Symphony No. 1 Titan
4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, percussion, harp, strings
I. Langsam. Schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut.
II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell - Trio. Recht gemächlich
III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen
IV. Stürmisch bewegt
Composed 1888. First performance: 20 November 1889. Budai Vigadó, Budapest. Gustav Mahler, conductor.
Notes by Katherine Baber
Long after Beethoven had ascended to his Olympian status, Mahler never bothered to take the final exam. Instead, he approached the genre from his background as an operatic conductor and a composer of orchestral songs. For Mahler, the symphony was not just a pattern of movements, or even a cycle of themes, as Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner had made it. Rather, it was a “means of constructing a world with all the technical means at one’s disposal.”
The means Mahler turned to in his symphonies included not just the songs he often borrowed from his own collections, like the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) or Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), but also a vast network of Leitmotiven. These musical ideas, or call signs, are transformed gradually, creating cohesion and deeper meaning within a given symphony and, for a listener, a certain amount of familiarity as they recur. As a result, you may find yourself with musical déjà vu. We might think of this technique of Leitmotiv, adapted from Wagner, as the gravitational pull centering each one of the symphonic planets Mahler created.
This ambitious world-building project began with the First Symphony, which had been inspired in part by Jean Paul Richter’s novel, Titan. Having first presented the symphony as a Symphonic Poem in two parts, he later added and then removed a program based on the “Titan” theme, eventually preferring the work to be heard as “heroic” in an abstract way.
The first movement, once titled “Spring Without End,” can be heard as an awakening. Whether the sleeper was nature or the youthful hero matters less than the mood of anticipation Mahler creates in the slow introduction. A fateful Leitmotiv, built out of descending intervals of a perfect fourth, permeates the whole introduction and then recurs more subtly throughout the rest of the symphony. At first, it creeps along at a glacial pace, passing from the upper to the lower woodwinds over icy sustained tones in the string section. Offstage trumpet fanfares hint at the future role of whoever is awakening here. As the movement warms, we hear the Leitmotiv become a “ku-ku” call from the clarinet, an allusion to the same birdsong used in Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” which helps rouse the orchestra into the idyllic Allegro comodo.
The main theme of the Allegro is drawn, appropriately, from “Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld,” one of Mahler’s Songs of the Wayfarer. As the wanderer “heads out over the field in the morning,” first the finch, then the bluebell, and then the sunshine, greet him and invite him to enjoy the beauty of the world. What Mahler-as-poet describes influences the way Mahler-as-composer has the Allegro unfold:
…And then suddenly, in the sunshine
the world began to sparkle.
All, all grew in sound and color
in the sunshine.
Lush melodies in the violas and celli, bold horn lines, and trilling birdsong from the woodwinds embody this generative power. The return of the slow introduction midway through the movement is odd by standards of the time but effectively warns us of what is to come. Eventually, the trumpet fanfares move on stage, and by the end of the movement they are answered by a bold gallop in the horns as our hero answers the call.
Charging directly from the awakening of the first movement into the next, we have the scherzo and trio Mahler had described as “In Full Sail.” If the dancing sounds heavy footed at first, that is because it is based on the peasant-style Ländler, in contrast to the more urbane waltz of the trio. The Ländler may also be an allusion to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, but it is turned to Mahler’s purpose here, drawing an ironic contrast between the more sincere, boisterous energy of those closer to nature and the empty sophistication of the city.
The third movement, a Marcia funèbre that is hardly foreign to the symphonic tradition by this point, is also steeped in an irony that is completely Mahler’s own. Most listeners will be familiar with the mood of a funeral march, whether from the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony or from the third movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, op. 35 (now a cliché of film and television music). However, this movement also features a set of cultural allusions that would escape most audiences, including a woodcut by Moritz von Schwind. However, these points of references help explain the most puzzling decision to Mahler’s audiences: the depressing minor-mode version of the well-known children’s tune “Frère Jacques.”
“The Hunter’s Funeral Procession,” in which the banner carriers and band that follow the dead woodsman’s coffin are all made up of music-making forest creatures, depicts part of a fairytale “known to all children in Austria.” In a demonstration of Mahler’s creativity and skill as an orchestrator, the tune Austrian children know as “Bruder Jakob” is voiced in a strange turn by the bass instruments and others in their lowest registers. Presumably the animals are not too sad about the hunter’s death, so Mahler also has the orchestral wind and percussion sections imitate a raucous Bohemian band. The movement alternates, in the words of one scholar, between “ironically merry” and “weirdly brooding,” which makes a great deal more sense if we know we are hearing a funeral meant to delight the imagination of children. The other melody, prominent in the second half of the movement, is from another song of the Wayfarer, “My Sweetheart’s Two Blue Eyes,” which conjures a more romantic and sincere sorrow.
Of course, the hero of the First Symphony cannot face only childish or romantic troubles, so the fourth movement descends “Dall’ Inferno” before the triumphant ascent “al Paradiso.” In this choice, Mahler was inspired by Liszt’s “Dante” Symphony—which in turn drew on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and its journey from Hell, to Purgatory, to Paradise—and Wagner’s spiritual music drama Parsifal. We hear Leitmotiven borrowed from both works: the “infernal” motif from Liszt’s symphony and the holy “Cross” and “Grail” motifs from Wagner. The first motif presses mercilessly downward, and the latter two motifs arc upward. What the listener perceives most powerfully, then, is a relentless struggle between rising and falling contours.
Eventually, the hero triumphs, and the harmonic foundation of the movement is lifted up a whole step from C to D, as if by the sheer force of will embodied in the Leitmotiven. The ensuing “Paradise chorale” is radiant in its tutti brass setting. An extended recollection of the first movement follows as “the wonderful remembrance of the hero’s youth,” after which the music of the “Inferno” makes one last futile attempt to resurrect itself. Finally, this musical past is cleared away by the resurgence of the chorale in a glorious cacophony, as if the whole orchestra were shouting to the heavens.