Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.1


Composed between winter 1887 and spring 1888, Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony went through a number of revisions after its premiere in 1888. Originally composed as a “symphonic poem in two parts”, Mahler composed the work during his time at the Leipzig Opera House. First constructed with five movements and billed as a symphonic poem, the original second movement, known as Blumine, was removed in one of the earlier revisions. Blumine can now be heard as a standalone concert piece. 

So as to not influence the audience, Mahler did not produce named movements or any sort of programme note. Instead, the audience had to make their own minds up about the young composers first go at symphonic writing. For the Hamburg and Weimar premieres (1893/1894), Mahler wrote incredibly descriptive notes for the audience, but later he discarded them as he felt they had too much influence. It was at this point in the revision scale that Blumine was removed, and the work was renamed ‘Symphony in D major – for large orchestra’. 

Mahler takes inspiration from his own previous works, namely the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Direct themes can be heard in all movements, but especially the first, where Mahler explores the crossover between the song cycle and the symphony. Although not named by himself, the First Symphony was nicknamed ‘The Titan’ by the press, who thought it was quite the spectacle. 


The Music

The version we know today is in the traditional four movement structure. Throughout, Mahler toys with themes of nature, religion, comedy and nationality, which can all be heard through different themes. Many have likened this work to tell the story of the wayfarer, who loses his way whilst out travelling.


Movement I

Opening with quiet harmonics on the strings, fragments of the first theme are played by different voices in the woodwind section. Short fanfares are heard from the clarinets which leads to a distant brass fanfare. With the direction ‘like a sound of nature’ at the start of the symphony, Mahler experiments with textures and timbres to create this desired effect. A warm horn choral signifies the sun rising above the hills as the cuckoo bird sings from afar. These themes are seamlessly passed around the orchestra until the rolling main theme bursts into action. 

Pastoral in style, the celli-led theme is warm and is a note for note copy of one of the songs from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Mahler’s rich orchestral writing is masterful even at this young stage in his life. Lyrical melodies pour out from the strings and woodwind who work together with the brass to create really effective transitions. As the music builds up over the course of this movement, Mahler’s soaring melodies become more constrained, and paired with the ever-rising dynamics, creates quite the effect. A reprise of the main themes return in a more condensed form at the end of the movement, with the music finishing triumphantly. 


Movement II

Based on a traditional Austrian Ländler dance, the foot-stomping second movement is heavy in execution, but also very fun and good-natured. Paired with bombastic brass, the memorable string motif is bold and shows us a glimmer of what was to come for Mahler’s writing. The calm trio section is led by a solo horn before the strings take over the main theme. A solo oboe also sings out during this section, bringing together all of the voices in the orchestra. A rousing reprise of the opening Ländler closes this robust movement.


Movement III

The funeral march-inspired third movement starts with the melody from Bruder Jakob (more commonly known as ‘Frere Jacques’). The solo double bass is an intriguing choice and adds depth to the atmosphere at the start. Here, Mahler shows his comedic writing as he orchestrates a small klezmer band that interrupts the procession. Led by trumpets, clarinets and cymbals, this bombastic interjection shows part of Mahler’s Jewish heritage. This colourful movement is perhaps the most famous of the four, purely for Mahler’s use of themes throughout. 


Movement IV 

The extensive finale represents a large proportion of the material already heard in the symphony. If we align the story of the hero, he has now fallen into the depths of hell after watching his own funeral procession. The shrill cry from the woodwind and strings at the start of the movement represent this vividly. The music goes through to show his journey through hell, purgatory and then into heaven. Mahler’s visceral writing is captivating throughout this movement, with huge orchestral swells completely filling your ears. The quieter sections are delicate and effective, whereas the louder themes are unapologetic and chaotic at times. 

Mahler utilises his many brass players during this movement, with all sections playing some triumphant themes. As the central lyrical section sets in, the voices drop out, leaving only the strings. Each transition is laden with previous themes, from the opening distant fanfares to the stomping Ländler theme. After the first listen of what is to be the ultimate climax, the small-sounding brass grow over time to create a huge developmental curve within this theme. Mahler keeps the listener on their toes as themes fly through the heart of this movement. 

As the final theme is slowly layered with new voices, Mahler creates dynamic shifts to show a development in the theme. The huge rapturous climax is our hero reaching the heavenly goal. The brass jump out and play above shrieking strings and woodwind. Here we hear Mahler’s total dominance of the brass and percussion as they completely take hold of the theme and run with it. The final few bars are some of the most epic ever heard in concert halls. Full forces of the large orchestra battle it out for the final say on this fleshed out theme. Together, they create the most powerful of endings – one that is not easily forgotten. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Anton Bruckner: Symphony No.7


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