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Monthly Archives: May 2012
Yesterday was the 101st anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911). Mahler was one of the greatest composers of all time. He is also one of my favorite composers. I am sure more people don’t know who he was than do know who he was, but what everyone should know is how important he is in the history of western music. Gustav Mahler ushered in the modern era of music. His influence can still be heard today in music as diverse as John Williams film music (E.T., Star wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, etc…) to Neil Young. (I have an idea for a blog I want to write called “Neil Young, Gustav Mahler and the Dirge). I’m sure Neil Young doesn’t think his music is influenced by Mahler but I can hear it clearly in many of his songs.
The music I have chosen to post in tribute to Mahler is the powerful song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde. (The Song of the Earth). This composition was one of the last works Mahler completed. His last complete work was his Ninth Symphony. His tenth symphony was on his work desk, with only the first movement completely fleshed out, when he died. Mahler never heard Das Lied von der Erde performed, nor did he ever hear his 9th Symphony performed. Das Lied was premiered by Bruno Walter on November 20th 1911. Bruno Walter was a student of Mahler.
Mahler was a very famous man in his time, but he was better known for his conducting than his compositions. He was probably the greatest conductor of his time. His principle occupation was being the conductor of the Vienna State Opera. Mahler virtually invented the modern concert experience by codifying the etiquette of the concert experience. He invented the concept of Opera direction and set design. He started the classical music tradition of not allowing late comers to enter the concert hall during a performance. He began the disintegration of tonality.
He had a tragic life, but ultimately he triumphed over his grief. This composition is a beautiful example of how he lifted himself from tragedy to triumph.
Das Lied von der Erde is really a symphony. (It was sub-titled by Mahler “Symphony for Contralto and Tenor Voices and Large Orchestra). Mahler was superstitious about composing a 9th symphony because Beethoven died after he composed his 9th symphony. Although this composition requires a large orchestra, the entire orchestra is used sparingly. Many times the music takes on an almost chamber music style. In addition, there are part of the composition where the vocalist seems to be accompanying an instrumental solo instead of the reverse. The song cycle is made up of 6 different movements. The lyrics are derived from ancient Chinese poetry. Some of the poems were used as they were originally written and some of the poems are combinations of two different poets, and Mahler himself added some lines of his own devising. I have included translations of the lyrics because the songs are all sung in German.
This performance is by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The Tenor is James King and the Mezzo-soprano is Janet Baker. One of the reasons I chose this performance is because Mahler actually conducted the Concertgebouw orchestra for a period of time. And now, Das Lied von der Erde …
1. “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth)
The main feature of this movement is the repeating of the phrase “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist das Tod.” (Dark is life, is death). Each time the phase is repeated it is pitched slightly higher than before.
Here is the translation of the poem:
The wine already winks from the golden goblet, but do not drink yet – first I’ll sing you a song! The song of sorrow shall burst out in laughter in your soul. When sorrow draws nigh, the gardens of the soul lie wasted, both joy and song wither away. Dark is life, is death.
Master of this house! Your cellar holds the wealth of golden wine! Here, this lute shall be mine! Strumming the lute and draining the glass – these are things which belong together. A full wine-goblet at the right moment is worth more than all the riches of this world! Dark is life, is death.
The firmament is forever blue, and the earth will long remain and blossom into spring. But you, fellow man, how long do you live? Not even for a hundred years may you take your delight in all the false trifles of this world!
Look down there! On the moonlit graves squats a ghostly, bestial figure. It’s an ape! Listen t his howls piercing through the sweet fragrance of life!
Now drink the wine! Now is the time, comrades! Drain your golden goblets to the bottom! Dark is life, is death…
2. Der Einsame Im Herbst (The Lonely Man in Autumn)
The second song is softer and quieter than the first. Note how chamber music like the scoring is.
A blue autumn mist hovers over the lake; all the grass-blades are striped with frost; one would think an artist had strewn jade-dust over the delicate blossoms.
The sweet fragrance of the flowers has been blown away; a cold wind has bent their stems down. Soon the withered, golden lotus leaves will shift about on the water.
My heart is weary. my little lamp went out with a hiss, reminding me of sleep. I am coming to you, beloved resting-place! Yes, give me peace – I need to be refreshed!
I weep much in my loneliness; autumn has lasted too long in my heart. Sun of love, will you never shine again, and gently dry my bitter tears?
This poem is so obviously about the death of Mahler’s eldest daughter. She died after a brief illness. The line “My little lamp went out with a hiss…” is almost too sad to bear…
3. Von Der Jugend (Of Youth)
Note in this movement the extensive use of Our western musical scale consists of 8 notes.
In the middle of the small pond stands a pavilion made of green and with porcelain.
Like a tiger’s back, the bridge forms an arch of jade stretching to the pavilion.
In the little house friends sit, well-dressed, drinking, chatting; some are writing down verses.
Their silken sleeves glide back, their silken caps perch merrily on the backs of their heads.
On the quiet surface of the pond everything appears marvelously in mirror image.
Everything turned upon its head in the pavilion made of green and withe porcelain;
Like a half-moon stands the bridge, its arch inverted. Friends, well-dressed, drink and chatter.
4. Von Der Schonheit (Of Beauty)
Young girls pick flowers, pick lotus blossoms form the bank. They sit among bushes and leaves, collecting blossoms in their laps and teasing each other.
The golden sun dapples the figures, reflects them in the smooth water. The sun reflects their slender limbs, their charming eyes, and the caressing breeze lifts up the fabric of their sleeves, carries the magic of the fragrance through the air.
O, look, what handsome youths exercise their horses near the water, gleaming far and bright as sunbeams, already the sportive ones are trotting in between the green willow branches!
The horse of one of them neighs gaily, shies and dashes away; moving over flowers and grass, the giddy hooves, like a storm, heedlessly crush the drooping blossoms. Ha! How his mane flutters in a frenzy, how steamy the breath from his nostrils!
Golden sunlight dapples the figures, reflects them in the smooth water. And the most beautiful of the maidens sends longing glances in his direction. Her proud bearing is only fluff. In the sparkle of her wide eyes, in the darkness of her heated glance, the excitement of her heart still vibrates in lament.
5. Der Trunkene Im Fruhling (The Drunkard in Spring)
This movement acts as the Scherzo of the symphony. Note the constantly shifting rhythms
If life is only a dream, what good are cards and worries!? I drink until I can no more, the whole day long!
And when I can drink no more, when body and soul are full, then I stagger to my doorway and sleep marvelously!
What do I hear upon awakening? Listen! A bird is singing in the tree, I ask him if it is already spring – to me it seems like a dream,
The bird twitters: Yes! Spring is here; it came overnight! Roused form inward gazing I hear the bird singing and laughing!
I fill my goblet once again and drain it dry and sing until the moon shines out form the pitch-black sky!
And when i can sing no longer, I fall asleep again; what do I care about spring!? let me be drunk!
6. Der Abschied (The Farewell)
Der Abschied is easily one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever heard. This is highly emotional and intensely personal music. The composer lays his soul bare to the world. After Mahler finished Das Lied von der Erde, he showed it to his friend and student Bruno Walter. He said ” This is surely the most personal thing I have ever written.” The he showed Walter this last movement “Der Abschied”. He asked “Can this be endured at all? Surley the people will kill themselves afterwards?” i think I know what he meant…
The tempo is marked “Without regard for Tempo” . It is very difficult to conduct because of all the cadenza’s for the vocalist and instrumental soloist. The movement is almost as long as the other 5 movements combined. The last lines are added by Mahler himself and it turns all of this sorrow into happiness. “Everywhere the good earth once more greens and blossoms into spring. Everywhere, forever, distant spaces shine light blue! Forever…forever…
The last word is repeated over and over, quieter, and quieter until the last word is “imprinted on the atmosphere” as the composer Benjamin Britten beautifully described it.
The sun departs behind the mountains. Evening descends upon the valleys with its cool, refreshing shadows. O look! The moon, like a silver barque, glides upward on the sky’s blue sea. I notice a slight breeze blowing behind the dark fir-trees!
The stream sings melodiously through the darkness. The flowers turn pale in the twilight. The earth breathes a deep tranquility; now all longing wants to dream. Weary people make their way home, to learn once more in sleep forgotten happiness and youth! The birds perch quietly on the branches. The world falls asleep!
A cool breeze blows in the shade of my fir-trees. I stand here in wait of my friend; I wait to bid him a last farewell. O friend, I long to relish the beauty of the evening at your side. Where do you tarry? You leave me so log alone! I wander to and fro with my lute on paths swollen with soft grass. O beauty! Flush with love, with life unending – O drunken world!
He alighted from his horse and offered his friend the drink of farewell. He asked him where he was heading and why it had to be so. He spoke – his voice was muffled; My friend, fortune has not favored me in this world! Where am I going? I go wandering now in the mountains. I seek peace for my lonely heart. I wander to my homeland, my abode. I will never roam in the distance. My heart is quiet and awaits its hour! Everywhere the good earth once more greens and blossoms into spring. Everywhere, forever, distant spaces shine light blue.
Sunday April 29th I attended the Dallas Symphony’s performance of the Bruckner 8th Symphony. I was really excited to hear this piece performed live. It is a magnificent symphony. It is not performed very often because of it’s length, (over 70 minutes depending on the version performed) it’s complexity, and the massive size of the orchestra required to perform it. The symphony is scored for 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, eight french horns (four doubling on Wagner tubas), three trumpets, alto, tenor and bass trombones, contra bass tuba, timpani, and a full complement of strings. The Scherzo and Adagio movements also include 3 harps, triangle and cymbals. Needless to say, the stage was crammed full of musicians. We are very fortunate in Dallas to have one of the best conductors in the world as our conductor. Jaap Van Zweden was just voted Conductor of the Year by Musical America for 2012! I was even more interested to hear this performance because Van Zweden has just recorded this symphony with The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic for Octavia Records. Mr. Van Zweden is currently recording the entire cycle of Anton Bruckner Symphonies.
One of the first things a conductor has to decide before he can conduct a Bruckner Symphony is which version? Anton Bruckner was notorious for revising his work. There are two or three versions of almost all of his nine symphonies. A total of 26 versions exist for his nine symphonies. He was not a very confident person and was very reactive to criticism from peers that he respected. There are 3 versions of the Bruckner 8th. In this case Jaap Van Zweden chose the last version which was revised by Bruckner and two of his students Joseph and Franz Schalk. It is the opinion of Maestro Van Zweden that the Bruckner 8th was the only symphony that was improved by the alterations. This version was completed in 1980. The symphony was debuted in Vienna on December 18, 1892 with Hans Richter conducting. This symphony is unique in the cannon of Bruckner symphonies for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is the only Bruckner Symphony to include harps and second, it is the only Bruckner symphony that the Scherzo precedes the Adagio movement.
When I say this symphony is massive, I mean it is massive! The last two movements are each over 30 minutes long.
If you are not familiar with the music of Anton Bruckner, think about the sound of the music of Richard Wagner. Bruckner idolized Wagner and worshiped his orchestral techniques. But that’s where the similarity ends. Wagner was a hedonistic, atheist and an antisemitic. Bruckner was a devout Roman Catholic and very spiritually centered in his personal beliefs. He composed an enormous amount of music for Catholic church services in addition to his nine symphonies. His love of God infuses his music.
The symphony No. 8 in C minor starts out in a whispering tremolo in the strings, much like the Beethoven 9th. Bruckner’s music spins out in very long, slowly developing phrases. The first thing that stuck me about the DSO’s performance is how beautifully Jaap led the orchestra and audience through these long beautiful phrases. His vision of this symphony is beautifully clear. Consequently, he made this normally complex, difficult composition stunningly easy to follow and comprehend. What an amazing achievement!
We are also fortunate to have a world class concert hall in Dallas. The McDermott Concert Hall at the Meyerson Symphony Center seemed to have been built for Bruckner. This state of the art hall can actually be tuned to the type of music being performed. The hall has an Acoustic canopy panel that can be raised and lowered as well as tilted to create various complementary environments for sound. In addition the hall has reverberation chambers that can be adjusted based on the amount of reverberation the conductor requires. For this performance the canopy was raised as high as it could go and the reverberation chambers were opened all the way. This created a cathedral like environment for the performance. Bruckner was an organist by training and most of his music was greatly influenced by the sound of an organ. The Bruckner 8th has several massive climaxes. As the mighty crashes of the full orchestra occurred, the ambient tail of the music was breathtaking. (When you think of ambient tail think of echo.) The sound would literally hang in the air for amazingly long times and Mr. Van Zweden would take full advantage of this effect. It was a breathtaking!
This performance was nothing short of stunning. As the finale came to it’s dramatic conclusion, the audience sprang to their feet in a totally spontaneous standing ovation that went on for 15 minutes. 70 plus minutes went by in the blink of an eye. I was totally blown away by the vision of the conductor and the fabulous playing of the Dallas Symphony. What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I for one am going to acquire the newly issued recording of this symphony my Maestro Van Zweden. Congratulations to Jaap Van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony. And how lucky am I to live in a city where I can experience a world class musical event like this!