This weekend, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Andris Nelsons, will open their 2017-2018 subscription season with Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 “Drumroll,” and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The latter will be given in the standard published four-movement version of 1906; this is the final form in which Mahler left his First, so there can be no argument with Nelsons’s decision to present it that way. But there is a ghost in this symphony. Although Mahler deleted the original second movement after the third performance, 1894 in Weimar, Blumine still haunts this work.
The First had a long gestation period, stretching from 1884 to 1896. Its muse was Johanna Richter. In 1884, Mahler was second conductor at the Royal and Imperial Theater in Cassel, and she was one of his sopranos. Mahler’s favorite author at the time was the German Romantic Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (pen name Jean Paul), and the similarity in name between favorite author and favorite singer can hardly have escaped him. Johanna inspired the love-and-loss cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), and two of the four songs were later incorporated into the symphony. “Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld” (“I went out this morning through the field”) furnished the first movement’s main theme; “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The two blue eyes of my beloved”) became the trio of the funeral march.
The symphony’s other building block was Blumine. This seven-minute movement started out life as Werners Trompetenlied, part of an 1884 commission to create incidental music for a performance of Joseph von Scheffel’s popular poem “Der Trompeter von Säkkingen” (“The Trumpeter of Säkkingen”). This sentimental trumpet serenade was surely also inspired by Johanna Richter: Mahler called it a “love episode,” and the unusual name it he eventually gave it, Blumine, derives from the title of a Jean Paul collection, Herbst-Blumine (“Autumn Blossoms”).
When the symphony debuted, 1889 in Budapest, it was in the form of a five-movement “symphonic poem,” with Blumine as the second movement. By the time of the second performance, 1893 in Hamburg, it had acquired a title, Titan, and the first three movements were grouped under the subtitle Blumen-, Frucht- und Dornstücke (“Flower-, Fruit-, and Thornpieces”). Titan is the title of Jean Paul’s magnum opus; Blumen-, Frucht- und Dornenstücke is part of the extended title of another Jean Paul novel, Siebenkäs. Clearly Jean Paul and Johanna Richter were still on Mahler’s mind.
What the audiences in Hamburg and Weimar heard in 1893 and 1894 was, then, an autobiographical Bildungsroman in music. Mahler’s hero wakes to nature, the buzz of cicadas, the chirping of birds, the fields, the flowers, the love/death call of distant trumpets. A romantic serenade tells us he’s in love; in the scherzo, the young couple stomp through a Ländler and swoon over a café waltz. Then, without warning, we’re pallbearers in the Jacques Callot–inspired funeral march. It’s a fate worse than death: the hero’s been ditched. In the finale, he rants, looks back wistfully, rants some more and marches forward, looks back again, then tears himself away and strides forth, a champion, to meet the world.
The world did not respond with altogether favorable reviews. One critic described Blumine as “trivial.” When the work was next performed, in 1896, the Titan title was gone, and so was Blumine. The Berlin audience heard a four-movement “symphony in D major for large orchestra,” and that’s what Josef Weinberger published in 1899.
Blumine, meanwhile, was not to be heard again for another 70 years. Mahler had discarded it, yes. But the real reason it was never heard was there was no surviving score, nothing to play. The movement was considered lost. Then in 1959, a manuscript of the First was offered at Sotheby’s. It was purchased and donated to Yale University, where it attracted little attention until 1966, when Mahler biographer Donald Mitchell recognized it as the 1893 Hamburg version, complete with Blumine.
Benjamin Britten gave the prodigal movement its 20th-century debut at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 1967. The leading Mahler conductors, however, did not welcome it home. Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Jascha Horenstein, and Rafael Kubelik had grown up with the four-movement version of the First. Mahler himself had called Blumine “insufficiently symphonic,” likely referring to its minimal orchestration, its minimal modulation, and its abundant repetition. Its C major isn’t even an appropriate key for a symphony in D major.
Yet the composer might have had more personal reasons for suppressing Blumine. At one point he described it as the “youthful folly” of his hero. He left Cassel in 1885 and never saw Johanna Richter again; perhaps he decided he didn’t want to be reminded of her. As for Jean Paul, despite being a favorite of Robert Schumann, he was out of fashion by the 1830s. He wasn’t enjoying a revival in the late 19th century, either. Few in Mahler’s Hamburg and Weimar audiences likely recognized the Titan allusion.
There’s one more reason Mahler might have had to suppress Blumine. The movement is in 6/8; if you take the first six notes of the trumpet theme and recast them in 4/4, you have . . . the big theme of the finale of Brahms’s First Symphony. This “borrowing” was surely unconscious on Mahler’s part, but if he realized what he’d done, he might have motivated to delete the movement before the critics took notice.
Whatever the reasons for its removal, Blumine remains relevant to the First because it’s the germ of the symphony. (If you don’t have a recording that includes Blumine, you can find performances on YouTube .) Like the other four movements, it’s based on a rising/falling fourth. It’s intimated early in the symphony’s opening movement: the six-note rising-falling trumpet figure at bar 17 of Blumine is echoed in the cellos starting at bar 59. Eventually, at bar 90 (where in “Ging heut’ morgen” there would be the words “Blum’ und Vogel groß und klein”), Blumine’s initial six-note trumpet phrase — the Brahms “borrowing” — turns up in the first violins. Only when Blumine itself follows and the trumpet announces that phrase (bars 4-6) do we realize that, even as Mahler’s opening movement reveled in nature, love was in the air.
That’s the disadvantage of not including Blumine in the symphony. But if you’ve listened to the movement and have it in mind, it clarifies what follows. The Ländler that opens the scherzo has that same trumpet phrase in the violas and cellos, starting at bar 18; throughout it keeps time for the dancers. The finale’s yearning second theme is a variation on the trumpet phrase, and its climactic cadence, from which the hero can barely tear himself away, repeats a second Blumine phrase, the string cadence at the end of its first section (bar 27). This cadence reappears toward the end of the finale; it all but halts the hero’s triumphant procession.
There is, actually, more than one ghost in Mahler’s First. The scherzo is indebted to the scherzo from the Symphony in E Major by Hans Rott, a colleague of Mahler’s who died in a Viennese mental hospital in 1884, age 25. The finale’s triumphal chorale — the one that might recall Philipp Nicolai’s hymn tune “Wachet auf” and the “And he shall reign forever” section of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah — looks to have been borrowed directly (and perhaps deliberately, in homage) from Rott’s Suite in E major. By the time Mahler’s First Symphony was ready for the public, Rott was dead and Johanna Richter was out of his life. But neither was forgotten.
Postscript: Mahler continued to be inspired by and pay tribute to both Hans Rott and Johanna Richter. Rott’s symphony contributes to Mahler’s Second and Fifth, and Mahler’s Third, especially the closing Adagio, is scarcely imaginable without him. The French horns start off the Third with a variation of Blumine’s initial trumpet phrase; in the “Schattenhaft” scherzo of the Seventh, trombones and tubas offer a parody of it. And the same Blumine cadence that nearly brought down the finale of the First causes the great opening Andante comodo of Mahler’s Ninth to keep crashing. The ghost never quite left the symphony.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.