Symphony No. 1 in D major | Gustav Mahler | 1860-1911

In the late 1880s Gustav Mahler was building a reputation as a symphonic and operatic conductor. As he moved from one conducting post to another, usually as the assistant conductor in opera houses, he had only limited time for composing. It took him from 1883 to 1888 to finish the First Symphony for its premiere and another 11 years to have it ready for publication.

During the interval, Mahler made major changes. At its premiere in Budapest in 1889, Mahler had called it a ”Symphonic Poem in two parts” with an elaborate literary program that he later repudiated. The origin of the Symphony’s subtitle “Titan” is uncertain; some scholars believe it derived from the title of a novel by Jean Paul, a popular literary figure during the heyday of the Romantic period. In its first version, the symphony had five movements, but Mahler immediately discarded the original second movement. He also expanded the size of the orchestra and revised the orchestration drastically. The discarded second movement, an Andante titled “Blumine,” resurfaced only in 1967 and is now occasionally performed with the symphony.

At the time he began the symphony, Mahler was also composing a cycle of four songs with orchestra, titled Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). The themes from two of these songs found their way into the symphony: The second song became the main theme of the first movement, while the fourth song became the middle section of the third movement.

In light of Mahler’s later symphonies, the First is relatively tame. Nevertheless, it was received with hostility and ridicule at the first performance, bewildering the audience and annoying the critics. Its originality lies in the innovative orchestration and harmonies, as well as in the intensity of the emotions it conveys. In 1941 before the resurgence of Mahler’s popularity, Aaron Copland perceived the value of the Mahler’s music: “Of all romantics, this arch-romantic has most to give to the music of the future,”

The first movement begins with an eerie introduction, the first two notes of which later morph into a birdcall, as well as the first two notes of the main theme. It is punctuated by a distant fanfare and a wailing oboe cry. The Allegro section begins in the cellos with the second Wayfarer song, “Ging heut morgen Übers Feld,” (I Walked this Morning over the Field); the theme is the heart and soul of the symphony serving not only as the main theme of this movement, but also as the basis of the themes of the second and final movements. The music of the introduction recurs in the middle of the movement. Mahler’s genius was his ability to keep all his thematic balls in the air, a feat brilliantly achieved in the coda.

The second movement Scherzo has the rhythm of the Ländler, an Austrian folk dance. Although it conforms to the classic minuet and trio form, Mahler spins out the first section far beyond the standard repeat structure. Both the opening three notes of the Scherzo and the Trio recall the birdcall theme from the first movement.

A macabre timpani ostinato accompanies a lonely double bass introducing the main theme of the third movement, a funeral march based on none other than the nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques” in the minor mode. The spooky parody is said to have been inspired by a popular picture by the French painter Jacques Callot of a dead hunter accompanied to his grave by forest animals. The middle section of the movement is based on the melody from the fourth Wayfarer song, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz,” (My Sweetheart’s Two Blue Eyes) hypnotic and calming. In a third episode, Mahler transforms the theme into a dance with more than a hint of Jewish Klezmer music, an aspect of Mahler’s heritage about which he manifested considerable ambivalence. Although a convert to Catholicism, he suffered constant anti-Semitic slights, and after World War II, Leonard Bernstein had to bully the Vienna Philharmonic to revive Mahler’s music.

The movement leads directly to the stormy Finale, which in the original program notes was titled Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso (from hell to heaven). It opens with one of the most threatening passages in classical music and is subsequently taken up in the main body of the Allegro. In the Finale, Mahler ties together the themes from the earlier movements, even those from the discarded “Blumine” movement as a gentle, even comforting, second theme. The resolution occurs in a coda of heroic proportions, including a triumphant, full-voiced reprise of the distant fanfare from the opening of the Symphony.

Program notes by:

Joe & Elizabeth Kahn

Click here to get tickets to Masterworks 7: Titan

Masterworks 7: Titan will take place on Saturday, May 18, at 2 p.m. at BMC’s open-air Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium, This season’s Masterworks Series finale, the concert will feature two monumental works of the Western repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, “Titan.”

Tickets to Masterworks 7: Titan start at $17, are available now, and can be purchased online by clicking the button above, or by contacting the Asheville Symphony Box Office at (828) 254-7046 or