Gustav Mahler wrote very long symphonies. Only the First and the Fourth can be played in less than an hour. The symphonies also call for far larger orchestras than those of other composers. Some even require vocal soloists and/or chorus.
By Mahler’s time, the symphony had already come a long way from the first symphonic masterpieces. Haydn and Mozart wrote symphonies that established the expectation of a four-movement work
- Sonata form, fast with or without a slow introduction
- Slow movement
- Fast movement
They made sure that the structure of each movement could be clearly heard. Their sonata forms had a brief but noticeable pause before the second key area, before the development, and again before the recapitulation.
Beethoven destroyed those expectations.
- He replaced the minuet with the structurally similar scherzo.
- He worked to hide the joints between sections.
- In the Fifth Symphony he reused material from the scherzo in the last movement
- The Sixth Symphony has five movements and programmatic titles.
- The Ninth Symphony not only adds a chorus and soloists, but also reverses the order of the slow movement and scherzo.
Throughout the 19th century composers experimented with these innovations. The orchestra also grew in size.
At first glance, Mahler’s First Symphony appears to be a fairly conventional symphony for the late 19th century, using the order of movements in Beethoven’s Ninth. It didn’t start out that way.
Evolution of Mahler’s First Symphony
Mahler composed his First Symphony near the end of a stint as second conductor at the opera house in Leipzig , with the most intense work coming between January and March 1888.
Most of the musical ideas are based on earlier music. He mined his own Songs of a Wayfarer, The Trumpeter from Säkkingen, and Hansel and Gretel as well as Liszt’s Dante, Wagner’s Parsifal, and the folk tune best known in this country as “Frère Jaques.”
For its first performance (Budapest, November 1889), he didn’t call it a symphony, but rather A Symphonic Poem in Two Parts. The two parts were divided into five movements, with an Andante coming between the familiar first two.
The audience liked that part, but began to express disapproval of the second part, which begins with a funeral march. Mahler had called it a symphonic poem, but hadn’t provided a clue what it was about.
Subsequent performances in Hamburg (1893) and Weimar (1894) were called Titan: A Symphonic Poem and Symphony: Titan respectively. The program came from Titan, a novel by Jean Paul. Each movement had a programmatic name.
After those two performances, Mahler decided that the program was misleading and inadequate. He also decided to drop the second movement, “Blumine.” From then on, it has been known simply as Symphony in D.
Even without a printed literary program, it is still very much program music. The symphony paints pictures and tells stories. Mahler simply gave up on trying to express them in writing.
The standard large symphony orchestra at the time comprised strings; pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, and percussion. One of the oboes frequently doubles on English horn and one of the flutes frequently doubles on piccolo.
Mahler uses four flutes (including two piccolos), four oboes (including one English horn), four clarinets (including bass clarinet and a smaller than usual clarinet in E-flat), and three bassoons (including contrabassoon).
The brass comprises seven horns, four trumpets, three trombones, and tuba until the last movement, which requires extra of all but the tuba.
The standard percussion section requires a timpanist and perhaps other players for other instruments. This symphony requires two players just to handle the timpani. Cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, and bass drum might not seem like excessive extra equipment, but it takes a couple more players to handle it all. A single bass drum is not enough. There must also be a smaller one with a cymbal attached so one player can play both.
The strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and basses) must be more numerous than in most pieces in order to balance all the extra wind and percussion. And there is also a harp. But don’t worry about excessive noise from such huge forces. Mahler hardly ever has everyone playing at once. Some of the music is extremely soft.
Structure of movements
The first movement begins with a slow introduction, but Mahler told a conductor, “The introduction to the first movement sound of nature, not music!” The program for the Hamburg performance said that it represented nature waking up from a long sleep. It’s easy to hear nature sound, fanfares, and bird calls. The tempo alternates between dragging very slowly and the faster fanfares.
This introduction leads into the second song from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. The words indicate pleasure and delight with nature. Although this joyous movement has melodic material, the song certainly not only sets the mood but gives the program for the movement. The mood is darkened only momentarily in a foreshadowing of the finale.
The second movement recalls the scherzo’s origin as a dance. But it’s not the aristocratic minuet. It is a boisterous peasant landler, recalling the sort of music frequently enjoyed in village pubs. But where a traditional minuet or scherzo had a middle section of similar style in a contrasting key, the middle section of this scherzo slows a bit to a more dignified waltz.
The slow movement takes the form of an ironic funeral march, based on the familiar folk tune “Brüder Martin,” or better known to Americans as “Frère Jacques” It’s in a minor key and intended to recall an old folk tale of a funeral procession for a hunter. Except it’s not a procession of his human friends grieving his death, but the wild animals celebrating it.
Mahler imagined the march being played by a band of bad musicians, which possibly explains why it starts with a bass solo. Each entrance of the tune brings a novel and unexpected timbre. As if that’s not sufficiently disrespectful to the dead, a parody from something like a Klezmer band breaks out.
Before the canon returns, Mahler introduces the fourth song from Songs of a Wayfarer. Again, the words underscore the intent of the whole movement. Mahler explained to friends that in this movement, the story’s hero falls into deep despair. The last movement begins without pause like a sudden and violent storm.
In its earlier versions, the Finale had the programmatic title “From Inferno to Paradise.” The hero does battle with all the sorrow of the world. The joy and bliss of the opening movement is all but forgotten. Programmatically, though, the hero battles successfully to win it back.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante is guided first by Virgil and then by Beatrice through Hell, then Purgatory, finally reaching the full bliss of Paradise. Mahler must have had Dante in mind, because much of the new thematic material in this movement comes from Liszt’s Dante Symphony. But it is the return of themes from the first movement that marks the transition from despair to victory.