"My time will come," Gustav Mahler assured his contemporaries, and in the 1960s, a century after his birth and half a century after his death, it did. Nowadays, it's easier for listeners to appreciate the huge scale, apocalyptic imagery, and powerful emotions of Mahler's symphonies than when his works were new--easier to recognize in Mahler's "voice" something that speaks to our own experience of the world. For while Mahler did not live long enough to witness the violent end of romantic art and culture brought about by World War I, he clearly saw it coming, and that awareness infused his music with the soul of modernity.
Mahler's symphonies are works of personal confession, like Beethoven's. For him, self-expression was paramount--and what emerged in his music is what he was: a volatile mix of optimism and irony, sublimity and vulgarity, heavy melancholy and soaring transcendence. Often in Mahler's symphonies the images of childhood, such as the marches and dance tunes that as a boy he heard garrison bands play in his native town, collide with adult-strength expressions of terror and elation.
Throughout his career, song and symphony were intertwined in Mahler's mind. The connection was already clear in his very first symphonic score, "Das Klagende Lied" ("The Song of Sorrow"), in which Mahler, only 20 years old, showed an acute awareness of the expressive possibilities of orchestral song. Many of the emotional themes and musical threads he took up here were to occupy him for the rest of his life.
Mahler's first mature work was his four-part orchestral song cycle "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" ("Songs of a Wayfarer"), finished in 1885 when he was 24. Portraying as they do the musings of a jilted lover who seeks solace in nature and is ultimately plunged into despair by his loss, these songs are openly confessional: at the time he sketched the cycle, Mahler, who had been appointed conductor at the opera in Kassel, was going through an unhappy love affair with one of the singers there. The texts are by Mahler himself. Consciously naive in style, they employ conventional imagery and simple, folk-like narrative schemes. But within the apparently simple constructs of these songs there are great depths of sentiment and meaning.
Mahler would expand upon that meaning in his First Symphony, which he began working on in Kassel at the time he was composing the "Wayfarer" songs. By 1888, he had completed a five-movement version of the symphony, the premiere of which he conducted in Budapest in 1889. For the second and third performances of the symphony, which followed in 1893 and 1894, he gave the score a title ("The Titan") and a program that dealt with the struggles of a heroic figure representing the artist, his relationship with nature, and his conquering of adversity.
Mahler soon realized that the First Symphony's striking evocations of pastoral bliss and all-consuming passion already said quite enough, and he withdrew both the title and the program. Prior to the publication of the score in 1899, he also dropped the second of its five movements, an Andante that had been titled "Blumine" in the original. This left the symphony with a more or less conventional four- movement layout and gave greater weight to the finale--which, though it mystified the symphony's first audiences, is the most accomplished and expressive part of the score.
There is a close connection between the music of the First Symphony and the "Songs of a Wayfarer." The main theme of the symphony's opening movement, which Mahler uses to establish the mood of spring-like optimism that prevails early in the piece, is taken from the second of his "Wayfarer" songs ("Ging heut' Morgen ubers Feld"). There is also a marked resemblance between the music of the symphony's third movement and the final song of the "Wayfarer" cycle ("Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz"). Both are cast as funeral marches--though, in the symphony, Mahler's principal theme is a sinister-sounding minor-key version of the popular folk song "Frere Jacques" played in canon and garbed in bizarre instrumental colors. Later in this movement, Mahler introduces a motif from the middle of the song, piercing the gloom with a short-lived ray of consolation.
True to life, the song cycle had ended on a despondent note. But in the symphony, Mahler turned empty resignation into triumphant self-assertion, thus following the pattern established by Beethoven in his Fifth Symphony, a pattern he would subsequently overturn and rearrange in his own later symphonies (such as the "Tragic" Symphony No. 6), making them as true to life as his songs always were.