Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

Gustav Mahler portrait by E. Bieber in 1902, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gustav Mahler, by E. Bieber in 1902, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We don’t know exactly when the work of Malher’s First Symphony started, partly because much material were “borrowed” from earlier works of his own and other composers like Liszt. Based on Mahler’s own accounts in his correspondents, it seems evident that he worked and completed the original version of the symphony between January and May of 1888. As he told his friend Fritz Löhr, the work “gushed out of me like mountain river”.

Program, or no program?

One fascinating aspect about Mahler is that, during his life time he was far more famous being an opera conductor than a composer, he struggled his whole life trying to be a full-time composer. His symphonies, which are considered his highest achievements nowadays, were mostly done part-time during summer breaks, or whenever he can find free time out of his intensely busy conducting schedule. In his early symphonies, this struggle was even more aggravated by the fact that his works were often not well received by both general mass and critics. Though devastated by lack of acceptance at times, Mahler never really lost confidence in his ability to compose, and never bent his determination to pursue excellence in his work.

The First symphony was premiered on November 20, 1889 in Budapest, in its original 5-movement form without a program. It turned out to be a flop. Mahler said even his friends avoided him after that performance. He put the score away for four years, until four years later in October 1893, when he had the second performance in Hamburg, with a moderate success. But then in June 1894 in Weimar, the performance met with sharply negative critics. Subsequent premier of March 1896 in Berlin was again hardly a success. For years Mahler felt his First was simply not understood and accepted by his contemporaries. So after the failure in Budapest, he went from no program whatsoever to the other extreme, added the title ‘Titan’, and put up an much elaborated program, yet still without success; probably out of frustration and despair, he then withdrew all the programs, and removed the second Andante “Blumine” movement. After all those back and forth and many revisions, the work was finally published in 1899, 10 years after its premier. It had four movements and without any program notes.

“What does it mean?”

Is there, or should there even be such a question on Mahler’s First symphony (or all of his symphonies for that matter)? Should we try to define its meaning? If so, isn’t the answer to such question already in those program notes he created earlier? Mahler’s symphonies are not programmatic music, but they are not so called “absolute music” either. Far from that. Though he once declared “death to the programs” and rejected any programs associated with his early works, the fact is he always wanted to (and certainly did) express something in his music; or, at least, he struggled with it. Such intention is very much evident in his letters with his wife Alma and other friends. He wrote about his first two symphonies, and said “my whole life is contained in them: I have set down in them my experience and suffering…to anyone who knows how to listen, my whole life will become clear, for my creative works and my existence are so closely interwoven that, if my life flowed as peacefully as a stream through a meadow, I believe I would no longer be able to compose anything.”[1]

As Deryck Cooke put it, the First symphony is Mahler’s “spiritual autobiography”[2], describing the journey of a hero (apparently Mahler himself), his childhood and youth memories filled with deep connection with nature, his suffering, struggle and anguish, his confidence in overcoming fear and anxiety in life, and the ultimate triumph over destiny. On the other hand, we should be aware of the danger of “linking the content of Mahler’s works too closely with the circumstances of his life at the time he wrote them”[3]. Mahler said himself in his letter to Max Marschalk, “in my conception of the work, I was in no way concerned with the detailed setting forth of an event, but much rather of a feeling[4]. Yet soon afterwards, he gave Marschalk a rather detailed “explanation” of his Second symphony, similar as he did for the Weimar performance after the fiasco of the Budapest premier of his First.

We can see the struggle Mahler had with those programs, which though withdrawn but did come into existence for posterity to examine. While we draw heavily upon those programs today, they also left us with a great deal of dilemma in how they should be treated in understanding Mahler’s work. On this point, Cooke provided following advice (though written in discussing the Second, it is applicable to all of Mahler’s work):

What we should do, perhaps, is neither reject Mahler’s programme, nor take it literally, but try to penetrate to its valid psychological core, shearing away all inessentials.[5]

That would make sense. Though reaching “valid psychological core” of Mahler’s music is easier said than done, especially for the majority of the listeners who are amateurs like myself.

Yet, music is such a unique art form that it is never complete without a performance, which inevitably is subject to interpretation. The interpretation is not only done by performers and conductors, but also musicologists, scholars, and eventually us the audience as well. I guess the spirit of Cooke’s advice above is, we shall read Mahler’s program notes to get a sense of his intention, but no need to get too hung up on fixing the work with some definitive “meaning”. We certainly should not stretch it too far and end up “applying” meanings to his work, which I think was what Lebrecht did by asserting the 3rd movement’s funeral march “is a protest against the world’s indifference to infant mortality rates of 56 percent”…applying a sense of Yiddish irony to “social policy without a specific target, covering his back by means of ironic euphemism”[6]. Really? Was Mahler writing the funeral march with such a strong sense of social responsibility and righteousness in his mind? Sounds quite far fetched to me.

Structure Analysis

Following is an attempt to walk through the overall structure of the work, highlighting key motifs and themes and possible relationships among them. In its final version published in 1899, with all program notes removed, the symphony had following movement titles:

I. Langsam, schleppend (Slowly, dragging); Immer sehr gemächlich (Always very leisurely)

II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving strongly, but not too quickly); Trio, Recht gemächlich (leisurely)

III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemn and measured, without dragging)

IV. Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch (Stormily agitated – Energetic)

While the work largely conforms with conventional four-movement sonata form, the materials within each movement is far from being conventional.

I. Langsam, schleppend (Slowly, dragging); Immer sehr gemächlich (Always very leisurely)

The first movement undoubtedly is about Mahler’s feeling towards nature. On the first page of the score he wrote “Wie ein Naturlaut“, meaning “like a sound of nature”. On the background of a sustaining faint seven-octave A on the strings, a rather long introduction starts with a motif of downward fourth, and then extended into a theme played by the woodwinds:

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This “theme of fourth” is significant. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that it is the soul of the entire symphony and unifies all four movements. When Jonathan Carr commented on the original Blumine movement, he made the point that Blumine “just cannot belong [to the symphony], since it ignores the other movements’ preoccupation with the interval of the perfect fourth”[7].

The introduction is quite long yet rich in materials, with the theme of fourth permeated throughout. We soon hear the clarinet playing a soft fanfare tune:

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The fanfare theme is also presented by the trumpet shortly after:

 (mm. 23-26)

The trumpet fanfare theme is later used in the development section as well as the Finale, though somewhat varied but mostly maintain its shape, yet perfectly fit different contexts. Here, Mahler instructed it to be played by only two trumpets, marking the words “In der Ferne” (in the distance), it is meant to be a remote sounding awakening call. Later near the end of development (mm. 352), it is played by all four trumpets marked “offen” (open) and ff, and on D major, which was appropriate while the music is pushing towards the climax of the movement.

Another important motif is the cuckoo call played by the clarinet, which obviously is based on the the interval of fourth:

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The marking on the score is very clear, “Der Ruf eines Kukkuck nachzuahmen” (to imitate the call of a cuckoo). We hear this motif throughout the first movement. It is probably the most intuitive indication of nature to untrained ears. Here’s the clip of above two themes together:

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What’s amazingly effective in depicting the slowly “awakening of nature after a long winter’s sleep”, as Mahler put it, is this mellow horn tune, marked “sehr weich gesungen” (sung very softly):

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Anyone hearing the introduction will almost certainly understand and appreciate the spirit of “awakening of nature”, even without any programs or notes; as Constantin Floros wrote, the “quasi-impressionistic, atmospheric character of the music”[8] is truly masterful and quite unusual at the time.

Towards the end of introduction, while the theme of fourth and cuckoo motif reiterate faster (doubled in meter into quarter notes), another underpinning theme played by the cello softly but steadily creeps in, with an ascending chromatic progression matching the same quarter note rhythm:

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The introduction ends and quietly moves into exposition. This chromatic theme appears later again in the Finale after the exposition of secondary subject and, in a similar fashion, leads to the development section.

The exposition opens with themes Mahler borrowed from his Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfaring Lad), a cycle of four orchestral songs, written back in 1885. The first theme comes from the opening of the second song “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” (I Went This Morning over the Field), describing the young lad walking through the countryside. The mood of this ‘walking tune‘ is relaxed and joyful:

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The next part comes from the third verse of the song:

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which is then followed by part of the first verse:

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Towards the end of exposition, the ‘walking tune’ reappears, much louder by the horns, but at the same time overwhelmed by a trilling theme on the high woodwinds, which has a series of eighth notes, mimicking bird calls; the mood by now is almost exultant:

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Note the trilling theme started earlier already, played by the flute and violin, and has gone through some elaboration before arriving at this mini climax. Just to pick two of them:

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It would be hard to fit the exposition into a conventional sonata form. As Floros pointed out, the exposition has basically few themes from the song, they do not form a contrasting pair of main and secondary themes, nor a third theme; he considered this “structural abnormalities”[9].

The development starts by first going back to the quiet pre-dawn nature sounds (though with some variation), reiterating the theme of fourth, the cuckoo and trilling theme. In the midst of the tranquil atmosphere, and, to the same point of the unconventional form mentioned above, a new theme, often referred to as cantabile theme, emerges on the cello, first fragmented:

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To bridge between this quiet nature sounds and the cantabile theme, Mahler brings back the ascending chromatic theme, this time on the harp only; then, on the backdrop of strings tremolo, a horn fanfare call comes in; it obviously derives from the earlier horn mellow tune in the introduction, but now with a faster tempo and more vibrant rhythm, as if announcing the imminent arrival of the new cantabile cello theme:

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Soon the trilling theme on the flute joins in with its speed doubled (sixteenth note), and the full cantabile theme is sung by the cellos, then soon joined by part of the verse three theme on violin from the exposition:

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This part of the development has few themes tightly woven together: the cantabile, the ‘walking tune’ (mostly represented by the verse three theme), the trilling bird calls; dynamics are becoming more lively. And then the cantabile theme suddenly turned darker (in F minor), first started by the Strings:

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This same passage can be heard twice in the Finale, which is quite unusual. Once again we witness how Mahler deviate from the traditional sonata form. As Floros pointed out, such “method of anticipating a whole section of the Finale in the first movement is rather unusual in the nineteenth-century symphonic writing…here it surely does not serve formal considerations, such as the need for unity, but rather a programmatic intention, as if to explain that the gloomy world of the inferno casts its shadow onto the main movement.”[10]

The “shadow of inferno” eventually leads to the climax of the entire movement, which, often done by Mahler in other symphonies (such as the Second ‘Resurrection’), at the end of the development:

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That climax goes straight into recapitulation, which starts with the awakening horn call (like above second part of the development), and soon mixed with ‘walking tune’, which is now turned into a jubilation; and the movement ends with a hasty and somewhat humorous stop:

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II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving strongly, but not too quickly); Trio, Recht gemächlich (leisurely)

Doing away from tradition again, Mahler switched the order of slow movement and Scherzo of a conventional symphonic form. The second movement consists of the Scherzo and a trio. The main theme is an Austrian dance called Ländler, a 3/4 meter folk dance that is not too fast but emphasizing the first two beats, as if people hopping or stamping. This rhythm cannot be more clearer right at the first two bars of the movement, played by cello and bass, rusty and heavy:

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The above pattern serves basically as a rhythmic ostinato. After a repeat, the main theme is further developed, with another two rhythmic patterns shown below alternating and sometimes concurrently layered:

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The Trio slows down and its first two bars come in with a soft and sighing figure contrasting with the Scherzo’s opening:

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The theme them grew more lyrical, played by the cellos, but still maintain the rhythmic character (i.e. emphasis on the first two beats):

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As the trio recedes, a lone horn call of the opening rhythm brings back the Scherzo, with the cello and bass playing the Ländler theme again; yet the reprise of the Scherzo is now much condensed, and the movement ends promptly.

III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemn and measured, without dragging)

In the programs Mahler drew up for the early performances, this movement was titled “Todtenmarsch in Callots Manier” (Death March in Callot’s Manner), thus it is often referred to as the funeral march of the First symphony. It is this movement that probably contributed the most to the confusion and even some resentment of the symphony during its first performances, from Budapest to Weimar to Berlin. The general consensus is that the extreme contrast and sudden shifts of emotions with the movement made Mahler’s contemporaries not knowing what to make of it and how to respond. The mood swift was far from the music people heard at the times. Mahler tried to hold ground not to provide any program after Berlin premier, but eventually lost his patience after musicologist Ludwig Schiedermair considered the movement was “flowing along happily and boisterously”, and wrote that the movement was actually “heart-rending” and “tragic irony”; its ambivalent character is marked by presence of tragic and trivial happiness intertwined.[11]

The movements opens with solo bass playing a soft and gloomy funeral march theme, which was made out of a children’s nursery tune “Frère Jacques” and placed on darker minor mode. The theme is rendered in canon form, played also by bassoon, cello and base tuba. Here’s the opening bass solo:

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Then as the canon continues on the background in the lower register, we hear an oboe counter melody cutting in, though still strictly in minor mode and played in p, it sounds unexpected and somewhat out of context; as Mahler put on the score, it’s supposed to be “etwas hervortretend” (somewhat sticking out):

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That is the start of a scene change, or mood shift that Mahler intended to make. The ensuing passage now becomes more animated, a “rocking melody” as Floros put it, parting further away from the supposedly gloomy funeral march:

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At last the music becomes much excited and faster, clarinets and trumpets led the woodwinds dominating the whole section on major mode. Here on the score Mahler marked “Mit Parodie” (with parody). Its Klezmer music style, plus the use of Turkish cymbal perfectly portraits the mood of a banal “happy” life, which sharply contrasts the funeral theme:

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It’s not difficult to imagine the shocking faces of Mahler’s audience when they heard this. “Where in the world did that come from?”

The middle part of the movement turns calm and gentle, even a bit melancholy. It is only fitting that Mahler borrowed the last stanza of his Wafarer Songs, titled “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved), describing the young man resting under a linden tree, feeling full of grief and sorrow:

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When the funeral march comes back, the recapitulation begins, but it is far from simple repeat of the first part. In addition to the oboe themes earlier, Mahler creates another counter melody played by the trumpet; but more importantly, he now puts the two contrasting theme groups, the funeral march and the trivial parody themes, on top of each other played at the same time. There are mainly two trumpet passages. First we hear below passage, with the funeral motif, the oboe counter melody (played by flute here), and a new trumpet melody on three concurrent lines:

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Then at No. 16 of the score, Mahler marked “plotzlich viel schneller” (suddenly much faster); again three melodic lines moving concurrently with the high woodwind plays a seemingly condensed version of the trumpet melody (doubling the meter):

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Anyone paying close attention to (and be able to) hear the various melodic lines within this high polyphony scheme will be amazed by its brilliance. As Floros summarized, “the contrast between the three melodies, arranged here in layers, is extreme. The passage is noteworthy not only for its technique but even more so for its implied meaning. In the first part of the movement, the gloomy canon alternate with the happy tune; now they are heard simultaneously to illustrate how the tragic and the trivial coexist in the world.”[12]

IV. Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch (Stormily agitated – Energetic)

The Finale is the most climactic movement of the whole symphony, not only because of the much stronger dynamics in general, but more importantly its great emotional intensity. All the previous three movements can be seen as preparation leading to this climax. For instance, Mahler himself stated that the third movement is an “exposition and preparation for the sudden outburst in the final movement of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart”, which is “proceeded by the very eerie, ironic and brooding sultriness of the death march”.

Again we cannot ignore the program titles Mahler created earlier on, even though he retracted later. This movement was titled “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso” (From Hell to Paradise), and the programmatic intention is fairly obvious. According to Floros, the movement starts with the key of F minor and ends in D major. This unconventional key relationship (in terms of typical sonata form) is to symbolize inferno and paradise by those two keys respectively, and the dynamics of the movement represent the repeated efforts to overcome the level of inferno and to arrive in the sphere of the paradise.[13]

That “sudden outburst” of despair, as Mahler put it, cannot be expressed any stronger than the tremendous cymbal crash in the opening bar, followed by the screeching long notes of the high woodwinds. During the introduction, which marked by Mahler as “stormily moving”, a few important motifs are introduced, which will make up the main theme shortly after. Mahler borrowed these motivic symbols from Liszt. The first we hear is the Cross symbol (which was based on Gregorian melodies) yet appropriately presented in minor mode:

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Next is the chromatic triplet motif Mahler used to represent the inferno:

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and this third motif:

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Here’s the opening of the introduction:

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These motives go through a brief development, which are filled with swirling notes up and down on the strings, thunderous tympani roll, and frightening inferno triplets blown out by the brass; then the main theme arrives at No. 6 on F minor:

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Here Mahler marked it “Energisch” (energetic); the musics sounds like a strenuous march, as if the hero is trudging through the perils of the inferno. One may notice below rhythmic motif in the theme, and it permeates throughout the Finale (we could call it “inferno march”):

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Like this passage right after the main theme is presented (this has been anticipated in the development of the first movement):

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As the main theme develops, intensity grows higher, and we hear these terrifying swelling brass:

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After a brief transition, the second theme comes in much slower tempo and played gently by the violins. Mahler’s marking is “Sehr gesangvoll” (very song-like):

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As the slow theme comes to an end, the dreadful inferno motif is recalled from a distance, and with devastating crash of the tam-tam there comes back the dark force, the movement heads into development section. Here, the Cross symbol is heard for the firs time in major mode, but played piano. Floros asserted that this arrangement was programmatically motivated; that is, Mahler wanted to use the transition of the Cross symbol from minor to major mode to symbolize the breakthrough from “world of inferno” into “sphere of the paradise”[14]. And the piano marking was to indicate that victory is still far away; as Cooke put it, it’s a “momentary premonition of triumph”[15].

(mm. 296-302)

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Compared to the main theme (mm.54-58), the above is in almost exact symmetrically opposite mode (i.e. major now). After further battling with the inferno theme, the Cross symbol comes back for the second time on C major, now in fortissimo; but most importantly (and surprisingly), the last note at the end of the ascending scale lands on D major, by sheer force! This is considered to symbolize a “breakthrough” from the world of inferno to the sphere of paradise:

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The breakthrough leads directly into a chorale theme that represents paradise, which is transformed from the first movement’s nature theme:

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Then as the music calms down, we hear flashbacks of the motifs from the first movement again, including the nature theme, the walking tune, the bird trilling, cuckoo calls, and the awakening fanfare, all played with dynamics of piano or pianissimo. These recalls of the first movement themes were interpreted by Mahler as remembrance of the hero’s youth, which is to serve a programmatic purpose. On the other hand, the technique was not without precedence, Bruckner did same in his symphonies, and most notably was what Beethoven did in the Finale of his Ninth Symphony, where he called out themes from all previous movements.

That short flashback leads to the recapitulation of the Finale. Here Mahler doesn’t mechanically repeat the themes in sequence; that is, he didn’t start with the repeat of the main theme (inferno), but switched the order around by starting with the second slow theme, which made a fitting and smooth transition. Then, we hear the inferno theme attempts to come back, but now much weaker and gradually fading far away. The “inferno march” that was heard earlier in the exposition (and also previewed in the first movement) appears for the last time, but only now leads to the triumphant final breakthrough of the Cross symbol followed by the glorious paradise theme:

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Even though Mahler retracted all the programs he wrote for the First, the work remained highly autobiographical and programmatic. The fact that there were so many irregularity of the form could well be the result of tradition yielding to the programmatic requirements. As Cooke stated, the symphony was “the first conflict”, where “the young Mahler wrested from nostalgia and anguish a healthy confidence in life – his own life, real life, not an artistic abstraction.”[16]




[1][2][4][5][15][16] Cooke, Deryck: Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to his Music. p.34, p.33, p.53, p.54, p.35, p.36. Cambridge University Press, 1980.

[3][7] Carr, Jonathan: Mahler: A Biography. p.47, p.34. Overlook Press, 1997.

[6] Lebrecht, Norman: Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World. p.52. Pantheon Books, 2010.

[8][9][10][11][12][13][14] Floros, Constantin: Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies. p.33, p.34., p.35., p.39-40, p.42-43, p.47. English translation edition, Amadeus Press, 1993.

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