Fort Worth Civic Orchestra
Kurt Sprenger, Music Director
Saturday, May 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
2001 West Seminary Drive, Fort Worth, TX
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D
Someday, advanced artificial intelligence programs will be capable of generating simulated Mahler symphonies by the dozen. When that time comes, each might contain an extended funeral march movement; almost certainly a folk-inspired interlude with a lovely Austrian Ländler; possibly a whirling, demonic waltz; and for sure, a breathtaking apocalypse-to-apotheosis “ride into the sunset” finale.
If the 27-year-old Gustav Mahler agonized over the details of his first symphony – whether to make it four or five movements, a work of pure or program music, a symphony or a tone poem called “The Titan” – he crafted a lasting blueprint for the nine that followed. It poured out of him, he said, “like a mountain torrent.” Yet even at that very moment in early 1888, the symphony as art form was being transformed: by Anton Bruckner’s sprawling Eighth Symphony, César Franck’s D Minor Symphony, Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – and Mahler’s own symphonies would define the last gasp of Romanticism before the 20th century changed everything.
For a time, Mahler was in what he called “a fight for supremacy” with Arthur Nikisch (his superior at the Leipzig Stadttheater) for creative control of the opera house. He befriended a captain of the Saxon army, a grandson of Carl Maria von Weber, and with Baron von Weber’s permission, edited his grandfather’s unfinished comic opera, Die Drei Pintos and conducted its first performances. Without permission, Mahler conducted an affair with the Baroness, which fueled his desire to write a symphony. But the seeds of the work were sown by an earlier, unrequited romance with the soprano Johanna Richter, who had inspired his Songs of a Wayfarer in 1884.
Listen to Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld (I Went This Morning over the Field)
In his own words: “The symphony begins where the love affair ends; it is based on the affair which preceded the symphony in the emotional life of the composer. But the extrinsic experience became the occasion, not the message of the work.” And in fact, the Wayfarer theme of “I Went This Morning over the Field” appears in the first movement, “Hans und Grete” in the second and “The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved” in the third. As Theodor Adorno explained:
“At times, Mahler’s themes assume the role of the joker in a pack of cards… The variants of such joker motifs may easily be taken for granted, as though they were accidental, and indeed, an element of randomness in their sequence is as much a part of their meaning as is accident in games of chance. Yet even here the patient observer will discover a logic in the composition.”
The opening of Mahler’s ‘nature’ symphony suggests an eerie stillness before daybreak. The fluttering of birds, stirrings of the forest, calls of distant trumpets paint a picture of morning that remained unrivaled until the “Dawn” music of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. The song of a cuckoo melts into “I Went This Morning,” leading in turn to a bright yodeling song. The scherzo movement’s outer sections are taken up by a lusty, danceable Ländler while the trio section is a luscious waltz. The third movement – inspired by a woodcut print of a hunter’s funeral cortège, the forest animals carrying the bier to the grave – betrays its tongue-in-cheek solemnity by a funeral march based on Frère Jacques (in German, Bruder Martin) in a minor key and a klezmerish folk dance.
For those hearing this symphony for the first time, these program notes won’t spoil the beginning of the final movement or the rest of it. Like Beethoven and Berlioz, Mahler uses thematic flashbacks to his earlier movements, but everything points to the final blaze of glory. Mahler was fond of saying that Beethoven wrote only one Ninth Symphony, but as one of his biographers has suggested, every one of Mahler’s was a ‘Ninth.’