Mahler – Symphony No. 1 in D-Major

by Max Derrickson

Gustav Mahler     (b Kalischt, near Iglau, Bohemia (now Jihlava, Czech Republic), July 7, 1860; Vienna, May 18, 1911)

Symphony No. 1 in D-Major

1.  Langsam, schleppend – Immer sehr gemächlich [Slow, held back – Always very leisurely]
2. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell – Trio: Recht gemächlich [Moving strongly, but not too fast – Trio: leisurely]
3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen – Sehr einfach und schlicht wie eine Volksweise [Solemn and measured, without dragging – Simple, like a folk melody]
4. Stürmisch bewegt- Sehr gesangvoll [Tempestuously – Very melodious]

In the spring of 1888, the 28-year old Mahler sat down at the piano at the home of Captain von Weber in Leipzig, grandson of the late Carl Maria von Weber, and began to play his First Symphony.  Mahler was serving as the assistant conductor of the Leipzig Opera, and while there he was asked to work on finishing a forgotten opera by the beloved Weber called The Three Pintos.  During that project he fell in love with Captain von Weber’s wife, Marion, mother of three.  Although the affair may have been unfortunate, it was fortunate for Mahler’s inspiration that Marion had children, because during an earlier visit Mahler had borrowed one of the children’s books, Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) and it inspired some ideas for his first symphony.  From there, he quickly began writing the first movement.  As he told his colleagues, “I can’t help it, I just have to compose. Everything in and around me is in the state of becoming.”  At the time, the whole world seemed to be alive with Life and Love and Hope, and the first chord of his Symphony translates that into music.

The affair with Marion came to nothing, but the Symphony became a masterpiece.  On a unison note of A, Mahler needed the Weber’s helping hands to play the very opening on the piano given that it spanned 7 octaves.  In program notes that Mahler later provided about the Symphony, this opening was the awakening of the Earth to spring.  In his heart, it represented a connection with the very fabric of the Universe, the time-stopping hum of creation.  Mahler could hear it in his mind whispering pianississimo (ppp) over the strings of a large orchestra, from the low basses and climbing all the way up through the shimmering harmonics of the violins.  For Mahler, it was the beginning not just of a symphony but of everything.  And it is one of the most breathtaking openings of any symphony ever written.

As the movement progresses, we hear a theme
[. . .]
– all against the hushed awe of the 7-octave ‘A’ humming beneath.  To Mahler, it was life taking shape, the fabric of everything.

[. . .]
Those tragic allusions, however, won’t happen until the third movement.  In the meantime, the first movement ends with a bracing amount of goodwill and jocularity.

The scherzo second movement of today was formerly the third movement.  In its place Mahler originally composed a movement called “Blumine” (Flower Piece), but it was discarded as “too sentimental.”  But the scherzo that remains is probably one of Mahler’s most straightforward compositions – an Austrian Ländler, or peasant dance, that is ripe with good cheer, even rowdiness.  The trio is a lovely interlude and marks the first time Mahler uses the “portamento” technique in an orchestral setting – a technique of sliding between pitches – which would become a trademark of his later Symphonies.

Mahler maintained that the third movement was inspired by a well known woodcut called “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession”
[. . .]
Even more poignantly than the woodcut, Mahler may well have been describing here his own trauma after the death of his 11-year old younger brother, Ernst, years before.  Mahler had to help carry his coffin through the Mahler house which served as a dwelling upstairs and a road house below.  Ernst’s tiny white coffin had to be slipped out the back door past the cavorting, drunken travelers.  The impression of life carrying on, brutally disregarding such a grievous moment, left its indelibly ironic impression on Mahler ever after.  And this same juxtaposition plays out in this third movement, too, when the “street band” instruments
[. . .]
This movement may be one of the most fascinating movements in Symphonic literature, but it found no sympathy with the conservative Budapest crowd at its premiere.

The finale catches us off guard as it shrieks into being with a cymbal crash and blaring dissonance just as the funeral march has receded into oblivion without any pause.  As Mahler described it, this was the “flash of lightning from a dark cloud. It is simply the cry of a wounded heart.”  It is emotional chaos,
[. . .]
Indeed, with the final bars of this Symphony, Mahler instructs the horns to stand up and drown out the trumpets, and presents a finale that bursts with the exuberant energy of the Springtime of Life, Love and Hope.

Despite the happy conditions in which the Symphony had its origins, a time when Mahler was in love and full of youthful spirit, his First Symphony was booed at its Budapest premiere and found little sympathy for many years.  One critic in Budapest claimed that only Mahler’s friends had applauded the “incomprehensible and disagreeable cacophony,”
[. . .]
After one performance conducting his First in 1903, Mahler wrote to his wife, Alma, saying, “Sometimes it sent shivers down my spine. Damn it all, where do people keep their ears and their hearts if they can’t hear that!”  These days the shivers come guaranteed as we hear one of the greatest symphonies written in modern times.