Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 was composed between 1887 and 1888, but the idea for writing a symphonic work had been already conceived in 1884. The premiere took place in Budapest on November 20, 1889. Mahler himself conducted the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra (Mahler was at that time the second conductor at the Leipzig Opera). The second performance of Symphony No. 1 occurred in Hamburg in October 1893. Prior to it the composer made significant revisions to the symphony, which received further alterations when it was published in 1899.
The first performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 was not a successful event. The audience was confused and did not know how to appreciate the composer’s new creation. One of the reasons why this happened was that Mahler introduced the composition at the premiere as a symphonic poem, not a symphony. People attending the concert must have expected to hear music that would vividly depict stories or sceneries, but they were not able to experience what they wanted. Mahler had provided indicative words and phrases for each of the two parts of the symphony that once comprised altogether five movements. Part I is described as “From the days of youth, ‘youth, fruit, and thorn pieces’ ” and the three movements in it, as “Spring and no end. This introduction describes the awakening of nature at the earliest dawn” (the original and current first movement); “Flowerine Chapter” (the original second movement but had been discarded since 1894); and “Set with full sail” (originally the third, but currently the second). Part II was titled “Commedia umana,” and its two movements were explained as “Stranded. A funeral march in the manner of Callot” (originally the fourth, but currently the third) and “Dall’inferno al Paradiso, as the sudden expression of a deeply wounded heart” (originally the fifth, but currently the fourth). These brief titles, however, were not enough for the audience to comprehend the composition. The descriptive words were eventually dropped after the second performance of the symphony in 1893. Symphony No. 1 is a good example of compositions that display Mahler’s way of incorporating pre-existing music written by him or by others. The works quoted in the symphony include Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Der Trompeter von Säkkingen, Hans und Grethe, Franz Liszt's Dante Symphony, and Wagner's Parsifal.