Selby & Richard McRae Foundation Bravo Series - Bravo I: Mahler’s Fifth
7:30 PM, Saturday, September 15, 2012
Thalia Mara Hall
The Bravo Series opens with the ambitious and emotionally transformative Symphony No. 5, written by the composer when he was in his early 40s. Through its five movements, which stretch the sonic resources of the modern orchestra to the limit, Mahler conveys joy, sorrow and wonder. A gala opening for our 68th season.
Pre-concert lecture, 6:45-7:15, at the Mississippi Museum of Art (free; cash bar)
Opening night post concert gala reception in celebration of the newly named Selby and Richard McRae Foundation Bravo Series. Immediately following the concert. Desserts and open bar; music by Swing de Paris. For reception tickets contact MSO at 601.960.1565 ($20)
This evening's concert is generously sponsored by:
With additional support from:
Catholic Diocese of Jackson
Accommodations provided by:
Symphony Lovers Parking provided by:
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Prologue: Funeral March
I. Stürmisch bewegt
By Lynn Raley
Lynn Raley is an Associate Professor of Music at Millsaps College, where he teaches music history and lectures in the Heritage Program.
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor
There are certain composers who, in hindsight, can be seen as pivotal figures in music history. The turn of the century was an exciting and downright dangerous time artistically, as composers searched for a new language to replace the surging, excessively emotional music of Late Romanticism. Leonard Bernstein once wrote: “The first spontaneous image that springs to my mind at the mention of the word ‘Mahler’ is of a colossus straddling the magic dateline ‘1900.’ There he stands, his left foot (closer to the heart!) firmly planted in the rich, beloved nineteenth century, and his right, rather less firmly, seeking solid ground in the twentieth.” Bernstein goes on to say:
He took the basic elements of German music, including the clichés, and drove them to their ultimate limits. He turned rests into shuddering silences; upbeats into volcanic preparations as for a death blow; Luftpausen became gasps of shock or terrified suspense; accent grew into titanic stresses to be achieved by every conceivable means, both sonic and tonic. Ritardandi were stretched into near motionlessness; accelerandi became tornadoes; dynamics were refined and exaggerated to a point of neurasthenic sensibility. Mahler’s marches are like heart attacks, his chorales like all Christendom gone mad. The old conventional four-bar phrases are delineated in steel; his most traditional cadences bless like the moment of remission from pain. Mahler is German music multiplied by n.
What could possibly account for music of such extremes?
To being with, let’s examine the personality of Gustav Mahler. Mahler was driven by an almost limitless ambition. He was a workaholic—today we would call him a “Type A” personality. But it paid off, for his rise in the music world was meteoric, from obscure provincial conductor to head of the Vienna Court Opera by the time he was only 36. At age 38 he was named conductor of the famed Vienna Philharmonic. In 1897 Vienna, in order to accept the appointment, Mahler, a Jew, had to agree to be baptized a Catholic. As Richard Taruskin notes, it says something about Mahler that, given the racial climate of the time, “…it seems extraordinary that a Jew, however emancipated and assimilated, could have been thought as indispensable to the glory of Austrian music-making as Mahler’s talent and drive had made him in the eyes of the Viennese arts establishment.”
His ambitions as a composer were no less modest, for his stated artistic goal was to write a symphony “so great that the whole world is actually reflected therein—so that one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays.” Mahler was bigger than life.
This writer discovered the music of Mahler in Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice, based on the novel by Thomas Mann.I recall clearly the first time I heard the impossibly beautiful and tender Adagietto, as “Gustav von Aschenbach,” sitting on the beach and dying of cholera, gazes longingly out to sea at the beautiful boy Tadzio, whom he has become obsessed with. After hearing this music in the film,I simply could not get enough Mahler. But under the influence of the director’s choices of music with scenes, I (and many others) heard in this music an expression of death and mourning. Leonard Bernstein conducted it at St. Patrick’s Cathedral the day John F. Kennedy was buried, and it was played again at the memorial in Carnegie Hall for Bernstein himself, reinforcing in the public’s mind this association.
In fact, there is evidence that the Adagietto expresses something quite different. In 1901, Mahler met the beautiful and talented Alma Schindler. She was 22, nineteen years his junior. The infatuation was immediate and mutual, for Mahler was a powerful and charismatic celebrity, conductor of the Vienna Court Opera and Vienna Philharmonic. The study score belonging to the conductor Willem Mengelberg, a student of Mahler’s, has these words handwritten in the margin of the Adagietto:“Wie ich dich liebe, Du meine Sonne, ich kann mit Worten Dir's nicht sagen. Nur meine Sehnsucht kann ich Dir klagen und meine Liebe.” (How I love you, / You my sun, / I cannot tell you in words / I can only lament my yearning / And my love for you / My happiness.)Over the opening melody, Mengelberg wrote: “Love, heartfelt, tender, yet ardent!” At the bottom of the page he wrote, “If music is a language, then it is one here—‘he’ tells her everything in ‘tones’ and ‘sounds’ in music.” More supporting evidence comes in Mahler’s quotation of the “glance” leitmotiv from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in bars 61-71. On the twentieth anniversary of Mahler’s death, when Alma donated Rodin’s famous bust of Mahler to the Vienna Opera, she requested the Adagietto be played, and in 1948 in New York, several friends arranged to have it played at her sixty-ninth birthday. Clearly, this movement had special meaning for her.
Known for his numerous affairs, Mahler had stopped seeing other women once he met Alma. But this passionate romance had a dark side as well. Mahler, the Type A personality, was also a jealous and demanding husband. Alma Schindler had been a very gifted composer, but once they were married Mahler demanded she stop composing. He told her in no uncertain terms that her job was to bear children, take care of the house, copy his music—and support him in everything. It was HIS job to compose, not hers. She went along, but never forgave him for this.
Alma Schindler (who outlived Mahler by fifty years) would later claim fame for being the wife or lover of more than one powerful and brilliant man in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Here’s a partial list: the composer Alexander Zemlinsky (Arnold Schoenberg’s teacher) was her first lover; the artist Gustav Klimt apparently gave her her first kiss at age 17; she married the architect Walter Gropius, and later Franz Werfel; but by many accounts the artist Oskar Kokoshka was the only man she truly loved. Apparently, she was quite a muse!
The musicologist Richard Taruskin likes to call Mahler’s music “maximalist” (borrowing a term coined by Milton Babbitt to describe his own music). The Fifth Symphony gave Mahler more trouble than all his previous symphonies, for it plowed new ground for him. This was actually his first attempt at symphonic music without the aid of text. One could designate it ‘absolute’ music, yet it is still music that tries to express philosophical ideas about love, death, and happiness.
A funeral march opens the work (beginning with a lone trumpet enunciating the dotted short-short-long rhythm that will pervade the movement), followed by the allegro movement’s turbulent music, encased around haunting references to the earlier funeral music. The third movement is lighter, a series of Austrian Ländler, or country dances, that follow one upon another. Mahler had this to say about the third movement: “The scherzo is the very devil of a movement. I see it is in for a peck of troubles! Conductors for the next fifty years will all take it too fast and make nonsense of it; and the public—oh, heavens, what are they to make of this chaos of which new worlds are forever being engendered?” The beautiful Adagietto serves also as a kind of introduction to the last movement. Richard Strauss was strangely unimpressed with the Adagietto: “At the dress rehearsal, your Fifth Symphony again brought me great pleasure, which was dimmed for me only by the little Adagietto. It serves you right that precisely that movement was liked the most by the audience. The first two movements especially are quite splendid; the ingenious Scherzo seemed a bit too long. How much this is the fault of the inadequate performance is beyond my judgment.” In the Fifth (especially the final movement), Mahler explored the counterpoint of multiple lines more than he had in previous works. Once, walking with the conductor Bruno Walter at a country fair, he remarked, “Do you hear that? That’s polyphony—and that’s where I get it from…That is how—from a lot of different sources—the themes must come, and like this they must be entirely different from each other in rhythm and melody—and anything else if only part writing and disguised homophony. What the artist has to do is to organize them into an intelligible entity.”
We return to Leonard Bernstein for a closing remark about Mahler. Bernstein, perhaps more than any other major conductor of our time, championed Mahler and showed us his greatness. Until the 1960s, Mahler was regarded as a second- (even third-) rate composer. Mahler himself feared that his music would not be understood until years after his death, and it seems he was right. After his first rehearsal of the Fifth (which did not go well), he wrote: “What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of flashing breakers? Oh, that I might give my symphony its first performance fifty years after my death!”
How did we get it so wrong for so many years? Why did it take us so long to appreciate Mahler? Here is one musician’s answer:
This dual vision of Mahler’s, which tore him apart all his life, is the vision we have come to perceive in his music. This is what Mahler meant when he said, ‘My time will come.’ It is only after fifty, sixty, seventy years of world holocausts, of the simultaneous advance of democracy with our increasing inability to stop making war, of the simultaneous magnification of national pieties with intensification of resistance to social inequity—only after we have experienced all this through the smoking ovens of Auschwitz, the frantically bombed jungles of Vietnam, through Hungary, Suez, the Bay of Pigs, the farce trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel, the refueling of the Nazi machine, the murder in Dallas, the arrogance of South Africa, the Hiss-Chambers travesty, the Trotzkyite purges, Black Power, Red Guards, the Arab encirclement of Israel, the Plague of McCarthyism, the Tweedledum armament race—only after all this can we finally listen to Mahler’s music and understand that it foretold all. And in the foretelling, it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equaled since.