|The Harrisburg Symphony performs Mahler's 5th Symphony|
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.