Program Notes: Season Finale: Vänskä Conducts Mahler’s Second

Program Notes: Season Finale: Vänskä Conducts Mahler’s Second

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Full program notes:

Franz Joseph Haydn
Born: March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died: May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in D major for Keyboard and Orchestra, H. XVIII:11

Of all the places to journey back to in music history, the glittering palace of the Esterházys on the Hungarian plains east of Vienna would be a prime destination. A time-traveler arriving at just the right night in the early 1780s, when this D-major Concerto was brand new, would witness the following scene: 

Haydn, as music director and resident composer at the aristocratic Esterházy establishment—renowned for its lavish musical forces—has programmed and rehearsed a concert for the entertainment of a swarm of guests, royalty among them. The musicians, attired in smartly-cut livery, offer a varied program, with perhaps even the latest symphony by their beloved Kapellmeister. Haydn himself, though he makes no pretense to virtuosity, may be presiding at the keyboard for the concerto; or at least, he commands the second keyboard, conducting from the harpsichord that is still present as part of the continuo texture, though in its twilight phase.

a rival emerges
At the time this concerto was written (its precise date is uncertain), a formidable rival would soon dispatch the harpsichord for good. The new piano, like the orchestra itself, was advancing by leaps and bounds, having already made its bid for fashion in the 1770s. When the firm of Artaria published Haydn’s D-major Concerto in 1784, they designated the work “per il clavicembalo o fortepiano,” a titled that would be attached to various works for many years, as publishers made a bid for the harpsichord as well as the piano market.

the music: from an age of transition
vivace. Though equally idiomatic for the modern piano, the crisp brilliant runs and driving momentum of the opening Vivace remain in the harpsichord mode. Haydn, with his amazing inventiveness, accomplishes a good deal with very little, restricting himself largely to the bright, tripping theme of the opening for most of what happens in this engaging movement. When it comes time to push on to a contrasting key, however, a new slant of thought enriches the textures with a brief chromatic dalliance.

un poco adagio. For all its courtly rococo graces (the delicate embellishments mirroring the very decor of Esterháza as you may view it even today), the second movement turns up some decisive piano signals. The exquisite line summons the sustaining tone of the piano, on which Haydn had by then already heard Mozart perform. A poignant solo commands the center of this song-shaped movement, its emotions intensified by a six-times-repeated note that cries out for the nuances and shading possible only at the piano, rather than on its plucked predecessor. When the main theme returns, however, its elaborate graces are straight out of an earlier age. And so the movement is a genuine hybrid, created in an age of transition.

rondo all’ungherese: allegro assai. The folk dance spirit of that melting pot region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prevails in the concluding Rondo, whose title alerts us to its Hungarian style. No one wrote wittier or livelier finales than Haydn, and this one is in a class by itself. Much of its playfulness emerges from the composer’s sly transformations of the refrain, which undergoes metamorphoses almost beyond recognition, but manages to dominate even the episodes. The harmonic gestures are bold, especially in the turn to minor, but the manner is genial and the antics were no doubt intended to amuse. As in the earlier movements, Haydn provides opportunities for cadenzas and, in fact, left a couple presumed to be his own. Fresh extemporizations, however, are precisely what he would have expected, and few artists will resist the temptation to supply something new.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.


Gustav Mahler
Born: July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia
Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection

In August 1886, the 26-year-old Mahler was appointed second conductor at the theater in Leipzig. He soon made the acquaintance of Baron Carl von Weber, grandson of the composer of Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon, music close to Mahler’s heart. The encounter had interesting consequences.

First, Weber invited Mahler to examine his grandfather’s sketches for an opera called Die drei Pintos (The Three Pintos), hoping to interest Mahler in extracting a performing version from those sketches. Next, Mahler and Weber’s wife, Marion, fell in love, and some of the affair is, as it were, composed into the First Symphony, on which Mahler worked with great concentration in February and March 1888.

an imaginary funeral
Mahler did, in any event, take on Die drei Pintos and conducted its highly acclaimed premiere on January 20, 1888. Bouquets and wreaths galore were presented to Mahler and the cast. Mahler took home as many of these floral tributes as he could manage, and lying in his room amid their seductive scent, he imagined himself dead on his bier. The experience sharpened greatly Mahler’s vision of a compositional project he had had in mind for some months: a large orchestral piece called Totenfeier (Funeral Rites).

Mahler completed this work later in 1888, and five years later— after having left Leipzig to become music director of the opera in Budapest, then principal conductor in Hamburg—he realized that Totenfeier was not an independent piece but rather the first movement of a new symphony. In 1893-94, working around his conducting obligations, he wrote a second and third movement, also a finale and revision to the first movement; a song he had previously composed, Urlicht (Primal Light), was inserted as the fourth movement.

Mahler led the Berlin Philharmonic in the premiere of the first three movements on March 4, 1895, and of the entire work on December 13 of that year. He revised the scoring again in 1903 and was still tinkering with it as late as 1909.

the music: a journey toward resurrection
The Second Symphony is often called the Resurrection, but Mahler himself gave it no title. On various occasions, though, he offered programs to explain the work—yet he blew hot and cold on this question, being skeptical and then changing his mind repeatedly as to just what the program was. Yet across their differences, Mahler’s various program descriptions share certain features.

The first movement celebrates a dead hero, retaining its original Totenfeier aspect. The second and third movements represent retrospect, the second being innocent and nostalgic, the third including a certain element of the grotesque. The fourth and fifth movements are the resolution, and they deal with the Last Judgment, redemption and resurrection.

All this has bearing on Mahler’s perception of the structure of his Second Symphony, a matter on which he made various comments that are not so much contradictory as they are complementary. He said that the first three movements were in effect “only the exposition” of the symphony and that the appearance of the Urlicht song, the fourth movement, sheds light on what comes before. He referred to the three middle movements as having the function only of an “interludium.”

allegro maestoso. The first movement, the Totenfeier, is firmly anchored to the classical sonata tradition (late Romantic branch). Its character is that of a march, and Mahler’s choice of key—C minor—surely alludes to the classic exemplar of such a piece, the marcia funebre in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The lyric, contrasting theme, beautifully scored for horns, is an homage to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

andante moderato. The thematic material of the second movement, both the gentle dance it begins with and the cello tune that soon joins in, goes back to Leipzig and the time of the Totenfeier. This movement was occasionally played by itself, and Mahler used to refer to these bucolic genre pieces as the raisins in his cakes.

in quietly flowing movement. The third movement is a symphonic expansion of a song about Saint Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes; the text comes from the collection of German folk verse, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Mahler worked on the two pieces simultaneously and finished the scoring of the song one day after he completed the orchestration of the scherzo.

Urlicht: very solemn, but simple. The sardonic Fischpredigt scherzo skids into silence, and its final shudder is succeeded by a new sound, the sound of a human voice. In summoning that resource, as he would in his next two symphonies as well, Mahler consciously and explicitly evokes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Urlicht, whose text also comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, is one of Mahler’s loveliest songs.

in the tempo of the scherzo. The peace that the song spreads over the symphony like balm is shattered by an outburst whose ferocity again refers to the corresponding place in Beethoven’s Ninth. Mahler arrays before us a great and pictorial pageant. Horns sound in the distance (Mahler referred to this as “the crier in the wilderness”). A march with a suggestion of the Gregorian Dies irae is heard, and so is other music saturated in angst, more trumpet signals, marches and a chorale. Then Mahler’s Great Summons: horns and trumpets loud but at a great distance, while in the foreground a solitary bird flutters across the scene of destruction. Silence. From that silence there emerges again the sound of human voices in a Hymn of Resurrection. A few instruments enter to support the singers and, magically, at the word “rief” (called), a single soprano begins to float free.

The problem of finding the right text had baffled Mahler for a long time. Then the remarkable figure of Hans von Bülow entered the scene—Bülow, the pianist who gave the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous First Piano Concerto, who conducted the premieres of Tristan and Meistersinger, and who was one of the most influential supporters of Brahms. When Mahler went to the Hamburg Opera in 1891, the other important conductor in town was Bülow, who was in charge of the symphony concerts, and who was impressed by Mahler. As Bülow’s health declined, Mahler began to substitute for him, and he was much affected by Bülow’s death early in 1894. At the memorial service, the choir sang a setting of the Resurrection Hymn by the 18th-century Saxon poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.

“It struck me like lightning, this thing,” Mahler wrote to Arthur Seidl, “and everything was revealed to my soul clear and plain.” He took the first two stanzas of Klopstock’s hymn and added to them verses of his own that deal still more explicitly with the issue of redemption and resurrection.

The lines about the vanquishing of pain and death are given to the two soloists in passionate duet. The verses beginning “Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen” (With wings I won for myself) form the upbeat to the triumphant reappearance of the chorale: “Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!” (I shall die so as to live!), and the symphony comes to its close in a din of fanfares and pealing bells.

Instrumentation: solo soprano, solo mezzo and four-part mixed chorus, with orchestra comprising 4 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (2 doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet and 1 doubling E-flat clarinet), E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 10 horns (4 offstage), 6 trumpets, 4 offstage trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani (1 offstage), snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, 2 tamtams, triangle, bells, chimes, 2 harps, organ and strings

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

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