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Main heading: The Music of Gustav Mahler: A Catalogue of Manuscript and Printed Sources [rule] Paul Banks





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Mahler’s “Totenfeier”: a symphonic poem?

A Postscript


The publication in 1988 of the 1888 version of the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony prompted an invitation to review the volume for The Musical Times, an opportunity that encouraged me to muse on issues of nomenclature.¹ The movement was published under the title ‘Totenfeier/Symphonische Dichtung für grosses Orchester’² but my article pointed out that it was not until 1891 that Mahler came up with the title ‘Totenfeier’ and that the evidence for him ever thinking of the movement as a single-movement symphonic poem was very unreliable. At the time it was possible only to raise doubts about the generic designation, but since then a previously unknown document has come to light that suggests that those doubts were well-founded.

The basis for what now seems to be a misunderstanding about Mahler’s conception of the movement was the autobiography of J.B. Foerster which asserted that that the first movement of the Second Symphony ‘was originally conceived as a symphonic poem, not as a component of a cyclical work’.³ Much of my original article was devoted to a critique of this assertion on the basis that it runs counter to most of the other (scarce) evidence. One document that had previously been cited as supporting Foerster’s memory was a letter from Mahler to Dr Ludwig Strecker, the head of Schott & Söhne, written in mid-October 1891 (GMBsV, 80):

Seit einer Reihe von Jahren habe ich eine Anzahl eigner Compositionen auf verschiedener Gebieten gesammlt – unter Anderem: Eine Symphonie. – Ein großes Märchen für Chor, Orchester und Soli – Eine symphonische Dichtung, und ungefähr 20 ausgewählte Lieder. –

Over a number of years I have amassed a number of my own compositions in various fields: amongst others a symphony, a large fairy-tale for chorus, orchestra and soloists, a symphonic poem, and about 20 selected songs.

The editors of this letter offered what on the face of it were plausible identifications of these works – what we now know as the First Symphony, Das klagende Lied, Totenfeier, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Lieder und Gesänge. One of the more speculative aspects of my critique was the suggestion that the ‘symphony’ was actually the as yet incomplete Symphony in C minor (eventually no. 2) and the ‘symphonic poem’ was the already performed five-movement work that had publicly been described as a ‘Symphonic Poem in Two Parts’ and was two years later a ‘Tone Poem in Symphonic Form’, the work we now know as the First Symphony. This alternative reading of the October letter to Strecker was supported by a re-reading of a later letter from Mahler to the publisher. On 19 November 1891 he admitted (GMBsV, 85):

An Kogel schreib ich, da ich ihn von früher her noch ganz gut kenne.⁶ ... Ich habe mir erlaubt, ihm zu sagen, daß die Symphonische Dichtung bei Ihnen im Verlag erscheint...

I wrote to Kogel that I knew him very well from earlier times ... I took the liberty of saying to him that you will publish the Symphonic Poem....

It seems clear that Mahler was not only trying to persuade Schott’s to publish a  symphonic poem, but also G.F. Kogel (1849–1921, conductor of the Museumskonzerte at Frankfurt am Main) to perform the work, the interpretation offered by the original editors of the letter, Knud Martner and Robert Becqué. My own, more specific reading was that again the five-movement symphonic poem was the work in question, and this was subsequently confirmed by the brief public appearance of Mahler’s letter to Kogel. This was offered for sale as lot 226 at Sotheby’s (London) on 1 December 1995 and the catalogue description summarizes its contents as ‘discussing a work he has composed, a symphonic poem in two parts entitled “Aus dem Leben eines Einsamen”, enquiring whether Kogel would wish to perform it, [and] revealing that the work is to be published by Schott...’.

This title is one that is otherwise unknown in the Mahler literature, but there was no work in Mahler’s limited oeuvre to which at that date (1891) the designation ‘symphonic poem in two parts’ could have referred other than what became the First Symphony. Thus, much of what was necessarily hypothetical in the 1988 article is now confirmed – the Strecker correspondence does not support Foerster’s memories – and the notion that Mahler ever conceived the first movement of the Second Symphony as a single-movement symphonic poem seems very doubtful. Moreover, the letter to Kogel adds evidence of a previously unknown stage in the tortuous evolution of Mahler’s programmatic statements about his First Symphony.


Paul Banks: ‘Mahler’s “Totenfeier”: a symphonic poem?’, Musical Times, cxxix/1750 (1988), 662–3. Unfortunately this stated erroneously that 'the sketches, the first orchestral draft and the second orchestral draft are unanimous in indicating that what was later called "Todtenfeier" was initially conceived as the first movement of a multi-movement composition'. In fact it is only one of the sketch leaves (S1.1) and the first autograph full score (AF1) that bear relevant inscriptions.


Gustav Mahler, Totenfeier: Symphonische Dichtung für grosses Orchester, ed. Rudolf Stephan, (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1988) (Sämtliche Werke, Supplement Band I).


JBFDP, p. 356.


At the Budapest première, on 20 November 1889.


At the second performance, in Hamburg on 27 October 1893.


It is not clear when Mahler met Kogel, but the latter was Kapellmeister at the Stadttheater, Leipzig from 1883 to 1886: although Mahler’s tenure of the same post was from 1886 to 1889, they may have met in the city, especially as Kogel had a close professional relationship with the Leipzig firm of C.F. Peters.


K. Martner and R. Becqué: ‘Zwölf Unbekannte Briefe Gustav Mahlers an Ludwig Strecker’, AfMW xxxiv/4 (1977), 287–97.


It is gratifying to note that the editors of NKGII (2010) entirely reject the notion that 'the first movement was originally conceived as an independent work – a Symphonic poem... – and only later incorporated into the symphony.' See NKGII.2, 1, 81.

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