Remembering Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)
Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)

 

The groundbreaking French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez passed away on Tuesday at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany. He was 90.

Coming of age in post-war Europe, Boulez embraced a modernist zeitgeist which turned its back on the past to imagine new sounds and musical structures. Obsessed with controlled, rational order, Boulez pushed the twelve-tone techniques of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern to their limits, developing a “total serialism.” (In twelve-tone or serial music all harmonic relationships between pitches are erased). He also played a key role in the development of controlled chance and electronic music.

Boulez developed a reputation as an enfant terrible with provocative statements such as, “All art of the past must be destroyed.” Perhaps his closest aesthetic counterpart in the architecture world was Le Corbusier, whose “vision for Paris” involved demolishing most of the city and replacing it with tall, identical “towers in a park.” Alex Ross called Boulez “the last remaining titan of the postwar avant-garde.”

To the casual listener, Boulez’ music may sound like random sounds. But it is actually highly ordered in terms of pitch and rhythm. Structures (1955) was one of his early works. Anthèmes 2, for violin and electronics was written in 1997.

Boulez the Conductor

Pierre Boulez was music director of the New York Philharmonic between 1971 and 1977, succeeding Leonard Bernstein. In contrast to Bernstein, his style was cool and cerebral. His interpretations of Mahler, among other repertoire, were extraordinary. Boulez’ 1999 Deutsche Grammophon recording of Mahler’s First Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra remains one of my favorites:

  • Mahler Symphony No. 1 in D major, Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony- iTunes, Amazon
  • Find other Pierre Boulez recordings- iTunes, Amazon

The Scariest Chord in Mahler’s Second

Gilbert Kaplan (1941-2016)
Gilbert Kaplan (1941-2016)

 

Remembering Gilbert Kaplan

Gilbert Kaplan, the American millionaire business man, publisher, amateur conductor, and Mahler scholar passed away on New Year’s Day following a battle with cancer. He was 74.

In 1967, at the age of 26, Kaplan founded the inside Wall Street magazine, Institutional Investor. Around the same time, he became obsessed with the music of Gustav Mahler, particularly Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” (featured in this past Listeners’ Club post). Kaplan described his first encounter with the work at a Carnegie Hall concert with the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski:

I walked into that hall one person and I walked out a different person – I felt as if a bolt of lightning had gone through me.

Following this transformative experience, Kaplan was determined to conduct the piece, although he had no experience in front of an orchestra. He took a private six month crash course in conducting, organized a New York concert, and hired the American Symphony Orchestra. He recalled,

The orchestra agreed to play on two conditions…That no tickets would be sold to the public and that no one would be permitted to review it – something that I wholeheartedly supported. When I walked out on stage that night, I was of course very nervous, but I’d made peace with it. But I looked at the audience and I saw absolute fear. It didn’t occur to me then, but it occurred to me later when I heard the explosion of applause that I was living out their private dream. Whatever triumph there was, it was a shared experience.

In the ensuing years, Kaplan went on to conduct public performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony with orchestras around the world. He recorded the work with both the London Symphony Orchestra (1998 on the RCA label) and the Vienna Philharmonic (2003 for Deutsche Grammophon). Not everyone agreed that Kaplan’s conducting met the highest professional standards. Following a 2008 appearance with the New York Philharmonic, he was roundly criticized by the orchestra’s musicians, who went as far as to call the performance a “woefully sad farce.” But his passion and the contributions he made as a scholar seem undeniable. He acquired and studied Mahler’s original autograph score and published a facsimile, exposing errors and discrepancies which had crept into previous editions. This led to a brand new Universal Edition of the score. He was a respected friend of many conductors, including Sir Georg Solti who once jokingly said,

What a pleasure it is to meet a man from Wall Street with whom I talk about music, because when I meet my colleagues all I talk about is money.

Mahler Meets Twentieth Century “Noise”

I still remember vividly my own first encounter with Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. I was around 10 years old and my parents took me to hear David Zinman’s final performance as music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Following that inspirational experience, I practically wore out a record of Leonard Bernstein’s 1963 recording with the New York Philharmonic.

There’s a lot that can be said about this deeply psychological work. It opens in an abrupt, unsettling flash of sound which ushers in a snarling statement in the lower strings. Its five movements progress from a funeral march to a supreme moment of transfiguration. In the exultant final bars, the power of an already massive orchestra is augmented by chorus and pipe organ. Along the way, distant offstage horns and trumpets add a spacial dimension to the sound.

But let’s focus on one terrifying chord which occurs at the climax of the first movement (at 16:23 in the clip, below). It’s a moment of total musical breakdown, the furthest thing from the idyllic, woodsy birdsongs of the First Symphony. Prior to “the chord” we hear a ferocious, titanic battle of almost supernatural proportions. These musical titans thrash around and exchange violent knocks and blows. We hear an ascending, sweeping gesture in the brass, vaguely reminiscent of a similar gesture in Wagner’s Prelude to the third act of Lohengrin. Then, we’re pushed over the edge into a moment of pure dissonance. It’s the dotted “funeral march” rhythm which has been quietly, ominously lurking in the background from the beginning of the movement. Now it erupts throughout the entire orchestra as a hammer blow…a force which can no longer be ignored. The year was 1888, but this is a starkly twentieth century sound. For a brief moment we’re confronted with the unabashed “noise” of Stravinsky. One pitch at a time, “the chord” straightens itself out, painfully groping its way back to conventional dominant harmony to find a resolution. But its cacophony rings in our ears and stands as a sign which says “Go no further.” Perhaps the conductor Hans von Bülow had this moment in mind when he told Mahler that this first movement made Wagner’s innovative Tristan and Isolde sound “like a Haydn Symphony.” Now, let’s listen to the passage.

Here is a complete recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Earlier, I mentioned Leonard Bernstein’s 1963 recording with the New York Philharmonic…a recording made when Bernstein was 45 and at the beginning of his career. At the end of his career, in 1988, Leonard Bernstein returned to the New York Philharmonic with this live concert recording (on the Sony label). The performance features mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and soprano Barbara Hendricks.

  • Leonard Bernstein’s 1988 recording with the New York Philharmonic (featured above) iTunes, Amazon
  • Gilbert Kaplan’s recordings iTunes, Amazon

Sibelius’ Second: Beyond Finnish Nationalism

Jean Sibelius completed his Second Symphony in 1902 at a turbulent moment in Finnish history. Amid a surge of nationalism and renewed cultural unity, a growing movement called for Finnish independence from Russia. As Tsar Nicholas II sought to suppress Finnish language and culture, Sibelius’ music played an important role in the cultural reawakening of his homeland.  Finlandia, the majestic nationalist hymn written in 1899 as a covert protest against Russian censorship, emerged as a defacto second Finnish National Anthem. A few years earlier, the Karelia Suite (1893) painted a mythic sound portrait and drew upon rough, backwoodsy Finnish folk elements. The same year, The Swan of Tuonela was inspired by the Kalevala, a collection of nineteenth century poetry which drew upon Finnish mythology. (The Swan of Tuonela was revised two years later and included in the Lemminkäinen Suite). Long dominated by Russia and Sweden, Finland would gain independence in 1917.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Some listeners have heard echoes of Finland’s struggle for independence in the Second Symphony. In 1902 the conductor Robert Kajanus, who championed Sibelius’ music and made the first recording of the Second Symphony in 1930 with the London Symphony Orchestra, wrote:

The effect of the andante is that of the most crushing protest against all the injustice which today threatens to take light from the sun (…) [The scherzo] depicts hurried preparation (…) [The finale] culminates in a triumphant closure which is capable of arousing in the listener a bright mood of consolation and optimism.

In 1998 conductor Osmo Vänskä suggested a similar, if more open-ended programmatic reading:

The second symphony is connected with our nation’s fight for independence, but it is also about the struggle, crisis and turning-point in the life of an individual. This is what makes it so touching.

But it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Sibelius had none of this in mind when he was writing the Second Symphony. Despite the powerful nationalistic undertones of his smaller programmatic works, he seems to have approached the symphony as “pure music.” In his famous 1907 meeting with Gustav Mahler (in which Mahler declared, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”), Sibelius seemed to be interested in the pure, formal aspects of the symphony. During their philosophical discussion, Sibelius told Mahler that he

admired [the symphony’s] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs…If we understood the world, we would realize that there is a logic of harmony underlying its manifold apparent dissonances.

We hear this sense of logical, organic development in the Second Symphony. It’s almost as if the invisible, creative powers of nature shaped and developed the work through the composer’s hand. The opening of the first movement emerges suddenly, even abruptly, out of silence. The first strong beats are literally silent rests, and the opening motive, set in 6/4 time, feels like a long upbeat leading to more silence. This ascending three note motive, first heard in the strings, is the seed from which the entire symphony grows.  A few moments later, the woodwinds add the next layer of development: a buoyant, dancing countermelody. Quiet pizzicati lead into an exhilarating and terrifying accelerando. Then, listen to the sustained woodwind note which rises out of the string texture here. This single tone (a half step higher) becomes the thread which leads into the quietly shivering passage which follows.

That ascending motive in the opening is imprinted on the DNA of the entire symphony. It comes back slightly differently in the second movement, becomes a swirl of energy in the third movement, returns in the bridge to the final movement, and then becomes a triumphant proclamation in the opening of the final movement, the Symphony’s climax.

But let’s return to the silence of the opening. Sibelius was a composer who lifted music out of silence. He required hours of uninterrupted silence to work. In the final years of his life, he descended into a permanent creative silence, unable to compose and eventually destroying sketches of a stillborn Eighth Symphony. The Second Symphony is filled with unsettling moments which abruptly trail off into silence. It’s as if the music is unable to shake off the reality of its silent opening beats. One of these moments comes in the Nordic gloom of the second movement where, just as we seem to be reaching a climax, a brooding brass choral is interrupted by a series of pauses. When this music returns later in the movement, the silence is filled with strangely static woodwind chords. A moment later, one of the movement’s longest pauses delivers us into a hushed new sonic world. Barely emerging from the silence, strings are joined by a glassy, meandering woodwind line.

For all of its dramatic motion towards the climax of the final movement, Sibelius’ Second often seems to struggle with resolution. There are moments where the music can’t quite sum up what it’s trying to say, as if the titanic forces unleashed are too big to wrap your arms around fully (this passage from the second movement, for example). The first and second movements culminate in chords which seem slightly brusk, coming and going too soon. Even in the final two minutes of the symphony, there’s a sense of unresolved energy, as the music reaches increasingly higher, striving for an ultimate, unattainable goal.

Recommended Recordings

  • Find Osmo Vänskä 1997 recording (featured above) with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Vänskä is re-recording the Sibelius Symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra. Find the new recording, released in 2012 at iTunes, Amazon.
  • George Szell’s 1970 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra. This was his last recording with the orchestra.
  • Leonard Bernstein’s performance with the Vienna Philharmonic.
  • Gustavo Dudamel’s performance with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz’s Musical Hallucination

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this is clearly an immature vision of love, idealized and illusory. It’s a work of full-blown Romanticism, more concerned with the moment than with traditional formal structure. Foreshadowing Freud, Symphonie fantastique takes us on a deeply psychological journey. What emerges after we enter this hallucinogenic dreamscape is both fascinating and frightening.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Symphonie fantastique’s form is driven by its drama, like an opera without words. Over the course of five movements, a “young musician” descends into the despair of unrequited love. In the first movement, subtitled Passions, this vague hero “sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her.” This passion is represented by the idée fixe, a musical idea (first heard at this moment in the first movement) which returns and develops throughout the Symphony. We hear the idée fixe pop up in unexpected places. Listen to the way it gradually creeps into the strings in this passage from the end of the first movement. At this moment in the third movement you might miss it, unless you’re tuned into the woodwinds. The fifth movement, Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath, depicts the Hero’s funeral. Witches and hideous monsters shriek, groan, and cackle amid quotes of the Dies Irae (the ancient chant evoking the Day of Wrath). The idée fixe now degenerates into a vulgar, grotesque parody of itself.

Berlioz’s music evokes dramatic scenes. In the third movement, we find ourselves in a country pasture. The sound of distant thunder echoes from hillsides. A dialogue between two shepherds can be heard in the English horn and offstage oboe. (Here Berlioz introduces a spacial dimension to the music that Mahler would later develop with his own offstage instruments). The end of the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, paints the gruesome scene of the hero’s execution. We hear the decapitated head bounce to the ground in the pizzicatos and then the cheering crowd. But Symphonie fantastique is more than a musical representation of a story. You can throw out Berlioz’s extensive program notes (included below) and the music stands on its own. Listen to Symphonie fantastique as pure music and you’ll hear the distinct personas of the instruments come to live and enter into a drama which transcends the literal story. Throughout the piece, instrumental voices combine and interact in innovative ways which hadn’t been imagined previously.

Amazingly, this music, written three years after Beethoven’s death, often sounds shocking and far-out, even to our modern ears. It’s filled with bizarre, erratic shifts in mood which constantly keep us off balance (for example, listen to this passage from the first movement). In the first movement’s development section, Berlioz veers into new territory with these strange ascending and descending parallel chromatic lines. You’ll hear fragments of this line return throughout the Symphony (here it is in the strange, halting climax of the third movement, and here, and here again in the final movement).

Nowhere is Symphonie fantastique crazier than in the final minutes of the last movement, beginning with this terrifying crescendo. We hear string sound effects like raspy sul ponticello (playing with the bow as close to the bridge as possible) and col legno (hitting the wood of the bow on the strings for a percussive effect that, in this case, sounds like a skeleton’s rattling bones). Listen to the insanity of the woodwinds in this passage, and the way they let out a final tauntingly demonic shriek a few moments later. The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath concludes with a hellish rumble which hangs in the listener’s ear long after the music has finished.

Berlioz’s program notes, written for the 1830 premiere:

Part One: Dreams – Passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – this is the subject of the first movement.

Part Two: A Ball

The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

Part Three: A Scene in the Country

Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain – all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. – But what if she were deceiving him! – This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.

Part Four: March to the Scaffold

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. – A roar of joy at her arrival. – She takes part in the devilish orgy. – Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae [a hymn sung in the funeral rites of the Catholic Church], sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies irae are combined.

Recommended Recordings

Four Musical Ways to Say Goodbye

goodbyeEarlier in the month, we listened to the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a song cycle about death, renewal, and immortality. Written in the final years of Mahler’s life, Das Lied von der Erde, along with the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1909), were Mahler’s swan songs. (He completed one movement of a Tenth Symphony before his death in 1911). Both completed works leave us with a sense of finality, not with the joyful, celebratory exuberance of Beethoven’s Ninth, but instead quietly fading into a sea of eternal peace. There’s something unsettling, even terrifying about the ending of both, but at the same time there is a sense of liberation in letting go.

We’ll explore Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in a future Listeners’ Club post. But for now, here are four other pieces which say “goodbye” in their own unique ways:

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony

Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is one of music history’s most famous and dramatic “goodbye’s.” It’s music that seems to give up in anguished resignation. Following the exhilaration of the third movement (which ends with such a bang that audiences often can’t help but applaud), the fourth and final movement immediately plunges us into the depths of despair. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere nine days before his death. Some listeners have been tempted to view this symphony as the composer’s suicide note. No historical evidence exists to back up such a romanticized reading. Besides, truly great music is never biographical. It always transcends the literal.

Each movement of the Sixth Symphony features a descending scale. In the final movement’s second theme, this descending motive takes on new prominence. We hear it in the last bars, which are marked, morendo (“dying away”). In the ultimate descent, the instruments of the string section gradually drop out until only the lowest voices are left. When I play this music in the second violin section, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of the music going underwater and remaining unresolved, as the scale line (B, B, A, G, F-sharp) makes it to G, the lowest note on the violin, but can’t go further.

Here is the final movement performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic:

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto

Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in A Major, completed in 1895 while Dvořák was in New York, is a musical elegy. It’s music which wistfully revisits distant memories, pays respect, and then rises into blazing triumph.

Shortly after completing the cello concerto, Dvořák learned that his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, had passed away. 30 years earlier he had been in love with Josefina. She had not returned the feelings, and Dvořák ultimately married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna. In the second movement, Dvořák quoted one of his earlier songs, Kez duch muj san”(“Leave me alone”), which had been a favorite of Josefina. (Listen to that beautiful melody here). The third movement, peppered with fiery Czech folk rhythms, appears to be propelling towards a conventional conclusion, when suddenly in the movement’s coda, all of the forward drive dissipates and we find ourselves in a moment of tender introspection (beginning at 35:39 in the clip below). When the soloist, Hanuš Wihan, attempted to add a cadenza in the third movement’s coda, Dvořák would not permit it, writing,

I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission, also that there be no cadenza such as Wihan has made in the last movement; and that its form shall be as I have felt it and thought it out.

He went on to offer the following description:

The Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down . . .then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That is my idea and I cannot depart from it.

Here is a 1964 recording with Leonard Rose and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy:

Strauss’ Metamorphosen

Richard Strauss’ ultimate musical “goodbye” was the Four Last Songswritten in 1948, a year before his death. But a few years earlier, in 1945, Strauss’ Metamorphosen became a farewell to the pre-war world he had known, and perhaps even the long arc of Romanticism which had begun with Beethoven. The work for string orchestra was begun the day after allied bombing destroyed the Vienna Opera House. It quotes the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica, although Strauss claimed that the reference only became apparent to him after the score’s completion. Two verses from Goethe’s poem, Widmung (“Dedication”) also served as inspiration.

Strauss initially attempted to placate the Nazis, partly in an attempt to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He believed he could survive this regime, as he had others before it. A few days after completing Metamorphosen, he wrote,

The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.

Here is a 1973 Staatskapelle Dresden recording, conducted by Rudolf Kempe:

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943 two years before the composer’s death, says “goodbye” in a strikingly different way than Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. Amid rapidly failing health and poverty, Bartók wrote this monumental work as a commission for conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.

The final movement soars with exuberance, celebrating the full virtuosic possibilities of the orchestra. Eastern European folk rhythms dance alongside a fugue, one of the most sophisticated musical structures. It’s hard to imagine any music more full of life. The last chord lets out one final, joyful yelp as it reaches for the stars.

Here is the fifth movement of Concerto for Orchestra, from a recording by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony:

  • Find Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor,Pathétique” at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in A Major at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Strauss’ Metamorphosen at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra at iTunes, Amazon.

Das Lied von der Erde: Mahler’s Farewell

915-CFHUAeL._SX522_As late summer fades into fall, this seems like a good time to listen to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). The text, based on ancient Chinese poetry, evokes seasonal cycles…a sense of death, separation, and resignation, followed by rebirth, loss of the ego, and ultimate immorality. In this music, completed in 1909 near the end of Mahler’s life, the endless forward drive of Western music, everything from the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth to the epic climax of a Wagner opera, dissolves into something more circular and timeless. As Leonard Bernstein mentions, “death becomes a synonym for eternity,” and, in the end, both are greeted with peaceful acceptance.

Bernstein called Das Lied von der Erde “Mahler’s greatest symphony.” In this blend of symphony and song, there is never a sense of the orchestra merely accompanying the vocal line. Instead, all voices are seamlessly integrated. The work is scored for a large orchestra, including two harps, mandolin, glockenspiel and celesta. But small groups of instruments often converse with each other, creating the intimacy of chamber music. In Mahler’s music, each instrument’s distinct persona becomes especially vivid. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear that each voice has something to say, and although we can sense pain, melancholy, joy, transcendence, and more, the message is impossible to capture in words.

Mahler added “symphony” to the title, partly to overcome the perceived “curse of the ninth.” (As we discussed in a past Listeners’ Club post, composers from Beethoven and Schubert to Bruckner died after completing nine symphonies). But Das Lied von der Erde was not included as a numbered symphony and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony became his last completed work.

The final lines were written by Mahler:

The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green
anew! Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon!
Forever … Forever …

Here is the sixth and final movement of Das Lied von der Erde, Der Abschied (“The Farewell”). It’s a finale that is as long as all of the other preceding songs combined. This is Otto Klemperer’s 1966 recording with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. (Mahler frequently wrote for mezzo-soprano, favoring the slightly darker tone color in contrast to the brightness of a soprano). As a young man, Klemperer knew Mahler and served as his assistant during the premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (the “Symphony of a Thousand”).

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Listen to the complete Das Lied von der Erde here.
  • Find Mahler in the Listeners’ Club archive.

Symphonic Snapshot: Mahler’s Second

Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910
Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910

In 2011, Music Director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with a free “Concert for New York” at Avery Fisher Hall. The program featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” a piece which opens with an anguished funeral march and culminates in a moment of ultimate transfiguration. In the final bars of the fifth movement, the traditional orchestra is suddenly augmented by the all-encompassing power of a pipe organ and a final proclamation rises up from the chorus:

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you! 

Mahler’s deeply psychological music was ahead of its time. Largely misunderstood by audiences during the composer’s lifetime, it wasn’t until the mid to late twentieth century that the music began to resonate fully with audiences. Now we collectively turn to this music in times of grief and confusion. “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music,” said Mahler. Transcending literal meaning, Mahler’s music communicates ultimate and eternal truth.

Coincidentally, the New York Philharmonic’s performance came within months of the hundredth anniversary of Mahler’s death in 1911. In many ways, Mahler’s music is infused in the orchestra’s DNA. In the final years of his life, Mahler served as the New York Philharmonic’s music director (between 1909 and 1911). His exhausting battles with the Philharmonic’s (at that time) small-minded and provincial leadership have been well-documented. Later, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein passionately championed Mahler’s works.

We’ll return to Mahler’s Second Symphony in greater detail in a future post. For now, here are a few musical snapshots from the Philharmonic’s 2011 concert. The first movement, Allegro maestoso, opens with a ferocious snarl which immediately demands our attention. The strings make an opening statement and then the woodwinds enter with the next layer of this long musical narrative. We hear the searing, mocking sounds of muted trumpets and horns. The Dies Irae (the Latin chant representing the “Day of Wrath”) surfaces briefly. The movement climaxes with a shockingly dissonant fortissimo (14:46), which anticipates the sounds of the twentieth century. There are also moments of otherworldly beauty and repose. But we keep getting pulled back to the funeral procession with a musical voice which says, “Don’t forget me! I’m still here!” There’s something slightly unsettling about the sudden and unpredictable way the music alternates in mood in this big, unfolding cosmic battle.

At one point in this performance the audience, which seems sincerely engaged in the music, begins applauding, apparently mistaking a powerful climax for the movement’s end. Seasoned concertgoers might frown on applause between movements, especially during the long, dramatic arc of a Mahler symphony. But this applause also seems to suggest that there were audience members in the hall who were hearing this piece for the first time, making the New York Philharmonic’s gift to their community even more special.

The Second Symphony’s fourth movement, Urlicht (“Primal Light”) originated in Mahler’s song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). It moves into the remote key of D-flat major, far from the Symphony’s principal keys of C minor and E-flat major:

This excerpt from the final movement begins with a solemn statement of the Dies Irae in the trombones and unfolds into a triumphant moment of exultation. Mahler’s score occasionally asks wind players to raise their instrument’s bell above the music stand to increase the volume and direct intensity of the sound. In this clip you’ll see the horns raise their bells:

  • Find the complete “Concert for New York” on iTunes, Amazon
  • Hear Claudio Abbado’s 2003 performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Remembering Gunther Schuller

American composer, conductor, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller (1925-2015)
Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), Renaissance man of American music

 

American composer, conductor, horn player, writer, educator, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Schuller’s compositions fused elements of jazz and classical music into a style he called “Third Stream.” His remarkably diverse career included principal horn positions with the Cincinnati Symphony and Metropolitan Opera orchestras in the 1940s and 50s, as well as collaborations with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and others. In the 1960s and 70s, he was president of New England Conservatory of Music. He served as director of new musical activities at the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony. More recently, he served as artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington.

Gunther Schuller talks about his musical development and the influence of orchestra playing, Scriabin, Ravel, and Duke Ellington in this 1999 conversation with David Starobin.

Selected Recordings:

Where the Word Ends was written in 2007 for James Levine and the Boston Symphony. In the opening of the piece, ghostly voices emerge out of silence, suddenly thrusting us into a dark world of apprehension. As the piece progresses, we hear faint echoes of the music of Anton Bruckner (9:48), Mahler, Bartok, and Stravinsky. At 21:27, a lonely, jazzy solo horn line briefly emerges. Where the Word Ends is a haunting dreamscape of color and sound.

In this live BBC Proms performance, Semyon Bychkov leads the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne:

The Chamber Music Society Of Lincoln Center’s recording of Octet, written in 1979, first movement:

The bluesy second movement, Passacaglia, from Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959):

Leonard Bernstein’s March 11, 1964 New York Philharmonic “Young People’s Concert,” Jazz in the Concert Hall featured Gunther Schuller conducting his educational narrative, Journey into Jazz:

  • Find Gunther Schuller’s music at iTunes
  • Find books by Gunther Schuller at Amazon