upon looking back, was a bit like trying to describe the plot of a foreign film without subtitles.

Once you have a feel for the music, once it speaks to you, it says something to you that it doesn’t say to anyone else, because we all enjoy it differently, blah blah blah. But there are certain fundamental things to know about the composer, his work, the context of the piece, and I feel like so many of those things I didn’t appreciate when I went to try to write about the works just a few years ago.

The reason I’m making such a point to come back and revisit them (and I haven’t yet with Mozart’s early symphonies or much else) is because these works have become standards of my listening routine. They’re fundamental, basic listening, deeply powerful, moving works that hold such power over audiences, but in other ways are a love or hate. People who love Mahler really love Mahler, and people who can’t stand Mahler really can’t stand Mahler, and there isn’t much in between.

There’s so much that goes into understanding and appreciating the unique position Mahler the composer was in, and it is far beyond the scope of our discussion here. Go read Norman LeBrecht’s Why Mahler, or at least Mahler’s Wikipedia page, but in summary, as Leonard Bernstein describes somewhere, he was a man stuck between two worlds on almost all fronts. He was a Jew in German-speaking Europe, a well-recognized conductor who wanted to compose, split across the 19th and 20th centuries. Later in his career (than this symphony) he would even convert to Christianity to secure a position at the Vienna Opera.

I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.

This unique position, on multiple levels, I think, in Mahler’s career, pushed and pressed and pulled and tortured to create the emotional, driven, intense human people know of today. Other things, such as his upbringing and the shocking amount of death in his family, many of his siblings and later his own children, would also be a large influence in the composer’s career.

People associate Mahler with Bruckner’s name, but if you adore one of those and stick a toe in the water of the other’s symphonies, you might not find it so welcoming. Their works are quite different; they do, though, have a few areas where they cross paths. They had a common adoration of Richard Wagner, and Mahler attended some of Bruckner’s lectures, but was never formally a student. Mahler’s roommate for a time, though, one Hans Rott, was a shining pupil of Bruckner’s, and wrote an important symphony. Rott later tragically went a little crazy, claimed Brahms (who seemed rather displeased with Rott’s symphony as an entry in a competition) was out to kill him, and later died at the tragically young age of 26. Go listen to that first symphony, and if you know anything of Mahler’s first, you’ll hear irrefutably intentional similarities.

That’s one big influence for this first symphony of Mahler’s, and the second was something he himself wrote, his Lieder eines farenden Gesellen, a collection of four songs, or Lieder, a form with which he would have a strong connection all his life. Pay special attention to Ging heut’ morgen ubers FeldYou’ll notice this theme in the first movement.

Okay, so with those two ideas in mind, if you’ve done your homework, it’ll be easier to see agree with what might be an unpopular idea that I’ll present, at least for the diehard Mahler fanboys and girls.

I maintain that in this, Mahler’s first symphony, he didn’t yet have the confidence as a composer to construct something of such enormous scale as an hour-long symphonic work, and I have reasons to back that up. That’s not to say it’s a poor or weak symphony, although I’d argue it’s maybe the least remarkable of his entire output (but still a wonderful piece. Let’s pick it apart a little bit and see if you don’t agree. I could be entirely wrong.

The first movement is like the mist rising from a pristine, untouched forest, burned away by the warmth of the rising sun to reveal the flora and fauna inside. Beethoven certainly has no copyright on a falling interval motif, but give a listen to the opening and you’ll hear this falling fourth motif that Mahler uses. In Mahler, it’s a perfect fourth, in Beethoven a major third; maybe it’s a stretch, but they seem quite similar to me. Mahler, though, carries his falling, sighing motif farther, with the strings carrying a high A over the entire opening (high for all the strings, but still played across seven octaves). We hear brass calls, woodwinds chirping to life, and then the entire bucolic warmth of the first movement and the first symphony are in full swing. That theme from Mahler’s song shows up in full form, and its lyrical nature transmits well to the orchestral setting. The work is idyllic, and the downward fourth cuckoo-sound also happens to be the first interval in the melody from Mahler’s song, music that awakens from chirps and squeaks into a beautiful sonata-ish first movement, recalling the downward fourth figure, the quiet A, and the star melody.

So there we have our first movement, a really beautiful, pastoral thing, but if I may put it a bit crudely, built around the crutch of a song from earlier in the composer’s career. Let’s hop to the second movement, the minuet and trio, in second place for this symphony. Instead of a minuet, we have, in keeping with the rustic nature of the first movement, a Ländler, “a 3/4 dance-form that was a precursor to the Austrian waltz.” This is where you’ll hear Rott’s influence. Compare this second movement to Rott’s third. It’s giving me chills right this minute. He’s working a much stronger, brassy angle that’s bold and full-bodied but bursting with celebratory youthfulness and vibrance. It’s slightly more awkward than Mahler’s more polished, Austrian approach, but a stunning thing in its own right. Mahler uses it tastefully here, and the trio is a yet still broader, even more lyrical breath of fresh air, really gorgeous music, and then the Ländler returns to close out the first half of the work. So we have a song of Mahler’s own pen for the first movement, and a movement of his tragically deceased former roommate, a man he highly respected, as the basis for his second.

What, then, do we have for the third movement? It’s the single melody, the captivating line of music that practically haunted me in my sleep, Mahler’s use of Frère Jacques, or Bruder Jakob, or as Mahler refers to it, Bruder Martin. (Interesting side point: in Chinese, it’s ‘two tigers’). What’s usually a friendly childish melody is here transformed to a minor-key funeral march, led by a solo double bass, followed by bassoon, tuba, and the rest of the orchestra. A countermelody is introduced by the oboe, and this funeral march grows and swells until a near-ridiculous contrasting passage enters, a klezmer band sounds out from the orchestra, with oboe, clarinet, two trumpets, and some percussion for additional color. This is absolutely out of nowhere, and couldn’t be any more an almost grotesque contrast to the somber nature of what came before it, but it’s made to work, like having a couple of drinks at a bar to heave a sigh of saddened relief after a 19th century funeral. But the funereal march returns, this time followed by yet another melody from Mahler’s Gesellen set, Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (the two blue eyes of my darling). 

Die zwei blauen Augen
von meinem Schatz,
Die haben mich in die
weite Welt geschickt.
Da mußt ich Abschied nehmen vom allerliebsten Platz!
O Augen blau,
warum habt ihr mich angeblickt?
Nun hab’ ich ewig Leid und Grämen!

The final line speaks of eternal grief and sorrow… while there’s no sung text in this third movement, the original song’s text fits well with the theme. After these three ideas have been presented, they clamor and fight for dominance, or just occur simultaneously with disregard for one another. It’s been argued that the Frère Jacques theme is a Catholic, or Christian one, and the klezmer theme represents Mahler’s Jewish heritage. This is perhaps a fanciful fictionalization, but after the ensuing chaos and conflict, only one of them remains as the movement dies out.

Up to this point, we’ve seen Mahler draw from different sources as inspiration for the basic building blocks of his symphony. I’ll take a moment here to say that there was a short second movement (between the current first and second movements, so directly following the first movement) called Blumine. It was played in the first three performances of the symphony, but later removed, and even it comes from material Mahler had written for another occasion, namely the incidental music to Der Trompeter von Säckingen, the rest of which is now lost. While this short, rather plain but charming second movement was later removed, its remnants still appear in the finale, as Mahler makes a point of referring back to previous content from the symphony.

And that being said, here we are in what is arguably the most original, striking, and most mature movement of Mahler’s first symphony. First of all, it was strikingly against the standard of the time to have a symphony that begins in D major but with a finale that begins, after a chaotic, chest-pounding explosion, to reveal an F minor tonality. That’s a surprise, or was for listeners of the day, as if including a children’s tune and klezmer band in a symphony wasn’t already surprise enough.

The finale is really where we see Mahler taking the symphony head on, I think. He does a rather expert job of referring to earlier passages of the symphony to tie things together, as we shall see, but it feels like he finally has the confidence to take off the training wheels, so to speak, and just write. The finale has a big, complex structure, lots of fire, and is indicative of the later music we’ll hear from Mahler.

The movement is instantly propelled forward by that opening gesture, with percussion, strings, woodwinds, brass, all giving us everything they’ve got, and for the first few minutes of the finale, we’re still moving from that initial impetus. A few minutes in, though, things calm (way) down to an almost movie-scene like serenity brought to us by the strings. There’s lots of satisfying brass writing here. After our explosion and our serenity have been presented, there’s sudden triumph, but it’s too early for anything that epically final-sounding. And you’re right. There’s still lots of movement left, but hang onto that sudden gust of optimism. It returns in a big way.

In this complex structure of three themes, with a development section and echoes of what came before, it may seem confusing to try to delineate sections of exposition, development, and to dissect it like that. There’s no need. Just try to identify the F minor explosive fire that opens the movement, the contrasting serenity, and the sudden burst of triumph. These are our key players.

After all of this conflict, we suddenly have the triumphant theme in full glory, colors change and horns stand up, an absolutely breathtaking change of atmosphere, electrifying to see live, if it’s done (and even oboes and clarinets ‘bells up’ is exciting). This kind of coda to the entire work, like the credits rolling, gives us the D major we expected, as well as calls on content from the first movement, like the fanfare and the Lied, as well as Blumine, not excised from the finale, wrapping things up in a triumphant, concluding soaring sound from the brass, not just a heroic theme from the end of the work, but the survivor, our main descending fourth motif from the very beginning, now transformed. The work gives the false appearance of finishing with triumphant gesture, but not before it passes again through the memories of the first movement. Our downward fourths are now no longer a sigh, a quiet whisper in a dim forest, but a triumphant, powerful heroic sound, and with a final two thuds, this movement and the entire work are spectacularly finished.

So it’s by no means a poorly constructed or inferior symphony. Mahler worked with a certain economy of material, and although I said it was a crutch, his tying together of a few disparate elements to give himself the main components of his first symphony, he tied them together brilliantly, especially in the more confident final movement, as if he’d built enough momentum to take on something really, entirely new, and close the work with a grand sense of purpose and logic.

So, yeah, it’s a great work, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what’s still to come. There are symphonies, song cycles, and so much more to enjoy from this composer. I should say outright, although it was referenced earlier, that Mahler had composed prior to this, and even Gesellen and Der Trompeter were not the only things he’d composed, but it’s quite different from taking on the symphonic form.

There’s a lot to learn here about Mahler the composer. For one, he has a love of the human voice and traditional Lieder; even if there’s not a single note sung in the piece, much of it is rooted in that tradition. Folk song plays a big part of it. While the Ländler isn’t from some folk song (rather his deceased friend’s symphony), it certainly has a rustic feel to it. Then there’s the third movement with its melodies, taking music from children’s bedrooms and the streets. These are all things that Mahler wouldn’t only do once, in one way or another, but finally we have the finale, a work that gives us glimpses of the towering heights his music would reach, how he would handle his large-scale structures, present and re-present his themes to tie a huge work together. Compared to Mahler’s other work, it’s (obviously) a bit youthful, but compared to anything else that had come before it, it was entirely new.

I have not neglected but rather decided not to mention the Titan moniker for this symphony, which existed for only the first two performances of this work, both of which still contained that Blumine movement; he later removed it, the title, and all program notes for the work, as well as the division into separate parts, giving it the more traditional four-movement form in which it was published. Despite the subsequent removal of all of these programmatic elements, the first symphony still appears on many programs or CDs with the ‘Titan’ title, even though I think Mahler wouldn’t have wanted it to.

In the matter of recording, I don’t really have a lot of preference for this work, believe it or not. Abbado’s and Tennstedt’s cycles (the former with Lucerne or Berlin) are solid options overall, and in my collection, a most unlikely candidate is Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia orchestra. I saw him here in January of ’16 (with his Chicago band) and they played the first; it was obviously a stunningly well-performed piece, but I think Muti’s interpretation, while enjoyable, was rather neutral, and that’s fine. It was presented without context, maybe the way one would play Tchaikovsky or any Romantic symphony, no expectations, nothing terribly idiomatic, just good playing. Tony Duggan says this of Muti’s recording with Philadelphia, that it’s not played as a prophetic precursor of what’s to come, just as a good symphony, and that’s perfectly fine.

My first choice, though, for Mahler’s first, is Boulez. Some people have issues with his Mahler (or anything he conducts) being lifeless, void of emotion, cold, etc., but I have the exact opposite problem with Bernstein’s overwrought, oversaturated readings of these symphonies. Chicago plays them with fervor and passion, and Boulez’s reading is one of the most lively of his entire cycle, an exquisite first symphony recording from a world-class orchestra.

So that’s that, my updated appraisal of the first symphony. I’m not linking to the original, and actually haven’t even gone back to read it, but it’s there to look at if you want to go see what I wrote about when it was still like completing a homework assignment for which I was still unprepared. In any case, there’s more to come from Mahler this week, so do stay tuned.


3 thoughts on “Revisit: Mahler Symphony No. 1 in D major

  1. I recently heard Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. A tough nut to crack. I found it difficult to like it at the first hearing. Perhaps I need to grow a little older… The song closing the 4th mvt. sung by Miah Persson however was very moving.

    1. It’s funny you say that, because I think of no. 4 as one of the most approachable of Mahler’s symphonies. It’s the smallest in both orchestral forces and duration (give or take). Maybe it doesn’t have the emotional impact of 2 or 3 that makes such an impression on listeners, and the scherzo second movement of the fourth is maybe the most boring movement Mahler ever wrote, but overall, to my ear, it is full of charm and beauty.

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