Many people think Mahler just didn’t know when to stop composing something. Almost everything he writes is over an hour long! Some people think there are two many ideas and for those who think that, his First Symphony is one to enjoy. This symphony is one of his only major works under an hour long (under most conductors). It is a great starting point for anyone interested in Mahler!
The First Symphony is almost an autobiography of Mahler’s youth. Mahler, who was raised in the Moravian town of Iglau (his parents were forced to move because of Emperor Joseph’s ‘mobility’ decree, moving Jews in and out of areas at his will), was the eldest of the six Mahler children to survive infancy (of a total of 14).
At the time of Mahler’s life Iglau was booming in the cloth trade. The town had quite a musical atmosphere; on top of Bohemian folk musicians the town touted an amateur orchestra, a small opera company, and a band from the local military garrison. As a child, Mahler began utilizing these venues and viewed the concerts and began receiving lessons from servants, Catholic school friends, and even the amateur musicians.
Bernard Mahler, his father who was known to occasionally beat his wife and children, bought a piano and assembled a small library of music. Mahler became a great piano player and at ten years old he became the local Wunderkind.
Mahler, not the best at schooling, was briefly sent away from Iglau Gymnasium to a Prague Gymnasium to attempt to improve his grades. The results were not to his Father’s liking and he was brought back to Iglau. When Gustav was fifteen he auditioned for, and received admission to the conservatory in Vienna. He became and excellent pianist and majored in composition, which he studied under Franz Krenn.
In Vienna, Mahler became acquainted with Anton Bruckner. He never became Bruckner’s formal student, but attended many lectures and even arranged a version of Bruckner’s Third Symphony for piano, which was published. Mahler became an advocate of Bruckner’s work, but ironically, only conducted cut versions of the symphonies because they were too long. He also became a Wagnerite, and that, paired with his ties to Bruckner, earned him scorn from many people, including the director of the conservatory (who was also an anti-Semite).
He graduated from the Iglau Gymnasium and enrolled at Vienna University. The classes did not catch his interest, but his interest in literature and philosophy drew him toward joining the Academic Wagner Society in 1877. He frequently met at coffee houses and talked of philosophy in his circle of colleagues. His years in Vienna ended with the starts of a conducting career.
His first gig as a conductor was in 1880, at a small, wooden spa theater in Bad Hall (a city south of Linz); this was only a summer job. He had few resources and was reduced to mainly doing operetta; hardly what he wanted to spent his time conducting. He then moved to conducting at the Landestheater in Laibach. It was here he conducted his first true opera, IlTrovatore
. Newspapers gave many endearing views of the young conductor. During the summer’s he would return to Vienna and work on his own compositions, mainly two operas which were never finished.
His next job took him to Olmutz, near Iglau. He was very unhappy at this appointment, and his condition was worsened by the news of Wagner’s death. He focused the company on works that were attainable at their level, but only stayed for three month before he went to a post as choirmaster in Carltheater in Vienna; it was here he won the attention of Karl Ueberhorst, a visiting opera producer from Dresden. He won a week at the theater in Kassel, which earned him a trip to Bayreuth, where he heard Parsifal in 1883.
In Kassel, he was given the title of “Royal Musical and Choral Director.” He regularly clashed with the management, which was to be expected with his youthful exuberance (he added two years to his age on his employment papers). He would face these conflicts the rest of his life. It was about this time he started drafting his First Symphony.
Symphony No. 1 “Titan”
Mahler’s love of nature shows through in his first symphony, which opens with unison harmonics in the strings, except the basses and it is marked “Wie ein Naturlaut
” which means “Like a sound of nature”. The symphony is written in four movements (originally 5, a movement “Blumine
” was dropped) and was originally billed as a “symphonic poem”. Mahler gave the premise of the symphony broken down as: the first three movements with spring, happy dreams, and a wedding procession, the fourth is a funeral march representing the burial of the poet’s illusions, and the fifth as a hard-won progress to spiritual victory. The title of “Titan” was added because of a novel by Jean Paul, one of Mahler’s favorite writers.
The four movement symphony appears as follows:
I. Langsam. Schleppend
II. Kraftig Bewegt, Doch Nicht zu Schnell
(With powerful movement, but not too fast)
III. Feirerlich und Gemessen, Ohne zu Schleppen
(Solemn and measured, without dragging)
IV. Sturmisch Bewegt
(With violent movement)
“The introduction to the first movement sounds of nature, not music!” is what Mahler wrote to Franz Schalk, who conducted the symphony. As stated before the piece starts with harmonics in the strings, then they are joined by distant fanfares (first in the clarinets, then in offstage trumpets), and the cuckoo enters in the woodwinds (Mahler seemed to be the only person to hear a cuckoo in fourths, possibly because the folk song he uses as the first theme starts off with pick-ups in a fourth). This leads into the folksong from the second Wayfarer songs. From here he develops themes and adds new ideas for the rest of the movement.
The second movement is a robust and animated scherzo movement in the form of a waltz. The first theme starts in the woodwinds and then it passed to the upper strings. The theme is revisited throughout the movement. This is the shortest movement in the symphony and one that the composer counted on the audience enjoying. The movement is also influenced greatly by Bruckner’s composition style.
The third movement begins with a timpani and a contrabass solo in an upper register. The theme of the movement is a variation of Bruder Martin (commonly known as Frere Jacques). The variation is in D minor and the melody is slightly changed, but it is easily noticeable. This is the funeral march for the poet, which is interrupted by the country band which passes by on several occasions (something Mahler would have seen in his childhood). The score calls for this part to be played “Mit Parodie” (With Parody) and includes a cymbal attached to a bass drum, both being played by one player. The last Wayfarer song is brought into this movement, and it closes with the opening theme.
The final movement blast onto the scene after the relative quietness of the ending of the third movement. Mahler said that the fourth movement should start like a bolt of lighting ripping from a black cloud. This movement has many different feelings: from the demonic opening, a heroic feeling, a march triumphal, and a recapitulation of the first movement. He exerts great effort in bringing the symphony back to the original key of D major.
When he does it re-enter with the key, he then takes away the triumphal sound and returns to the way in which the symphony began and prepares the music for another offensive and blasts into a heroic ending. The score calls for the horns to come to their feet (all eight of them) and drown out the rest of the orchestra – trumpets included. The symphony ends heroically, even after the death of our hero; the final notes of the symphony are D’s in octaves, each instrument crashing down and octave lower on the last note, ending the work.