Mahler - Symphony No.1: When is a symphony not a symphony?

20 November 2014, 09:32 | Updated: 5 March 2015, 08:54

Mahler's first is one of the most thrilling symphonies - but it suffered a long time from an identity crisis.

This is a work that went through many revisions before Mahler arrived at the version we hear today. In fact, he started by not calling it a symphony at all! When the work was premiered on 20 November 1889, Mahler described it as a Symphonic Poem in Two Parts, and within those parts there were five movements, rather than the four of the version we know now. 

His starting point seems to have been modelled on the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz (which was my highlight last week) and which was built around an elaborate narrative. But the audience anger and incomprehension that followed the work's premier in Budapest prompted Mahler into a whole series of changes. 

Four years later and the work had an amended title – ‘Titan – tone poem symphonic form’. In an attempt to guide his audience, the composer had latched onto the work of the romantic writer Jean Paul Richter, and his epic tale that follows the hero Titan from passionate youth to mature ruler. But there was little to link the novel and manuscript, so for the next outing, Mahler ditched that title – and a movement called Blumine from the original work - and called the work simply the Symphony in D for large orchestra. Finally in 1898, he finally settled on Symphony No.1 in D – and then published! Phew!

After such a painful process, what about the music itself? Despite Mahler’s attempts to eradicate a theme or storyline, there is a musical link between this first symphony and Mahler’s earlier songcycle, 'Songs of a Wayfarer' – and it’s the wayfarer whose journey you can follow through the symphony’s four movements.

The opening movement celebrates the great outdoors. The wayfarer is walking in a forest on a lovely spring day where, according to Mahler, the sunlight sparkles and shimmers. Listen out for carefree folk tunes and even a cuckoo from the clarinet!

By the second movement, our protagonist seems to be positively striding along. Although you can still hear birdsong, this scherzo is building to something more ominous – the cellos and basses do their best to erode the sense of optimism until the glorious mood returns in a thrilling climax.

The third movement sinks to a funereal pace. Mahler plays with several symphonic versions of funeral marches - even echoes of the children’s song we know as Frere Jacques (to Mahler it was Bruder Martin) sound solemn and tense.

The mood is finally broken in the fourth and final movement, with the crashing of the trumpets and trombones – what Mahler called ‘the cry of a wounded heart”, but this gives way to a lush romantic theme, as if the wayfarer is recalling his love and reminiscing more happily about his past, giving way to the end of heartbreak and a final glorious massive climax – which apparently was enough to wake a sleeping concert goer at the premier whose attention had slipped after the third movement!

You won't want to miss a minute of this outstanding first symphony by Mahler which cannot fail to stir the soul - and leave you with a determined sense that anguish and loneliness can be banished and the human spirit will triumph.