Gustav Mahler wrote to his friend, Friedrich Löhr, after completing his First Symphony in March 1888:
'You are probably the only one who will see nothing new of me in it; the others will surely be surprised by many things!' This would turn out to be euphemistic, because the public rejected it just as furiously at the first performance in Budapest (November 1889) as at subsequent performances in Hamburg (1893) and Weimar (1894). These circumstances prompted concise revisions for the Berlin premiere (1896), and the artistically questionable Blumine movement was sacrificed for the sake of the tightly-knit form that we know today. But later attempts to ease public reaction to the work, originally titled Symphonic Poem in Two Parts, by means of explanatory signposts and mileage indicators are also instructive. They were only meant to serve as short-term, transitional tools for deeper understanding. But when he realized that the public had taken his metaphorical commentary literally and gone down the wrong path as a result, Mahler removed all of the programmatic notes.
Whether and how the title, Titan, references Jean Paul's novel remains unexplained to this day. This obsolete road map cannot be expected to provide insight into the progression of events in the symphony and may well lead to misinterpretation.
At best, the title may hint at the symphony's epic, novelistic structure. Its collage-like, episodic colorations once annoyed and perplexed the public, in whose eyes it neither complied with the usual requirements of the symphonic genre nor the linear narrative of a symphonic poem. The changes he made to the title show that Mahler himself was initially uncertain about whether to place this work in one or the other of these two genres: at the premiere, the work was titled Symphonic Poem in Two Parts. In Hamburg, the title read Titan - Tone Poem in Symphonic Form. In Berlin, it changed to Symphony in D major for Large Orchestra, and it finally appeared in print as Symphony No. 1 in D major.The fluctuating genre designations, as well as the public reaction (which cannot in any way be characterized as philistine) prove that something groundbreaking had emerged. And conventional terminology could not adequately define this new opus. From our present perspective, the ongoing process of abstraction in assigning a title appears equally productive and problematic. Mahler ultimately returned to the symphonic terminology that was traditionally associated with absolute music, and yet his strange request to fashion an entire world by every available means stretched the meaning of the term to the breaking point. He saw the musical effect as perfectly in keeping with the romantic metaphysics of the inexpressible: 'For myself, I know that so long as I am able to sum up my experience in words, I would never write music about it. The need to express myself symphonically and musically arises only when dark emotions prevail, [when I stand] at the gate that leads to the other world, a world in which things
no longer fall apart across time and space.' (Letter of March 26, 1896 to Max Marschalk). Music leads directly to the mystical experience of the unity of every living thing.
It does not portray individual passions, but is the epiphany of the primal source of all being. Yet if we want to communicate with one another, we must find a way to articulate it, albeit metaphorically. The following, necessarily brief signposts and mileage indicators can only serve as abbreviated versions of where the debate over the centurylong historical response to Mahler's First Symphony now stands.