Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major “The Titan”

Saturday 30 September 2017

Conducted by Rune Bergmann
Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra

I. Langsam schleppend
II. Kräftig bewegt
III. Feierlich und gemessen
IV. Stürmisch bewegt

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)

Reactions to Mahler’s First Symphony reflect a century’s worth of change in musical taste. He conducted the première himself, during his tenure as Director of the Royal Budapest Opera. Given that the audience was accustomed to little save mainstream Italian opera, the indifferent, if not hostile response (mirroring the launching of the Brahms Piano Concerto) came as no surprise. Press reaction was almost unanimously negative. What struck so many ears as shapeless and vulgar in 1889 has become loveable, even quaint. This robust score bursts with the boldness and fire of youth, proudly displays a burgeoning mastery of orchestration, and flirts cheekily with traditional ideas of good taste. At first, Mahler referred to it as a symphonic poem rather than a symphony, and gave each of the five movements a programmatic association – nature’s awakening after the long sleep of winter (first movement); the hunter’s funeral procession (third movement); from the inferno to paradise (fourth movement), and so forth. At other times, he associated the symphony with The Titan, a novel by one of his favourite authors, Jean Paul. He eventually deleted the second movement and disavowed all outside inspirations, confessing that he made them up after composing the music, in the sole hope of making the pieces easier to understand. In the first movement, he built a crescendo of sound and emotional awakening. It grows from a quiet beginning dotted with bird calls, through a warmly flowing melody for cellos, to a jubilant conclusion. What is now the second movement is a hearty “peasant” scherzo. Its strong accents and rustic themes, with their echoes of yodeling, recall the mid-European country dances Mahler had known and loved from childhood onwards. Timpani set the pace for the third movement, an ironic funeral march. The solo double bass introduces a minor-key version of the old French children’s round song Frère Jacques, or Brüder Martin, as Mahler knew it. A witty, klezmer-like parody of military band music intrudes. The march resumes, only to fade away into silence. The finale bursts in abruptly with an explosion of heated emotion. Romantic yearning wages battle with darker sentiments, but positive feelings win the day. Mahler reprised materials from the symphony’s opening movement, and crowned the symphony with a lengthy, unreservedly triumphant coda.

Programme Notes by Don Anderson © 2017