Stürmisch bewegt [19'15]
Mahler completed his Symphony No 1 at the age of twenty-four and the work was considered a remarkable achievement, especially for someone so young. The symphony was originally conceived as a tone poem in the form of a symphony. Mahler drew inspiration from nature and described the epic final movement as a journey ‘from inferno to paradise’.
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Gustav Mahler’s early experiences of music were influenced by the military bands and folk singers who passed by his father’s inn in the small town of Iglau. Besides learning many of their tunes, he also received formal piano lessons from local musicians and gave his first recital in 1870. Five years later, he applied for a place at the Vienna Conservatory where he studied piano, harmony and composition. After graduation, Mahler supported himself by teaching music and also completed his first important composition, Das klagende Lied. He accepted a succession of conducting posts in Kassel, Prague, Leipzig and Budapest, and the Hamburg State Theatre, where he served as First Conductor from 1891–97. For the next ten years, Mahler was Resident Conductor and then Director of the prestigious Vienna Hofoper.
The demands of both opera conducting and administration meant that Mahler could only devote the summer months to composition. Working in the Austrian countryside he completed nine symphonies, richly Romantic in idiom, often monumental in scale and extraordinarily eclectic in their range of musical references and styles. He also composed a series of eloquent, often poignant songs, many themes from which were reworked in his symphonic scores. An anti-Semitic campaign against Mahler in the Viennese press threatened his position at the Hofoper, and in 1907 he accepted an invitation to become Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and later the New York Philharmonic. In 1911 he contracted a bacterial infection and returned to Vienna. When he died a few months before his 51st birthday, Mahler had just completed part of his Tenth Symphony and was still working on sketches for other movements.
When Gustav Mahler began his First Symphony in 1884, ‘modern music’ meant Wagner, while the standard by which new symphonies were judged was that of Brahms, the arch ‘classical-romantic’. In a Brahmsian symphony there was little room for Wagnerian lush harmonies, or sensational new orchestral colours. In fact the orchestral forces Brahms employed were basically the same as those used by Beethoven and Schubert in their symphonies, three-quarters of a century earlier.
So for audiences brought up on Brahms, hearing Mahler’s First Symphony would have been like stepping into a new world. The opening can still surprise even today: one note, an A, is spread through almost the entire range of the string section, topped with ghostly violin harmonics. Other unusual colours follow: distant trumpet fanfares, high clarinet cuckoo-calls, a plaintive cor anglais, the bell-like bass notes of the harp. All this would have been startlingly new in Mahler’s time. And there’s nothing tentative or experimental about this symphonic debut: at 24, Mahler knows precisely the sound he wants, and precisely how to get it.
Still, there’s much more to Mahler’s First Symphony than innovative orchestral colours and effects. When the symphony was first performed it had a title, ‘Titan’ – taken from the once-famous novel by the German romantic writer Jean Paul (the pen name of Johann Paul Richter). For Richter the ‘Titan’, the true genius, is a ‘Heaven- Stormer’ (Himmelsstürmer) an obsessive, almost recklessly passionate idealist. The idea appealed strongly to Mahler, but so too did Richter’s vividly poetic descriptions of nature. For the premiere, Mahler set out his version of the Titan theme in an explanatory programme note, which told how the symphony progressed from ‘the awakening of nature at early dawn’, through youthful happiness and love, to the sardonic gloom of the funeral march, and then to the finale, subtitled ‘From Inferno to Paradise’. And it was clear that Mahler’s interest in Richter’s theme was more than literary. Behind the symphony, he hinted to friends, was the memory of a love affair that had ended, painfully, at about the time he began work on the symphony.
However, Mahler soon began to lose faith in programmes. ‘I would like it stressed that the symphony is greater than the love affair it is based on’, he wrote. ‘The real affair became the reason for, but by no means the true meaning of, the work’. In later life he could be blunt: when someone raised the subject at an evening drinks party, Mahler is said to have leapt to his feet and shouted, ‘Perish all programmes!’ But for most listeners, music that is so passionate, dramatic and so full of the sounds of nature can’t be fully explained in the detached terms of ‘pure’ musical analysis. Fortunately the First Symphony is full of pointers to possible meanings beyond the notes. The main theme of the first movement – heard on cellos and basses after the slow, intensely atmospheric ‘dawn’ introduction – is taken from the second of Mahler’s four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’), written as a ‘memorial’ to his affair with the singer Johanna Richter (no relation of the novelist, but the name connection is striking). In the song, a young man, jilted in love, sets out on a beautiful spring morning, hoping that nature will help his own heart to heal. For most of the first movement, Mahler seems to share the young man’s hope. The ending seems cheerful enough. But at the heart of the movement comes a darkly mysterious passage, echoing the ‘dawn’ introduction, but adding sinister new sounds: the low, quiet growl of a tuba, ominous drum-beats, and a repeated sighing figure for cellos. For a moment, the music seems to echo the final words of the song: ‘So will my joy blossom too? No, no; it will never, never bloom again.’
Dance music dominates the second movement, especially the robust, earthy vigour of the Ländler (the country cousin of the sophisticated urban Waltz). There are hints here of another, earlier song, Hans und Grete, in which gawky young Hans finds a sweetheart at a village dance – all innocent happiness. But the slower, more reflective Trio brings more adult expression: nostalgia and, later, sarcasm (shrill high woodwind). The third movement is in complete contrast. This is an eerie, sardonic funeral march, partly inspired by a painting by Jacques Callot, ‘The Huntsman’s Funeral’, in which a procession of animals carry the hunter to his grave. One by one, the orchestral instruments enter quietly, playing a famous old nursery tune, Frère Jacques – which sounds like another interesting name connection, except that Austrians like Mahler would have known the tune to the words ‘Brother Martin, are you sleeping?’ At the heart of this movement, Mahler makes a lengthy quotation from the last of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The song tells in soft, gentle tones of how a young man, stricken with grief at the loss of the girl he loves, finds consolation in the thought of death. This is the dark heart of the First Symphony.
But this is not the end of the story. In the finale Mahler strives onward – in the words of the discarded programme, ‘From Inferno to Paradise’. At first all is turbulence, but when the storm has died down, strings present an ardent, slower melody – unmistakably a love theme. There’s a brief memory of the first movement’s ‘dawn’ music, then the struggle begins again. Eventually massed horns introduce a new, radiantly hopeful theme, strongly reminiscent of ‘And he shall reign’ from Handel’s Messiah. More reminiscences and still more heroic struggles follow, until dark introspection is finally overcome, and the symphony ends in jubilation. Mahler’s hero has survived to live, and love, another day.
Stephen Johnson © 2007