Thursday, April 28, 2011

Brahms Brahms Brahms

The Harrisburg Symphony's next Masterworks Concert – May 14th & 15th at the Forum – is called “Brahms Brahms Brahms” which implies there's lots of Brahms' music on the program. You could say it's a kind of All-Brahms Program – but I'll let maestro Stuart Malina explain his “Brahms Fan-Fare” that opens the program when get a chance to chat about the concert. But yes, certainly, one of the greatest violin concertos and one of the greatest symphonies ever composed, on one program...? Not only is a lot of great Brahms, it's a lot of great music.

In addition to an upcoming post about the concerto which Odin Rathnam will perform, celebrating his 20th season as the orchestra's concertmaster, there'll also be a post about the 1st Symphony on my blog, Thoughts on a Train – a transcript of my pre-concert talk from several seasons ago – which gets into the whole complicated business behind why it took Brahms so many years to complete this symphony.

Depending on the sources you read, some say 25 or 21 or 14. The problem is, we don't know exactly when he started working on the piece we know as the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. We know he finished it during the summer of 1876, but actually beginning it is another matter.

We know the first idea Brahms wrote down for what was his first attempt at writing a symphony happened in February, 1853 (the year of this portrait - see above, left). Eventually that turned itself into the D Minor Piano Concerto. Other works either started out as sketches for a symphony before becoming “studies for writing a symphony” but in 1862, Brahms sent Clara Schumann the rough draft of what would become the first movement of the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (without its famous introduction) but which he said, vaguely, was based on “earlier sketches.” So when exactly he began work on it, who knows?

The point is, we know he spent at least 14 years on it, from beginning to end. Considering Mahler wrote his monumentally lengthy 3rd Symphony (heard at the April concert) during two summer holidays – essentially all but the first movement in 1895 and then the long first movement in 1896 – one wonders why it took Brahms so long.

You'll be able to read that in my other post.

This post is actually about Brahms' thoughts about composing, something he rarely ever talked about. I mean, he didn't have somebody like John Clare to ask him, “so, how do you compose – what's the process like, for you?” And he also had very few composition students that he confided in (or at least who bothered to write them down).

These comments are taken from Jan Swafford's thoroughly readable and wonderfully enlightening biography simply called “Johannes Brahms: A Biography” and they were made to Brahms' student, George Henschel a German-born singer and composer who would later become the first conductor of the Boston Symphony. Henschel met Brahms in 1874 at a music festival where Henschel was singing in a Handel oratorio and Brahms was conducting another program. If not actually a “composition student” of Brahms, Henschel was one of several young composers whom Brahms liked to discuss the craft or art of composition, either during a long walks or sitting around with him at dinners or, as Swafford says, sitting there “trembling as [Brahms] went through their music page by (usually defective) page.”

Fortunately Henschel was one who decided to keep a record of some of these conversations which he then published in 1907 as “Personal Recollections of Johannes Brahms” ten years after the composer's death. (Henschel's portrait – see right – was painted three years after this particular encounter with Brahms.)

At Koblenz in 1876, they both appeared as soloists on the orchestra's program and Brahms had played Schumann's Piano Concerto very badly during the rehearsal: always one who hated the idea of practicing, it sometimes came back to haunt him. The performance, apparently, went better than expected – Henschel had found Brahms alone in the concert hall beforehand, “red-faced with frustration as he belabored the piano. 'Really, this is too bad,' Brahms groaned.”

On the train from Koblenz to their next stop – Wiesbaden – Brahms opened up and talked shop with young Henschel.

“There is no real creating without hard work. What you can call invention, which is to say a thought, an idea, is simply an inspiration from above for which I am not responsible... It is a present, a gift, which even ought to despise until I've made it myown by dint of hard work. And there doesn't have to be any hurry about that... it germinates unconsciously and in spite of ourselves. For instance, when I've found the first phrase of a song [and here, Brahms hummed a few notes from the opening of his song, “Die Mainacht”], I might shut the book there and then, go for a walk, do some other work and maybe not think about it again for months. Nothing, however, is lost. If afterward I approach the subject again, it is sure to have taken shape; now I can begin to really work at it. But there are composers who sit at the piano with a poem before them, putting music to it from A to Z until it's done. They write themselves into a state of enthusiasm that makes them see something finished, something important in ever bar.”

Where Schubert or Schumann would characteristically dash off a song in a single sitting, Brahms avoided this kind of spontaneity – perhaps especially because Schumann's prediction about his being the Heir to Beethoven had strangled the possibility of not being anything less than perfect.

In the 18th Century, composers were regarded as craftsmen and their art as a result of their craftsmanship. In the 19th Century, with Beethoven, especially, the creation of a work of art was given over to the immediacy of inspiration, regardless of the fact Beethoven might take months or even years to work out the details of a piece in his notebooks, even if they were initially inspired “by the moment.”

Though we know that Mozart often worked things out in his head before putting pen to paper, we also know – now – that many of his sketches were lost and often assumed (part of the Mozart Myth) to be non-existent.

Brahms was a firm believer in the role of the unconscious – perhaps even before Freud had theorized about it. Brahms, however, burned all his sketches and notebooks

At another time, Brahms told Henschel, looking over some of his newly composed songs,

“In some... you seem to me too easily satisfied. One should never forget that by actually perfecting one piece one gains and learns more than by starting or half-finishing a dozen. Let it rest, let it rest, and keep going back to it and working it over and over again, until... there is not a note too many or too little, not a bar you could improve on. Whether it's beautiful too, is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be. ...I never cool down over a work, once begun, until it's perfected, unassailable.”

It's interesting to note Brahms was telling Henschel this as he was putting the finishing touches on his first symphony whether you count it as having been 14 years' work since he completed the first draft of the C Minor Symphony's first movement or 25 years since he started jotting down ideas intended to become part of the first symphony he would attempt!

For Brahms, this meant two things: craft is logical and must be perfect – only then can its expressive qualities be beautiful. Without both, however, it would fail to come close to perfection (which, of course, he realized was unattainable, but as close to it as it was possible to get).

True, many audiences are going to be drawn in by the beauty first rather than its logic, but without a logic foundation, there was nothing to support it. “Even if he made considerable demands on his listeners,” Swafford writes, “even if he never coddled them in his big pieces, he still never forgot their feelings or his own. He made sure the warmth stayed in his work. But he would never admit it.”

That may have been part of the problem behind that first symphony – considering he was to be the Heir of Beethoven (insert famous quote about “hearing the tread of a giant behind you” here) and that sense of perfection may have robbed us of many more works a lesser composer would have been willing to release.

But Brahms didn't want to “learn the craft of symphony-writing” by turning out a number of half-baked symphonies before he finally managed “one good enough.” In addition to the years behind the C Minor Symphony, there is the statement that he had written enough music for twenty string quartets before he completed the one that he finally published as his first. This statement is usually misunderstood to imply he wrote twenty string quartets and threw them out before deciding on publishing the one that survived: while it's probably an exaggeration on Brahms' part, writing that much music, however, is not far fetched.

Back to Henschel:

“In writing songs,” Brahms told him, “you must endeavor to invent, simultaneously with the melody, a healthy, powerful bass... Then, my dear friend, let me counsel you: no heavy dissonances on the unaccented parts of the bar, please... I'm very fond of dissonances, you'll agree, but on the heavy, accented parts of the bar, then let them be resolved easily and gently.”

Now, granted, Brahms is advising a young composer who is composing songs, not symphonies. If you looked at those few surviving sketches Brahms made, you'll see “he worked out the continuity of a piece largely in terms of unbroken melody and bass line (with an almost obsessive preference for the two in contrary motion), then added the inner voices, textures and instrumental colors.”

Brahms was a morning composer and many times, after working on the symphony's finale, “talking shop” was the last thing he wanted to do. But he and Henschel took long walks along the beach – they were staying on an island in northern Germany in the Baltic Sea – where Brahms also taught Henschel how to swim underwater with his eyes open so they could amuse themselves looking for coins and colored pebbles.

One time, Brahms and Henschel walked “across the moors to listen what he called his bullfrog pond.”

“Can you imagine anything more sad and melancholy than this music? Here we can understand the origin opf fairy tales about enchanted pricnes and princesses. Listen! There he is again, the poor King's son with his yearning, mournful C-flat!”

Sharing a hotel room on of their outtings, Henschel had to vacate the room, fleeing Brahms' “symphonic snoring.” When Brahms woke up and realized why Henschel had left, he told him “really, why didn't you throw a boot at me?”

At another time, both of them visited a composer”of popular but thin music who habitually worked all day long.” Henschel doesn't identify him: Swafford says it was Joachim Raff. When Raff's wife told Brahms she had tried to get her husband to break his work-schedule to give himself at least two hours a day away from composing – taking a walk with his daughter, for instance – Brahms earnestly agreed. “Oh that's good, that's very good!” Only Henschel got the real meaning behind his statement.

Henschel also left a description of Brahms from this time (seen here in a portrait dated 1872): “He was the sort with whom you use the word splendid: handome and ruddy of face, rambunctious when you caught him on the right day, a lusty eater who attcked his plate with manifest pleasure and likesie the accompanying mugs of beer and Kaffee afterward.” He stood out in a crowd with his “vigorous rocking gait, soft hat in hand, waistcoat unbuttoned, the wool-flannel Jäger shirt collarless whenever possible: the archetypal tie-hater.”

It was around the time he completed (finally) the 1st Symphony that Brahms also began growing a beard. It is difficult for us to imagine him a young man without it. But even like his music, he would not settle for just the first beard he grew.

By the end of 1878 – in the two intervening years, he had now composed his 2nd Symphony in a mere four months and his Violin Concerto – Brahms also started his third beard!

Asked why he grew one, he would say “with a shaved chin, people take you for either an actor or a priest.” He was delighted to discover that “whiskers made him almost unrecognizable.” Introducing himself solemnly to friends as Kapellmeister Müller from Braunschweig, he would see how long it took them to realize they were talking to Johannes Brahms. Once, Gustav Nottebohm (famous for his edition of Beethoven's sketchbooks) “spent an entire evening in polite conversation with Kapellmeister Müller.”

Brahms was 20 when he met Robert Schumann who hailed him as Beethoven's Heir. Twenty-five years later, after finally completing his first symphony – hailed as “Beethoven's 10th” – Brahms changed his appearance perhaps to match his new-found security: the boyish-looking Brahms “sank once and for all behind the patriarchal mask. Brahms' face became as magisterial and enigmatic as the outer face of his music.”

“The disguise,” Swafford concludes, “was complete at last.”

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On Hearing Mahler's Third Live in the Forum

What an awful night for a concert - between 3-4" of rain before it was over, lots of road closings, flooded streams and basements, not to mention struggling to get from parking your car to the dry haven of the Forum without looking like a drowned rat. Even the conductor, Stuart Malina, joked afterwards how he didn't even feel like driving out in this downpour!

And yet the audience braved the storm to sit through a performance of a long, involved symphony by Gustav Mahler which clocked in at about an hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission. Yes, there were those who left at the end of the third movement or who chose not to sit through the final slow movement - there was a woman in front of me who got up in a huff and left just before the concert started, upon realizing there would be no intermission!

But for the most part, the audience sat totally mesmerized during the performance of Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 3 - whether it was the long slow stretches of the off-stage trumpet solo (speaking of rapturous) or the finale's emotional, slowly unfolding hymn to God's love (usually about 25 minutes long, itself). By the final moments, you could sense the entire audience leaning forward, quietly attentive - and there was not a pin to be heard dropping the entire time.

At the end of the third movement, as the chorus and the soloist were added to the already crowded stage, the friend sitting with me looked at his watch and was surprised it was already 9:15. He said he'd figured it was probably 8:45, at least...

For once in my life, I was never conscious of aches or pains induced from prolonged sitting in those uncomfortable Forum seats, even at the end of the concert.

At the end, the audience was quick to rise and cheer with prolonged ovations for the orchestra and its conductor, for individual performers (like principal trombonist Brent Philips, principal trumpet Phil Snedecor, the entire horn section and concertmaster Odin Rathnam), for mezzo soloist Layna Chianakas, for the Susquehanna Children's Chorale and the women of the Messiah College Concert Choir and their directors, Linda Tedford and Judith Shepler - and presumably for Gustav Mahler's amazing composition, as well.

It was not, unfortunately, selling well, as far as the box office was concerned, a major issue for the orchestra's income, especially given the budget required by such a large orchestra. Granted, at-the-door sales were likely dampened by one of those Old Testament Weather Patterns that hit the area again that day, but those who braved the elements to hear the performance were apparently excited to have been there.

Getting them -- especially people new to Mahler -- in the door is the problem. Some people I'd talked to who balked at the idea of sitting through such a long piece may not realize they would sit through something just as long if they went to a movie theater, with or without a chance to visit a restroom once it started.

And I can't imagine when the last time was I went to a movie that was as good as hearing Mahler's Third live!

Fortunately, I get to hear it again today at 3:00, since I'm giving the pre-concert talk an hour earlier.

You can read David Dunkle's Patriot-News review of last night's performance, here.

I've posted my pre-concert talk on-line at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's Mahler Time: The PodCast

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony performs Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3, certainly one of the longest symphonies in the standard repertoire and one that doesn't get performed all that often. It's safe to say that any performance of it is “an event.”

Stuart Malina took some time out of his schedule to chat with me about why this symphony is something you shouldn't miss.

You can hear our PODCAST here.

You can also read my account of the world premiere of Mahler's symphony back in 1902, how the audience responded to what you have the chance to hear this weekend.

The performances are this Saturday (April 16th) at 8pm and Sunday (April 17th) at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Come an hour early to take in the pre-concert talk which I'll be offering (free to any ticket-holder) an hour before each performance.

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You can catch MAHLER MADNESS and receive a 50% discount if you haven't already bought a ticket for these concerts by calling the Harrisburg Symphony Box Office - (717) 545-5527 - just ask for the Mahler Madness Discount! Tell them you saw it on the blog!
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Okay, it's true, a symphony that is just long doesn't make it great. Just because there's over 100 musicians on the stage (plus a vocal soloist and women's and children's choruses) doesn't necessarily make it an event.

Mahler was 26 when he completed the Third Symphony. A year later, three movements (the all-orchestral ones other than the first) were performed in Berlin (to not very positive responses) but it took another five years until Mahler could get a complete performance for its official world premiere. By then, he was almost 32 (see illustration, left, a drawing made that year). Though a respected (if controversial) conductor, this performance was the one that helped make his career as a composer.

His original intent, as Stuart and I discuss in the podcast, was to give a specific program to each of the movements, creating a kind of cosmological ladder from beginning to end. In the first movement, he describes the arrival of summer, the awakening of Pan, a festive march to honor him (or Bacchus) including a thunderstorm and a rousing celebration. The last to be composed, this movement is also as long as a typical symphony in its entirety written a hundred years earlier.

(By the way, the symphony is usually performed without intermission, so you may want to be aware of this and visit the restrooms before the concert begins...)

The next series of movements were originally given titles: "What the flowers of the field tell me." "What the animals of the forest tell me." "What mankind tells me." "What the Angels tell me." And "What Love tells me."

The 4th movement is a song for the alto (or mezzo) soloist, settings words of Friedrich Nietzsche, a poem taken from "Also sprach Zarathustra," one of the major works of German literature at the time, and written only ten years earlier. Part of the irony, here, is that while Nietzsche adopted a biblical style to promote ideas that were fundamentally opposed to Christian and Jewish morality - the idea that "God is Dead" actually came from a different work - and believed himself "godless and antimetaphysical," Mahler believed strongly in metaphysics, the transcendental and in the existence of God.

The 5th Movement with its pealing of bells and exuberant folk song is tied in with a song Mahler composed a few years earlier - "The Heavenly Life," a child's vision of heaven - and which originally was going to be the symphony's last movement (before he had decided to place the great Adagio there). But a seventh movement seemed unrealistic - entitled "What the Child Tells Me," this became the finale of his next symphony.

Though not originally at the end of the symphony, Mahler's eventual decision to conclude with a slow movement was unusual if not unprecedented (Beethoven had done it in his last piano sonata but a symphony is another matter.) Entitled "What Love Tells Me," his sense of "love," here, is more spiritual, God-like love rather than human emotional and physical passion, especially in light of the Nietzschean connections listeners might make from his use of the text in the 4th movement. Despite the tempo, it is a powerful, uplifting conclusion, if not a boisterously happy ending then a transfigured one.

When Stuart and I were recording our chat, he mentioned that Richard Strauss had also used Nietzsche's "Also sprach Zarathustra" as the basis of one of his most famous tone-poems. Thinking about this as I was driving home, I wondered when these two works were composed: Mahler wrote his song-setting for the symphony in the summer of 1895. Richard Strauss wrote his tone-poem on "Zarathustra" in 1896 and premiered it later that year. By the time Mahler's symphony was premiered in 1902, Strauss' tone poem would have already been quite familiar to the audience.

It's also interesting that, while Mahler sketched numerous plans for his symphony - this program with the  movements' titles - by the time he came to premiere the work, he had changed his mind and forbid the publication of the programmatic details and its titles.

However he felt about it while writing the piece and whatever prompted him to suppress these ideas later, he did relent in 1907, the last time he conducted the third symphony himself, allowing the titles back into the printed program.

Whether they help you "understand" the symphony or not, the music can exist on its own level without them. For some, it's helpful on the journey, like following sign-posts. For others, it doesn't matter or may even prove distracting. That is, after all, one aspect of Art - that it can survive on several levels simultaneously.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Attending the World Premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 3

If you’re wondering what it’s like to attend a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 which the Harrisburg Symphony will perform on April 16th & 17th at the Forum on their April “Masterworks” Concert, here are some excerpts from a 1974 performance with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.

But first, let’s take a trip back in time to its world premiere almost 110 years ago and find out what people thought of this contemporary music they were hearing so early in a new century.

(Much of the information here is found in Henri-Louis de la Grange’s monumental four-volume biography of Mahler, particularly in Volume 2: Vienna: the Years of Challenge (1897-1904). )

It is 1902, a Monday evening – June 9th, to be exact – in the Rhineland town of Krefeld, Germany, and Gustav Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is about to be heard for the first time, at least in its entirety. He had composed it during the summers of 1895 and 1896, but one thing after another – including the premiere of the 2nd Symphony (his “Resurrection” Symphony) and the composing of the 4th Symphony – intervened.

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to a performance was the sheer size and scope of the piece: six movements totaling nearly an hour and a half of music. Mahler admitted the score was “difficult and unusual,” and would need additional rehearsal time.

On the basis of having heard only three movements – the 2nd, 3rd and last movements – played a year after it was completed, the critics in Berlin labeled Mahler a “lunatic” and “megalomaniac.” Given their reaction to the length of the final Adagio, that great concluding slow movement (which runs about 25 minutes long), what will they think when they hear the first movement which by itself is over a half hour long?

For the premiere, the next-to-last concert of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein’s ‘summer’ festival in 1902 which would present several new works, Mahler demanded two full days of rehearsal time with the full orchestra in Cologne (the orchestra consisted of the orchestra in Krefeld and included musicians from the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne and elsewhere), followed by two further three- and four-hour rehearsals before the final “general” (what we’d call the “dress”) rehearsal that began at 9am on the morning of the concert.

The musicians were ill-disposed toward Mahler, having read disparaging articles about him and his music in the Viennese press. However, as the rehearsals progressed, they apparently experienced a “conversion on the road to Damascus,” joining in with the enthusiastic applause following the concert.

Many people were curious – not always in a positive sense – and there were those who were concerned about the “gigantism” of the symphony: its length and the size of the orchestra. One composer in the audience wondered how a “short inoffensive piece” like his Overture would survive being smothered by “Mahlerian cacophonies and other superhuman music.”

Mahler’s supporters were expecting “a major event in the history of music” (no pressure, there) while others anticipated a “comic turn.”

Long before the 8pm start-time, the hall was already filled to overflowing. In addition to the local audience, there were a large number of people (including musicians and critics) who’d come from around the region and, in fact, all over Germany – including the composer Richard Strauss, the Dutch conductor Willem Mengleberg.

As the performance unfolded, critics observed the conductor.

“This necromancer in his badly tailored coat,… this swarthy little man with his narrow lips and clean-shaven chin, looks like a defrocked priest but has the superhuman calm of a snake charmer facing his cobras; a tuft of stiff black hair crests his dolichocephalic skull as he hypnotizes his wild orchestra – staring up at him with pale faces – with a single glance from his jet-black eyes, as sharp as vipers’ tongues, taming, rousing or subduing the unleashed dragons with the tip of a small hazelwood baton, the wand of those who conjure up the devil.” – William Ritter, Swiss critic

“Small in stature, uncertain of gait and with a stoop, searching, short-sighted eyes behind big lenses, and the violent gestures of a nervous man – but on the podium suddenly a different man, erect, his gestures now calm and assured, a conductor possessing great authority. Unforgettable his lovely phrasing, the care with which he prepares each climax, his iron command of rhythms, his sharp separation of the musical periods, his enthusiasm! …Without the slightest scruple of any kind he exercises his right to follow his creative urge freely and without concern. Neither in his choice of means nor in the way he uses them does he pay the slightest attention to conventions.” – Siebmacher Zijnen, Dutch critic, Rotterdam Courant

(Yeah, they don’t write reviews like that any more! And when was they last time any of you used “dolichocephalic” in a sentence?)

Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the opening of the 1st Movement:

During the course of the long first movement, with its wild contrasts, fanfares and marches, the audience listened in a breathless hush, followed at the conclusion by a burst of applause. Richard Strauss strode through the hall, going up to the podium to shout his approval which only increased the audience’s enthusiasm.

There was a ten-minute intermission, as La Grange continues to describe it, “the excitement steadily increased throughout each successive movement and the Finale was listened to from start to finish with rapt attention.”

“After so many dazzling wonders, there was more to come! This man’s inexhaustible verve never ceases to perform new miracles. Not one moment’s boredom, not one second of fatigue! The great kaleidoscope of sound functioned all through this unique work. One was never, never tempted to slacken one’s attention. The stunning impact of the first movement was followed by unending enchantment.” – William Ritter.

Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic with Christa Ludwig, the women of the Vienna Opera Chorus and the Vienna Choir Boys in the brief 5th Movement:

Of the final Adagio, Ritter wrote, “perhaps the greatest Adagio written since Beethoven.”

Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the opening of the Adagio:

The audience rose and cheered at the end of the concert, many rushing toward the stage, others staying at their seats waving handkerchiefs. Mahler was called back to the podium “at least twelve times.” The local newspaper reported “the thunderous ovation lasted no less than fifteen minutes.”

One newspaper wrote Mahler had followed a “singular and new” path. He “had managed to touch and move the audience with an original genius which expressed itself in clear and intelligible musical language.”

This same anonymous critic felt that “if [music’s] more powerful effects are piled on one another, as is so frequently the case in the first movement, to the extent that they exceed the limits of music, then one is justified in asking what it is all about,… [as it's] likely to bewilder and deter an audience… Yet [the movement] is full of significance and it is worthwhile making the effort to follow its musical construction.”

In the Finale, he continued, “it is not easy to follow the profusion of interwoven themes; motifs in various keys are often strung together without transition. The polyphony is magnificent and the coloring unusual and rich.” Mahler had “a quite exceptional talent, a wealth of inspiration and an admirable command of the orchestra.”

Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the middle section of the Finale:

Another anonymous critic wrote in the famous periodical, the Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung, that he had always disliked Mahler’s works because he found the “huge means” they required were in “inverse ratio” to what they contained, with their “partly grotesque, partly trivial and frivolous” details and “atrocious cacophonies” (speaking of Mahler’s earlier works). Here, the first movement, he said, confirmed his impression, sometimes soaring but also sinking to “the most incomprehensible platitudes.” What, he wondered, was this “terrifying chaos of notes, the ear-splitting dissonance and the bizarre instrumental effects” (one can especially imagine him scrunching up his face during the symphony’s first few minutes with its weird fanfares, crunching brass punctuation and trombone glissandos bringing to mind a wounded dragon).

But by the time he reached the Adagio, he writes that it “rises to heights which situate this movement among the most sublime in all symphonic literature. …Only a genius could have created such a movement in which powerful and fervent emotions are expressed with incomparable nobility.”

Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the conclusion of the Adagio:

If the townspeople and the musicians had regarded Mahler with misgiving before the concert, he was acclaimed “as a victor and conquering hero” afterwards.

Many felt the symphony was “novel and disconcerting, both exalting and bizarre: its dimensions were gigantic but so was its content!”

Without being provided a ‘programme,’ explaining what the music was “about,” several critics said that Mahler deprived the audience of an easier chance to grasp its meaning. (This is, naturally, a huge argument since the piece was conceived with a very detailed program and pictorial titles for each movement when he completed the work in 1896 but by 1901, he had turned completely around and decided to suppress such information. I’ll be posting more about this on the blog and discussing the program in my pre-concert talk.)

Still, the critic for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik felt the first movement was a vast celebration of Nature that left listeners totally enraptured. “It was difficult to imagine anything more enchanting than the second movement.” Of the fourth movement (the alto solo’s “Night Song”), he wrote of its “mysterious and sublime atmosphere” as it “grips our hearts… as though a voice from eternity were speaking to us.” The unexpected transition to the naïve folk-like fifth movement, a miniature with its rollicking children’s chorus imitating bells, was “surprising, even bizarre… Only a bungler or a genius would do a thing like that.”

And the finale: “intoxicating, overwhelming shattering in its sublime splendor,… perhaps the most beautiful [movement] of all.”

To return to the Dutch critic, Siebmacher Zijnen:

“In his invention of themes he often proves amazingly skillful. In his juxtaposition of materials made up of very diverse elements, in connecting and developing them he shows a rare originality which the public likes him for. Even those who would rather not say whether the obviously exciting orchestral means employed correspond to the inner content of the composition and can therefore be considered ‘genuine’ – even they find themselves roused by the tremendous sound effects and then captivated by the naivety and folk inspiration which comes at them as different pages of the score are turned.”

As a result of this triumph, Mahler found his career as a composer taking on a new era: Mengelberg immediately invited him to conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam the next year and several German towns vied for the chance to perform the Third Symphony (in Dresden, the Adagio had to be encored).

Mahler now found he didn’t need to go begging to publishers to consider his music: he could choose the highest bidder.

Incidentally, the concert proved to be the making of a major career move for the orchestra’s principal trombonist, a young man named Franz Dreyer from Dresden who so impressed Mahler with his solos during the first movement, Mahler immediately hired him for the orchestra in Vienna. The trombonist’s colleagues were joking with the conductor, saying that Dreyer was “nothing but trouble.”

Mahler told them, “We get trouble every day in Vienna but I’m not hiring him to make trouble – I’m hiring him to play the trombone and I’ll never get another trombone player like him. So I’m taking him to Vienna with me.”

And there was also the reaction of his wife, Alma, whom he’d married only in early March that year and who was already pregnant with their daughter, Anna. “Incredibly agitated” after the performance, she now knew her husband was a great genius and feeling her child stir within her for the first time, she wept tears of happiness as she “vowed that from now on she would live for him alone.”

After the concert, Mahler and his wife, joining his sister and her husband, went for dinner where they ran into Richard Strauss who had been so instrumental in organizing this concert with the Festival and who had been so vociferously supportive at the end of the first movement. By turns mutual supporters as well as rivals, Strauss had inexplicably left right after the performance without saying anything to Mahler. At the restaurant, he “merely shook his hand casually and said not a word.” As a result, Mahler was so upset and hurt, he could only sit in silence during the meal despite the overwhelming public response.

And ten days later, Mahler left for the countryside where he spent the rest of the summer completing his next work, his 5th Symphony.

- Dick Strawser

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German translations: Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein = “General German Music Club,” a concert-presenting organization for New German music founded in 1861 by Franz Liszt. Strauss had become the organizations President in 1901.
Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung = “General Music Journal,” one of the major music magazines, based in Berlin.
Neue Zeitschrift für Musik = "New Journal for Music," one of the leading music journals in German, had been founded in Leipzig by Robert Schumann in 1834 and later became part of the publisher Schott, still publishing today.