Program Notes: Vänskä, Strauss and Mahler

Program Notes: Vänskä, Strauss and Mahler

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Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach
Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach
Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major

When Bach assumed the post of Capellmeister to His Most Serene Highness Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, in 1717, he made the move in the hopes of spending the rest of his life there. The court was Calvinist and thus required no church music, and Bach enjoyed the change of not being primarily an organist and the challenge of providing great quantities of solo, chamber and orchestral music.

His new patron, just 23, loved music and played the violin, viola da gamba and keyboards skillfully. But the idyll was spoiled when Bach’s wife died suddenly in the summer of 1720, and the next year the professional scene darkened when the Prince married. His musical interests, Bach recalled later, became “somewhat lukewarm, the more so since the new Princess seemed to be alien to the muses.” In fact the Amusa, as Bach called her, soon died, and Leopold’s second wife was a sympathetic and sensitive patron. But by then Bach was restless and determined to leave. In 1723 he moved to Leipzig, where he was the City Council’s reluctant third choice as Director of Music at the churches of Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas, and there he remained until his death in 1750.

Bach was looking around for greener pastures as early as March 1721, when, along with a suitably servile letter, he sent the Margrave of Brandenburg a handsome presentation copy of six concertos he had composed over the last year or so for performance at Cöthen. Bach had met the margrave and played for him in 1719 when he went to Berlin to collect a new harpsichord. (Brandenburg is the Prussian province immediately south and west of Berlin.) The margrave never replied to Bach, nor did he ever use or perhaps even open the score. We are lucky that he at least kept it, because his copy is our only source for these forever vernal concertos, which have been called “the most entertaining music in the world.”

Whenever Bach assembled a collection of pieces, he took pains to make it as diverse as possible, and musicians have always delighted in the wonderful timbral variety of the Brandenburgs. Variety for the sake of entertainment and charm must have been at the forefront of Bach’s mind, but as he worked he must have become more and more fascinated with the compositional possibilities his varied instrumentations suggested. He constantly defines and articulates the succession of musical events by textural-timbral means: the Brandenburg Concertos are, so to speak, about their textures and their color.

the second Brandenburg Concerto

In the two Brandenburg concertos for strings alone, the third and the fourth, Bach sets himself the challenge of creating contrast where none explicitly exists. Here, in No. 2, he has the opposite task, to integrate his most heterogeneous consort of instruments: trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin, with strings and harpsichord. No wonder that the dynamics are marked in unprecedented detail. The Andante is for the three gentler-voiced soloists with figured bass.

What is best remembered about this Concerto is the trumpet part, the zenith of the clarion tradition, and one of the most spectacular sounds in all of Baroque music. Since Bach prefers a traversìere, or transverse flute, in Concerto No. 5, he presumably means a recorder when, as here, he just says flauto; however, in most modern-instrument performances in large halls, the part is played on a regular flute.

Instrumentation: solo violin, flute, oboe and trumpet, with orchestra comprising harpsichord and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss
Born: June 11, 1864, Munich
Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Four Last Songs

Richard Strauss rocketed to international fame as a very young man with his tone poems and early operas, and then, as he grew older and music changed around him, he seemed to fade from sight. On the occasion of Strauss’ 70th birthday in 1934, the English critic Eric Blom could airily dismiss him by saying that “over the last three decades he has been, it must be said, in a decline,” and a music appreciation text of that same era actually had to remind its readers that “at this writing [Strauss] is still very much alive.”

from destruction to creativity

Then came the catastrophe of World War II. Seventy-five years old when the war began, Strauss remained in Germany and watched in horror as Allied bombing destroyed every symbol of German culture. After the firebombing of Dresden, the aged Strauss agonized: “I too am in a mood of despair! The Goethehaus, the world’s greatest sanctuary, destroyed! My beautiful Dresden—Weimar—Munich, all gone!”

When the war ended, Strauss and his wife went to Switzerland while the composer, who had held a minor musical post under the Third Reich, waited to be cleared by de-Nazification courts. Now, in his 80s, Strauss felt a new stirring of creative energy, and he came upon a poem that had special meaning to him: Im Abendrot by Joseph Eichendorff (1798-1857), about an aging couple facing the end of their lives. He completed a setting of this poem for soprano and orchestra in May 1948, just before his 84th birthday. But he did not want this song to stand alone, and by good fortune he had just been given a copy of the complete poems of Herman Hesse (1877-1962). Strauss selected three of Hesse’s poems and across the summer of 1948 also set them for soprano and orchestra.

When Strauss returned to Munich in May 1949, he brought with him the manuscripts of these four songs— the last music he would ever write. But Strauss had not decided on a title for them, he made no suggestion about the order in which they should be performed, and he never heard them—he died four months later, in September. The first performance took place eight months after that, on May 22, 1950, in London, when they were sung by Kirsten Flagstad.

a vision of fullness

The Four Last Songs, as they have come to be known, are glorious music. In his old age, surrounded by destruction and annihilation, Strauss faces the imminence of death, but without the agony of a Mahler or a Shostakovich. Instead, the songs are suffused with a sense of calm, of acceptance, of completeness.

Part of the strength of the Four Last Songs comes from what has been called Strauss’ lifelong love affair with the soprano voice. He writes beautifully for soprano, and these settings demand a singer with a soaring, powerful voice and the intelligence to project the depth and variety of moods here. The songs’ sequence, which was decided by an editor, adds to their power. They move from spring through the decline of summer and on to the appeal of sleep, concluding with sunset—Abendrot— which here becomes the metaphor for both fullness and death.

Frühling (Spring). Briefest of the songs, Frühling has a particularly effective beginning. The text speaks of a longing for spring, and Strauss initially keeps the orchestra and soprano in their dark lower registers, then lets the voice soar at the arrival of that shining season.

September. The second song catches the year in a season of golden sunlight, with just a touch of the cool breezes that remind us what is to follow. High above the glistening sound of harps and high violins, the vocal line shimmers. After a climax that celebrates the fullness of this moment, Strauss leaves it to the golden sound of the solo French horn to draw the song to its quiet close.

Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep). The tone changes perceptibly as the soul longs to sleep and to be encircled by night. The music rises out of the orchestral depths, and the soprano’s song is now calmer, more resigned; soon Strauss twines her voice beautifully into the ornate line of the orchestra’s violins. Between the second and third stanzas comes an extended violin solo, its long melodic arch leading us from the desire for sleep into the final stanza, where the soul plunges into the night.

Im Abendrot (At Sunset). The first minute of Im Abendrot may well be the most beautiful music Strauss (or anyone else!) ever composed. After the opening, a great explosion of E-flat major sound, the upper strings soar along an endless flow of melody. The music seems to glow, to shine, in front of us, but it holds bittersweet flickerings of darkness. In the song, an aged couple who together have lived through joys and sorrows faces the sunset, hand in hand. The light darkens and the air grows cool, and in the distance we hear the song of larks (trilling flutes), here the symbol of death. At the end of their long lives, this couple looks calmly toward death, and it is almost with surprise that one of them asks: “Is this perchance death?”

Strauss underlines the meaning of the song (and the entire cycle) by quoting at just this point the transfiguration theme of his tone poem Death and Transfiguration, composed 60 years earlier. There this climbing, aspiring theme had symbolized the fulfillment of the soul in death, and in his final work it returns to make the same statement. As distant larks trill in the cool air, light and music fade into nothingness.

Instrumentation: solo soprano with orchestra comprising 3 flutes, piccolo (1 flute also doubling piccolo), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, celesta and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Download the text and English translation for Four Last Songs (pdf)

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler
Born: July 7, 1860, Kalischt (Kaliště), Bohemia
Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna

Symphony No. 4 in G major

Mahler once said he was thrice homeless—as a Bohemian among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew everywhere in the world. The village where he was born is about 60 miles southeast of Prague, and the trumpet calls he heard from its military garrison ghost through his music. His father, first a carter, then the owner of a small liquor store that he parlayed into a reasonably successful distillery, was an intellectually awake, unhappy, brutal man; his mother, sweet, plain and with a limp, was forced by her parents to marry Bernhard Mahler, whom she did not know, and even though she loved someone else. Not surprisingly, she was wretched.

A childhood memory, reported by Sigmund Freud, whom Mahler consulted in 1910, not on the famous couch at Berggasse 19, but during a long walk on a beach near Leiden in Holland: Once, when Bernhard Mahler was especially abusive to his wife, Gustav, unable to bear the scene any longer, rushed headlong from the house, all but crashing into an organ-grinder who was playing the popular song “Ach, du lieber Augustin.” Startling juxtapositions of the tragic and the frivolous became a hallmark of Mahler’s style; indeed, no feature of his music was more disturbing to his listeners.

As for the Fourth Symphony, Mahler himself had thought of this sunlit work as one whose transparency, relative brevity and nonaggressive stance might win him new friends. In fact, it enraged most of its first hearers.

subverted simplicity

The very qualities Mahler had banked on were the ones that annoyed. The bells, real and imitated (in flutes) with which the music begins! And that chawbacon tune in the violins! What in heaven’s name was the composer of the Resurrection Symphony up to with this newfound naiveté? Most of the answers proposed at the time were politicized, anti-Semitic, ugly. Today, we perceive more clearly that what he was up to was writing a Mahler symphony, uncharacteristic only in its virtually exclusive involvement with the sunny end of the expressive range. But naive? The violin tune, yes, is so popular in tone that we can hardly conceive that once upon a time it didn’t exist, but it is also pianissimo, which is the first step toward subverting its rustic simplicity. Moreover, Mahler marks accents on it in two places, both unexpected.

The first phrase ends and, while clarinets and bassoons mark the beat, low strings suggest a surprising though charmingly appropriate continuation. A horn interrupts them mid-phrase and itself has the very words taken out of its mouth by the bassoon. At that moment, the cellos and basses assert themselves with a severe “As I was saying” just as the violins chime in with their own upside-down thoughts on the continuation of the opening phrase that the lower strings had suggested. The game of interruptions, resumptions, extensions, reconsiderations and unexpected combinations continues.

The scoring rests on Mahler’s ability to apply an original and altogether personal fantasy to resources not in themselves extraordinary. Trombones and the tuba are absent; only the percussion is lavish. Mahler plays with this orchestra as though with a kaleidoscope. He can write a brilliantly sonorous tutti, but hardly ever does, preferring to have the thread of discourse passed rapidly, wittily from instrument to instrument, section to section. He thinks polyphonically, but enjoys the combining of textures and colors as much as the combining of themes.

Mahler wrote to a friend that he could dream up the most wonderful titles for the movements of this symphony, but would not “betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners” who would then subject them to “their banal misunderstandings.” We do, however, have his name for the scherzo: “Freund Hein spielt auf (Death Strikes Up).” Alma Mahler explained that here “the composer was under the spell of the self-portrait by Arnold Böcklin, in which Death fiddles into the painter’s ear while the latter sits entranced.” Death’s fiddle is tuned a whole tone high to make it harsher (the player is also instructed to make it sound like a country instrument and to enter “very aggressively”). Twice, Mahler tempers these grotesqueries with a gentle trio: Willem Mengelberg, the Amsterdam conductor, took detailed notes at Mahler’s 1904 rehearsals, and at this point he put into his score that “here he leads us into a lovely landscape.”

The Adagio, which Mahler thought his finest slow movement, is a set of softly and gradually unfolding variations. It is rich in seductive melody, but the constant feature Mahler always returns to is the tolling of the basses, piano under the pianissimo of the violas and cellos. The variations become shorter, more diverse in character, more given to abrupt changes of outlook. They are also pulled more and more in the direction of E major, a key that asserts itself dramatically at the end of the movement in a blaze of sound. Working miracles in harmony, pacing and orchestral fabric, Mahler, pronouncing a benediction, brings us back to serene quiet on the very threshold of his original G major, but when the finale emerges almost imperceptibly, it is in E. Our entry into this region has been prepared; Mahler means us to understand that now we are in heaven.

Mahler wrote most of the Fourth Symphony between June 1899 and April 1901. But for the finale he reached for a song he had composed in February 1892, Das himmlische Leben (Life in Heaven), one of five humoresques on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). He had to plan parts of the Fourth Symphony from the end back, so that the song would appear to be the outcome and conclusion of what was in fact music composed eight years after the song. From a late letter of Mahler’s to the Leipzig conductor Georg Göhler, we know how important it was to him that listeners clearly understand how the first three movements all point toward and are resolved in the finale.

The music of the song, though gloriously inventive in detail, is of utmost cleanness and simplicity. Just as the symphony began with bells, so it ends with them—this time those wonderful, deep single harp-tones of which Mahler was the discoverer.

Mahler led the Symphony’s premiere on November 25, 1901, with the Kaim Orchestra of Munich; the soprano was Margarete Michalek. He entered his final revisions of the symphony after the last performance he conducted of this work—with the New York Philharmonic, in January 1911.

Instrumentation: 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 5 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet, 1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, bells, sleigh bells, suspended cymbal, triangle, tam-tam, harp and strings, and (in the last movement) solo soprano

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

Download the text and English translation for Mahler's Fourth Symphony (pdf)

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