Langsam, schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut (Slow, dragging. Like a sound of nature)
Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving strongly, but not too quickly)
Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemnly and moderately, not dragging)
Stürmisch bewegt (Stormily agitated)
Symphonic music developed along two lines in the 19th century. A crack in the previously rather monolithic compositional approach to symphonic form and its content appeared when Ludwig van Beethoven attached descriptive titles to the movements of his Sixth Symphony and included a choir in his Ninth Symphony, and the split became deeper when Hector Berlioz published an entire story for his Symphonie fantastique. Franz Liszt took inspiration from literature for his symphonic poems, and Richard Wagner said the possibilities of the classical symphonic form had been exhausted by Beethoven. Simply put, the dispute was over whether and to what degree music can and should tell a story, and whether the notes are able to express a storyline or programme. Music criticism played a major part in the shaping of aesthetic judgements and taste, and under the influence of critics, the musical community was divided into two camps: advocates of “absolute music”, with its pure forms, and proponents of “programmatic” music, in which a composition’s structure is determined by an extramusical subject taken from literature, the observation of nature, history etc. At the end of the 19th century, the two camps, having been artificially presented as irreconcilable, again began to converge and overlap, and Gustav Mahler made an important contribution to this with his nine symphonies, each of which represents an original approach towards a solution.
Mahler began composing his First Symphony in 1884 when his career was on an uncertain path. That June he began working in Kassel as a conductor, in August 1885 he was hired as the second conductor of the German opera company at the Estates Theatre in Prague, then for two years after that he was the second conductor in Leipzig. In October 1888 be became the music director of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest. It was there that he finished writing the symphony, originally in five movements, and on 20 November 1889 he performed it as a Symphonic Poem in Two Parts. The critics were merciless, panning the composition as nothing but “dissonances, dull drones, cacophony”, and those who opposed his position at the helm of the Royal Opera declared that Mahler’s “music is just as incomprehensible and confused as his activity as the director of opera”.
Over the next seven years, five versions of the symphony emerged. Its transformations show us Mahler seeking out a path of his own between the opposing camps in the conflict discussed above over programmatic and absolute music. For the performance in October 1893 in Hamburg, he added the title Titan, a tone poem in symphonic form, and he gave the individual movements titles. He borrowed the title Titan from Jean Paul’s novel, which was published in four volumes between 1800 and 1803. The novel is set in the 18th century, and the hero is the Spanish nobleman Albano de Cesara. Over the span of 900 pages, the author tells his life’s story from his youth and his ascent in society. Mahler had no intention of retelling the story of the novel; what he had in mind was a generalisation of the vagaries of human life with all of its excitement, tribulations, triumphs and defeats. The influence of Franz Liszt made itself felt in the work’s treatment of literary themes, while Wagner served as a musical model, for example in the original orchestration at the beginning of the composition with the use of strings in the high register in the manner of Lohengrin. In Part I of the symphony, we are introduced to the composition’s hero in the fullness of joyous life (thus far, it is still possible to draw parallels with the character of the novel), then Part II reveals the other side of the coin: decay and death, and it has nothing to do with the action of the novel.
At a performance in Hamburg, the first part of the symphony bore the title From the Days of Youth; Fruit, Flowers, and Thorns, with individual movements titled “Endless Springtime”, “Blumine”, and “Under Full Sail”. Part II bore the Latin title Commedia humana (The Human Comedy) with the penultimate movement titled “Shipwrecked. A funeral march in the manner of Callot” and the finale “Dallʼ inferno” (From Hell). The movement named “Blumine” (a collection of flowers or a collection in general) was also a reference to Jean Paul, who had used the word as a title for a collection of his journal essays. In the end, Mahler deleted the movement from the symphony, and it became a free-standing composition. The “Funeral march in the manner of Callot” was a reference to a collection of fanciful tales by E. T. A. Hoffmann. In turn, for his title Hoffman had borrowed the name of the 17th-century French draftsman and engraver Jacques Callot, famed for his cycles of grotesque figures. At a performance of the symphony in Weimar in 1894, however, Mahler said he had been inspired by a woodcut by Moritz Schwind that depicted forest creatures burying a hunter. In the fifth movement, along with a reference to Balzac’s cycle of novels La Comédie humaine, there is also a scene of hell, referring to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The ambiguity of the titles did not, however, help with comprehension of the work; to the contrary. Mahler ultimately abandoned the titles of the movements and even rejected Titan as the title of the whole symphony on the grounds that it was just misleading the public. Nonetheless, the symphony is often still listed as Titan along with its key, D major, which Mahler also later removed from the title. In the definitive version, the composer retouched the symphony mostly with changes to the orchestration; for example, the Wagnerian strings in the first movement are replaced by fanfare motifs. What had been a “programmatic” work now became an “absolute” symphony, but the composition’s extramusical subtext is unquestionable even without the annotations. It is expressed in the performance instructions (the voice of the cuckoo in the first movement “like a sound of nature”), or it is contained in the quote from the song “Ging heutʼ morgen über’s Feld” (While walking across a field this morning) from Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). The scherzo movement is based on dance rhythms in the form of a caricature that is typical of Mahler. In the third movement, the tragic note that pervades all of Mahler’s works encounters a grotesque grimace. The funeral march is a variation on the French canon “Frère Jacques” (known as “Bruder Martin” in German), then the middle part of the movement again quotes Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, this time the song “Die zwei blauen Augen” (The two blue eyes). The fourth movement, in a sonata layout, is a portrait of the Titan of the title, at war with the world and with himself. Through the return of thematic material, the hero looks back on his life; Mahler thus brings the cycle to a close by using a compositional technique to round off the work.
The symphony’s final version was premiered on 16 March 1896 in Berlin; two years later, on 3 March 1898, Mahler conducted its Prague premiere at a symphonic concert of the New German Theatre. According to the press, the two thirds of the 90 players in the expanded orchestra were from the New German Theatre, and one third were members of the orchestra of the Czech National Theatre.
From the autumn of 1897, Mahler was at the helm of the Vienna Court Opera, where he performed Smetana’s Dalibor immediately upon arrival, as press reviews emphasised after the concert, also recalling Mahler’s earlier brief tenure at the Estates Theatre. Angelo Neumann, director of the New German Theatre, held a banquet for the composer at his home. According to an unnamed witness: “The evening’s honouree Mahler appeared surrounded by his admirers. We could hardly recognise him. This is a different Mahler from the one who left us. He is somehow smaller, bonier, his moustache is gone, the locks of hair that once fell to his forehead now flutter boldly behind him, and on his nose are the spectacles of a scholar. He also seems a bit more nervous: being a composer, conductor, and theatre director at the same time is too much for two human shoulders to bear.”
According to a glowing review in Prague’s German press, “The Symphony No. 1 is the work of a powerful creative spirit that is finding its way wherever there is true musical feeling and pleasure from lovely sonic effects. Those who were expecting untamed innovation, symbolist solutions to problems, or revolutionary aspirations might have felt rather disappointed. Mahler gives us nothing of this, nor does he submit to the Wagnerian spirit. He is going his own independent way towards a destination that clearly lies neither in the realm of philosophy nor in tone painting; his music follows only the commands of its own internal disposition, and it is driven by a wealth of imagination that soars daringly at times.” The Czech correspondent to Vienna offered a similar report.