Monday, April 15, 2013

Mahler and the Premiere of his 5th Symphony: What the Critics Tell Me

The Harrisburg Symphony performs Mahler's 5th Symphony
Hopefully, you got a chance to hear the Harrisburg Symphony’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 this weekend – a remarkable performance, I thought (though I’m biased, I can be very picky about certain things, especially Mahler), especially considered the stamina required after a grueling schedule with three rehearsals on Thursday and Friday, a dress rehearsal on Saturday straddling the noon hour, an all-out performance Saturday night and another one on Sunday afternoon. Playing any piece that clocks in at an hour and ten minutes can put demands on your concentration, but one that requires a huge amount of energy – and not just in the loud parts – can be physically as well as mentally exhausting.

Not to mention playing another “big blow” on the first half, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which, though only 20 minutes by comparison, is usually enough of a blast that it normally ends a concert, not opens it!

Obsessed as I am with Mahler – which one rarely gets to hear live (and played well, at that) outside the major cities of the world – I sat in at the rehearsals and found myself wondering, “what did musicians do in 1904 when they were faced with such difficult music for the first time?" They would have never heard the piece before or played what today we could consider standard repertoire from the 20th Century like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (still TBA in Mahler’s day). Though we might have fewer 'facts' about the audience's reactions, what did the critics think?

(I apologize for the title's reference to what is actually Mahler's Third Symphony with its movement originally given titles like "What the flowers tell me" and so on...)

Once again, I dipped into Henri-Louis de la Grange’s mammoth Mahler biography – this time, Volume III which, in its 1,000 pages, covers only the years 1904 to 1907 (which he subtitled “Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion”) – to see what I could find out about those early performances.

First of all, just because Mahler’s first four symphonies had already been completed, published and premiered didn’t mean they had entered the repertoire – or that every performance was a good performance to help further the composer’s casue. Works like the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies were epic in scope and size which, even without getting into their technical demands, made for limited opportunities. For instance, though the 3rd had been completed in 1896, it wasn’t heard in its entirety until it was premiered in the small German city of Krefeld in 1902 (by which time Mahler was ready to resume work on the last two movements of his 5th Symphony. (You can read about the 3rd’s premiere, here.)

Subsequent performances were rare but one performance in 1903 in Cologne – presumably well performed and more importantly well received by both orchestra and audience – prompted Mahler to consider that city and its orchestra for the premiere of his newest and most difficult symphony yet.

Typically, Mahler would read through a new symphony of his with the Vienna Philharmonic where, at the time, he’d been music director. But since his resignation for reasons of health in 1901 following his near-death experience with a massive hemorrhage [see the end of Part I], things had not been going well between him and the orchestra. His resignation had been met with considerable relief on the part of many musicians who considered him too challenging a task-master (they chose as his successor the one least likely to challenge them as much) and there were other managerial issues as well, not the least of which he still conducted the same orchestra when it served as the “pit orchestra” for the Vienna Court Opera (the Imperial equivalent of what is now usually called the Vienna State Opera). Still, his brother-in-law, recently married to his sister Justine, was the orchestra’s concertmaster and he proposed to the committee for such things that Mahler be given two – not one, but two – rehearsals to try out his new 5th Symphony in 1904. The musicians agreed to this – and surprisingly to doing it without a fee – and so Mahler prepared to take the 5th out for a test-run.

His new publisher, Peters (managed by Henri Hinrichsen at the time), had offered Mahler generous terms for his 5th following the impressive premiere of his 4th and 3rd symphonies (in that order), and they produced a “miniature score” or study score of the piece to help musicians and critics (and potential conductors) become familiar with the piece. Another standard procedure in such publications was creating a piano reduction – usually for piano duet with two people (four-hands) sharing the bench – which enabled anyone to play through the work, especially helpful given that recording technology did not exist then.

One of the people who’d gotten such a score was the composer Josef Förster who had stopped by Mahler’s office at the Opera and, since Mahler was not in at the moment, who sat down to while away the wait by improvising at the piano. He had worked in some bits he remembered from Mahler’s new score when Mahler himself came back and was quite surprised to hear this: after all, it hadn’t been played, yet, not even rehearsed!

“What do you think you’re playing!? That’s the opening of my new symphony!”

When Förster explained, they both had a good laugh about it. When the read-through was later scheduled, Mahler sent him an invitation to attend the closed session.

La Grange also includes an anecdote about another attendee at that session, the critic Ludwig Karpath (at the time, one of the Viennese critics likely to be in Mahler’s camp: later, they would have a nasty falling-out) who sneaked into the hall and hid himself within the organ console (sitting on a freshly painted step and ruining his jacket in the process).

Karpath wrote to a friend, describing the experience, that

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“The symphony lasted exactly an hour and a half. That is actual playing time, without any pauses. It is clear; without any artifice. Of course, that applies only to modern ears but even the ‘older ones’ will hardly be able to complain of extravagances. I haven’t time to go into detail… but there is an Adagio… for strings only and it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard in my life. It is not only the beauty of the sound that captivates but more the tender intimacy of a great melody that has no end and simply overwhelms you. So full of sweetness, exaltation, and nostalgia that tears poured from my eyes. I’ve no reason to be ashamed of them, especially as no one saw them. Please keep this to yourself, too.”
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There was another listener in the hall, the young woman whom Mahler had met and married during the months between those two summers spent composing the symphony [see Part III].

Alma Mahler was herself a composer, having studied with Alexander von Zemlinsky (technically, she did more than study with him, but we needn’t go into that, here), and even though she had promised to give up composing when she married Mahler – we needn’t go into that, here, either – she was enough of a musician to be able to assist her husband in copying his draft into the final manuscript to be sent to the publisher. And while she might complain about her lot as a housekeeper and copyist – and, subsequently, as a mother, after their first daughter was born a few months after Mahler finished the symphony – Alma insisted that her primary role was to love and support the genius who could write such music.

But she left this one read-through in tears, apparently distraught about the impact of the percussion writing during the opening movement, the funeral procession that is frequently accompanied by bass drum, cymbal, side drum and gong which Alma thought was far too loud and overpowering. She writes that for some time she was sobbing so much she couldn’t explain the problem to her husband: “You have written a symphony for percussion!” But, she continued, he laughed, picked up the score and crossed out most of the side-drum part and half the percussion with a red pencil.

Curiously, there’s no indication Mahler ever suggested such changes to the publisher when he revised the score in preparation for its publication, but that’s another story.

But yes, even though Mahler was an expert conductor and an experienced performer of his own music – not just an isolated composer writing in the ivory tower of his studio somewhere – he still had reservations about his orchestration skills – in other words, how he wrote for the orchestra.

(Having survived a few courses in orchestration over the years, myself, it is more than just making sure you’ve written things within the range-limits of a given instrument – not writing a violin part that would take it below the tuning of the lowest string or taking the English horn too uncomfortably high for its upper register (use a regular oboe, instead, they would advise) – or even written things that are comfortably playable on the instruments in terms of passages that “lie well” for the fingerings of a clarinet or viola, but balancing different instruments so that a background line in the brass doesn’t drown out the woodwinds in the foreground (understanding how dynamics play a role in the way instruments will sound in the hall). Since Mahler’s symphony is full of contrapuntal textures – especially in the scherzo and finale – dynamic markings play a key part in clarifying the dense textures he writes.

When the musicians were reading through the individual movements at our recent rehearsals, the texture often sounded muddy and ponderous. But Stuart would go back and fix things, usually saying things like “when Mahler writes piano [soft], play it really piano or even softer: somebody else may have a forte here, but you have to stay down” so as not to cover (or swamp) the other parts. Playing the passage over again, it’s amazing how, suddenly, everything becomes clear and lighter and tends to drag less if it’s a fast passage, especially in all those “scrubbing” passages where the strings play endless eighth-notes under the themes, particularly in the fugal sections in the Finale.

Mahler would make corrections to his dynamic markings in particular from concert to concert, it turned out, and often these might be indications for a particular orchestra in a particular hall. Some place more resonant might require a different approach to dynamics than a drier hall. This can prove maddening to conductors who sometimes wonder what to do with their orchestra in their hall, but that also in a story for another time…

Suffice it to say, from the reading session and the impending premiere performance, Mahler was well on his way to constantly making numerous revisions in such details – not just dynamics but also doublings between instruments, sometimes made to strengthen a line that, maybe, doesn’t need strengthening after all – making almost every subsequent performance a “new edition.” He continued to make such revisions to his 5th Symphony until the time he died in 1911, hoping to find a solution to his “orchestration problem,” and as recently as a decade ago, conductors were still trying to come up with a “definitive edition” of the 5th, if such a thing is even possible.

Anyway, back to the 5th’s premiere.

The question of where the first performance would be given was a big question for the composer and his publisher. It wasn’t a question of doing it in Vienna with his own orchestra because, technically, he didn’t have his own orchestra: he conducted the Opera which only gave symphonic concerts as the Vienna Philharmonic with which he was no longer officially associated. Plus, he had too many enemies, speaking of office politics, between the orchestra’s management and its players to feel he’d get a good performance from them. Then there were the critics, most of whom were quite open about their animosity toward him – some of its anti-Semitism having nothing to do with the artistic qualities – not just as an often controversial conductor and director of the Opera but especially as a composer.

However, perhaps there was a chill in the air, Mahler felt during the summer of 1904 when he was finishing up his newest symphony, the 6th. The possibility of a Vienna premiere was encouraging: they had agreed to perform the 3rd in Vienna, so that might bode well for the 5th’s reception. On that account, Peters prepared the miniature score and Mahler had the proofs returned to the publisher at the end of July.

Interestingly, Mahler tells the publisher he does not want the symphony’s tonality to appear on the title page: it is not to be the “Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor” but just the “Symphony No. 5.” Mahler’s concept of a “progressive tonality” that might begin in one key and resolve, ultimately, to another, was not the issue. He said, “normally the key of the main movement” is the key of the symphony, but here “the main movement (A minor) is preceded by another.” Which means the first movement’s Funeral March in C-sharp Minor is structurally an introduction to the 2nd movement which is in A Minor.

I find that fascinating, because we normally think the beginning of a piece is its primary tonal statement – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, for instance – but here, he must view the beginning as more like a prelude, perhaps, a curtain-raiser of sorts: is the second movement really the main argument of the piece?

In the past, considering how similar the first two movements are, I had always assumed the Funeral March was like a sonata-form’s exposition and that the second movement was more of an extension of it or a slightly different view of it (both are certainly full of tension and outright anxiety, even though the 2nd is marked “violently agitated with the greatest vehemence” which is not, technically speaking, a tempo indication), perhaps even the equivalent of a development section.

We know that when Mahler finished his work that first summer, he had completed the Scherzo first and that what were the first two movements was still one unbroken movement: later, for some reason (and however he chose to do it, we don’t know) he would turn this opening movement into two separate movements.

Another reason I think this happened after that first summer’s work is that his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, who acted as a kind of companion and house-guest (without the prurient innuendos that might suggest) as well as musical confidant, wrote nothing about the reason he did that – at least, not as far as I can tell. He told Natalie maybe not everything but a lot about his creative process – we owe much of what we know about the birth of his three earlier symphonies to her jotting down practically everything Mahler said or did. Whether he told them to Alma as well – who, like Natalie, a violinist, was musically knowledgeable and intelligent as well - but Alma didn’t seem to make note of these statements: and many of the things she notes in her diaries often conflict with what she later wrote in her memoirs or seem to go against versions of stories that other people tell. And, if you read some of her diary entries from the first summer in 1902 living with Mahler as his wife, she seems more interested in focusing on her thoughts, her problems and her issues than on Mahler’s – unless they’re in relationship to hers.

But that also is a story for another time…

Anyway, back to the premiere of the 5th (sorry, I keep saying that…).

Mahler considered certain potential cities for the premiere and generally dismissed each for various reasons: first of all, the orchestra had to have a history of performing his earlier symphonies and the audiences and critics ought to have at least some positive responses to his music. For instance, Leipzig, a major German music center, knew nothing of his music and the one orchestra that had been suggested was not up to the challenge, he said. But Prague, Amsterdam, Mannheim-Heidelberg and Cologne had all been proposed as potential sites and the Berlin Philharmonic “wants the premiere at any price.”

Given he would conduct his 3rd in Cologne over Easter, it was decided the honor of the premiere should go there but not for its summer music festival as suggested (too soon). It was agreed, ultimately, the world premiere of his 5th Symphony would take place in October at the Gürzenich Orchestra’s opening concert of the 1904-1905 Season. The Gürzenich, btw, is the city’s main orchestra, named (like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or the Gewandhaus in Leizpig) after its concert hall.

Now, in 1902, Germany had passed a new copyright law that ensured a composer’s works were under copyright protection for 30 years after the composer’s death and was also to include all previous works as well. With this in mind, Richard Strauss was instrumental in creating the the Association of German Composers whose subsidiary branch, the Agency for Performing Rights, kept records of works that were performed, collected royalties and charged “a small commission” to cover their expenses from any orchestra or opera house performing copyrighted works. Many composers rebelled at this since such additional fees would discourage many organizations from scheduling their works. But there was also some bureaucratic conflict with a comparable Austrian society to which Mahler already belonged, so he allowed that membership to expire, urged on by his friend Strauss (who was an astute businessman as well) to join the Berlin society. Mahler, always lacking such business acumen, let a friend of his represent him in this matter which became more complicated than it’s worth going into here.

Suffice it to say, this conflict had an impact on where in Germany Mahler could get his premiere scheduled!

Meanwhile, in early July, the arranger assigned the responsibility of creating the piano reduction of Mahler’s 5th complained to the publisher about the changes Mahler insisted on making. Transcribing such a dense orchestral texture to a single piano, especially for an arranger unaware of the musical overview, was challenging enough and Mahler found many instances where major foreground material was being overshadowed or even overlooked by the background textures the arranger assumed were more significant (or perhaps fun to play).

“Once before,” the arranger continued, “I had to withdraw my name from a transcription because I did not wish it to be used to cover up for clumsy bowdlerizations a young composer had foisted onto my work. Is it really going to be necessary to do that again?”

To us, this would sound like so much dog-wagging by a tail who’s had its feelings hurt. But it is just another of the nit-picking details Mahler the composer had to contend with in the process of preparing his own work so Mahler the conductor could perform it!

And so October and the impending Cologne premiere drew near.

In September, Mahler had already heard from the orchestra’s regular conductor who was running some preparatory rehearsals in anticipation of Mahler’s arrival. The first two movements were difficult to play, a hard nut to crack, but the last two seem to catch on even with the “unprepared listener”. Mahler, relaying this to his publisher, warned that “works of this sort need time to win over the public and are certainly unlikely to have immediate success.”

Worried about the press reactions, Mahler urged friendly critics he knew in Vienna and elsewhere in Germany to attend his premiere so that universal reaction did not entirely rest on some “catch-phrase” by “an incomprehending [local] hack.”

As late as September 28th, Mahler was still sending corrections to Peters regarding changes in the score and the orchestral parts. He was also lobbying to replace the regular conductor for a subsequent performance of the 5th in Munich, a conductor Mahler felt had given bad performances of other works of his (particularly the 3rd only a few months earlier), with his own young assistant, Bruno Walter (who, in later years, would become one of the major conductors of his generation and who performed and recorded much of Mahler’s music during his own lifetime).

Walter had even agreed to conduct the performance for only his travelling expenses, but this performance was eventually cancelled due to the on-going conflict with the Association of German Composers.

In preparation for the actual performance, Mahler was scheduled to leave with Alma accompanying him – after all, she had helped him copy the score – but she had recently given birth to their second daughter Anna (“Gücki” by nickname) who was still nursing. If that weren’t enough, Alma herself had fallen ill and had to stay in bed, arranging to meet Mahler in Cologne by later train in time for the dress rehearsal.

Though bad news for the happy couple, now married for a little over two years and parents of two girls, it gives us some of Mahler’s insights into the rehearsals in the letters he wrote home, joking about how preferable it would be to be a cobbler (quoting an aria from Lortzing’s then well-known opera “Tsar and Carpenter”) which he proceeded to vary in the course of his distressing reports, to be, say, an inn-keeper who became a baritone (referring to a singer on the Opera’s roster) instead of a composer and so on.

He complained that the “Scherzo is a devil” to perform and wished he could give the premiere of this work fifty years after his death instead when, hopefully, orchestras might be more up to the challenge of playing it. He looked forward to her arrival in a few days so there would be at least one person there who would understand his music. Unfortunately, her cold was only worse and she might not be able to make it until the performance.

The second rehearsal, he reported, went better and that, importantly, the orchestra was growing in enthusiasm for it. But now it turned Alma would not be able to make it at all.

Still, the dress rehearsal went well except for a few cat-calls from the audience after the devilish Scherzo, but in general and ultimately the audience was enthusiastic. Hinrichsen, his publisher, was confident enough to ask to publish his newly completed 6th Symphony – a good sign!

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Finally, the premiere arrived.

Curiously, at least as we think of concert programing today, the concert opened with Mahler’s 5th and then was followed by Schubert’s Serenade for Alto and women’s chorus (D.920) and three Schubert songs (I’m assuming with piano as was often the case in 19th Century concerts) before ending with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3.

Otto Neitzel was the only critic who greeted the 5th as enthusiastically as the 3rd which he’d reviewed earlier that year. He delighted in a composer who “goes his own way and delights in surprises.” The Hero implicit in the initial program of the 3rd Symphony (buried, apparently, at the 5th’s outset) returns here as the “Caesar of instrumentation and the art of building up movements, whose motto seems to be sic volo, sic jubeo” (“This I will, thus I ordain”). At times, he “loses himself as if overcome by a desire to fling himself into an abyss” (a lot of that, one might assume, in the first two movements) before, in the finale, “rediscover[ing] terra firma.” Not a “program composer,” Mahler’s “art comes from his innermost being[:] his mastery of form and structure compensates for what he lacks in force and originality of invention,” making him “one of the greatest men of our time.” On the other hand, he was disappointed not to find the same logic in the first movement of the 3rd Symphony in the opening of the 5th, and “deplored” the return of the funereal atmosphere in the second movement. While there were “dead” moments in the Scherzo, the Finale was a “pearl of the new literature” after which the concert-goers of Cologne “applauded warmly.” True, he noted, one needed to hear the work again to give the whole work a fair judgment (it contained “thorns” among the “fragrant roses”), but he ended by saying a composer like this “is worth meeting halfway.”

In another Cologne newspaper, another critic, Hermann Kipper, didn’t bother hiding his disappointment, quoting Mahler from the dress rehearsal (no doubt about the first two movements), “Think of a man whose ideals have been destroyed.” He felt Mahler’s style was as “incongruous as ever,” his orchestral colors even harsher. The first movement was “too long,” the second had much that sounded “unmusical,” declaring that Mahler belonged to a “hypernervous and pessimistic age, that his brain seemed to be in perpetual turmoil” and that only he and “his atrocious cacophonies” were to blame for the misunderstanding his music generated. His work, Kipper continued, would gain from being explained (by use of a program), “softened,” or abridged. He also mentioned listeners were asking themselves, after the Adagietto, “why he didn’t always write such beautiful music.”

Brief but generally hostile reviews would appear in the Berlin and Leipzig papers.

But from Munich came a review that, while admitting there was much that might make an “absurd and bizarre first impression,” he cautioned, “however, the bizarre should never deter one from judging the whole work: look at Berlioz.” He continues that, for some people, what might be considered “disconcerting” is what he might find “the composer’s most delightful characteristic,” that “with a little more objectivity and good will,” it was impossible not to see that Mahler was writing “not only for his own time but for the future, …an essentially sound musician of vigorous imagination and brilliant insight,” his creativity rising from a “pure, pristine and genuine feeling of truth that emanated from an innermost conviction.”

The Funeral March, this writer continued, was “written with his heart’s blood” and the Adagietto reminded him of a painting of a “sunset landscape at harvest time,” with “a supreme logic” reigning in the Finale. Mentioning Mahler’s “inexhaustible skill at variation” and “the eminent refinement of the orchestration,” it was clear to him this work could only have been composed by “one of the great masters of his art.”

But such a view was atypical. Paul Hiller wrote for a number of music periodicals including the once famous Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (founded by Robert Schumann in 1834) – Hiller, by the way, was the son a composer who as a young man, had been present at Beethoven’s death and who obtained a lock of the Master’s hair (you can read the amazing story in Russell Martin’s Beethoven’s Hair) which apparently was still in Paul Hiller’s possession at this time. He writes that Mahler’s latest symphony contained “no genuine musical ideas” and that he was a “clever but not convincing composer” who used his craft “to create sensations” which he described as a “jumble of sounds lacking any kind of musical logic.” The symphony was an “accumulation of absurdities and revels in utterly bizarre oddities.” Only the Adagietto “belonged to the realm of music.” In general, it was “more disconcerting and repellant than pleasurable,” a “triumph of technique.”

Yet another critic, obviously disconcerted by Mahler’s apparent youth (he was in his mid-40s at the time of the premiere), complained of the “dissonances, harshness [that seemed] doubly wounding,” and that by developing themes through long “crescendos deafeningly scored… leading to catastrophes,” he determined that Mahler “must now stand alone, often as the enemy of the culture of our time.”

Despite that, the same critic ended, after describing the first movement not as the funeral for a single man but for a whole generation, by comparing Mahler to a

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“… fanatical preacher who casts the faithful to the ground with all his searing condemnations but then raises them up again [in the finale] with comforting words… He arouses the audience’s… antagonism and disagreement, and then effects a reconciliation…. Masterly in form, structure, content, and decorative instrumentation, the Finale celebrates the triumphs of man’s tireless activity over the miseries of earthly existence.”
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The next afternoon, Mahler was on the train for Amsterdam where he was to conduct the 2nd Symphony as the guest of Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw. He had also suggested programming the 5th but Mengelberg felt perhaps the Dutch audience wasn’t ready for this one yet, and suggested doing the 4th instead (still new) which they ended up performing twice on the same program.

In March the following year, Mahler conducted the 5th in Hamburg where he’d spent six years as a conductor at the opera. Again, writing home to Alma (who was unable to make this journey as well), he wrote, “the 5th is an accursed work. Nobody understands it! Fortunately, everything began to improve at the end [of the rehearsal].” Later, he wrote how the first two rehearsals had been so difficult – not through any fault of the conductor who’d prepared them for his arrival but simply for “the mediocrity of the orchestra” – and how “yesterday, the orchestra was still disturbed” but “today they were perfectly at ease and showed real enthusiasm. The seats [for the concert] are sold out.” By the end of the last rehearsal, he was delighted that “the orchestra has behaved superbly and is already completely won over to my work.”

Perhaps the same could not be said for the critics who, if not negative, were at least courteous. Some were admiring and one who had been so opposed to Mahler the Conductor eight years earlier was now wholly in support of Mahler the Composer, ranking him with Richard Strauss (whose Salome would be premiered in December) as a leader of the “extreme avant-garde of contemporary artistic creation.”

Another critic, Ferdinand Pfohl, a former friend of Mahler’s, however, had now become bitterly negative: complaining about the quotations of various melodies or motives that would be unrecognized today, he described the symphony as “second- and third-hand music, ugly and barren… a desecration of the sacred spirit of music.” (When invited to attend a dinner in the composer’s honor, Pfohl declined “to be in the same room with Mahler, breathing the same pestilential atmosphere.”

One of the friends he spent some with, then, was the poet Richard Dehmels – best known to music lovers for having written the poem, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) set to music by Arnold Schoenberg in 1899. At a dinner, one night, Mahler complained of the stress touring had on him but which he needed to do in order to earn some money after his salary had been reduced at the Opera (though much of that would seem to be the result of a reduced performing schedule rather than a cut in pay). “I am really curious to know if the performance of my works will ever bring me a penny.” But another reason he took on guest conducting “gigs” was to present to the world a reliable performance legacy since he had to find out – especially with the 5th – if the problem with its acceptance was the work or the conductor. Recent performances in Berlin and Prague had made only negative impressions – critics aside – and only he could correct that.

Curiously, Mahler received some encouragement from America where his 5th Symphony became the first of his works to be performed in the United States. The Cincinnati Symphony presented it in May, 1905, not quite a year after its premiere, and it was well received by most of the critics.

For the Cincinnati Enquirer’s critic, the work was not difficult to understand: “despite all this expansion, there is no complexity and the intentions of the composer are clear.” The Commercial Tribune pronounced it “the most impressive and meritorious novelty” the orchestra had yet presented.

In the city's German-speaking community which also published two newspapers of its own, critics seemed to copy much of what the European German critics were already saying about it, complaining of its “almost unbearable dissonances and cacophony.”

The Boston Symphony would perform it the following year and even take it on tour for well-received performances in New York and Philadelphia. At least the American critics seemed to be listening with open minds and “fresh ears.”

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Of course, it might be difficult, over a century later, to imagine what this music would have sounded like to people who’d never heard Pierrot Lunaire or the Rite of Spring or for that matter even some of the film scores that go barely noticed today despite how they could be perceived independently of the film. Still, there are people today who find Mahler “not my cup of tea,” as one listener explained to a friend at Saturday’s concert, or those who may be uncomfortable with his over-the-top expression like a chaotic jumble of untold anxieties – the left-brained individual at ease with order and predictability would not be at home in Mahler’s right-brained world – and after all it did take a long time for Mahler to “find” his audience.

It is interesting to note, considering the constant revisions Mahler was making with each new performance, that he was still making slight changes and adjustments (mostly to dynamics and other markings) to the 5th Symphony's score even at the time of his death in 1911. His publisher, annoyed at all this and complaining how the work had cost him enough money already, had told Arnold Schoenberg whose Five Pieces for Orchestra he was preparing to publish in 1912, he was "planning to melt down the plates of the Fifth Symphony since it was falling into obscurity."

The comment he’d made to Alma about wishing he could premiere his symphonies fifty years after his death proved telling. It was during his centennial anniversary in 1960 – almost 50 years after his death – that Leonard Bernstein played all of Mahler’s symphonies with the New York Philharmonic, introducing much of the world to a composer whose time may finally have come.

These days, it's hard to imagine a figure like Mahler with these epic symphonies were ever "neglected." I had to remind myself that most of the audience - not just the young people - for his 1960 Young People’s Concert “Who Is Mahler?” would have ever heard a complete Mahler symphony in concert. This program was all part of the plan to bring Mahler’s music to a wider audience. Now, most orchestras will program the first two, more readily accessible symphonies often enough and any concert with the later works becomes something of an “event” – as did the performances of Mahler’s 9th and 3rd here in Harrisburg in previous seasons and the 5th (which was better attended than I would have thought) and cheered soundly by an enthusiastic audience at its conclusion.

It all takes familiarity and a willingness to engage oneself actively – not to mention a certain kind of stamina, admittedly – but in the end, I think many people are discovering that Mahler speaks to us or our time today.

Even in our day of 140-character tweets and Facebook likes…

- Dick Strawser

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The photograph of the Harrisburg Symphony playing Mahler's 5th was taken on Sunday afternoon by Kim Isenhour, the orchestra's marketing director and photographer extraordinaire, originally posted on Facebook.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Journey with Mahler (Part 3): He Completes His 5th Symphony

Gustav Mahler in 1902
This weekend, it's "Mahler Time" at the Harrisburg Symphony with his 5th Symphony on a program called Symphonic Splendor, sharing the bill with Respighi's Pines of Rome. Stuart Malina conducts the concert, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. Assistant Conductor Greg Woodbridge offers a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

This is the third in a series of biographical posts about Mahler's life when he was composing this symphony. You can read the earlier posts here (which includes video clips of each movement of the complete symphony) and here.

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When Mahler returned to Vienna after that busy summer of 1901, he had finished what would be the first three movements of his new symphony, his Fifth.

Initially, the idea had been it would be a “normal” symphony in four movements without the human voice and, presumably, without a “program” or story behind it.

Mahler had supplied fairly detailed stories for the first three symphonies – either what had inspired the music or what the music meant in terms of a story. He had chosen texts for vocal soloists or chorus that implied a layer of meaning as well and had even incorporated songs he had written even if he, here, omitted the voice and text (for instance the song about St. Anthony’s sermon to the fishes for the scherzo of his 2nd Symphony).

In his 3rd Symphony, which underwent frequent changes from the initial sketches to its final format when he completed it in 1896, he had supplied numerous possibilities, given each movement descriptive subtitles and then removed them. Having dinner with friends in October 1900, he declared “Down with programmes which are always misinterpreted!” Yet in December 1901 he sent the orchestra in Dresden a detailed program for a performance of his 2nd Symphony (the “Resurrection,” which incidentally has nothing to do with Easter) merely as a means to help the audience contend with something new and challenging as well as unusually long.

Given that his 4th Symphony grew directly out of his 3rd – the 4th’s last movement was originally intended for the 3rd – and the text of the last movement implies a story (observing a heavenly banquet with child-like awe) where music would be quoted in the purely orchestral first movement questioning the implications of tying them together in some way (in what way, though?) – Mahler never gave us any kind of program or descriptive titles for his Symphony No. 4. Though he had told his friend and musical confidant Natalie Bauer-Lechner that the 4th was like the “uniform blue of the sky… [b]ut sometimes the atmosphere darkens and grows strangely terrifying… just as on a brilliant day in the sun-dappled forest one is overcome by a panic terror.” There is a “gaiety coming from another sphere… terrifying for adults: only a child can understand and explain it, and a child does explain it in the end: a child who, if only at the chrysalis stage, already belongs to this superior world.”

There were, apparently, beautiful titles for each of the 4th Symphony’s movements as there had been for the 3rd (with its “What the flowers tell me” and “What love tells me” movements) but, in August 1900, he tells Natalie he decided not to disclose them (even to her) “so as to avoid giving rise to further absurd misunderstandings.”

Mahler had conceived the 4th originally as a suite of songs (vocal or not), six movements in all, and the whole would be called “Symphony No. 4 (Humoresque).” The ultimate scherzo for the 4th – with its image of fiddling Death (and what’s that about, people would ask) – didn’t exist in that initial version but the D Major scherzo that did, in the best waste-not/want-not manner many composers (even Beethoven) would not think twice about, found its way into the 5th, where it became the germ of his third movement. Whatever programmatic implications it might have had there were no doubt officially shed. Certainly the 5th’s scherzo continues the kind of joie de vivre that marks so much of the 4th Symphony.

By the time he’d begun the 5th in the summer of 1901, months after his near-fatal hemorrhage – though it opened with its Funeral March and subsequent emotional storm, he completed the Scherzo first – Mahler was quite reticent about the “meaning” behind the music beyond what he’d already told Natalie about the scherzo – the man in  “the full light of day who had reached the climax of his life.” More often, he talked about its contrapuntal complexity – he became obsessed with polyphony after studying Bach, especially the motets, and was now criticizing Tchaikovsky, for instance, for not using it in his symphonies.

(When, in April 1901, a friend praised the “orchestral palette” of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, Mahler dismissed this as “humbug, sand in the eyes,” how all those rising and falling arpeggios and scales, “those meaningless sequence of chords,” were like having a colored dot which, when you “swing it round an axis, it looks like a shimmering circle. But when it comes to rest again, it’s still the same old dot and even the cat won’t play with it.” Ironically, after Mahler become conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1909, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique would be the work he would conduct the most. I can almost hear Sigmund Freud saying, "so, how does that make you feel, Herr Maestro?")

Mahler working on scores
Interrupted by his return to Vienna at the end of August and resuming his duties as director of the Vienna Opera, he put aside work on the new 5th Symphony and prepared for the premiere of his 4th, set to take place in mid-November in Munich.

It was his first premiere since the 2nd was first heard in 1895.

The 3rd, which he’d completed in 1896, had yet to be performed: its difficulties were too considerable for it to be taken lightly and he found no opportunities to schedule its premiere. That, too, would take up some of his busy schedule at the Opera: the premiere of the 3rd would finally take place in June of 1902, just before he would return to Meiernigg and his little Composing Hut to resume work on the so-far incomplete 5th.

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While the end of his friendship with Natalie Bauer-Lechner – to whose journals we owe so much for details about Mahler’s life and his compositional process – happened suddenly after the end of that summer holiday in 1901 (see the end of Part II of this series of posts), Mahler had already had in mind his need to get married and have children, a confession that no doubt prompted Natalie to make her ill-fated advance.

Alma Schindler at 19
Barely ten weeks later, Mahler met Alma Schindler at a friend’s dinner party. She was young – 22 to his 41 – intelligent and beautiful, had a mind of her own and he was immediately fascinated by her. On December 23rd, they became engaged and planned their wedding for mid-February, though it eventually didn’t take place until March 9th, four months after they’d met.

When she and Mahler first met, Alma was still in love with her composition teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky – a composer Mahler already had mixed feelings about professionally as it was – and with whom, she confided to her diary, she planned on living with and bearing his children. She also found herself the object of other would-be suitors during these months: in one week, she had received two proposals of marriage from men who didn’t interest her in the least.

Alma at 16
Her mother and step-father, the artist Carl Moll, thought Mahler a bad match – Moll had heard rumors about Mahler’s “womanizing,” apparently seducing every young woman in the opera company – given his age, his debts and ill-health and his “precarious” position at the Opera. A close friend of hers considered Mahler “a degenerate Jew” (despite his necessary conversion to the state’s official Catholicism) who was “not good-looking and his music is apparently not worth much.” What, he asked her, would she do if Mahler proposed to her?

“I would accept!” she replied at once.

There were times of separation during this courtship and a vast amount of letters passed between them as Mahler went to Munich to conduct the premiere of the 4th and later for another performance in Berlin.

Alma at 20
There was also much soul-searching. Mahler was concerned not only about their age-difference, but the fact he was from humble origins and she was “born to joy and plenty” with no dark past. She was brought up to discuss the philosophy of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and she couldn’t share his enthusiasm for the Russian novelist, Dostoyevsky.

Alma writes in her diary that “Zemlinsky …is a wonderfully gifted fellow. But Gustav is so poor, so frightfully poor. If only he knew how poor he is, he would hide his face in shame. And I’ll always have to lie… to lie constantly throughout my life – with him, that’s just possible – but with Justi [Mahler’s sister], that female! I have the feeling she’s checking up on me the whole time… But I must be free, completely free.”

Mahler, she realized, was a man of genius, ardent and over-flowing with love, but an authoritarian (not just as a conductor), very demanding but a prisoner of himself and his ideals. Alma was described as a “coquette” by some friends, with a “capricious temperament,” conceited and flighty, frivolous but attractive, witty, spontaneous – and, importantly for a composer like Mahler, musical.

Zemlinsky in 1898
Alma was herself a composer, having studied with Zemlinsky and written several songs and, of course, had her own ideas about music. Yet Mahler forced her to give up composing which she promised to do, intending instead to devote herself to his music. (This decision would haunt her later, especially when Zemlinsky would once again become a part of Mahler’s professional circle of friends.)

While Mahler was in Berlin conducting his new 4th Symphony, Alma wrote to Zemlinsky to break off their relationship, not without protest on her former teacher’s part. In her diary, she wrote, “a beautiful feeling was buried that day,” after Zemlinsky visited her, begging her to reconsider. “Gustav,” she continued, “you’ll have to do a lot to make up for it.”

Her mother was determined to convince Alma to break up with Mahler, but given Alma’s complete dislike of her mother (her father’s death had devastated her and she only grew colder toward her disapproving mother) this only strengthened her resolve.

When Mahler returned from Berlin and Dresden, writing immensely long letters about his love and happiness, he came to visit the family and, on December 23rd, he asked for Alma’s hand in marriage.

She accepted.

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By the time the New Year began – and with it, the rehearsals for the Vienna Philharmonic’s performance of the 4th Symphony – Alma was constantly at his side. The inevitable scrutiny from a curious (and often hostile) public annoyed her. Glances and waves to old friends in the audiences were reported to Mahler as evidence of her flirting behind his back.

Mahler had described his symphony with its old-fashioned and child-like themes as a “primitive painting on a gold background” (while Gustav Klimt had used gold backgrounds in a couple of his paintings before 1900, his official “Golden Phase” with its famous painting, The Kiss, didn’t begin until 1907). But she admitted to being baffled by its naivety and archaic details which she considered more ‘childish’ than ‘child-like.’

Rehearsals with the Philharmonic were going badly. It was the first time Mahler conducted them as the Philharmonic since his well-received resignation the previous year, but it was the same orchestra he conducted regularly at the opera: personnel decisions he had made there rankled the Philharmonic, where he didn’t have the director’s authority – he was a guest conductor, and they treated him with hostility.

Mahler stamped his feet, glowered and raged at the players, finding fault with nearly everyone (this was in the day when maestros were considered tyrants and presumably expected to get away with such behavior: this would never work, today). For their part, the players threatened to walk out of rehearsals.

And Alma was there to help calm him down.

Though the crowd cheered as Mahler returned to the podium he had long been absent from, his new symphony was meet with occasional boos between movements and cries of “Shame!” at the end. Bruno Walter, his newly-arrived young assistant, shouted back at two men sitting near him who disapproved of “this horrible, unmusical music” that “Mahler and his immortal work will still be alive long after you are dead and buried.”

The 1st Symphony was scheduled for a performance a week later but Mahler decided to schedule the 4th again instead, along with his earlier work, Das klagende Lied. The soprano soloist in the latter was Mahler’s ex-mistress, Anna von Mildenburg, which, given the attention Alma was receiving in the audience, must have been fraught with melodramatic potential!

Mahler also received a letter from Richard Strauss with whom he had an on-again/off-again friendship, congratulating him (ironically) on the “St. Vitus Dance” the Berlin critics pulled in their attacks on his 4th Symphony, there, as he prepared to be in Vienna for the local premiere of his own latest opera.

“Congratulations, and also from my wife, on your engagement: anyway it will put you in your best mood for [my] rehearsals so I can congratulate myself as well. Although I do not yet know her, best wishes to the lovely bride, and all the best to you, Your ever faithful Richard Strauss.”

Initially postponed from February because Justi wanted it to coincide with her own wedding to the orchestra’s concertmaster, Arnold Rosé, Gustav and Alma’s wedding was eventually held on March 9th – having been scheduled for the 8th, it was discovered the wrong date had been engraved on the ring, so it was moved back a day.

These delays no doubt caused concern on the happy couple if for no other reason than Alma was already pregnant and dealing with frequent bouts of sickness.

The ceremony was, in keeping with Mahler’s celebrity status, to be a “private” affair but word had leaked out and the church was packed with mostly curious women. When it was announced the wedding had taken place earlier in a side chapel, the crowd left. Then Alma arrived by cab and Mahler, dressed in a gray suit, walked in the rain to arrive a little later. Misjudging the position of the prie-dieu, Mahler fell to his knees. “Because he was so short, he had to stand up again before he could kneel down properly, much to the sympathetic amusement of the officiating priest.”

The wedding meal with the two families was calm with long periods of silence. Then Gustav and Alma got on a train for St. Petersburg, Russia, for their honeymoon. The next day, Mahler’s sister and Rosé were married.

In Petersburg, the happy couple visited the Hermitage Museum and hoped to attend the opera, but it was closed for Lent. They took a sleigh-ride on the frozen River Neva during which they both caught cold.

It was not, however, simply a honeymoon. It had been added to a pre-arranged concert tour: he led three concerts there (none of his music had been programed) and Alma watched the first from backstage, noticing the intensity of her husband’s face which she thought “divinely beautiful.” The final concert was to include Bruckner’s 4th but when told that Bruckner did not go over well with Russian audiences, he substituted Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony instead – played with 102 musicians on stage!

As soon as the concert was over, the Mahlers were on the train back to Vienna, tired of Russia, its weather and its food, but with enough money in his pocket to help with his outstanding debts. But it did not erase them – there was still the expense of having built his summer home in Meiernigg – and so Alma had to set up house on a thrifty budget.

Their apartment was small so when Mahler’s meddlesome neighbor moved out (the one who hated Mahler’s music and always ordered his servant to play the gramophone quite loudly whenever he’d hear Mahler begin to work at the piano), he took over these rooms as well.

Then came performances of Wagner operas, the famous (or infamous) Beethoven Exhibit by the group of artists known as The Secession (Alma’s step-father was a member, as were Klimt and the sculptor Max Klinger whose statue of Beethoven caused such a controversy though today the name is more likely to be confused with a character from the TV series “M*A*S*H”) with Mahler conducting Beethoven’s 9th at its opening – and, in June, the long-delayed premiere of his 3rd Symphony.

(You can read more about the premiere of the 3rd Symphony in an earlier post, here.)

Considering the complexity of the 3rd compared to the simplicity of the 4th which was so universally criticized, the 3rd proved to be a triumph. In fact, the publishing firm Peters was so interested in this symphony, they signed a generous contract with him for his next symphony with far more favorable terms than any Mahler had previously received.

After a couple weeks of business at the Opera, Mahler and his wife took off for “Villa Mahler.” Inspired by this most recent triumph – not to mention his new bride and the impending child already on its way – Mahler looked forward to concentrating all his creative energy on completing his 5th Symphony.

They soon settled into a routine: Mahler would get up at 6, have breakfast (café au lait, diet bread with butter and jam) which he would eat in his Composing Hut. It was Alma’s job to see that no sound disturbed him at the hut – she even had to stop playing the piano in the house because he could hear it from his hide-out in the nearby woods. She promised opera tickets to their neighbors to entice them to lock up their dogs during the morning hours.

the piano in Mahler's Composing Hut

Interior Shot of Mahler's Composing Hut, now a museum
Built on a natural terrace some 200 feet above the house, the hut had no foundation and was very damp which worried Alma, especially the steep path often covered with mud or wet leaves after a rain (the servant certainly complained about it, hauling his breakfast and lunch up to the hut every day).

The hut contained a piano, a large work-table, two or three other pieces of furniture and a few books – a complete edition of Goethe, for one. The only musical scores there were by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Around midday, Mahler would finish his work, go down to the lake for a swim. Alma would join him, sitting beside him while he sunbathed before taking another dip to cool off (Alma considered this a barbaric custom). He preferred taking walks to napping and walks quickly exhausted Alma who was now five months pregnant. Sometimes, he would stop, jot something down in a notebook, Alma hoping to find a tree-trunk she could sit on so as not to distract him if she became tired.

Despite the tourists from Pörtschach across the lake – a favorite summer resort for Brahms who wrote his 2nd Symphony there – Mahler found it a “splendid isolation,” as if, Alma wrote in her diary, “we were protected by a glass dome.”

It’s interesting, knowing this, to listen to the absolute serenity of the famous Adagietto of his 5th Symphony, which he was writing at this time.

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Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the Adagietto:

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Mahler's original MS of Adagietto
End of the Adagietto & Start of the Finale
But while he composed these remaining two movements, Alma had little to do. She hated the interior of the house which was dark, pedestrian and, she thought, gloomy, though she enjoyed the garden and the view of the lake. She couldn’t even play the piano and it began to annoy her she had promised to give up composing herself in order not to disturb (or compete) with her husband.

Alma Mahler in 1902
She confided in her diary, “There’s such a struggle going on in me! And a miserable longing for someone who thinks of ME, who helps me to find MYSELF! I’ve sunk to the level of a housekeeper!” She had found a heavy volume of philosophy in his study but yet it wasn’t anything that he would discuss with her.

The next day, they had a “bitter discussion” and she told him “everything. And he – with infinite kindness – pondered over how he could help me! And I do understand… he can’t just now! He lives entirely for his composing. I will use this summer to improve myself in every way. I will try to learn… to fulfill, to realize myself! Gustav was happy yesterday – because of the peace of mind I’ve given him.”

But the next day, while he was “wrapped up in his happiness,” she writes she couldn’t share it and “burst into tears again.”

Anna von Mildenburg, soprano
As if this period of adjustment, this realization of what the future might be like for her, Alma had to deal with the appearance of Anna von Mildenburg, the famous soprano from the Opera who, in years past, had been Mahler’s mistress. A native of Carinthia, she was staying in Meiernigg that summer and dropped by frequently to visit Mahler and his new bride, bringing with her a “wretched mongrel” dog she’d rescued from some beggar (Mahler hated the dog). Out of gentlemanly deference, Mahler would walk her back to her friends’ place but once he tired of this and gave his servant this particular chore, Mildenburg visited less often.

One time, while Mahler was working, Mildenburg entertained Alma with several stories from Mahler’s past which, of course, implied there was an intimacy there for who but an intimate would know such things? When she told Mahler about this, he was intent on banning Mildenburg from the house, but Alma suggested a more diplomatic course.

At the next visit, perhaps over dinner, he steered the topic toward Wagner and she ended up singing the final scene from Siegfried with Mahler at the piano – and better, apparently, than she’d ever done on stage. The sound of her voice carried across the lake and by the end, there was applause from the crowd that had gathered in their boats along the shore.

But in the end, Mildenburg gave up trying to win Mahler back – or at least trying to affect his marriage. Later, Alma admitted that she “never stopped being afraid of her and her intrigues.”

It was around this time that Mahler wrote a song especially for her, well aware of the conflict going on in his young wife’s heart. Mahler slipped the manuscript of “Liebst Du um Schönheit” (“If you love for beauty’s sake”) – another poem by Rückert – into her score of Wagner’s Siegfried which she always had by the piano and often played from, but for about a week it lay there undiscovered. So on August 10th, he finally handed the score to her and, when she opened it, the manuscript fell to the floor.

With its last line – “Love me always, I’ll love you always and forever” – she played through it several times that day. “I almost wept. The tenderness of such a man!” she wrote in her diary, “and my lack of sensibility! I often realize how little I am and possess – compared to his infinite riches!”

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Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Daniel Barenboim: Liebst Du um Schönheit:

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In her memoirs, Alma would recall this story differently: then, she placed the event in the following summer. There are other statements that confuse the issue of when the Adagietto was written: some assume it must have been written the previous summer since it bears a strong resemblance to that summer’s song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost in the world”) but which has an entirely different mood (one could say, “meaning”); another statement she makes indicates it might have been written shortly after they met, sometime between November and Christmas, but with everything Mahler was busy with at the time – and he never wrote during the opera season at any other time – it seems unlikely no mention of it would have survived in their voluminous correspondence during those weeks prior to their engagement.

The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg says he had heard a story “several times” from both Mahler and Alma, how he had finished the Adagietto at Meiernigg their first summer together and sent it to her up at the house with a message about it being a love-token, but there is no mention of this in any of Alma’s diaries, either. While she kept the manuscript of “Liebst Du um Schönheit” framed on her wall in her New York City apartment toward the end of her long life (she died there in 1964), there was never any sign that the original manuscript of the Adagietto was ever one of her “trophies.”

Two weeks later – on August 23rd, 1902 – Mahler writes to a friend, “At last I have finished! The Fifth is with us!” He mentioned that he was feeling very “fit” despite the prolonged exertion – writing the last two movements of the symphony in two months’ time – and was now facing Vienna again: “Now back into the harness!”
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Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the Finale of Mahler's 5th:

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When Mahler had finished the work, he took Alma "almost solemnly" up to the hut to play through it for her. She seemed to like it better than she did the 4th until they got to the big Chorale theme in the finale (at 12:17 in the above clip) which, to her mind, was "too ecclesiastical and boring." She got the conflict between Mahler's Jewish roots and his "strong attraction to Catholic mysticism" (he was more of a pantheist than anything, anyway) but still felt her husband's statement that Bruckner had used chorales in his symphonies also was moot: he was very different from the older composer.

On August 27th, Mahler returned to Vienna with the draft score of the 5th Symphony under his arm. All that remained to do, now, was copy the score (a “clean score” to be sent to the publisher). This was winter’s work.

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There was another life-changing event yet to come: Alma had been pregnant during the summer and she was easily tired out by Mahler’s love of walking. The fact this exertion might have complicated her pregnancy was kept from Mahler who, worried about the imminent birth, tended to go walking even more. (Remember his own family history and how his parents had lost seven of their fourteen children, five of them by or before their 1st birthday, all within a span of 22 years.)

Maria Anna (named after both Gustav’s and Alma’s mothers but referred to as “Putzi”) was born on November 3rd, 1902, in their apartment in Vienna. It was a “breech birth” (the result, the doctor theorized, of Alma’s walking too much over mountain paths and through city parks) and a difficult one. And it seems, judging from her diary, Alma’s “maternal instincts seemed dormant,” with no satisfaction in her new-found duties, comparing herself to a bird whose wings have been clipped, “this splendid bird so happy in flight” and now “there are so many heavy ducks and geese who cannot fly at all!”

A few weeks later, the baby became seriously ill and Mahler carried her around the apartment, cooing endearments in her ear as if that alone would help cure her. Alma, meanwhile, complained “how hard it is to be deprived so mercilessly of everything, to be mocked about things closest to one’s heart. Gustav lives his life. My child has no need of me. I cannot occupy myself only with her! Now I’m learning Greek. But my God, what has become of my goal, my magnificent goal! My bitterness is intense.”

The following month, reacting to the sight of a happy Mahler dancing like a young man around Mildenburg at the opera rehearsals, she writes, “He disgusts me so much, I dread his coming home… If only he never came home again. Not to live with him any more…. The thought of him nauseates me…”

But this is a story for another time – especially considering the symphony he would begin next summer, his 6th, which contained a theme he told Alma represented her. He had come down from the hut full of this lyrical theme in the first movement, a theme that was full of his love for her.

But what to make of the rest of the symphony, with its three “Hammerblows of Fate,” the third of which “fells the hero,” the one he kept taking out and putting back in? At times, he called this symphony the “Tragic” Symphony – a dark contrast to the 5th even despite its having begun with a funeral march.

The 5th Symphony was premiered after Mahler had already begun the 6th – what was it like for the composer to face the remembrances of the one summer with the music he was writing now?

As for Natalie Bauer-Lechner, she never mentioned Mahler in her journals again and, in fact, ended up a sad case, dying in poverty in 1921, almost exactly ten years after Mahler. From her journals, her nephew published a condensed volume called Mahleriana in 1923. The original copies, several bound copybooks, passed through many hands over the years before ending up in a Mahler library in Paris, and several pages are missing.

If nothing else, Natalie recorded Mahler’s thoughts about what he was writing and what engaged his mind when he was writing it, even down to the details, for instance, how a laxative had not only helped his constipation but had unblocked his creativity so he could suddenly compose a song in one afternoon.

With Natalie gone, our insights into Mahler’s creativity have been replaced by Alma’s observation of her own situation, as if (at least during these first months of marriage) her husband didn’t confide in her about the music that was so central to his life or that she chose not to record it.

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There can be much more I could tell you about Mahler’s symphony from a technical standpoint – why it’s probably not accurate to refer to it as a “Symphony in C-sharp Minor” because, while it begins in that key, it spends very little time in that key (D Major is the main tonality of the Scherzo and the finale) and how Mahler used what we call a “progressive tonality,” moving from its starting tonality to its final one through some inner logic of its own – or even from a “program notes” standpoint – that it is divided into three parts, the first two movements before the central Scherzo, the last two movements afterward, like a vast arch – but the purpose of these essays was primarily to give the reader (and hopefully, the listener) some idea of Mahler’s life at the time he composed this work.

There’s always an argument how valuable this awareness might be. We can certainly enjoy the music without needing to know about Mahler’s hemorrhoids (which was, unfortunately, an on-going health issue) or what he had for breakfast while he was writing, but I think it’s interesting (if not important) to realize that, first of all, the composers who write these masterpieces we are in awe of, were not marble busts operating in a reality vacuum but had to contend with balancing their creativity against the intrusions of a complex world which, in turn, makes them more complex as people.

True, Beethoven, writing the tragic Heiligenstadt Testament at the time he was near suicidal about his impending deafness, was composing the boisterous finale of his 2nd Symphony that same month. But Mahler (and indeed most other composers) were not Beethoven: everyone, like the rest of us more normal people, are affected by what happens to us in different ways.

If this reality affected the life of Mahler the Man, why couldn’t it affect the creativity of Mahler the musician?

Of course, planning out the details of a work as vast as an hour-long symphony doesn’t mean the ups and downs of reality affected the daily work. No doubt a symphony starting with a funeral march and ending in triumphant celebration could be a general plan and had certainly been done before (Beethoven’s Fifth, the obvious inspiration: even the persistent rhythm of the opening trumpet call, which then permeates the first two movements, brings to mind Beethoven's Fate Knocks at the Door motive) – and no doubt such a plan might have been subtly tweaked along the way without straying from whatever initial idea he may have had. After all, the trumpet call that opens the symphony is a quotation from a list of signals and drumbeats used by the Austrian Army when Mahler was a child, growing up in a Bohemian town not far from the local barracks; the often startling contrasts of sad with vulgar music presumably stems from an often quoted and much dismissed incident in his youth when he apparently ran out of the house while his parents were fighting and heard the music of either a military band or a dance band playing something in a popular vein (it’s a story he told, but one wonders if it’s an actual incident or a fabrication of memory).

So, there you have the incidents of a life at a time a particular work is composed. Draw your own conclusions.

- Dick Strawser

Gustav Mahler died in 1911, four years after their daughter "Putzi" died. Another daughter, Anna, would grow up to become a famous sculptor. Alma Mahler would go on to marry the architect Walter Gropius (their daughter Manon, who died of polio at the age of 18, inspired Alban Berg's Violin Concerto) and then the novelist Franz Werfel. In 1946, Alma became an American citizen and died in 1964. This photograph (above) from Life Magazine was taken of her (I believe in 1960) listening to a New York Philharmonic performance of a Mahler symphony.

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Most of the material and all the quotes included in these posts are from Henri-Louis de La Grange’s biography, Gustav Mahler, particularly Volume 2, “Vienna: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904), Oxford University Press, 1995 edition. You would need to consult this to reference the accounts of Natalie Bauer-Lechner and Alma Mahler, or Mahler’s own letters to his other correspondents.

For this post, I've chosen the Bernstein videos with the Vienna Philharmonic mostly out of respect for Bernstein who almost single-handedly brought Mahler's symphonies to American audiences.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Journey with Mahler (Part 2): Mahler Begins to Compose His 5th Symphony

This is a continuation of an earlier post about Mahler's 5th Symphony which the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, will perform on their program "Symphonic Splendor" this weekend, along with Respighi's Pines of Rome. Concerts are at the Forum on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with a pre-concert talk by Assistant Conductor Greg Woodbridge an hour before each performance. Student tickets are also available. 

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At the end of the opera season in June, 1901, Gustav Mahler – no longer conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic but still director and chief conductor of the Court Opera in the Imperial capital – was able to leave the busy schedule and the constant in-fighting (not just office politics but dealing with opera singers’ egos) and head out to his new dream-home, built with the money he was finally making as a busy conductor, both in Vienna and across Europe.

Today, we think of Mahler as a famous composer but in his day he was a famous (if not always respected) conductor and as a result, the schedule of overseeing the business of running the opera house, planning its new productions, handling singers’ schedules not to mention dealing with an imperial bureaucracy that would put Washington to shame as well as conducting many of the performances – and don’t forget the occasional guest conducting opportunities outside Vienna – left him very little time for composing.

He became, in self-defense, a “summer composer.” This was not uncommon: even Brahms, who had no such professional demands on his time, found himself only ever able to compose during the summers, spending time in Vienna with all its distractions working on final drafts and orchestrations or proofing manuscripts and printer’s galleys.

Then when summer arrived, like Brahms, Mahler would take off for some place in the Austrian mountains – occasionally Northern Italy – where he would find the solitude to work on new compositions. And like Brahms, he would rent rooms or houses where he could (hopefully) enjoy the peace and quiet around him – walks in nature or pleasant places to hang out without being himself a tourist attraction. He might have favorite places to go until something happened or he simply sought new locations. Some were more successful than others.

View of Meiernigg on theWörthersee 
Unlike Brahms, Mahler eventually decided to buy a property – this one on a lake near the Carinthian town of Meiernigg – where he built a house which friends would later call “Villa Mahler.” This lake – the Wörthersee, a rather sizeable one for land-locked Austria – had a climate that made it the equivalent of a Mediterranean vacation destination and in the summer of 1899 he, his sister Justine (whom everybody called Justi) and his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner toured the place looking for a place to stay when Mahler found a rocky promontory overlooking the lake where he thought he could build a house.

Mahler's Composing Hut
First, however, the architect agreed to build a small house – a composing hut – for the composer, a place off in the woods not far from where the house was to be built: the hut would be ready for the following summer. That summer, he rented a villa that was a 20-minute walk from his hut where he “savored peace, security and Dionysic wonder, keeping the windows open to breathe the pure forest air” rather than, as usual, keeping them closed against noise (as he had to do in Vienna and several other summer properties he’d rented).

It was here, that summer, that he completed his Symphony No. 4.

Mahler's Summer House in Meiernigg
June 1901 would be his first arrival there as a property-owner. The house had been finished – an old-fashioned cross between a lakeside villa and mountain chalet with three floors and a basement that opened onto the lake-shore – with a steep foot-path that linked the main house to the all-important composing shed where Mahler would spend several hours a day.

To the Composing Hut
But Mahler, despite having given up his duties at the Philharmonic following his near-death experience in February (see previous post), could not concentrate on composing – at least, not at first. He set about studying scores, primarily the polyphonic motets by Bach and songs by Schumann. In the course of the summer, he would write several songs for voice with orchestra: several poems by Rückert – he composed, appropriately, “Ich atmet’ einen Lindenduft” (“I breathe a sweet scent”) in the first days after his arrival – and one from the collection of folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). The fact he could not get a “larger project” underway bothered him.

So he decided he would just put aside two weeks and rest. Naturally, he immediately began jotting down new ideas. Even when he went for walks, he would take small notebooks with him to scribble down a few pitches here and there that would generate a theme. But for a while, he told no one what he was working on. It’s possible he might not be sure what it was himself, at least to begin: he was always reluctant to play through anything for his friends that he was still composing until the first draft was finished.

It was on August 5th he told Natalie about the symphonic scherzo he was working on, how it was giving him so much trouble; how it was so contrapuntal with all these different lines that would require soloists to be able to play them well; how he had composed nothing like it before; how nothing would be repeated (a major feature of most symphonic music with themes and restatements, their development and recapitulations) and how everything “had to develop from within.”

He told her that it had “unparalleled power [like] that of a man in the full light of day who has reached the climax of his life.” More importantly, everything would be “expressed in terms of pure music. It will be a proper symphony in four movements, each of them independent, complete in itself, and linked to the others solely by affinity of mood.”

Five days later, he invited Natalie to the Composing Hut and played for her this collection of songs he had been working on (one more would be finished the next day, the famous “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I have become lost in the world”) usually collected in a set of Rückert-Lieder that includes “Um Mitternacht,” also composed that same summer. Before he left for Vienna, he gave her the songs’ original manuscripts.

Whatever he had planned – he also said it would contain “no harp or English horn” nor a human voice as his last two symphonies had – it was not yet finalized: though lacking voices, it did include both harp and English horn; and while it may originally have been four movements, at some point he decided to break the first movement into two – the opening Funeral March followed by an allegro marked “strürmisch bewegt” (highly agitated) and “mit grosser Vehemenz” (with great vehemence).

But this life-affirming scherzo is the first music he began composing – or, whether he’d sketched anything beyond an idea of the opening movement, at least the first movement he completed – for his new 5th Symphony.

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Osmo Vänskä conducts the Minnesota Orchestra at the London Proms:

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The summer was not without its occasional interruptions: tourists gliding past on their boats (Mahler himself owned two boats) might either shout at him how they hated his music (“what has he ever done to you,” one shouted at the friend who then responded, “he wrote a terrible symphony and then another one!”); or glimpsing him on his balcony, cheering him with bravos. Characteristically, he found both of these distasteful and rushed inside to avoid acknowledging either.

One night, after a long walk and a late-night conversation on the balcony with Natalie, Mahler was disturbed by the sound of a man falling in the water. Rushing barefoot down the steps, Mahler was able to reach the man in time and drag him to shore, though the man, clearly drunk, was so frantic he nearly drowned Mahler along with him! Cries for help brought others and eventually the man was rescued and given blankets and dry clothes before he left without ever giving them his name.

Otherwise, it was an idyllic time – serene was the way he described it – and very productive despite its slow start. In all, he composed eight songs (with orchestral accompaniment) and what became three movements of his new symphony.

Yet, despite the mood of the scherzo, everything else was “funereal,” meditations on death and dying or on saying farewell to the world. Three of the songs later became part of the cycle known under the gruesome title Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”).

He had expressed to Natalie – perhaps on the night of the near-drowning man – his desire to have children of his own, that he was tired of being lonely and that having children would be his way of “staking claim to immortality.” In writing these songs, it is important to realize Mahler was not yet married nor had any children of his own, but he had lost several brothers and sisters and so, while composing them, he imagined his father grieving for the death of so many of his own children – by 1895, Mahler had lost 10 of his 13 brothers and sisters, 8 of them while they were still children.

Mahler’s “entourage,” such as it was, consisted of his sister Justi and occasionally her fiancé, the violinist Arnold Rosé (they would be married the following summer – incidentally, another sister, Emma, had married Arnold’s younger brother, the cellist Eduard Rosé); and their friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner who was a violinist and a member of an all-female string quartet (quite rare in those days). She accompanied Mahler on many of these summer excursions and though some people did not care for her or her morals – particularly one friend of Mahler’s whose husband had been an ex-lover of Natalie’s – she was that rare intellectual, musically knowledgeable friend that Mahler could confide in, musically.

Regardless of what the future would bring, her journals (some published; others, not) became important sources for future biographers of Mahler, especially concerning his creative insights into the works he composed during the summer she spent in his proximity.

It is also important to realize – our modern morality aside – that she and Mahler were never lovers. Mahler had his affairs and one of them was an unfortunately convoluted relationship with one of his opera singers, Anna von Mildenburg, which he had tried to break off several times (a native of the region, she had helped him locate the land where he built his villa, but she was not a guest at the house).

Natalie Bauer-Lechner
Natalie, by her own account, only ever loved two men in her life – the poet Siegfried Lipiner (who, a friend of Mahler’s, had written the poem that formed the initial basis of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony and who, incidentally, was now having an affair with Mildenburg himself) and Gustav Mahler who, at least romantically, seemed totally unaware of Natalie’s feelings, despite some of the confidences he made to her, especially the one about wanting to get married and have children.

At any rate, the summer came to an end and on August 26th Mahler packed up and left for Vienna, Justi and Natalie staying behind to close up the villa.

Mahler had just written to Henrietta Mankiewicz, a mutual friend of his and Natalie’s, “What a good thing it is for mothers that they do not have to interrupt the process of giving birth – for the babies, too, perhaps.” His new symphony would have to wait until the following summer to be completed.

Meanwhile, Natalie arranged for someone to send her a telegram from Vienna urging her to return quickly, leaving Justi behind. Instead, she went to Mahler, apparently begged him to marry her and even tried to embrace him but he repulsed her, saying “I cannot love you, I can only love a beautiful woman.” “But I am beautiful,” she insisted, “ask Henriette Mankiewicz!”

The details of this sad and clearly uncomfortable confrontation, so soon after this serene summer, may not be totally reliable, Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange adds, because it was included years later in the memoirs of a woman who would later have a vested interest in the life of Gustav Mahler.

After returning to the politics-as-usual of the Vienna Opera – he described it as a “quagmire… becoming completely alien to me” – Mahler, who was now 41, attended a dinner on November 7th at a friend’s along with other luminaries in Vienna’s art world (the painter Gustav Klimt, for one), where he sat across from a young woman who was 22 and whose intelligence and no-nonsense personality attracted him immediately.

By Christmas, he and Alma Schindler were engaged and they set their wedding for mid-February, almost a year to the day of his near-fatal hemorrhage.

The next summer, Mr. & Mrs. Mahler would return to Meiernigg and Villa Mahler where the composer would complete the remaining movements of his Symphony No. 5.

To be continued

Dick Strawser