Gustav Mahler was in his late 20s when he wrote his First Symphony, which is somewhat later than most composers with the notable exception of Brahms. Unlike Brahms, though, Mahler’s reason was not an artistic-paralysis-inducing anxiety regarding composers that had come before him – it was simply that he was a busy guy. He had held conducting appointments since he was 20 years old, and was ambitiously climbing the ladder of his profession. By 1887, when he began the symphony, he was employed full-time as one of the conductors, along with rival Arthur Nikisch, at the New Municipal Theater in Leipzig. To really contextualize this, let's go even farther: Mahler was known primarily as a conductor during his lifetime. In the early part of the 20th century he held positions with the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic; his composition output was a bit secondary in his public life.
I guess I say all of this because knowing that Mahler’s day job was that of conductor is not just relevant but actually important in interpreting his music. He approaches composition 1) as a person who deeply devoted to the orchestra, and 2) who is used to encountering and engaging a wide variety of music in diverse styles and genres. While Mahler is concerned with the same questions of harmony, counterpoint, genre, etc., that many of his contemporaries were, there are many added elements that he believed transcends the purely musical. It surely cannot possibly matter if the story Jean Sibelius tells about a conversation that he and Mahler had is apocryphal or not: “I said that I admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs... Mahler's opinion was just the reverse. ‘No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’” Mahler’s first symphony is, in fact, a critique and exploration of the concepts associated with the genre of the symphony since Beethoven, and Mahler draws from both the inside and the outside of the symphonic tradition to make his argument.
Indeed, the D major first movement’s introduction, apart from “slowly,” is marked “Wie ein Naturlaut,” or “as if a natural noise.” The seven octaves of A’s in the string section (that continue throughout the introduction) seem not so much to begin the symphony as make us aware that they have existed since the beginning of time, that we are merely spectators appearing in medias res. A slow chain of fourths, borrowed from the final movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony, creeps its way downward. Far away in the distance (and literally offstage) we hear the trumpets representing a mankind who is not yet an important player in the work. The descending fourth is now heard as a cuckoo; perhaps those in Austria are different, as in most other places in the world cuckoos sing a major third. The introduction closes as nature wakes up, and gives way to a modified sonata form, which starts out, according to the instruction, at a “leisurely” pace. The main theme (again reinterpreting the fourth) is heard unhurriedly in the cellos. This one is actually a self-quotation, from the second song of Mahler’s early cycle “Songs of a Wayfarer,” the words to which are “I walked across the fields this morning; dew still hung on every blade of grass. The merry finch spoke to me.” Humans (or a single hero, if an early program, that Mahler later suppressed, is to be believed) are now definitively in the symphonic picture. There is no second theme to this exposition, simply the traditional modulation to the dominant (A major) before the entire thing is repeated. The development section returns immediately to the mood of the introduction, the cellos singing melancholy fragments, accompanied by birdcalls from the flute and the ubiquitous suspended A in the violins. A momentary appearance (and a false recapitulation) in D major of a tentative, distant hunting theme is heard in the horns; this theme is a yet another re-casting of the fourth as ascending. Further development in more adventurous key areas ensues, leading to a moment of tense crisis, full of harmonic stagnation and fluctuating tempos. A break-through (durchbruch, as the Germans call it) of brilliant D major leads to the recapitulation, with the recently heard horn melody thrust into the role of main theme. The rest of the movement is unremittingly joyous but short, and the pauses before its headlong rush to a close are more humorous than threatening -- "the hero bursts out laughing and runs away," according to the early program.
The A major Scherzo, “moving powerfully, but not too fast,” according to the instruction, is cast as an Austrian country dance, the Ländler. A form used by Schubert, and a precursor to the significantly more cosmopolitan waltz, this one is particularly earthy. The traditional stomping and clapping that occurs in the dance step itself seems to be mimicked by exuberant gestures in the instruments, as well as what becomes in some places a very strongly accented beat 3 of the 3/4 measure. According to the program, “the young man roams about the world in a more robust, strong and confident way.” With this confidence comes further motivic development – the introductory bassline consists entirely of the descending fourth, and the main melody sees the fourth ascend. The somewhat slower (“rather comfortably”) Trio section seems to move us from the countryside to Vienna, where the choreography is somewhat more elegant and leisurely. The Ländler returns, determined to outdo its earlier boisterousness.
The slow movement, in the tonic (D) minor, begins with the fourth stoically intoned by the timpani, accompanying a plodding round that begins uncomfortably in the solo bass, followed by the bassoon, tuba and other instruments. American listeners could be forgiven for thinking the tune is reminiscent of a minor-key “Frère Jacques;” though the tune is called “Bruder Martin” in German, the song’s cultural function is the similar. As the round continues in a more funereal vein, Mahler’s visual inspiration for the movement begins to make sense – the composer was apparently captivated by an unsettling woodcut by the painter Moritz von Schwind called “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession,” whose depiction of a bizarre and grotesque cortege of animals carrying a huntsman’s coffin is an irony of the most bitter kind. What follows caused the initial audience of this symphony substantial puzzlement at the premiere: it is a series of seemingly nonsensical transitions, almost post-modern in its affect, from “Bruder Martin,” to a parody of klezmer music, to a return of the funeral march, to a subdued, arrestingly beautiful quotation of the last of the Songs of a Wayfarer. (This last music seems particularly out of place, especially given the original text: “By the road stood a linden tree, where, for the first time, I found rest in sleep.”) The latter is immediately negated by minor chords, and the funeral march begins again, a half-step higher, and is interrupted even more thoughtlessly by the klezmer music. As the music sinks towards a despairing conclusion, the meaning from Mahler’s program becomes clear: this formless pastiche of a movement is “all the coarseness, the mirth and the banality of the world…heard in the sound of a Bohemian village band, together with the hero's terrible cries of pain."
The Finale, therefore, opens with a “terrifying shriek” as the pain continues. Cast in a key unrelated to previous music (F minor) and marked “moving stormily,” the hair-raisingly wild opening introduces a main theme of extreme vehemence. First heard in the horns and woodwinds, it traverses a fifth, the inverse of the other movements’ fourth. It develops itself at a breakneck, frantic pace that it cannot sustain; groaning, it breaks down. The completely contrasting second theme, heard in the violins and marked “very singingly,” is from a different world. Elements of the first movement’s introduction begin gradually to creep into the texture, leading to a quick outburst that begins the development section. The violence is interrupted this time by a subdued but radiant refashioning of the main theme in C major, as if the symphony is seeing very distant light, played by the trumpet and trombone. The vehemence returns in C minor, but is halted this time by a break-though again in C major; all at once, though, the music stops and there is a dramatic pause; it starts again in a brilliant but completely unprepared D major, up a whole step, trumpets blazing triumphantly, horns intoning a solemn but joyful chorale with the fourths from the first movement’s introduction reset in a major key. Said Mahler in a conversation with Natalie Bauer-Lechner:
Again and again, the music had fallen from brief glimpses of light into the darkest depths of despair. Now an enduring triumphal victory had to be won. As I discovered after considerable vain groping, this could be achieved by modulating from one key to the key a whole tone above. Now, this could have managed very easily by using the intervening semitone and rising from C to C-sharp, then to D. But everyone would have known the D would be the next step. My D chord, however, had to sound as though it had fallen from heaven.
D major is the tonality of the symphony; so, one wonders, why does this triumphal chorale not close the work? The answer to this question lies in a letter than Mahler wrote to Richard Strauss (who disapproved of this moment in the symphony:
At the place in question the solution is merely apparent (in the full sense a “false conclusion”) and a change and breaking of whole essence is needed before a true “victory” can be won after such struggle.
My intention was to show a struggle in which victory is furthest from the protagonist just when he believes it is closest. This is the essence of every spiritual struggle. For it is by no means so simple to become a hero.
Mahler was never one for understatement.
In musicologist James Hepokoski's analysis, the triumph here is not sustainable, precisely because it has “fallen from heaven.” It gradually fades and eventually gives way to a return of the Naturlaut (“natural noise”) music from the first movement. The main theme of the fast section of that movement is also recalled, as if channeling the Finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony – remembering and rejecting earlier material. Then comes the crucial formal move – the second theme of the present movement (the Finale) returns in the cellos in the key of F major, the “correct” key in sonata form. After reaching a shattering climax with a cymbal crash, the first theme returns as well, in F minor. It is a recapitulation in reverse – and where the first theme was ferocious fifteen minutes before, here the best it can offer is a few viola outbursts in an otherwise chastened texture. Again, paraphrasing Heposkoski: Mahler is rejecting sonata form as a solution to the work’s problems. The tense build-up following this recapitulation now increasingly resembles the same section from the first movement, complete with the fluctuating tempos and sense of crisis. The break-though in the first movement that lead to the recapitulation here returns us to the D major blazing triumph heard earlier in the Finale – the critical difference being that everything now happens in the right tonality. The triumph is not tacked on, it does not fall from heaven; it is earned. The result of the symphony’s motivic transformations, and of the composer’s struggles, are the trumpets and horns intertwining the major key versions of the Finale’s main theme and the first movement’s falling fourths (now resembling the lines “And he shall reign for ever and ever” from the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah) together in an exhilarating counterpoint. The horns stand up, so that they may be heard over the entire orchestra. The uncontrollably ecstatic coda ends the symphony with one final transformation of the falling fourths into descending octave D’s thundered out by the whole orchestra, after which it would be hard to imagine a single other note.