Program Notes – Mahler Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler’s first important conducting post was in the small German city of Kassel. While there, he developed a painful crush on the soprano Johanne Richter, and this heartbreak inspired his song-cycle Songs of a Wayfarer. A few years later, he had his heart broken again—this time by Frau von Weber, the wife of the grandson of arguably the first great German Romantic composer, Carl Maria von Weber.

These two romantic failures are the seeds for the First Symphony, and there is a complex involvement with the material from two songs from the Wayfarer cycle. Like many composers before and since, Mahler was reluctant to reveal the hidden stories behind his orchestral works, writing, “no music is of any value if its pre-musical experiences first have to be reported to the listener… A residual mystery always remains—even for the creator himself!” Yet in early performances of the present work, he distributed a program that described the scenes presented in each movement.

The Symphony is full of nature imagery of a particularly posed and idealized sort, tinged with a sense of nostalgia and lost innocence. In the introduction to the first movement, a Moravian dawn setting softly resounds with birdcalls and hunting-horns. Mahler wrote that these are “memories of youth”, and “nature’s awakening from its long winter sleep.” The principal theme that emerges is a quotation from the second of the Wayfarer songs, corresponding to a short-lived moment when the protagonist finds joy in nature. Eventually a mist descends and fragments of birdcalls are heard over ominous tones from the double basses and brass. After a joyful return of the song theme, exuberant shouts from the brass prove contagious to the whole orchestra.

Mahler chooses the more rustic ländler dance form over the dainty minuet or more rambunctious scherzo for the second movement, in which the birdcall ideas of the first movement morph into yodels. The more gentle and sensuous central section begins with a simple, oscillating horn gesture.

The third movement begins as a depiction of a woodcut Mahler liked, in which forest creatures are engaged in a mock-funeral procession for a fallen woodsman. The tune is a minor-mode version of Frére Jacques, heard first from the double basses and then treated as a round; squirrels, deer, and raccoons somberly trudge by. But in a surreal twist, Mahler juxtaposes this with a deliciously crude dance tune (actually a variation of the dirge) played by the oboes and trumpets. A Yiddish café band interrupts, and the two dances are crosscut jarringly. This episode is rounded off with a reprise of the funeral march, now sullied somewhat. The harp introduces a walking tempo, and then a melody of aching sweetness appears, passed from the flutes to the violins. Its origin lies once again in the Wayfarer songs, where it accompanied lines about the heartsick wanderer finding rest beneath a linden tree whose petals symbolically snow their narcotic comfort down on him.

“A cry from a wounded heart” is how Mahler described the opening of the Finale to his Hamburg audience. After the catharsis of the first section, a luxuriously supple theme unfolds. Subsequently there is a lull, and then we are hurled violently into a great struggle; the home tonal plateau of D Major, not experienced since the first movement, is reached amid celebrations from brass and percussion. Mahler withdraws from this peak sadly, and takes us on a flashback tour of the important themes of the previous movements. The true climax of the movement and the Symphony comes, as Mahler wrote, like a trip from “hell to paradise.”


© Jamey Lamar 2018