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Original description from the included liner notes by David Hall:
Symphony No.1 in D Major
Sir Adrian Boult conducting the
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Of the nine massive works by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) bearing the designation “symphony”, four call for voices (No.2, No.3, No.4, No.8). The First Symphony, begun in 1884 when the 24-year-old Mahler was undertaking his first significant conducting job at the Court Theater of Cassel, calls for no voices but draws directly on two songs from Mahler’s cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”) begun the year before. The songs were finished by the beginning of 1885, at which time Mahler had left Cassel for the German Theater in Prague. The Symphony did not reach completion till the spring of 1888, by which time Mahler had worked as second conductor in Leipzig under Nikiski and was preparing to negotiate for his first “big time” post, that of Director of the Budapest Opera - an appointment he received that fall. He himself conducted its premiere in Budapest on November 20, 1889 before a thoroughly uncomprehending audience.
The cycle was completed under the impact of a passionate and unfulfilled love affair with one Johanne Richter, while the Symphony saw completion at a time when the young conductor-composer had become deeply involved with the wife of Carl Maria von Weber’s grandson. Small wonder that Mahler at one time chose to call the outburst in the opening pages of the finale “the cry of a deeply wounded heart.” For Mahler this work must have represented the catharsis for all the passionate woes and joys of his youth. Beginning with the years at Budapest, Mahler had achieved manhood’s estate in terms of the enormous artistic and administrative responsibilities he was to shoulder.” From that time until his death, there was to be unceasing conflict between his public self as the most brilliant conductor of the day and his private self which demanded time and peace for musical creation.
Mahler’s First Symphony contains all the essential expressive elements of his musical idiom - the evocation of nature sounds, the use of folk or quasi-folksong materials, the juxtaposition (as in the early T. S. Eliot poems) of the magically ideal with the crassly vulgar, and of course, the use of outsized instrumental forces. Here too we have no hesitation on the composer’s part to create a work of at least half an evening’s length. “A symphony must be like the world,” he once said. Mahler’s orchestration calls for 4 flutes (with 2 piccolos), 4 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets (one in E-flat, doubled if possible), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 7 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam- tam, harp, strings.
The first movement Langsam, schleppend wie ein Naturlaut (Slowly, drawn out like a sound of Nature) opens with Mahler’s evocation of Nature in early dawn. The cuckoo can paves the way for the main theme proper, than of Ging’ heut’ Morgen übers Feld (“O’er the Fields I Went at Morn”)—No. 2 from the “Wayfarer” cycle. Freshness and youthful pugnacity characterize the movement as a whole. The second movement, Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Strongly vigorous, but not too fast) takes the form of a rustic peasant dance—a Ländler, which was to intrigue Russia’s Dmitri Shostakovich nearly 50 years later—if we are to believe the evidence of his Fifth Symphony—second movement, Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemn and measured, without dragging) - this third movement was the one that excited the most controversy among the serious-minded concert audiences of the 1880s and ‘90s. A gloomy funeral march seems in prospect here-but just listen to the tune, nothing more nor less than our old friend Frère Jacques in the minor, and then this followed by a completely vulgar oompah “Jüdischer Tanz!” The sweetly poignant middle sectionbased on the last of the “Wayfarer” songs, Die zwei blauen Augen (“My Sweetheart’s Two Blue Eyes”) -provides the key; for the movement would seem to be a deliberate mockery of the shattered beauty of Mahler’s two youthful loves. Berlioz, of course, pioneered this concept in his treatment of the idée fixe “Beloved” theme in his Symphonie Fantastique, but Mahler developed this satirical technique to the fun, and it subsequently became the small change of much contemporary music between the two world wars.
Fury breaks loose in the finale (Stürmisch bewegt) which follows immediately upon the dying strains of the funeral march like a sudden summer thunderstorm. There is fierce passion in the succeeding lyrical episodes and recall of earlier pages; but there is also promise of redemption in chorale-fanfare sounded softly by trumpets, then blared out by the seven horns. The end, as Moses Smith once said, “is like the resurrection.”