Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the music progresses, we hear bird songs and the echoes of distant fanfares in the clarinets and offstage trumpets.

Mahler’s music speaks to us on a deeply psychological level, evoking complex, indescribable emotions. It embodies heroic struggle and can alternate between moments of transcendence and the vulgar street sounds of a bohemian village band. Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The sense of paradox in Mahler’s music is captured in a story of Mahler as a child, frequently running into the street to escape his father’s violent abuse of his mother, and suddenly being met with the cheerful sounds of an organ grinder.

The First Symphony grew out of Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a WayfarerIt was originally conceived as a five movement symphonic poem. Mahler later cut the second movement, Blumine, and dropped the subtitle, “The Titan”, which was a reference to a novel by Jean Paul. The piece requires a greatly expanded orchestra (seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba and an expanded woodwind and percussion section). At times, instruments are used in strange new ways, playing out of their normal range to create mocking, demonic sounds. In the second movement we hear the distinctive, raspy sound of stopped horns.

Mahler was a prominent conductor (and champion of Wagner’s operas) and his scores were meticulously marked with words and phrases intended to guide future interpreters. Common musical themes reappear throughout Mahler’s nine symphonies and in some ways these works can be heard as one massive symphony. The bewilderment of the audience at the 1889 premier in Budapest is a testament to the revolutionary nature of Mahler’s vision. The music would come to be embraced by audiences of the twentieth century. Today, performances of Mahler’s symphonies are often the dramatic high point of an orchestra’s season.

Here is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, performed by conductor Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Listen carefully to the distinct voices of the instruments (for example the horns at 10:44). What personas do they suggest? How does the final movement resolve the symphony as a whole?

  1. Langsam. Schleppend 00:00
  2. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 16:00
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen 22:48
  4. Sturmisch bewegt 33:28

Did you feel a sense of growing anticipation in the first movement? Go back and listen to the opening with those sustained “A’s” (the dominant in D major). It isn’t until around 4:06 that the music settles into a resolution in D major. We can relax and breathe easily. But at 7:59 we’re back where we started in the opening and this time it’s more ominous. All of the raw energy and tension, which has been building from the beginning, is released in one frighteningly explosive, but ultimately heroic climax towards the end of the movement (14:18). We’re left with crazy, giddy humor and a musical cat and mouse game in the final bars.

The Huntsman's Funeral
The Huntsman’s Funeral

The third movement was inspired by a children’s wood carving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, in which a torch-lit procession of animals carry the body of the dead huntsman. At the end of the movement, the sounds of the procession fade into the distance. You probably recognized the folk melody, Frère Jacques. Here it’s transformed into minor and played by the double bass, an instrument rarely featured in orchestral solos. Consider the persona of the double bass sound. The bizarre interjections of Jewish band music give this movement its ultimate sense of paradox and irony.

Opening amid a life and death struggle and ending in triumph, the final movement forms the climax of the symphony. Amid birdcalls, the bassoon recaps a familiar fragment (45:23) and for a moment we hear echoes of the first movement. The haunting motive from the opening of the first movement is transformed into a heroic proclamation in major. You may hear a slight, probably unconscious, similarity to Handel’s equally triumphant Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In the score, Mahler asks the seven horns to stand for the final statement of the theme, “so as to drown out everything…even the trumpets.”

For some interesting links, watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, Who is Gustav Mahler? and Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas.

 Recordings, old and new

There are many great recordings of this piece. Here are a few which I recommend. Share your favorites in the thread below.

Borodin’s Nocturne

Philadelphia stringsThe music of Russian romantic composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) is filled with stunningly beautiful melodies. One example can be heard in the third movement (Nocturne) of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2. Let’s listen to a recording by the Emerson String Quartet. Consider the unique personality of each voice of the string quartet and notice the way the voices interact, creating a musical conversation. Pay attention to harmony and inner voices. Each time the melody returns, Borodin puts it in a slightly different harmonic package:

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Did you hear the canon between the violin and cello, and later the two violins, in the passage starting at 4:54?

Repeating a melody (often a folk song) in slightly different harmonic and contrapuntal “packages” was a common technique for Russian composers. You can hear this in Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, written in 1881, the same year as the Second String Quartet, and in the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony. 

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Ormandy and the Philadelphia Sound[/typography]

Now, let’s hear Borodin’s Nocturne played by the full string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. For many years the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for its distinctive string sound…unusually dark, rich and lush. Some have attributed the origin of the sound to Ormandy’s predecessor, Leopold Stokowski, who conducted without a baton. This 2000 New York Times piece by James Oestreich offers more on the history of the “Philadelphia sound,” and raises questions about the extent to which an orchestra should hold onto a unique style versus adapting to the style of the composer. Listening to the lush, shimmering perfection of this classic recording, it’s easy to forget that debate entirely:

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Oistrakh Plays Tchaikovsky

Oleh Krysa and David Oistrakh (image taken from olehkrysa.com
Oleh Krysa and David Oistrakh (from olehkrysa.com)

What better way to end the year than with a few rare old recordings by the legendary Russian violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974)? Listening to these clips, which range from solo to chamber repertoire, it’s easy to hear why Oistrakh is regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time. There is a deep musical sincerity and a powerful sense of humanity in his playing which transcends the ordinary. In the fastest and most demanding technical passages every note sings with the most round, noble tone. Even now, his playing sounds strangely “modern,” uninfected with stylish mannerisms of any historical period. It’s just pure music.

My former teacher, Oleh Krysa, was a student of Oistrakh for seven years. In Book 14 of The Way They Play, Krysa sheds some light on the qualities which set Oistrakh apart as a performer and teacher:

[quote]In the first place, it was about developing musical sincerity, which is probably of utmost importance. He was absolutely intolerant of certain things: it refers primarily to ethics and taste and as a consequence to such aspects as style of playing, choice of repertory, attitude not only to music, but to art in general…Harmony was really striking in him-I mean both his human charm and performance. Oistrakh’s creative work, at least for me, associates with Raphael’s paintings. In his playing there had never been any pointedness of expression or sugary sentimentalism, there had never been a trace of affectation aimed at winning over the public. And his pedagogical activities were also aimed first and foremost at guarding his pupils against such “extremes” and at teaching them to express themselves naturally and sincerely on the instrument.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Concerto[/typography]

Here is Oistrakh’s 1962 recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The warm, rich Philadelphia string sound is on full display in this recording. Oistrakh chose to perform his own edition which is closer to Tchaikovsky’s original text than the edition by Leopold Auer. Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to Auer but withdrew the dedication after Auer’s criticism. The first performance was given by Adolf Brodsky in Vienna in 1881.

  1. Allegro moderato 0:00
  2. Canzonetta. Andante 18:54
  3. Finale. Allegro vivacissimo 25:35

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Piano Trio, Op. 50[/typography]

Now let’s hear a 1948 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. Oistrakh is joined by pianist Lev Oborin and cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.

Written around 1881, the piece is in two large movements. In the second movement a series of contrasting and far reaching variations (including a fugue) spring from a simple melody. Tchaikovsky worried that it was too symphonic, writing to a friend:

[quote]The Trio is finished … now I can say with some conviction that my work is not all bad. But I am afraid, having written all my life for orchestra, and only taken late in life to chamber music, I may have failed to adapt the instrumental combinations to my musical thoughts. In short, I fear I may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments. I have tried to avoid this, but I am not sure whether I have been successful.[/quote]

Symphonic or not, the music embodies a sense of raw emotion unique to Tchaikovsky. In the heroic major section between 2:55 and 3:41 it’s hard not to hear a hint of Russian nationalism.

  1. Pezzo elegiaco (Moderato assai – Allegro giusto) 0:00
  2. (A) Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto – (B) Variazione Finale e coda 18:00

Despite its many spirited adventures, the music seems to give up at the end with the same tragic acceptance we hear at the end of the “Pathetique” Symphony. Tchaikovsky builds our anticipation around 44:35 by prolonging the dominant (V chord), but listen to way he avoids a clear, satisfying resolution at 45:08. The remaining music melts away into the gloomy hopelessness of a funeral dirge.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sérénade mélancolique, Op. 26[/typography]

Here is a 1948 recording of the hauntingly beautiful Sérénade mélancolique. Notice all the little Tchaikovsky-isms: the structure of the melody and the way it restlessly develops, the off-kilter rhythmic complexity in the low strings around 3:45, the counter melody scale line (beginning at 6:28) which begins in the low woodwinds and rises dramatically, passing from one instrument to another. Around 8:05 this passage comes again with the violin and woodwinds reversing roles. Listen to the bass pizzicatos providing a rhythmic foundation under the melody. Tchaikovsky is never far from the world of ballet.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Andante Cantabile[/typography]

Here is the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 11. The melody is based on a Russian folk song which Tchaikovsky apparently heard whistled by a house painter. Oistrakh performs with Pyotr Bondarenko, Mikhail Terian and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.

Yehudi Menuhin on David Oistrakh (Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwartz):

[quote]I loved him immediately. Not only was he the gentlest, staunchest, most warm-hearted of men, but he was also simple and ingenuous. He never felt the need to appear other than he was…but presented himself candidly, without second thoughts or self-consciousness or doubts about his reception, a complete human being.[/quote]

Music on the Tarmac

A330 Beijing

Last week, musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra made news when they turned a three hour delay on the tarmac at the Beijing airport into an impromptu concert. You can watch the now viral video of their performance of the last movement of Antonin Dvorak’s “American” String Quartet.

Let’s listen to the Cleveland Quartet perform all four movements of this amazing piece. Pay attention to the way the four voices interact and trade around motives. Can you hear a musical conversation taking place between instruments? Listen to the rhythmic “motor” which propels the music forward. Notice subtle details that make the music sparkle, like the cello’s pizzicato line that begins at 0:14.

String Quartet No. 12 “American”, Op. 96…Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (starts at beginning)
  2. Lento (starts at 9:05)
  3. Molto vivace (starts at 16:08)
  4. Finale: vivace ma non troppo (starts at 19:58)

Now, let’s go back and listen again to pick up a few more details in the music. The first movement is built on sonata form, a structure we explored a few months ago in my post, Baseball and the Symphony. Can you hear sonata form at work here? Listen to the second theme at 1:30. Does it feel different emotionally from what came before? Starting around 4:44, can you hear Dvorak shaking up the themes and motives from the exposition, turning them upside down and inside out and developing them in exciting ways? Consider how we slide back into the recapitulation at 6:28. It’s the same music we heard at the beginning, but this time Dvorak throws us a surprise before fully returning home. Can you tell what’s happening and how it’s different from the beginning of the piece? Listen carefully to the harmony at 6:28.

The third movement starts off simply enough with all four voices playing the same music in octaves, but listen to how quickly things get delightfully complicated. Pay attention to the increasingly complex interplay of rhythms that follows this simple opening. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the melody line popping up in the cello at 16:40.

As you listen to the final movement, consider what feelings the music evokes…wild, fun-loving, excited anticipation? Like a real person, this movement’s musical personality is a complex mix of emotions which can’t be fully put into words. Near the end of the movement, there is a brief moment where the “motor” stops and the music suddenly becomes more introspective (23:29). Consider the emotional significance of this moment of reflection. Why does it come at this moment in the piece? What happens next?

Dvorak wrote this quartet in the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa, a prairie enclave settled by Bohemian immigrants. This was the same year that the “New World” Symphony was written as a commission for the New York Philharmonic. Did you hear any of the motives from the Symphony slipping into this quartet? (If you missed it, go back and listen to the cello at 8:49 for just one example). Learn more about Dvorak’s trip to Iowa here.

Between 1892 and 1895, Dvorak directed the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He was interested in helping a still comparatively young America develop an authentic musical tradition. Dvorak urged composers to draw inspiration from Native American and African American folk traditions. Some listeners hear these uniquely American influences in the “New World” Symphony and this quartet. Others only hear the influence of the Czech folk music which inspired Dvorak throughout his life. Which side do you take? Share your thoughts on this music and the Cleveland Quartet’s performance in the thread below. You can find this recording on Amazon.

Spillville, Iowa in 1893
Spillville, Iowa in 1893

 

Five Great CDs for Your Holiday Gift Bag

Whether you’re looking for the perfect gift or you want to expand your CD collection for the new year, here are five recordings which I highly recommend:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offering Alexandra Adkins, violin

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Alexandra Adkins is a member of the Houston Symphony violin section.  Last December she released this CD which includes sonatas by Handel, Leclair, Corelli and two movements from Bach’s Partita in d minor.  For the Handel and Corelli she is accompanied by guitar, providing a unique twist.  Also included are three contemporary tracks featuring hymn tunes and a song written by Adkins. Listen to this interview to learn more about Offering.  This is a fun and diverse CD that celebrates the idea that great music transcends categories.

 

 

 

 

Brahms: The Violin Sonatas Oleh Krysa, violin and Tatiana Tchekina, piano

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This is my former teacher’s rare and inspiring recording of the three Brahms Violin Sonatas.  While there are many recordings of this music, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect interpretation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mahler Symphony No. 1 Eugene Ormandy, conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra

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If you’re not familiar with the dramatic and deeply psychological music of the late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler, this recording will be a great introduction.  If you’re already a Mahler fan you will enjoy hearing the original second movement Blumine (flower piece) which Mahler later cut from the Symphony.

This recording was first released in 1969.  You will notice the legendary, lush and perfectly blended string sound that the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for at that time.  One of the most striking examples of this occurs in the dreamy middle section of the Fourth Movement where the strings emerge with a velvety, veiled sound.

Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer are included on the disk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Boheme The Metropolitan Opera with Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, Jose Carreras, Richard Stilwell, Allan Monk, James Morris, James Levine, conductor, Franco Zeffirelli, producer

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If you’re new to opera this DVD is a great place to start.  Puccini’s La Boheme has a great story and features one beautiful melody after another.  English subtitles are provided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”, Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto Elmar Oliveira, violin Leonard Slatkin, conductor with the Saint Louis Symphony

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This 1990 Grammy nominated CD features music by two twentieth century American composers.  There have been many recordings of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto since this came out, but Elmar Oliveira’s interpretation still endures.  Some violinists overly schmalz this already Romantic music.  Oliveira goes for something deeper and more profound and captures the true essence of the piece.

Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 might remind you of a lush movie score and the wide open plains.  There is another good recording of this piece by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony.  I prefer the slightly slower and more thoughtful tempos that Slatkin takes in this recording, especially in the Second Movement.