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.

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