The 'pre-history' of the Symphony is not
altogether clear. Henry-Louis de La Grange reports that Nathalie
Bauer Lechner wrote on a folder containing material relating to
the symphony that it was sketched in 1885 (HLG1, 746) and in a
chronologically confusing list (GA, 99) Guido Adler reports
sketching for the symphony in an entry that follows a paragraph
referring to July 1885, but before one recording the composition
of the incidental music to Der Trompeter von Sakkingen
(which Adler fails to date, but actually occurred in 1884). In
any case, one of the lines of inspiration – from the song
Maitanz im Grünen, which has some connection with scherzo of
the Symphony – clearly extends back to 1880. The
Trompeter music, which provided at least one movement of the
Symphony (a serenade that became Blumine) was composed in 1884,
as were the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen which
contributed themes to the first and fourth (later, third)
movements of the Symphony. However, in the absence of any
relevant manuscript sources, the nature of the sketching
undertaking at this early stage in the work's history is
Nathalie Bauer-Lechner reports Mahler's
account of the main work on the piece (NBL,
Mahler machte die ganze Symphonie
in Leipzig binnen sechs wochen neben fortwährend Dirigieren und
Einstidieren; er arbeitet vom Aufstehen bis 10 Uhr vormittages
and die Abende, wenn er frei war. Dazwischen – in einem
herrlichen März und April – ging er fließig im Rosental
spazieren. Wie geschenkt kamen ihm die Ferien durch den Tod
Kaiser Wilhelms: zehn Tage, die er aufs intensivste benutzte.
the whole symphony in Leipzig within six weeks,
while constantly conducting and rehearsing. He
worked from the time he got up until ten o'clock in
the morning, and in the evenings when he was free.
Otherwise he seized every opportunity - during a
glorious March and April - of taking walks in the
Rosental. He received the windfall of an unexpected
holiday through the death of the Emperor: ten days,
of which he took the fullest advantage.
Kaiser Wilhelm 1 died on 9 March 1888, but
Mahler's letters suggest that the composer had started work on
the Symphony rather earlier and that the process took longer
than six weeks. On 5 January 1888 he wrote to Max Staegemann (GMB, 70–2;
GMSL, 110), the Director of the Leipzig Stadttheater,
asking for a couple more months patience; although the cause of
Mahler's admitted negligence is never made explicit, a period of
absorption in creative work would be a plausible explanation; if
so, then the sketching and drafting process may have begun in
the winter of 1887.
Certainly by the second half of February Mahler was hard at work on
a Symphony, as he reported to his parents on 14 or 21 February (GMLJ,
Daß ich so lange nichts von mir hören lasse, hat
seinen besonderen Grund, der Euch nicht un[bekannt] sein dürft[e]:
nämlich ich arbeite wieder an einem neuen Werke, einer großen
Symphonie welch ich im Laufe des nächsten Monates fertig
gebracht haben möchte. – Darum stecke ich jetzt wieder so
fleißig drin, daß ich nicht einmal dazu komme, Euch zu schreiben.
Jede freie Minute benütze ich.
There is a
particular reason – which ought not to [surprise]'
you – why you haven't heard from me for so long:
namely, I am working again on a new composition, a
large symphony that I would like to have finished
over the course of next month. – Because I am so
hard at it again, I have not got around to writing
you even once. I use every free moment.
On 2 March he could
Sonst bin ich sehr fleißig,
und komme mit meinem Werk rüstig vorwärts; die wenigen Menschen,
denen ich es vorspielte, sind davon ganz entzückt.
Apart from that,
I am very industrious and am rapidly coming along
with my piece. The few people I have played it for
were completely taken with it.
Later in the month
completion was in in sight (GMLJ,
fleißig an meinem Werk – noch in diesem Monat – spätestens Hälfte des nächsten hoffe [ich] das Werk in der
Reinpartitur fertig zu haben. Dann wird gefaullenzt
[sic]. Jedenfalls komme ich dann auch auf ein paar
Tage zu Euch. – Dies dürfte eben [die] 2. Hälfte des
I am working
hard at my piece, and still hope to have the final
copy finished this month – the middle of next month at
the latest. Then I'll laze about. Anyhow, I will
also come home for a few days. – This ought to be
the second half of April, then.
In conversation with Bauer-Lechner, Mahler
recalled the circumstances in which the D
material in the finale (fig. 16) was composed (NBL,
Der göttliche Geigennachgesang
des letzten Satzes fiel Mahler in einer Abendgesellschaft bei
Stägemann während des Soupers ein. Er ging ins Nebenzimmer, ihn
aufzuschreiben, wobei es ihm in einem Guß zuströmte; und er lief
damit, unerachtet der erstaunten und etwas verletzten
Gesellschaft, mitten in der Unterhaltung weg; es kümmerte ihn
wenig, daß man es ihm als Künstlerschrulle auslegte.
The idea for the
divinely lovely melody of the violins in the last
movement came to Mahler during an evening party at
the Stägemanns', while supper was being served. He
went into the next room to write it down, and found
himself in a full flood of inspiration. Ignoring the
amazed and somewhat offended company, he had run out
with it in the middle of the conversation. It did
not worry him in the least that his behaviour was
put down to 'artistic temperament'.
On 28 March Mahler wrote
to Hans von Bülow and reported that he was about to finish the work and
wished to play it through to him (HLG1F,
271–2, fn 53;
HLG1, 866, fn 39); soon afterwards
he announced its completion to his friend Fritz Löhr (GMB, 63–4;
GMSL, 111–12) and
his parents (GMLJ,
So! Heute ist mein Werk fertig geworden, und ich
kann, Gott sei Dank, sagen, daß es wol gelungen ist. Damit hoffe
ich wieder einen großen Schritt vorwärts zu thun.
Morgen ist Familie Stägemann und Weber bei mir
zum Kaffee (ich habe nämlich eine wundervolle Wohnung, und oft
sind St. od[er] W[eber]'s bei mir) und dann spiele ich ihnen zum
2. Male die Symphonie vor. Das 1. Mal hat sie bei ihnen geradezu
Sensation erregt, und sie wollen sie gleich noch einmal hören.
Mit der Aufführung habe ich natürlich keine
Schwierigkeiten, da ich jetzt eben ein – »berühmter« Mann bin.
Well! Today my
work is finished and I can say – thank God – that it has
turned out well. With it, I again hope to take a
large step forward.
Tomorrow the Staegemann and
Weber families are coming for coffee (in fact, I
have a wonderful apartment and the Staegemanns and
Webers are often over) and I shall then play the
symphony for them a second time. The first time, it
virtually caused a sensation amongst them, and they
wanted to hear it again immediately.
Naturally, I won't have any
difficulty having it performed, since I'm now a
expectation of an early performance proved to be misplaced.
In mid May 1888 he expected the first performance to
be in Dresden on 7 December 1888 (GMLJ,
GMLJE, 56) but at the end of the month he was considering the possibility of a performance of
the Symphony in Leipzig (GMB2,
72–3). By August of 1888 Mahler was attempting to
interest Herman Levi in giving a performance of the 'Symphony'
in the next concert season in Munich, and attempted to enlist
Richard Strauss's support. It is is possible that it was around
this time that Strauss and Levi played through the work
'four-handed from the score' (GMRSB,
GMRSBE, 19). If so, this might
suggest that at least one copy (perhaps
ACF1) had been made by the late summer of
1888, as it seems unlikely that Mahler would have relinquished
his only copy of the work – he specifically refers to his fears
in such matters in a later letter to Strauss (GMRSB,
All these attempts to arrange a performance
proved fruitless: the work had to wait until Mahler had moved to
Budapest before any organisation showed an interest in it.