Symphony No. 1 in D Major ("Titan")

Gustav Mahler

During World War II, four Mahler symphonies preceding “Titan” were destroyed.  Hence, Symphony Number One is Mahler’s fifth symphonic work, a fact that explains in part the compositional expertise evidenced throughout the designated First Symphony.

“Titan” was birthed under tense and rather unusual circumstances.   While composing  the symphony, Mahler was simultaneously involved in writing music per the request of Karl Maria von Weber’s grandson, for an unfinished Weber opera, Die Drei Pintos. For this, Mahler provided 21 numbers from the original seven, and an entr’acte in 1888. He also was simultaneously involved in a tumultuous affair with the wife of Baron Weber. Once that affair was discovered, the Baron unleashed his fury in a wild shooting spree (hitting no one fortunately.) Had he been a better shot, the Titan Symphony would never have emerged. After the attempted murder, Mahler quit the affair but not the symphony.

Music had been Mahler’s vehicle to solve cosmic and personal questions which dogged him throughout life, one of which was his obsessive quest to find the meaning of existence.   To this end, he basically worked himself to death.   Yet, throughout his time, he drew consistent energy and ideas from his haunting, volatile emotional condition. “To create a symphony is, for me, to create (construct) a world,” he said. And he would be beholden to no one in that endeavor.  Michael Steinberg explained “While Beethoven had been able to start as a sort of modified Haydn and Mozart, and Wagner as Weber and Meyerbeer, he himself had the misfortune to be Gustav Mahler from the outset.” Being Gustav Mahler was summarized by the composer: “My time will yet come.  Humanly I make every concession, artistically none.”

In its first version, Symphony Number One premiered in Budapest on November 20, 1889 with Mahler conducting.  Initial audience and critical reception was bad.  One critic suggested that the work was “a parody of a symphony.” Critic Viktor von Herzfeld, a close friend, even stated “All of our great conductors…have themselves eventually recognized, or have proved, that they were not composers…this is true of Mahler also.” The Neuse Pester Journal cackled “We will always be delighted to see him on the podium as long as he does not direct his own compositions.”

Mahler’s First Symphony is intimately linked with his song cycle Das Klagende Lied, a source of themes and cross references.  For example, the theme of the first movement derives from Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld.  Vaughn Williams commented on this element, saying “Why should (all) music be original? the duty of the composer is to find the mot juste.  It does not matter if this word has been said a thousand times before as long as it is the right thing to say at that moment.”  Concerning the entire work, Michael Kenney commented that “This was no doubt why Mahler first described the symphony as a symphonic poem:  he could have called it The Wayfarer because it follows the plan of the song cycle.”

The first version, titled A Symphonic Poem in Two Parts contained the following titles supplied by the composer.

These were:

First Part: From the Days of Youth

1.Spring without End

2. Flora

3.Under Full Sail

Second Part: Human Comedy

4. Funeral March in the Manner of Callot

5. From Inferno to Paradise

After the terrible premier in January 1893, primarily stemming from audience reaction to the orchestration which some critics deemed grotesque.  Mahler withdrew the work, revised the entire score, re-titled sections and the entire symphony to Titan: A Tone Poem in the Form of a Symphony, and again divided the symphony in two main sections. Titan referred to the massive novel in four volumes by Jean Paul (Johann Paul) Friedrich Richter. “There is some justification for the title Titan and for the program, “Mahler wrote to the critic Max Marschalk in 1896.  “That is, at one time my friends persuaded me to provide a kind of program for the D Major Symphony in order to make it easier to understand; therefore, I had thought up this title and explanatory material after the actual composition.”

With titles, “Titan” appeared in the following format.

First part: Days of Youth, Flower, Fruit and Thorn Pieces

1. Spring without End (the Introduction depicts the awakening of nature from its long winter sleep)

2. A Collection of Flowers

3. Under Full Sail

Second Part “Commedia Umana” (Human Comedy)

4, Stranded. A funeral march in Callot’s style.  The following may serve as an explanation of this movement.  The external stimulus derived from the satirical picture “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession” in which forest animals accompany a dead hunter’s coffin to the grave. Rabbits carry a little banner, leading a band of Bohemian musicians, accompanied by singing cats, toads, crow, stages, deer, foxes, and many other feathered and furred forest animals in farcical poses.  The music is intended to express alternating moods of ironical gaiety and uncanny gloom which is followed immediately by

5. Dall’Inferno (From the Inferno) Allegro furioso which expresses the sudden despairing outcry of a deeply wounded heart.

(The notes above are derived from Mahler’s explanatory material)

The naming process continued.  Mahler decided that the public was distracted by titles and a program, and the third time he re-named the work Symphony Number One in Four Movements for Large Orchestra. The composer explained: “I should like to see it emphasized that the symphony begins at a point beyond the love affair…the real life experience was the reason for the work, not its content.  The need to express myself musically in symphonic terms – begins only on the plane of obscure feelings at the gate that opens into the other world, the world in which things no long fall apart in time and space.   Just as I find it banal to compose programme music, I regard it as unsatisfactory and unfruitful to try to make programme notes for a piece of music.”  “Blumine” (Flora) was dropped by Mahler in this third iteration, but was discovered in 1967.

As in many Mahler works, nature and the human experience abound in the mammoth First Symphony. The orchestra required was the largest assembled in any symphony up to that date. (Michael Kennedy) The music opens with strings playing a single tone (A) separated by seven octaves.  This note is held like a backdrop against which different birdcalls (the clarinet cuckoo) emerge, and Mahler explained “This sounds of nature, not music.”  Amid growing momentum, the first theme emerges in the cellos borrowed from Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld (I crossed the meadow at morn).  The tune lies at the heart of the first movement, stimulates the scherzo, and re-emerges in the grand theme of the finale.   Conveniently, the song begins with the falling fourth of the cuckoo call heard earlier.  This single melody is the major focus of the movement, influencing also the scherzo theme and the finale.  In the development a second theme emerges, leading the orchestra in a complex journey through various tonalities, and thereby maintaining unsettled emotions.  The movement closes with birdcalls parading back from the introduction.

The second movement, a landler marked Andante allegretto provides a gentle moment within the scope of the work.  Herein Mahler used music which he had written for a series of illustrations for the poem Der Trompeter von Sachingen. A lyrical theme is given to a trumpet, shared by winds, and later the violins.

The third movement (funeral march) references the Callot painting with all the animals making merry at the burial of the hunter. Cats, toads and crows are all represented in sharing their fun about the hunter’s fate.  Kettledrums quietly set the funeral pace with alternating tones a fourth apart.  A parody of Frere Jacques, in a minor key, comes from a high range of muted basses lending a smirking quality to the atmosphere. The movement also includes a quote from the final songs of “Songs of a Wayfarer.” Re the use of previously written works, Mahler explained to a friend “composing is like playing with building blocks, where new buildings are created again and again, using the same blocks.” The mood alternates between merry-making and the funeral business at hand.  Michael Steinberg noted that “People simply did not know what to make of this mixture, how to respond, whether to laugh or cry or both…They sensed that something irreverent was being done….” The final measures are interrupted by a “terrifying shriek” an outburst Mahler described as “the outburst of a wounded heart.”  Mahler intended such irony in which “all the coarseness, the mirth and the banality of the world are heard in the sound of a bohemian village band, together with the hero’s terrible cries of pain.”


Mahler’s perspectives are summarized in the last movement, marked Sturmisch bewegt (moving like a storm). The composer wrote “The hero is exposed to the most fearful combats and to all the sorrows of the world. He and his triumphant motifs are hit on the head again and again by Destiny. …Only when he has triumphed over death, and when all the glorious memories of youth have returned with themes from the first movement, does he get the upper hand, and there is a great victorious chorale!”  David Ewen remarked that “Everything ferments and fumes.”

Listeners are immediately assaulted with a brutal cymbal crash, which The composer likened to a bolt of lightning, ripping from a black cloud.  Violence and savagery take over before the music, as if exhausted, gives way to a lyrical melody.  Quotes from preceding movements surface: hunting calls from the first movement pop in and out, a reference to an Eastern-European Jewish wedding takes a bow; this wild conglomeration of ideas tumble over one another and the general unrest never ceases.  Then, amidst all the turmoil, Mahler instructed “bells in the air” indicating that the horn players must stand.  He explained that “at the end, the horns must cut through the massive sound in a chorale of salvation from paradise after the waves of hell.”  Finally, a breathtaking coda brings the music to a close, unmistakably reaching to heaven.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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