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Classical 101

A "Titan" of a Symphony from Gustav Mahler

Wikipedia-public domain
Gustav Mahler's Komponierhäuschen (composition hut) in Steinbach am Attersee."

When Late-Romantic Austrian composer Gustav Mahler completed his First Symphony in 1888, he called it "Titan," thinking of it as a large five-movement symphonic poem.  He eventually dropped the original second movement called "Blumine" and by 1896, dropped the title as well, calling it just Symphony in D.

The written headings that Mahler dropped do however tell us a lot about the feelings and intentions behind this remarkable First Symphony that expanded the boundaries of the genre in the composer's time as much as Beethoven's symphonies did in his.

Mahler referred to the long, magical opening as "the waking of Nature after a long winter" with its bird songs, hunting horns, and distant fanfares.  This first movement then builds to a grand climax before winding down and leading to the second movement , "the wind in my sails," a rustic scherzo in Laendler form, the Austrian folk-dance, to replace the original "Blumine" (Flowers) movement.

The third movement is a solemn funeral march based on a minor-key version of the children's song "Frere Jaques," or as Mahler knew it, "Bruder Martin."  Here, Mahler had a satiric cartoon in mind called "The Hunter's Funeral," in which a group of forest animals accompany the body of the deceased hunter to his grave.

The long and tempestuous final movement he called "Dall-Inferno"--From Hell.  Here, Mahler is lamenting the death of the "Titan" in music that rages and builds to several climaxes before coming to its dramatic conclusion.

It's quite a  wide-ranging emotional journey, expressed in music of extremes, from the banal to the profound, from child-like joy to tragedy and existential despair, in an amazing nearly hour-long symphony.

Join me Thursday evening on Symphony @ 7 for Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler in a very well-received recording from the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer.