Mahler’s First Symphony

Program notes

Weill: The Seven Deadly Sins
Mahler: Symphony No. 1, “Titan”


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Read Lyrics for The Seven Deadly Sins


Kurt Weill

The Seven Deadly Sins

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: May 5, 2013; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Work composed: 1933
Instrumentation: soprano, first tenor, second tenor, baritone, and bass soloists; 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo); oboe; 2 clarinets; bassoon; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; trombone; tuba; timpani; bass drum; cymbals; low gong; suspended cymbals; tom tom; banjo; guitar; piano; harp; and strings.
Estimated duration: 35 minutes

The Seven Deadly Sins, subtitled “Spectacle in Nine Scenes,” was the last collaboration between composer Kurt Weill and playwright/librettist Bertolt Brecht. The Seven Deadly Sins tells the story of a young dancer, Anna, who is sent by her family on a journey through seven American cities in order to earn money as a dancer. Anna’s earnings will then build her family a house in Louisiana. Anna’s character splits into two personalities; one is ravaged by the demands of making a living; the other plagued by her human weaknesses (the “deadly sins”). The first Anna is rational and will stop at nothing to reach her goals. However, the second Anna gives in to her desires and thus threatens the family’s plans. In the end, Anna I triumphs over Anna II.

Anna’s family introduces the first sin, Sloth. Weill plays up the irony of this “sin” with music of dark, relentless energy. Her parents express their hope that Anna will behave herself, while her brothers respond with the recurring refrain, “Idleness leads to trouble.”

Anna continues the narrative in Pride, in which she describes her first job dancing in Memphis. Anna struggles with her dignity as she realizes all the audience wants is a strip tease, rather than the artistic cabaret Anna wants to perform. She must “do what they want, not what you would like them to want … Think of our little home in Louisiana.” The music depicts the bawdy, debased dancing Anna performs in order to earn money.

In Anger, the family complains that Anna is not sending enough money home, while Anna explains she is working in Los Angeles as a movie extra; she becomes angry with a brutal wrangler who is whipping a horse and beats him with his own whip.

The family returns in Gluttony, singing a cappella in a self-righteous, chorale-like condemnation of Anna’s love of food. She is dancing in Philadelphia, but the family worries she will overeat and lose her job. They warn her not to indulge her passion for sweets – “Gluttony brings disaster!”

Lust opens with an exotic trumpet solo, while Anna describes her dilemma: in Boston she has found a rich lover who keeps her in luxury, but Anna II has fallen in love with Fernando, a gigolo who takes her money. Anna I convinces Anna II to leave Fernando, because to indulge in love for love’s sake is merely lust.

In Baltimore, Anna succumbs to Avarice. Her fame and notoriety are the talk of the town, and result in the suicides of men who cannot live with her ruthless devotion to money. The orchestra mimics the gossipy twitterings of the citizens of Baltimore as they buzz over Anna.

In her last stop, San Francisco, Anna plunges into Envy for those whose lives are not driven by monetary gain. She has earned enough to finish the house in Louisiana, but cannot enjoy it. Eventually she jettisons her regrets and heads home.

In the Epilogue, the Annas are welcomed home by their family as they stand on the porch of their hard-won little house.


Gustav Mahler

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, “Titan” 

Work composed: 1884–88, rev. 1893–96
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: May 24, 2010; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 4 flutes (three doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (one doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, bass drum, cymbals, gong, triangle, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 56 minutes

Like many composers, Gustav Mahler was both drawn to and wary of the notion of program music, or music with non-musical inspirations. Mahler wrestled with this idea in writing his First Symphony, fearing that it would not be as well received if it was not “absolute” music. At the same time, the attraction of an underlying narrative as a unifying structure held great appeal for Mahler.

The argument for the Symphony No. 1 as program music is strengthened by the fact that much of its musical material was borrowed from other sources. In the first two movements, Mahler used melodies from two of his Songs of a Wayfarer as the basis for elaborate thematic development. In the third movement, he set the folk song “Brother Martin,” better known as “Frère Jacques,” in a somber minor key. In the final movement, Mahler wanders further afield, repurposing material from Liszt’s Dante Symphony and Wagner’s Parsifal. “Composing is like playing with building blocks, where new buildings are created again and again, using the same blocks,” wrote Mahler to a friend. Finally, despite Mahler’s ambivalence about associating his music with a specific program, he did provide one to music critic Ludwig Karpath (something he later regretted). The “Titan” Symphony’s overall narrative describes, in Mahler’s words, “a strong, heroic man, his life and sufferings, his battles and defeat at the hands of Fate.”

During the 1880s, as Mahler worked on the Symphony No. 1, he made his living as an opera conductor in various regional theaters. Mahler’s demanding performance schedule left him neither time nor energy to compose his own music during the concert season. During his summer vacations, free from theatrical engagements, Mahler devoted himself to composition. Mahler’s use of previously composed music may have also been a practical choice dictated by his limited composing time.

At the premiere, in Budapest on November 20, 1889, audiences were disturbed by the third movement, with its ghostly reworking of a children’s folksong in the tempo of a funeral march. Mahler indicated this music was full of “biting irony,” in which “all the coarseness, the mirth, and the banality of the world are heard in the sound of a Bohemian village band, together with the hero’s terrible cries of pain.” The loutish parody of the band, complete with oom-pahs, mingles with music taken from another of Mahler’s Wayfarer songs, “Die zwei blauen Augen” (Your Two Blue Eyes), which resembles a melody from Jewish liturgy.

In the finale, according to Mahler’s narrative, “the hero is exposed to the most fearful combats and to all the sorrows of the world. He and his triumphant motifs are hit on the head again and again by Destiny…Only when he has triumphed over death, and when all the glorious memories of youth have returned with themes from the first movement, does he get the upper hand, and there is a great victorious chorale!” Destiny intervenes with pounding brasses and timpani, full of sturm und drang (storm and stress), but a triumphant brass choir hints at the hero’s ultimate victory, even as he continues to struggle with the forces bent on his destruction. Finally, the chorale bursts forth (some listeners have discerned traces of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah in it) and concludes the symphony, with the horns standing to play their final triumphant notes.

“It’s the most spontaneous and daringly composed of my works,” said Mahler of his First Symphony. “Naively, I imagined that it … would have … immediate appeal … How great was my surprise and disappointment when it turned out quite differently. In Budapest, where I first performed it, my friends avoided me afterwards … I went about like a leper and an outlaw.” Both critics and audiences reacted negatively at the premiere, with one critic deriding it as a parody of a symphony. The influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick was equally harsh: “The new symphony is the kind of music which for me is not music.” Subsequent performances, even after Mahler made substantial revisions, provoked equally strong reactions. More than ten years after the premiere, another critic described the audience’s reaction: “There were startled faces all around and some hissing was heard.” Leonard Bernstein did much to promote Mahler’s symphonies, and conducted them all over the world over the course of his long career on the podium. Today, the Symphony No. 1 is one of Mahler’s most popular and most frequently performed works.


© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media.