Mahler's First Symphony

Its US Premiere, and history with the Philharmonic

New York Philharmonic

Mahler conducts the premiere of his First Symphony (circa 1900) by Unknown / Wiener IllustratedOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler's First Symphony

When Mahler conducted the world premiere of his First Symphony in 1889 in Budapest, he called it a “Symphonic Poem,” with poetic movement titles like “Under Full Sail.” By the time he conducted the First’s American debut with the New York Philharmonic, Mahler had banished explanatory descriptions of its “meaning” and let the music stand on its own. Although these 1909 performances would prove to be Mahler’s last of this work, the score that he used and revised still exists in the Philharmonic Archives. 

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) (1909) by Gustav MahlerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler's score markings

Gustav Mahler was the first composer to be Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, where his tenure ran from 1909 to 1911. Just a little over a month after taking the helm he conducted the US premiere of his own First Symphony at Carnegie Hall. This would prove to be not only the first performance of this work for New Yorkers, but the last time the composer would lead any orchestra in his earliest symphonic composition.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) (1909) by Gustav MahlerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler completed his First Symphony at the age of 27 in 1888, while he was Director of the Opera in Budapest. When he performed the piece in New York, he was still making changes to it. Among the changes in the score that was used during that first performance in America, Mahler doubled the winds and brass and added new articulation in the strings in red pencil.

This score, now in the Philharmonic Archives, also contains markings by Bruno Walter (from 1933) and Leonard Bernstein (from 1962).

Mahler: Symphony No. 1
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New York Philharmonic, conducted by Kurt Masur. Teldec Classics International, 1992

Program (1909-12-16) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The US Premiere
New York was the site of the US Premiere of Mahler's First Symphony on December 16, 1909, with the composer conducting the Philharmonic. Since then, the Philharmonic has performed Mahler’s First Symphony 198 times in regular subscription concerts, free concerts in New York City Parks, on tour, and at a Young People’s Concert.

Conductors have included Bruno Walter, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Artur Rodzinski, Sir John Barbirolli, Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Rafael Kubelik, Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, Alan Gilbert, and Jaap van Zweden.

Reviews (1909-12-17)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The critics

Mahler’s compositions became popular first with conductors and musicians. Then audiences became real fans and, lastly, the critics. However, even writers whose reactions were consistently vitriolic noted the artistry of Mahler’s interpreters and the warm reactions of audiences. In spite of the fairly constant bashing in the press, Mahler’s music not only survived but thrived.​

Henry Edward Krehbiel (circa 1910)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The Trib's Music Man
Henry Krehbiel was the most outspoken and disapproving critic of Mahler’s tenure at the Philharmonic. A vindictive man, Krehbiel wrote reviews and articles for the New-York Daily Tribune as well as the program notes for the Philharmonic. The reasons for Krehbiel’s attacks on Mahler are unclear, but perhaps Krehbiel took offense at Mahler’s request for no program notes for his compositions. Krehbiel also had personal and professional ties with Walter Damrosch, who led the New York Symphony Society — the Philharmonic’s rival orchestra in the city (the two merged in 1928).

When Mahler died in 1911, Krehbiel wrote in a vicious and notorious obituary that Mahler “was looked upon as a great artist, and possibly he was one, but he failed to convince the people of New York of the fact, and therefore his American career was not a success.”​

Press Clippings (1909-12) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Krehbiel’s December 13, 1909 review of Mahler’s First Symphony in the New-York Daily Tribune
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Leonard Bernstein Sketches (1959-05) by Harold SchonbergOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The Mahler Phenomenon
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New York Times, March 2, 1959, by Harold C. Schonberg

Drawings, by the author, of Leonard Bernstein in his first season as Music Director, 1958–59. Published in Harper's.

Slide The Cuckoo (circa 1920s)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Cuckoo culture
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (1808) is a hymn to an idealized rural life, echoing with birdsong, the murmur of streams, and the music and dances of farmers. And though Beethoven mimicked the nightingale and quail in his Pastoral symphony, it was the sound of the cuckoo in this work that caught on with composers as a means of celebrating the simple pleasures of the countryside — albeit in the highly artistic form of the symphony. Due to its inclusion in both design (as cuckoo clock) and music, the icon of the cuckoo has come to represent the heart of the folk in central Europe.​

In his First Symphony, Mahler deploys the clarinet-as-cuckoo as a means of evoking the joys of a bucolic existence, yet he’s also aware of the overly folksy or even kitsch quality of the sound.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) (1909) by Gustav MahlerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein in Mahler’s First Symphony
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Cuckoos in the Score
When the cuckoo appears in the First Symphony, it is a bird perched in the forest of Mahler’s dreams. We get shaken out of dreaminess when the cuckoo’s tune becomes the head of the main theme. What was a bird call now leads us into a lovely musical walk — perhaps Mahler’s morning in the Austrian countryside.​

Mahler: Symphony No. 1. New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Columbia Records, 1967.

Humor in Music: Mahler is Incongruous (1959-02-28) by Leonard BernsteinOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The funeral march
Music Director Leonard Bernstein and Philharmonic bassist Robert Brennand demonstrate the Frère Jacques theme in the funeral march in the last movement during a New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert on February 28, 1959. The theme of the concert was "Humor in Music," and Bernstein points out the incongruity of how the lullaby is treated as a funeral cortege.

The Hunter's Funeral Procession (1850) by Moritz von SchwindNew York Philharmonic

The funeral march in the score
The brilliant weirdness of this movement is that Mahler recast Frère Jacques in a minor key as a funeral march. Mahler said that it was a musical representation of Jacques Callot’s sardonic painting The Woodsman’s Funeral, familiar to German children of the time, in which animals carry the body through a forest. It is likely that Mahler knew Frère Jacques as Bruder Martin, a German college tune sung in rounds by students.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) (1909) by Gustav MahlerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Third Movement, John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic
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Using folk song in symphonic music was part of a deliberate return to simplicity and an imagined idyllic life by artists at the end of the 19th century. In this case, however, Mahler’s use of folk song – a musical objet trouvé – is sophisticated and unsettling.

Romanian peasants in a traditional folk dance (1924-01-26/1939-11-18)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Folk dancing in symphonic music​
Gustav Mahler appreciated the vibrant liveliness of folk music and the heartfelt poetry of folk texts, and often incorporated them into his works. The second movement of his First Symphony opens with the rustic, peasant-like Ländler steps of a popular Austrian waltz.

Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
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On November 27, 1964, Principal Guest Conductor William Steinberg conducted the New York Philharmonic and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.

Bruno WalterOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Folk Music in the First Symphony​
Conductor Bruno Walter said of Mahler and the folk song tradition: "an important part of Mahler's themes, not only in his songs but also in his symphonies, has its origin in the folksong — nay, it is folksong." The opening movement of Mahler’s First Symphony radiates the freshness of youth, exuberance, and a deliberately un-intellectual refrain – all from his own song Ging heut uber morgen’s. The composer wove material from the second and fourth songs of his Lieder eines fahrenden Gellesen into the first and third movements of the First Symphony.​

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) (1909) by Gustav MahlerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler: Symphony No. 1. New York Philharmonic, conducted by Bruno Walter. Columbia Records, 1955
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Interpreters of Mahler's MusicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The interpreters

Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, John Barbirolli

Leonard Bernstein (1967) by Don HunsteinOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein became a fan of Mahler’s music shortly after making his conducting debut at the Philharmonic in 1943. As Music Director of the Orchestra he was an ardent champion of Mahler's music, featuring it on tours around the world as well as on televised Young People’s Concerts. Bernstein felt a special affinity with Mahler, as he was a conductor/composer himself. ​It was not until May 3, 1962, however, that Bernstein performed the entire First Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein studied the same score that both Mahler and Bruno Walter had used. 

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (excerpt) (used by Bernstein 1962-1987) by Gustav MahlerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler: Symphony No. 1. New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Columbia Records, 1967
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In the example shown here we see that Bernstein has copied the special changes in orchestration that Mahler amended for the US Premiere by the New York Philharmonic in 1909. These changes boost the wind power over the brasses in the famous recap.​

In the accompanying audio clip, Bernstein conducts the Philharmonic with Mahler's changes to the score — setting the woodwinds up an octave to really cut the fff brass.

Bruno Walter (1940s) by Fred FehlOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Bruno Walter

Walter counted Mahler as a close friend and mentor. It was Walter who gave the premiere performances of Das Lied von der Erde (Munich, 1911) and Symphony No. 9 (Vienna, 1912) after Mahler's death. Despite hostility from many critics, Walter was one of the chief promoters of Mahler's music in Europe and America. 

Bruno Walter with orchestra members (1947) by New York PhilharmonicOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Conductor Bruno Walter discusses his insights into Mahler's music
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From New York Philharmonic Special Editions, 1998

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) (1909) by Gustav MahlerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The Toad Calls of Mahler
It is not unusual for a great composer to put jokes in a score. The little two-note figures in the muted trumpet and high winds of Mahler’s First Symphony give a frog-like hiccup embedded within the sound as a musical joke. Mahler said, “wie unkenrufe” — like toad calls!​

This joke has been overlooked by all those except Mahler’s close friend Bruno Walter, likely because the phrase was omitted in later publications of the score, despite being present in Mahler's early manuscript and Walter's marked copy.

Mahler writes “Nicht eilen” ("do not rush") above the score applying to this section; Mahler’s toads were thoughtful and deliberate, not the faster variety that we know today.

John Barbirolli (circa 1936)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

John Barbirolli discusses Mahler’s music. From New York Philharmonic Special Editions, 1998
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Barbiroli finds Mahler late in life
Barbirolli discussed the First Symphony with producer Ronald Kinloch Anderson after a recording session with the Hallé Orchestra in 1964.​ Barbirolli, who was the New York Philharmonic's Music Director from 1936-41, claimed credit for the Mahler revival in Great Britain.​

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (score) (1909) by Gustav MahlerOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mahler: Symphony No. 1. New York Philharmonic, conducted by John Barbirolli, 1959. New York Philharmonic Special Editions, 1998
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Barbirolli's Interpretation
Barbirolli began to conduct Mahler’s music after the age of 50, and he brought to it a grounding in the Romantic tradition that reflects the coloring of an earlier era. This is most strongly felt in the Czech folk song of the third movement. To gain a painterly Romantic haze, he has the violins play sul tasto, bowing their instruments closely over the fingerboard, not in the normal position.

Mahler's First Symphony by New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital ArchivesOriginal Source: Gustav Mahler

More on Mahler's New York

Mahler in New York

Mahler as Interpreter

Mahler and Women

Mahler and Musicians

Walking Mahler's New York: A Digital Walking Tour

Mahler's New York: A Digital Festival from the New York Philharmonic

Credits: Story

Created by the New York Philharmonic Archives
Gabryel Smith, Director, Archives & Exhibitions
Sarah Palermo, Assistant Archivist
Bill Levay, Digital Archivist

Adapted from original exhibit Mahler in New York
Curated and written by: Barbara Haws and
Bob Sandla
Music Commentary on First Symphony:
Charles Z. Bornstein
Biographies: Kristen Houkom
Text Readers: Nishi Badhwar, Forrest Buckman, Marion Cotrone, Erin Roy, Brendan Timins
Audio Engineer: Lawrence Rock

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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