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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

MAHLER MAHLER MAHLER



THE COLUMBUS SYMPHONY PERFORMS MAHLER'S SYMPHONY no. 6 FRI/SAT FEBRUARY 11 and 12 in the OHIO THEATER. THE SATURDAY NIGHT PERFORMANCE IS BROADCAST LIVE ON CLASSICAL 101 AND MAY BE HEARD ON THE WEB: www.wosu.org. JOIN ME EACH NIGHT AT 7 IN THE OHIO THEATER FOR PRE- CONCERT TALKS.

I repeat the composer's name, having laughed for years at those for whom Mahler is an obsession, now having joined their ranks. At present I'm immersed in the Symphony no. 6. Karajan called this "the bleakest of all music". Norman Lebrecht called the finale of this symphony "irredeemably grim" and Wilhelm Furtwangler called in "nihilistic". Nobody but nobody claims that Mahler's Symphony 6 is a barrel of laughs.



This to me is a symphony of high drama and-in the Andante-almost unbearable beauty. The opening march is described as "menacing", "frightening" "horrible". I wonder what the audience in 1907 thought-a few years before WWI and 25 years prior to the Third Reich. Did they find this relentless tramping horrifying, predicting the future in a militaristic society, or merely irritating.

There's also the question of movement order. Nobody knows for certain if its Scherzo-Andante or the other way around. Most recordings I know do Scherzo-Andante which some think at odds with the composer's last word. I don't know and neither do you. Do I care? Not a lot.
(Jean Marie Zeitouni and the Columbus Symphony will play Andante-Scherzo)

If you read Mahler's letters to his wife Alma, you find that a composer writing "bleak" music is often cute, corny, endearing and wildly in love. As work on the 6th progressed Mahler was finessing the Kindertotenlieder-the collecting of five songs on the death of children. Alma was terrified and not a little angry. They had two young daughters: Maria (Putzi) and Anna (Gucki). What a bad omen to bring such music into the house. And then Anna died, aged five in 1907. Mahler loses his long time position as boss of the Vienna Opera-the world's most prestigious. He is diagnosed with the heart condition that leads to his death at 51.

Alma was right. Did she ever forgive her husband? It was around this time that Alma began affairs, notably with Walter Gropius who she would later marry. Gustav went to New York, first to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, then the New York Phiharmonic. Mahler's tenure at the Met ended with a clash with Toscanini. But the New York critics were quick to get on the Mahler bus:

"The score was revealed in all its complex beauty and allurement, of grave
dignity, with its strands of interwoven melody always clearly disposed and united with exquisite sense of proportion and an unerring sense of the larger values. Delicacy and clearness where the characteristics of many passages, yet the climaxes were superbly effectual. Through it all went the sense of dramatic passion and sensual beauty...The audience was very large. It greeted Mr. Mahler upon his entrance into the orchestra with several rounds of applause...After the first act he was called out again and again, and received a token of approval that this audience is slow to bestow on any newcomer..." (New York Globe, Jan. 2, 1908)

Calling Mahler, the dominant musician of Europe a "newcomer" was a bit much, but clearly his Met debut, conducting Tristan und Isolde on New Year's Day, 1908 was a triumph. He stayed two seasons, directed the New York Philharmonic and sailed home to Vienna, thin and ill in the spring of 1911 where he shortly died.

The sixth symphony begins and ends in a minor ("the key of resignation") I'd say battle more than resignation and in this music he is either trying to keep Alma or get her back.
Indeed the huge theme a few minutes into the first movement, after the first menacing tramping, is called 'Alma'. The composer reportedly said to his wife, "This is for you, you may as well get used to it". Not a smooth talker he, but Mahler's love for Alma must have been passionate and overwhelming.

Don't miss the irony in Mahler's music. It's all over the place. The sixth is filled with a military type drama and foreboding-but 'Alma' is gorgeous and the Andante movement is of unspeakable beauty. Wherever its played.



Yet through all this angst you also hear distant cowbells, and Mahler's love, no, need for the countryside is evident.

The long fourth movement is famous for the three hammer blows-crushing, destroying -life ending (as for me the adagio is life affirming) It was suggested that these three blows also predicted the trio of blows later to attack the composer: the death of his daughter, the loss of position and the diagnosis of a fatal heart condition. But it it significant that Mahler later deleted the final hammer blow.

Don't think this a minor symphony ends in triumph-as some of them do-or a sigh of a minor "resignation". The 6th packs up at the very end. It just runs out of steam and goes away. Leaving you to think what is the future? Military marches, chaos, war or passion?




There's Bernstein near the end of his own life. I think what makes the 6th bleak to many is the lack of recovery from the hammer blows. They aren't followed by any rollicking or soaring major key triumph. It's the end.

Until the 7th symphony.
But that's another story.

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