TO LISTEN — AND BE TRANSFORMED. Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 1

Mahler had been composing Symphony No.1 in D major for several years in a row (1884—1888) and at a certain time of the year (he called himself a “summer composer” — being overwhelmed by the duties of an opera conductor, he could only devote himself to the composition during summer holidays), he would then revisit it several times. The premiere of the work, envisioned by Mahler as a large symphonic poem in two parts, was conducted by the author in Budapest in 1889 (it was actually a failure.) In November of 1894 it was then performed in Hamburg, and subsequently in Weimar. Mahler continued to rework the symphony up to 1906 and conducted it fifteen times, for the last time in New York in 1909.

By its second performance, the symphony had acquired the title Titan — a Tone Poem in Symphonic Form, referring to the novel of the German sentimentalist and pre-romanticist Jean Paul, who deeply sensed the conflict between ideal aspirations and life’s shortcomings. The title ‘Titan’, which Mahler later withdrew, is sometimes still used in concerts. 

Hoping that it would facilitate understanding of his symphony (which it largely did not), the composer supported it with explanations: the main character, the naive youth living at one with nature, in spite of having to go endure some of life’s testing trials and tribulations, finds the strength to overcome this conflict and returns to pantheism, this time hardened from experience. 

In accordance with this romantic scheme, parts of the symphony formed two sections: From the Days of Youth (with the subtitle ‘Youth, Fruit, and Thorns’) and Commedia Umana (Human Comedy). The name, though in Latin, is peppered with literary connections — this time with the same cycle of novels by Honoré de Balzac, and indirectly with the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, as well as the title of the last part of Dall’Inferno al Paradiso (From Hell to Paradise). There were five parts in this edition, but then Mahler removed the third Andante allegretto part, bearing the rather unusual name Blumine (apparently made-up and meaning ‘Flower Goddess’). It was taken by Mahler from Jean Paul again and is consistent with the section subheading ‘Youth, Fruit, and Thorns’. The Blumine score was discovered only in 1966. However, realizing that the musical content of the symphony is much more significant and cannot be reduced to a verbal description, before the next Berlin performance of 1896, the composer ruled out any programming and did away with the names of the sections, inferring that a work of art is just as incomprehensible as the world itself. This, however, does not mean that the composer gave up the key attitudes that determine his symphonic style — from “building the worlds”, from seeking answers to existential questions about the place of a man in the world and his tragic fate. But he also believed that “since Beethoven, no new music to have come to the fore has been without an internal programme”, and we should not dismiss the original Mahler explanations.

In her recently republished book on Mahler’s symphonies, Inna Barsova reasonably relates his work to the ancient tradition of avant-garde art. If classical art is based on the principles of balance, proportionality, equilibrium of parts, completeness, the avant-garde gravitates toward an open form allowing elements of unpredictability: a new harmony arises in it through the struggle of opposing principles that can appear in various meanings, down to the ironic and grotesque, changing places on the go, being mocked and reinterpreted [1]. It is precisely the lack of understanding of this feature of Mahler’s aesthetics during the life of the composer, that subsequently led to the rejection of his work as “barbaric” or “inharmonious”. It must be noted that conductor Teodor Currentzis is particularly sensitive to these features of Mahler’s symphonic style.

The first part of Symphony No. 1, with the author’s note “Never-ending Spring” (then changed to the usual designation of tempos: “Langsam, Schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut. Im Anfang sehr gemächlich.” (Slowly, dragging. Very restrained at the begging.) is not without its own forms of illustration, albeit tinged with irony: the cuckoo’s cry simulated by an oboe solo, the fanfare ‘wake-up call’, ‘howling’ horns passages repeated in the second part. It is necessary to mention one more feature of Mahler’s creativity, characteristic of modernist art — its intertextuality: cross-references, citations, roll-calls with the works of other composers, and first and foremost with his own compositions. So, within the context of the original ‘libretto’, Mahler borrowed musical material from his own Songs of a Wayfarer, a collection for voice and orchestra, written at the same time (Inna Barsova unearths the communality of the plot of both works, the cycle and symphony as a journey “from serene joy through to despair and sorrowful enlightenment” [2]). The exposition of the first part, usually described in terms of “awakening nature and the lyrical hero’s becoming at one with it”, is based on the theme of the second song in the cycle As I walked this morning through the field (The sun rose above the ground), but in the exposure, and then in the development, the dramatic theme of the finale is imperceptibly laid down with extraordinary aplomb. In the boisterous reprise, all the theme components come to a head, and its momentum in some measure anticipates the final apotheosis. 

The second part: “Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell.” (Energetic and lively, but not too fast.) — a Scherzo initially entitled by Mahler At Full Sail and described by him as: “The youth is travelling the world, becoming stronger, tougher, more resilient.” This is an Austrian Ländler, which derives from a folk dancing (in itself a sort of nature motif); the atmosphere is reminiscent of peasant holidays as depicted in the works of Flemish masters. The main theme revisits Mahler’s song Hans und Grete (Hans and Grethe) from the early collection of 14 Songs for Voice and Piano (Vol. 1, No. 3), but here the theme of development of the first part also appears. The two marginal sections of the scherzo frame a completely different, lyrical, idyllic trio, the themes of which are repeated in the reprise.

According to Mahler’s original commentary, the second section of the symphony (The Human Comedy) should be opened with the part called Funeral March in the manner of Callot. Then: “Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen.” (Solemnly and measuredly, without dragging). Researchers searched in vain for the source in the works of Jacques Cullot, a French draftsman at the beginning of the 17th century, famous for his grotesque, fantastic drawings and etchings. Mahler got the idea for the name from the collection Fantasies in the manner of Callo (1814—1815) by the German writer Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, which, along with fairy tales, contained works related to music and musicians which undoubtedly interested Mahler: the Kreisleriana collection of essays, as well as his novels Cavalier Gluck and Don Juan (the collection bears the sub-heading Pages from the Diary of a Traveling Enthusiast, which, in turn, inspired the name of Mahler’s aforementioned cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer). Mahler himself, in connection with the motive of the hero’s clash with the world of vulgarity and hypocrisy in the third part, acknowledged in one of his letters that he had received a push from the outside to create "an eerie, ironic, depressing" mourning march from a famous picture depicting the funeral procession of animals burying the hunter, shedding disingenuous tears, bound by decency (A Hunter’s Funeral, while the Russian version is called Mice Burying the Cat).

According to Inna Barsova, “behind a harmless children’s picture... The huge layer of national imagery out of which it was born is concealed...The imagery of the carnival... In Symphony No. 1, the rays coming from the people’s outlook cross with those of the tragic irony of a contemporary artist and thinker, creating a completely new aspect of the tragic, in which the cynical jesting of ideals and the grief of the contemplative observer collide.” [3]

The march itself, extremely reduced in comparison with the famous funeral marches, like the funeral of the character of Beethoven’s Eroica, Siegfried from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, not to mention the famous Marche Funèbre from Chopin’s Sonata in B Flat Minor — and dates back to the folklore and namely to the song in the minor canon, Brother Jakob, are You Sleeping? (‘Brother Martin’ is another take on the name). “Solemnity” is deformed by “inappropriate” orchestral techniques — unusual timbres, extravagant registers for the instruments. Almost imperceptibly, the march which Mahler, with amazing skill, was able to imbue with a certain “negative charm”, gives way to a gleam of light within this whole part: a trio, the theme of which goes back to the last section of the last song in the Songs of a Wayfarer cycle — The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved. Here the authenticity of feeling dominates, opposing the triviality and falsehood of the funereal masquerade, once again assertive in its own right, and then for a short time interrupted by a violent, vulgar, grappling gypsy dance motif (Jewish Freilachs in the interpretation of Artem Vargaftik).

The finale (originally titled From Hell to Paradise and then marked as “Stürmisch bewegt.” (Wild) performed without interruption is a grand sonata allegro, beginning with a short but powerful introduction: according to Mahler, it is “the cry of the wounded from the very depth of the heart.” The theme of the main part, born over the course of its development, personifies will and action, the secondary aspect is that of the lyrical principle: one and the other come into conflict with each other upon the theme’s introduction, echoing despair and crisis. Almost all the themes of the symphony are repeated in the finale. "The theme of pristine nature" is revisited from the first part, and, merges and interacts with the accompanying parties at the cost of incredible tension (at some point it seems to us that we are already close to the denouement, but, as it happens with Mahler, this is a “lost expecttion”). The main theme is resolved by a heroic apotheosis. 

Interpretations of Mahler symphonies by Teodor Currentzis every time become an event: excessive exaltation is replaced with refined musical expression, and careful reading of the scores reveals an abyss of new meanings. I asked questions to the maestro, whom I found somewhere between the two performances of Symphony No. 1 in Athens and Brussels.

— For the second performance of his Symphony No. 1, Mahler prepared program explanations for the listeners, which he himself cancelled later. Do you think they are necessary?

— I would say: yes, and no. From the standpoint of inner experience — and to experience it is the goal of a musical performance — it does not give too much, does not lead "to the abyss." 

— Paul Stefan, the composer’s first biographer, said that in Mahler’s music, life begins on the street, and ends in infinity.

— On the other hand, I, as a performer, must know everything that can be learned about the work. It is important to me that Mahler wrote Symphony No. 1 when he was young, and it contains the experiences of a young man. That the autobiographical impetus for its creation was the composer’s vehement love for his friend Carl von Weber’s wife, and he, a man with a broken heart, sought a way out of this situation in composing the symphony. And that its protagonist, a young man stood the test of the grotesque of the third part acquires immunity and in the finale is able to have a fight with the bolt of lightning. The drama of this symphony is autobiographical in another aspect as well: Mahler called himself homeless in three ways: as a Czech among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew — all over the world. By appealing to folk music in the second and third parts — Austrian, Gypsy, and Jewish — he defies nationality.

— What could you say about the motive of nature in the first part and returning to it in the finale?

— In the first part the sonata form itself is very important, referring, in particular, to Beethoven... 

— You mean the ‘Pastoral’ Sonata? 

— And not only that. In the first part mystery grows out of this flickering fog. Pan wakes up... the protagonist speaks their Esperanto to the birds...

— And Siegfried, when Fafnir’s blood hit his tongue, began to understand the language of birds. By the way, the troubadours’ birds spoke Latin.

— From here there is a path to The Boy’s Magic Horn, and Symphony No. 3. But first to the trio of the second part, purely Viennese — this is a masterpiece, where the belle époque is surprisingly combined with a youthful outlook that will be preserved in Mahler’s first four symphonies. In No. 5 and after — there is already a different scale.

— Could we say the same about a trio from the third movement, especially as it is put in an alien context and that’s why its lyricism is felt sharper? There are a lot of records of the complete collection of Mahler’s symphonies — under the direction of Kubelik, Gielen, Haitink, Boulez, Eschenbach, Chailly; Bernstein even recorded it twice. Are you going to perform and then record all Mahler’s symphonies?

— We plan to record all Mahler’s symphonies with Sony Classical. Our orchestra gathers at the Diaghilev festival in Perm every summer to perform one of the symphonies, and then we record it. But I would like to record Symphony No. 1 in Vienna, as it has special requirements for acoustics connected with it.

— Which Mahler’s symphony is your favourite?

— No. 6, the one we performed last year. I know and love it since childhood and, contrary to popular opinion, do not consider it an expression of hopelessness. In it, Mahler expressed all his love for Alma, and if he had lost faith in something, it was only in what remained in human power, further allowing the gods to act. And, of course, The Song of the Earth...

— Is it possible to express with one phrase, what requirements do you have for performance?

— Mahler said that composing a symphony is equivalent to creating a world with its own laws, and it is necessary to perform it so that it changes the person who had listened to it.

Michael Meylac,
professor emeritus of the university of Strasbourg

[1] Inna Barsova, Gustav Mahler`s Symphonies. 2nd edition. SPb.: Publishing House named after N. I. Novikova, 2010. P. 11-19.

[2] Barsova I. A. Gustav Mahler. Personality, world outlook, creative work // Gustav Mahler. Letters. Memoirs. Trans. from Ger. S. A. Osherova. M.: Music, 1968. P. 42.

[3] Inna Barsova, Gustav Mahler`s Symphonies. P. 62-63.