Mahler’s First

May 30, 31, and June 2, 2015
Anton Bruckner, c.1886

Anton Bruckner:
Psalm 150, WAB 38

Austrian composer Anton Bruckner was born in Ansfelden, near Linz on September 4, 1824 and died in Vienna on October 11, 1896. A near contemporary of Johannes Brahms, Bruckner emerged as one of the most important Austro-German composers and teachers during the second half of the 19th century. A skilled organist whose repertory he enriched, his most important compositions were in the realms of symphonies and sacred music. He is considered a late-Romantic extension of the legacy of Beethoven and Schubert. The influence of Richard Wagner may be discerned in his orchestrations and harmonic vocabulary. As a teacher at the Conservatory of Music in Vienna, Bruckner was an inspiration to many young composers, including the young Gustav Mahler. His setting of Psalm 150 dates from 1892 and had its first performance on November 13 of that year at the Vienna Musikvereinsaal with Wilhelm Gericke conducting. It is scored for mixed chorus, soprano soloist, and an orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. These concerts mark the first performance of Bruckner’s Psalm 150 by the Winston-Salem Symphony.

Nearly all of Anton Bruckner’s music is suffused with, and reflective of, his deep immersion in the Catholic faith. The seriousness of purpose stems in part from his upbringing, of course, but also his work as organist, teacher, and choirmaster for the boys choir at St. Florian from 1845 to 1855 and his permanent to the most important musical post in the ecclesiastical world of Linz, a position he held until 1868. His move to Vienna in that same year was sparked by his appointment as Professor of Counterpoint and Harmony at the Music Conservatory of the Austrian capitol city. It was during this last phase of his career that the composer of sacred choral and organ music turned his attention more fully to the composition of symphonies.

Bruckner was supremely unconfident as a composer of symphonies, as witnessed by his numerous revisions. The shadows under which he worked were those of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (first performed in the same year as Bruckner’s birth) and the overpowering music of Richard Wagner. The fact that some of his pupils, most prominent among them being Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf, became avid champions of Bruckner the symphonist, helped buoy his reputation as symphonist, but, excepting a few works, his symphonies have never enjoyed the popularity of those by Brahms and Mahler.

Bruckner did not completely abandon the world of sacred music during his later years, as can be seen by his inspired setting of Psalm 150. The composition of this work dating from 1892 was prompted by a request from Richard Heuberger for a festive hymn to mark the opening of the International Exposition for Music and Theater Works. Bruckner did not finish the work in time for the exposition, but received a performance on November 13, 1892. An unusual feature of this work is that Bruckner turned not to the German translation used in Catholic Austria, but chose instead to use the one found in the Luther Bible. It opens in a blaze of glory, unusually marked “Mehr langsam. Feierlich, kräftig” (More slowly. Ceremoniously, powerfully). What is unclear is to what the “more” could refer. More slowly than what? Regardless of the tempo indication, the effect of this joyous “Hallelujah” is unmistakably affirmative. The text unfolds as follows (my translation):

  1. Halleluja. Praise the Lord in his Holiness; praise Him in the festiveness of His Power;
  2. Praise Him in His deeds; praise Him in his great Beauty.
  3. Praise Him with trumpets [Posaunen, or trombones, in Luther’s translation]; praise Him with psaltery and harp;
  4. Praise Him with timpani and rounds; praise Him with strings and pipes;
  5. Praise Him with bright cymbals; praise Him with resounding cymbals.
  6. Let all who have breath, praise the Lord, Halleluja.

The opening joyfulness is followed by a central, slower section that features the soprano soloist and solo violin. The initial tempo is regained as the shouts of “Hallelujah” are repeated. Next unfolds a fugue on the text “Let all who have breath,” as if the choral voices reflect the multitudes heaping praise one upon another. The work ends in one final blaze of glory on the word “Hallelujah.”

Program Note by David B. Levy, ©2014

Randall Thompson

Randall Thompson:
“Ye Shall Have a Song,” from The Peaceable Kingdom

American composer and educator, Randall Thompson was born in New York on April 21, 1899 and died in Cambridge, MA on July 9, 1984. He studied at Harvard University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1920 and a Master of Arts in 1922. He was awarded a doctorate at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. His principal teachers included A.T. Davison, Edward Burlingame Hill, and Walter Spalding. He also studied with Ernest Bloch in New York. Another influence was the music of Gian Francesco Malipiero, which whom he studied in 1922 under the auspices of the Prix de Rome. In 1925 he returned to America and was appointed organist and lecturer in music at Wellesley College in 1927. After two years he left that position to undertake a study of music education at American Colleges. In 1937 he became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, followed two years later by the directorship of the Curtis Institute of Music, and eventually received appointments at the University of Virginia, Princeton University and his alma mater, Harvard.

Randall Thompson’s best known choral composition is his Alleluia (1940). The Peaceable Kingdom (1936) is based on the Edward Hicks (1740-1849) painting of the same name (1826), inspired by the Book of Isaiah 11:6-9, the text of which begins “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” The Peaceable Kingdom is dedicated to G. Wallace Wordsworth and the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society. It comprises eight sections, each with texts from the Prophet Isaiah. The final movement of the work sets the text from Isaiah 30:29, “Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the Lord.”

The musical style of “Ye Shall Have a Song” is strongly tonal, with modal inflections and antiphonal effect (the choir is divided into eight parts) reminiscent of the sacred music of the Renaissance masters William Byrd and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. It’s effect is at once ethereal and uplifting.

Program Note by David B. Levy, ©2014

Gustav Mahler, c.1889

Gustav Mahler:
Symphony No. 1 in D Major, “Titan”

Gustav Mahler was born Kalischt, near Iglau (Kaliště, Jihlava], Bohemia, May 7, 1860; and died in Vienna, May 18, 1911. His principal musical activity was that of a conductor and administrator, presiding over many important posts, including most significantly the Vienna Court Opera [Hofoper] (now the Vienna State Opera [Staatsoper]), the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic. His compositional output centered almost exclusively on songs and symphonies, work on which was largely carried out during the summer months. Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 was composed in the years 1888-89 and first performed in Budapest on November 20, 1889, conducted by the composer. The premiere was largely a failure and the composer continued revising the work over the next ten years. The huge score calls for 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling on piccolo), 4 oboes (3rd doubling on English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling on bass clarinet), E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (3rd and 4th doubling on contrabassoon), 7 horns (4 off-stage in the finale), 4 trumpets (2 of which play off-stage in the first movement and reinforced by one extra in the finale), 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings, and harp.

The last performance of the work by the Winston-Salem Symphony took place during the 1999-2000 season under the direction of Peter Perret.

Mahler’s First Symphony, by any standard one measures it, is an astonishing achievement. To find a first symphony its equal, one must look to Brahms’s First Symphony, or perhaps Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. In considering Brahms, however, one encounters the work of an artist in his forties who already had several works for orchestra under his belt before composing his First Symphony. Mahler, on the other hand, was in his twenties, with relatively little experience in writing for orchestra (his much-neglected cantata, Das klagende Lied is almost the sole exception) and standing rather early in his career as a conductor. Mahler’s First Symphony, therefore, is a testimony not only to his innate talent and fertile imagination, but to his keen receptivity to the compositional models he encountered during his days as a student in his native Bohemia and at the Conservatory of Music in Vienna.

Like Brahms, Mahler was reluctant to write his First Symphony. In fact, its earliest version (1889), first performed in Budapest, was presented as a “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts.” Such a title, of course, explicitly implied that the music contained extra-musical meanings. Symphonic poems were the “invention” of Franz Liszt, and Mahler’s slightly younger contemporary, Richard Strauss, had already started shaking up the musical establishment with his impressive works in that genre, such as Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration. One should also bear in mind that Richard Wagner had implanted the notion in the mind of many that the symphony as a genre was a dinosaur, now replaced by the “music of the future,” i.e., the Wagnerian opera or music drama. Mahler’s admiration for the symphonies of Anton Bruckner was probably, at least partly, the reason why he wrote a symphony at all. It is not surprising, therefore, that Mahler’s Budapest audience was baffled to find no hints as to the content of Mahler’s program. The only specific designation came in the French title for the fourth of its five movements: A la pompes funèbres.

Mahler responded to this criticism by “clarifying” the work’s program in several ways when he reintroduced it in Hamburg in 1893. To start he added the title “Titan” (taken from a novel by Jean Paul Richter) to the entire work, now calling it a “symphonic poem in the form of a symphony”:

  • Part I: “From the Days of Youth: Flower, Fruit, and Thorny Pieces”
    Endless Springtime. (Introduction and Allegro commodo). The introduction portrays the awakening of nature after a long winter’s sleep.
    “Blumine” (Andante)
    “In Full Sail” (Scherzo)
  • Part II: “The Human Comedy”
    “Abandoned!” (a funeral march in “Callot’s Manner”)
    “From the Inferno” (Allegro furioso) follows, as the sudden outbreak of doubt of a deeply wounded heart

This “program” underwent still further modifications in Weimar (1894) and Berlin (1896), but by the time the full score was published in 1899, Mahler removed the short “Blumine” Andante, reducing the five-movement work to four, and abandoned all programmatic titles with their references to Jean Paul, Dante, and Callot. (Many conductors choose to reinstate the lovely “Blumine” movement, which offers hints as to events in the symphony’s finale.) Mahler soon began complaining to friends about how trapped he felt by programmatic titles because they led to misunderstandings and forced him to give his music the appearance of greater specificity than he wished to ascribe. Nevertheless, knowing these titles still provide a useful insight into the spirit of many of Mahler’s movements.

I. (Slow, dragging. Like a sound of nature, followed by Very moderately).
Mahler’s first movement begins shrouded in a miasma of mystery. This effect is produced by its striking orchestration—a seven-octave deep pedal tone—from which emerges distant fanfares and cuckoo calls. The main body of the movement is based upon the second song from Mahler’s cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer, “This Morning I Travelled Across the Field” (Ging heut’ morgen). The music trades back and forth between moments of static activity and great energy. The triumphal entry of the “whooping” horns at the recapitulation thrust the movement toward its exciting conclusion.

II. Blumine (Andante).
This short movement in C Major and 6/8 meter originally belonged to incidental music Mahler wrote for a theater piece, The Trumpeter from Säkkingen, which explains the beautiful trumpet solo with which it begins. [These Winston-Salem Symphony performances will not include the Blumine movement]

III. (Scherzo. Powerfully moving, but not too fast).
Here is an extroverted Ländler (a popular Austrian folk dance in triple meter). Its quasi-yodeling is patterned after one of Mahler’s most charming early songs, “Hans und Grete.” Also enjoyable are the sassy stopped notes in the French horns. The middle, trio section offers repose after the high energy of the scherzo.

IV. (Ceremoniously and measured, without dragging).
This is easily one of Mahler’s most droll creations. Hopefully everyone will recognize the popular round, “Frère Jacques” (Bruder Martin in German) played in the minor mode starting with a solo string bass! Several theories have been proposed as to the meaning of this bizarre march. Mahler once made a reference to a woodcut by Moritz von Schwind entitled “The Huntsman’s Funeral” in which forest animals bear the huntsman’s body in a strange procession (Nature’s revenge on mankind?), suggesting that this is what he had in mind. The allusion to “Callot’s manner” in the Hamburg version, however, may offer even further clarification. Jacques Callot was a 17th-century engraver known for his surreal imagery, such as his “Temptation of St. Anthony.” Among Callot’s sincerest admirers was the early-19th century German author, composer, and critic, E. T. A. Hoffmann, who himself wrote a series of “Fantasy Pieces in the Manner of Callot.” Could Mahler, by using “Frère Jacques,” have been invoking that same surreal atmosphere? (“Are you sleeping, brother Jacques [Callot]?”). While it is difficult to ascertain whether Mahler knew Callot’s etchings, he was very familiar with Hoffmann’s stories. Mahler’s Jewish roots also play a role in this strange movement, as the “cheap” and boozy sounds of a klezmer band insert themselves into the picture, although some have argued that these gestures refer more to Bohemian tavern music than Jewish elements. A more contemplative moment arrives when Mahler introduces the melody borrowed from the fourth and final song from Songs of a Wayfarer, “The Two Blue Eyes.” (Zwei blaue Augen).

V. (Stormily)
Mahler wished for the finale to begin without any break after the third movement, entering like a thunderclap, and depicting the “sudden outburst of a wounded heart.” Storminess indeed is the order of the day in this movement, with a few serene interludes of wonderful lyricism (derived from the “Blumine” movement). Listen carefully for the return of thematic material from the first movement! This reprise serves as a harbinger of the ultimate triumph which breaks forth in a joyful “chorale,” led by the French horns, and which eventually brings the symphony to its rousing and lofty conclusion.

Program Note by David B. Levy, © 1999/2014

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