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Little is known about the genesis of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. A connection to two women – the singer Johanna Richter and Marion von Weber – is documented, which may have been the reason that Mahler took efforts not to let very much be known about it. Originally, ‘Blumine’ was planned as the second movement of the symphony. It was composed in 1884 as a part of a set of ‘living pictures’ based on Scheffel’s Trompeter von Säkkingen which Mahler otherwise destroyed. His Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are thematically related to the symphony and were also composed in that same year. There is a large break between these preliminary studies and the final version of the symphony which Mahler wrote in just six weeks in the spring of 1888; he said that it ‘virtually gushed like a mountain stream’ (letter to Friedrich Löhr in March 1888). There must have been further preparatory work in this period, but almost nothing datable has survived.
Mahler conducted the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 1 in Budapest on 20 November 1889. Here it was appropriately called a ‘Symphonic Poem’, since the similarities to the programmatic ‘Neudeutsche Symphonic Poems’ are undeniable. Although Mahler revised the score thoroughly in the first part of 1893, he still felt it necessary to print the following indication of the work’s contents for a performance in Hamburg on 27 October 1893:
7. ‘The Titan’, A Tone Poem in the form of a symphony (manuscript) .....
1st Part ‘Childhood Memories’, flowers, fruits and thorns
I. ‘Eternal Spring’ (Introduction and Allegro comodo)
The introduction represents the re-awakening of Nature after a long winter.
II. ‘Biumine’ (Andante)
III. ‘The wind in my sails’ (Scherzo)
2nd Part ‘Commedia humana’
IV. ‘Shipwrecked’ (a funeral march in the style of Jacques Callot)
The following should help understand this movement. The inspiration for this piece can be seen in the satirical picture ‘The Hunter’s Funeral’ which is known to all Austrian children: The animals of the forest accompany the coffin of the deceased hunter to his grave; rabbits carry little banners preceded by a band of Bohemian musicians; there are music-making cats, toads, crows, etc. and elk, deer, foxes and other four-legged and feathered beasts of the forest participate in the procession assuming dance-like poses. At this point, the piece wavers between ironic and humorous moods here and mysterious, brooding ones there. This is immediately followed by
V. ‘Dall’ Inferno’ (Allegro furioso)
which represents the sudden explosion of despair coming from a deeply wounded heart.
As a matter of fact, a large variety of art forms (pictures, literature, music) and levels of appreciation (including folk art and popular subjects) can be seen as sources for Mahler’s inspiration. As in other works, Mahler did not refer to these programmatic elements later, with the exception of the title of the symphony, which he even weakened: ‘the so-called Titan’. He prepared a second revision for a performance on 16 March 1896 in Berlin which deleted the Blumine movement – the title became simply ‘Symphony in D major’.
The work was first printed in 1898/1899 by Josef Eberle [&] Co in Vienna, at a time when Mahler was already director of the Court Opera House. The first edition was sold by Weinberger and was incorporated into Universal Edition in 1909. The composer, however, reserved the right to carry out further revisions. He made changes in the instrumentation for virtually every performance to better express his growing demands and to make it ‘beautifully transparent and perfect’. Right up to the last performance of the work which he conducted in New York in December 1909, Mahler revised the orchestral parts – before and after the concert.
The present score reproduces the Improved Edition that was published in 1992 by Sander Wilkens in the series of the Critical Complete Edition. This in turn was based on Erwin Ratz’s ‘Fassung letzter Hand’ (Final Version), in which the attempt was made for the first time to collate all of the authentic changes including the aforementioned New York revision of 1909/1910. Wilken’s interpretation of the ‘Solo’ indication in the double basses at the opening of the third movement as a ‘group solo’, i.e. only double basses without violoncellos, and not as a performance by a single player, has met in some places with criticism – the final word about it has definitely not been heard. It should be noted that Mahler specifically requested stronger forces for the final chorale (fourth movement, starting at bar 656): at least by ‘an extra trumpet and an extra trombone’ but ‘naturally more horns [would be] preferable’ (letter to Franz Schalk concerning a performance in Prague in 1898), i.e. at least nine horns.
From the preface of
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1