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 pastListeners’ 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”).
Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 stands with Beethoven’s Concerto at the pinnacle of the violin repertoire. No concerto unleashes the soaring, heroic power and poetic potential of the violin more profoundly than Brahms’. It’s music that runs the gamut between smoldering ferocity and tranquil introspection, encompassing a universe of expression.
Brahms’ forty-plus year friendship and musical partnership with the German violinist and composer Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was central to the Violin Concerto’s inception. Beginning with an August 21, 1878 correspondence, Joachim offered Brahms technical and musical advice after seeing sketches of the concerto, which was originally conceived in four movements. With Brahms conducting (inadequately), Joachim gave a hastily prepared and technically insecure premiere on January 1, 1879 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. This was followed by another slightly more successful performance in Vienna. But even Brahms’ most dedicated supporters, such as Joachim and the powerful Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick, seem to have needed time to warm up to the new composition. This initial lukewarm public reception and Joachim’s complaints of “awkward” violin passages show how profoundly Brahms’ Concerto pushed the envelope musically and in terms of violin technique. As affection for the work grew, Brahms wrote to a friend:
Joachim plays my piece more beautifully with every rehearsal, and his Cadenza has become so beautiful by concert time that the public applauded into my Coda.
As a composer, Brahms was haunted by the “footsteps of a giant,” Beethoven, whose music had profoundly changed the course of music history. Following the example of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Brahms’ Concerto is set in D major and opens with a long orchestral introduction. From the opening of the first movement, there’s a sense that the music is searching for a way forward. Following the opening statement, the oboe takes us in a new, unexpected direction. Then, resolute octaves turn into chords and suddenly we know where we are. In the passage that follows, listen closely to the canon that develops between the high and low strings. The first movement’s introduction concludes with a ferocious buildup to the violin’s entrance. Notice the rhythmic instability Brahms sets up in the low instruments, which causes us to lose track of the downbeat. You’ll hear Brahms play these occasional rhythmic games throughout the movement, especially in the final bars.
The solo violin explodes onto the scene with its first entrance, as if unleashing all of the introduction’s tension. Listen to the way the strings snarl back at the solo line in this opening. The way the solo and orchestral voices fit together is a huge part of the drama of this piece. Joseph Hellmesberger, who conducted the Vienna premiere, accused Brahms of writing a concerto, “not for, but against the violin.”
One of this concerto’s most serenely beautiful moments is the first movement’s coda, following the cadenza. In these bars, time seems suspended and we almost hold our breath as the final tutti is delayed. Just when we think the violin can’t reach higher, it somehow does. As the movement inches towards its final resolution, listen to the quiet, suspended fanfare in the horns and woodwinds.
The second movement opens with one of the most tranquil and sublime oboe solos in orchestral music. This extended statement is the last thing we would expect in a violin concerto. The Spanish virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate complained that he refused to “stand on the rostrum, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio.”
The final movement is a sparkling, fun-loving romp. You can hear echoes of the final movement of Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Brahms’ opening theme apparently served as a model for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pop song, Don’t Cry for me, Argentina from the musical, Evita.
Eight Great Recordings
Here are eight contrasting recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Explore the list and then share your thoughts in the comment thread below. If you have a favorite recording that didn’t make the list, leave your own suggestion below.
Henryk Szeryng and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Henryk Szeryng’s 1974 recording with Bernard Haitink and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the most inspiring recordings I’ve heard of this piece. There is a straightforward classicism to his approach. At the same time, the drama of the music shines through. The tempos on this recording capture the expressive weight of the music. Szeryng plays Joachim’s cadenzas:
This classic 1959 Heifetz recording, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony, was my first introduction to the piece as a child. The searing intensity of this performance is unparalleled. With Heifetz’s trademark fast tempos, this is one of the most exciting, yet soulful performances you’ll hear:
Hilary Hahn and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
If you’re looking for a modern performance, you won’t go wrong with Hilary Hahn’s 2001 recording with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The motto of this CD might be, “opposites attract,” because the Brahms is coupled with an equally great performance of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto.
Bronislaw Huberman and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York
This historic, live 1944 recording of Bronislaw Huberman and conductor Artur Rodzinski in New York offers a unique slice of history. As a child, Huberman played the concerto in Brahms’ presence in Vienna in January, 1896. According to the biographer Max Kalbeck:
As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, “You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully”…Brahms brought him a photo of his, inscribed, “In friendly memory of Vienna and your grateful listener J. Brahms.”
In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz recounts that someone overheard Brahms promise to write a short violin fantasy for the young Huberman, adding jokingly, “if I have any fantasy left.” But Brahms died the following year.
Julia Fischer and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam
Julia Fischer’s 2006 recording with conductor Yakov Kreizberg is the most recent CD on the list. Fischer offers a Romantic and introspective reading, filled with mystery. The disk includes Brahms’ “Double” Concerto with German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott.
Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Brahms early in her career with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (listen here). It’s interesting to compare that more straightforward interpretation with her later 1997 recording with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. The later recording is definitely more romantic with more emphasis on vibrato. Mutter’s dynamic range is also remarkably wide. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on which version you prefer.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 three-act opera, Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City) opens in the rational world, but quickly dissolves into a dark dreamscape of hallucination.
Paul, the central character, is haunted by the recent death of his wife, Marie. Unable to move on, Paul is obsessed with a “Temple of Memories,” which includes paintings, photographs and a lock of his deceased wife’s hair. On the streets of Bruges he sees Marietta, a young dancer who resembles Marie. Paul believes that Marietta is Marie and invites her to his house. Marietta seduces Paul, singing “Glück das mir verblieb“. Mirroring Paul’s sense of loss, the aria’s words are tinged with sadness and loss…a sense of the fleeting nature of life and love. Bored and put off by Paul’s strange behavior, Marietta leaves.
Events of the second and third acts take place in Paul’s imagination. At the end of Act III, Paul dreams that he strangles Marietta with a lock of Marie’s hair, declaring, “Now she is exactly like Marie.” Suddenly, Paul awakens from his dream. Brigitta, the maid tells him that Marietta has returned to retrieve an umbrella she left behind. Shaken by the ghostly visions, Paul says that he will try to let go of the “Temple of Memories”, singing a reprise of “Glück, das mir verblieb.” Read the entire synopsis here.
Korngold was 23 years old when Die tote Stadt premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne (conducted by Otto Klemperer) on December 4, 1920. The opera remained popular with audiences until it was banned by the Nazis as part of the Third Reich’s efforts to purge music by Jewish composers. In the post war years it was neglected, fitting neither into the witty neoclassical style of Stravinsky nor the twelve tone world of Arnold Schoenberg. It remained almost forgotten until the mid-to-late twentieth century. In recent years it has seen a revival. Die tote Stadt may be heard as a continuation of the late Romantic harmonic language of Mahler and Richard Strauss.
Below is the powerful final scene, performed by Torsten Kerl. Throughout the opera, Korngold draws on key relationships, representing the living Marietta with five sharps and the dead Marie with five flats. Beginning around the 2:12 mark, we hear the descending chromatic “death” motive which occurs throughout the work. Notice the significant and jarring moments where Korngold chooses to lapse into spoken words. Listen to the way the music changes as the maid, Brigitta enters (5:12) and Paul awakens from his hallucination, singing, “Brigitta, you my old and faithful friend.” On the word “friend,” we’re suddenly transported to a new world as the harmony and tonal color shift.
Korngold’s Die tote Stadt confronts us with questions about holding on versus letting go, and the nature of memory. Are memories real or illusory? Despite this production’s bold “No Exit” sign, the final chord suggests a release of energy akin to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde…an ultimate, irreversible musical resolution which represents the end of tonal striving. It’s a final chord which simultaneously encompasses darkness and light: the widest possible range of the orchestra, from the depths of the woodwind section to the high, shimmering strings.
On Christmas morning, 1870 Cosima Wagner, the wife of Richard Wagner and daughter of Franz Liszt, awoke to the sound of music:
“As I awoke, my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so were all the rest of the household. Richard had arranged his orchestra on the staircase, and thus was our Tribschen consecrated forever.”
Siegfried Idyll was simultaneously a grand gesture and an intimate musical love letter. It was Wagner’s combined Christmas and birthday gift to Cosima, as well as a celebration of the recent birth of their son, Siegfried, nicknamed “Fidi”. The original title, Triebschen Idyll with Fidi’s birdsong and the orange sunrise, as symphonic birthday greeting, Presented to his Cosima by her Richard, suggests details in the music which were of personal significance to the couple. A lullaby, Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf, played by the oboe (4:39, below), may have been linked to Wagner’s oldest daughter, Eva.
Wagner never intended for Siegfried Idyll to be performed publicly, but financial pressures forced him to sell the score to the publisher B. Schott in 1878. In order to accommodate the logistics of the stairway outside Cosima’s bedroom, the original version required a small chamber orchestra of 13 musicians: flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass. When Siegfried Idyll was published, Wagner expanded the orchestration to include a larger orchestra.
The opening of Siegfried Idyll seems to emerge out of subconsciousness. You can almost hear the piece waking up at the first light of dawn, gradually finding its way forward. Birdsongs (around 10:32) and horn callsdraw us close to nature. At the end of the piece, the calm repose of the prolonged final chord tells us that we’re home.
We often hear a full orchestra version of this piece. Otto Klemperer’s 1961 recording captures the intimacy of the original scoring, giving us an idea of what Cosima Wagner may have heard on Christmas morning:
Many of Siegfried Idyll’s themes originated in an unfinished string quartet. Ultimately, these motives found their way into opera. Listen to the way themes from Siegfried Idyll pop up in the final scene of Siegfried(the opera) and in Siegfried’s Rhine Journeyfrom Götterdämmerung. Listen to the horn line at 6:47 and compare it with the line in Siegfried Idyll around 10:32.