The Symphony No. 1 began life in 1884, the year Mahler completed his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The timing is particularly significant as the two works share a large amount of common musical material.
The symphony was first performed as a symphonic poem in two parts and with five movements, each with a descriptive title. The original second movement Blumine was dropped along with the descriptions when Mahler revised the work in 1893 and 1896.
In its final form, the Symphony in D major was given the subtitle Titan after Jean Paul's novel. The hero of the novel, Albano, philosophises on the nature of life: love, death, the natural world; themes that Mahler himself had been constantly exploring.
Although attracting criticism from the musical establishment, the Symphony breaks new ground in scope and form. The conductor Bruno Walter called the Symphony "the youthful work of genius...Proliferating in invention and pulsing with passion, it is music that has been lived."
There is much to discover in this work of genius: from the evocation of nature in the first and final movements to the heavy irony of the third with its rendition of Frere Jacques on solo Double Bass. The energy of the second movement is particularly impressive, contrasting with a heart-rending string melody; and the terrifying opening of the finale is ultimately resolved in a triumphant celebration of life.
Known more during his lifetime for his conducting than for his composition, Austrian composer Gustav Mahler once referred to himself as a thrice-homeless man: a Bohemian among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew among the people of the whole world. As the bridge between the Austro-Germanic traditions and early modernism, though, he can be regarded as one of the most important figures in Western art music of the 20th century.
Born in Kalsicht, Bohemia on 7 May 1860, Mahler's early years were spent in the German-speaking Jewish community of Iglau. Celebrated as a local wunderkind, he was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory as a pianist in 1875. However, he soon turned to composition as his primary focus for study, developing an early enthusiasm for Wagner and Bruckner.
In his final student years, Mahler began the activity that would dominate the rest of his career and provide his income, conducting. His early conducting posts included spells at Kassel, Prague, and Lepzig, as a colleague of Artur Nikish.
Resigning from Leipzig, Mahler next took up a position at the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest. His life here was stressful, mostly as a result of the nationalist tensions generated by Germanophile Magyars, and composition therefore became difficult.
A significant move to the nationalist right made Mahler's position as a representative of Austro-Germanic art untenable and in March 1891 he left Budapest to become chief conductor of the Hamburg Stadttheater. Here he raised standards to new heights, though his insensitive handling of people led to a number of arguments; on one occasion Mahler had to be escorted home by the police to protect him from an angry mob led by a snubbed flautist.
In 1893 Mahler established a pattern of returning to Austria in the summer to compose while maintaing his conducting duties throughout the rest of the year. In 1894, he succeeded Hans von Bülow as director of the Hamburg subscription concerts, a task that seemed to offer him more flexibility as a conductor than his opera position.
By 8 September 1897 he had risen to the top of his profession as director of the Vienna Hofoper, though he had to convert to Roman Catholicism to be considered for the post. A decade of memorable opera productions followed, marred only by Mahler's irascible relationship with his performers. He also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a series of subscription concerts until the work-load became impossibly heavy.
In November 1901, having spent the summer at a new villa on the Wörthensee, Mahler met Alma Schindler, a composition student 20 years his junior. After a brief courtship, they were married in March 1902 on the condition that Alma renounce her own compositional ambitions, a sacrifice that soon led to marital disharmony.
By now, Mahler was devoting less time to his official duties, and in 1907, after the death of his daughter, Maria, he took up a position with the New York Metropolitan Opera. Returning to Europe each summer, Mahler spent his seasons in New York from 1909 with the New York Philharmonic, conducting eclectic programmes of modern works.
However, tensions soon developed with the orchestra and in February 1911 Mahler, already suffering from a heart defect, was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis. He returned to Vienna where he died on 18 May.
Mahler's work, banned by the Nazis in the 1930s, was largely forgotten until 1960, his centenary year. His symphonies became some of the most popular concert works of the 1970s and, along with his songs, have become firmly established in the repertoire.