A guide to Mahler’s First Symphony

What you need to know about Mahler's First Symphony

Which is the best Mahler Symphony?

When did Mahler write his First Symphony?

Mahler began his first symphony  in 1884, completing it four years later. Initially, the work had five movements, but in 1896, Mahler took out the second of them – an Andante called ‘Blumine’ – leaving the four-movement version familiar today. The score for ‘Blumine’ has survived, and is occasionally performed as a standalone work.

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Where was Mahler’s First Symphony premiered?

At Budapest’s Vigadó Concert Hall on 20 November, 1889, played by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the composer himself. It did not go down well with the audience, many of whom found it perplexing. The ‘Blumine’ movement came in for particular criticism.

Though one of Mahler’s shortest symphonies, the First is sometimes nicknamed ‘Titan’. What is that all about?

‘Titan’ was Mahler’s own nickname for the work. It comes from a novel of the same name written in the early 19th century by German author Jean Paul. Mahler later dropped the nickname as he revised the symphony, but it has somehow stuck.

What should we listen out for?

Lots! In the first movement, Mahler depicts the awakening of nature in spring, complete with cuckoo calls and other bird song. The second movement presents a slightly mangled version of an Austrian Ländler dance, while the famous third movement depicts a funeral march through a forest, its tune based on ‘Bruder Martin’ (a German version of Frère Jacques), interspersed with Klezmer tunes. The finale, meanwhile, sees themes from earlier make a reappearance, before all is rounded off in a typically Mahlerian blaze of glory.

Anything else we need to know about Makler’s First Symphony?

Yes. Those with a Mahlerian bent will also spot references to his earlier song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, cantata Das klagende Lied and song Hans und Grethe.

Any recommended recordings?

The catalogue is awash with excellent recordings of Mahler’s First Symphony. For a superb recent one, try conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, recorded on the BR Klassik label in 2016 (BR Klassik 900143).

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Listen to Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation here: