Symphony No. 1 in D major “Titan”, (5-movement version)

I. Langsam schleppend – Immer sehr gemächlich II. Andante allegretto (Blumine) III. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell IV. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen V. Stürmisch bewegt

Gustav Mahler premiered his first symphony in Budapest on November 20th, 1889. At the time, he was the director of the Opera House, and he felt it entirely natural that his new composition be first performed in the Hungarian capital. The premiere met a mixed reception. The audience were enthused but the critics less so. Indeed, some were quite hostile. The symphony was advertised as a “symphonic poem”, and we learn from contemporary posters that it consisted of two parts, the first made up of three movements (I. Introduction and Allegro Commodo, 2. Andante, 3. Scherzo), while the second half had two (4. A la pompes funčbres 5. Molto appassionato – it is interesting to compare these with the final tempo markings). After the concert, Mahler wrote a heartfelt letter of appreciation to the members of the Philharmonic Association in which he expressed his acknowledgement for the superb performance.

A brief program note was prepared for a later concert at Weimar. According to this, the title of the work is from a novel by Jean Paul: “Titan.” The subtitle of the first part was “From the Days of Youth”, and the movements were: 1. Spring Without End, 2. A Chapter of Flowers, 3. Under Full Sail. Part II was the Commedia umana, which begins with “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession” and concludes with “Dall’inferno al Paridiso.”

Later it seems the composer realised that this explanation did not mean much. He slightly reconceived this immense composition and left out the second movement. He did not issue a programme for the four movement work. Today, we usually hear the four movement version, although the excluded movement is still sometimes performed separately under the title Blumine.

The symphony opens with an unusually long slow introduction. For a long time, we hear only a long held “a” which creates remarkable tension and expectation. It is joined by melodic fragments. The instruments pair up again and again in the interval of a fourth. Finally, the first true thematic melody begins with a leap of a fourth and a faster roughly sonata form movement begins. This melody is none other than the theme from the second of the Wayfarer songs. After the quiet, simple, gentle Blumine, a Scherzo is heard which is highly energetic music – it is reminiscent of the harshness of the times which is not too appealing for those who have experienced the twentieth century (Dominic  Moldowney’s music for the film version of Orwell’s novel 1984 is clearly inspired by it). The central section is even more astonishing: nostalgia for a vanished, homely but irrevocably lost world (to remain with the previous comparison: it is as if W. Smith, the hero of 1984, entering the curiosity shop, suddenly finds himself confronted with thousands of broken relics from the disavowed past).

The fourth movement of the first version, or the third of the final one, is perhaps the most original. At the beginning, we hear even beats from the timpani. Over this, a double bass intones the familiar melody which is known in England by its French title Frčre Jacques. After this strange, vulgar melody, we hear themes and ideas which are now familiar to us through the resurgence of Jewish Klezmer music. Then we hear military music. On one occasion, Mahler admitted that he saw a haunting musical vision when a child, something quite familiar in the Czech area where he was born: the funeral of a hunter. There was a popular etching at the time, depicting the hunter being accompanied to his final resting place by animals. Rabbits pull the coffin, deer are sobbing behind it, and the procession is followed by a military band… After this bizarre funeral march, another extract from the Wayfarer songs appears in the central section, a longer extract from the end of the closing song. The march continues again, but a semitone higher than before. The finale of the symphony is infinitely passionate. For a moment, it seems as if we are witnessing our imaginary hero exploding asunder. Finally, a triumphant tone closes the composition.

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