Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, August 25, 1918; died in New York City, November 14, 1990
With this program, we return to the two composers who have been the focus of the BSO’s 2008-09 season: Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler. In the fall, we heard works they wrote as young men: their respective first symphonies. Now we move to the close of their careers, when both were facing declining health, with Mahler’s valedictory Ninth Symphony and the gentle Benediction that Bernstein used in two of his final works.
In 1986, Carnegie Hall reopened its doors after an extensive restoration project, and naturally, a gala concert was arranged for the occasion. Leonard Bernstein contributed a brief but beautiful work for orchestra and baritone soloist that he called Opening Prayer: a benediction for the hall and all who gathered in it. The text was the traditional Three-Fold Benediction from the Book of Numbers that is used in both Jewish and Christian services. Because of time constraints, longtime Bernstein associates Jack Gottlieb and Sid Ramin assisted with the orchestration. Bernstein himself conducted the work’s premiere by the New York Philharmonic on December 15, 1986.
At this same time, the composer was busy creating a larger work to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic, an orchestra with which he was also closely associated. Initially called Jubilee Games, it was inspired by the Jewish tradition of declaring every 50th year a “jubilee” year, in which wrongs would be righted and peace would be restored within the land. In 1989, Bernstein revised and enlarged this work, renaming it Concerto for Orchestra and including Opening Prayer here as a closing movement.
On the score of Opening Prayer, Bernstein inscribed: “remembering Dimitri M[itripoulos, former music director of the New York Philharmonic], Harold G[omberg, former principal oboe of the New York Philharmonic], Alma M[ahler, Gustav Mahler’s widow], and Bruno W[alter, great conductor and early champion of Mahler’s music]. The opening brass fanfares recall the sound of the shofar, the ancient brass instrument that traditionally announced the start of the Jubilee. Then, a solo oboe sings one of Bernstein’s loveliest elegiac melodies. After the violins repeat this theme, the soloist — in this performance a mezzo-soprano rather than a baritone — slowly sings in Hebrew the words of the Benediction:
“May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious unto you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace.”
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, harp, strings, and mezzo-soprano soloist.
Symphony No. 9
Born in Kalischt, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), July 7, 1860; died in Vienna, May 18, 1911
In the finale of his Sixth Symphony, written in 1904, Gustav Mahler interjected three tremendous percussion blows: a musical expression of a vision that he himself would be struck by three calamities. And in 1907, this eerie presentiment came true. First, Mahler was pushed out of his almost imperial position as director of the Vienna Court Opera, where he had built a reputation as Europe's greatest opera conductor. That summer, his beloved eldest daughter, Maria, died suddenly of diphtheria. And in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy, a medical examination revealed that he had a serious heart condition that would probably kill him within the next few years.
The next summer, Mahler wrote to his pupil and close friend, the conductor Bruno Walter, about the restrictions this diagnosis along with increasingly severe physical symptoms had forced on him. "For many years, I have been used to constant and vigorous exercise — roaming about in the mountains and woods, and then, like a kind of jaunty bandit, bearing home my drafts. I used to go to my desk only as a peasant goes into his barn, to work up my sketches. Even spiritual indisposition used to disappear after a good trudge. … Now I am told to avoid any exertion, keep a constant eye on myself and not walk much." Though Mahler had moved to an inspiring new composing retreat in Toblach just over the Austrian border in the jagged Italian Dolomites, his wife, Alma, remembered 1908 as "the saddest summer" they had ever experienced. "We were afraid of everything. He was always stopping on a walk to feel his pulse, and he often asked me to listen to his heart and see whether the beat was clear or rapid or calm."
Nevertheless, Mahler managed to submerge his anxiety in a new project: a set of six massive orchestral songs he called Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth"). In effect, it was his Ninth Symphony, though set in an unorthodox format. For Mahler was wrestling psychologically with yet another burden: the curse of the Ninth Symphony. After the prolific Haydn and Mozart with their dozens of symphonies, composers like Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner had found their Ninth Symphonies to be the last station before death. (Bruckner had not even lived to complete his Ninth.) So Mahler tried to cheat the curse by not numbering Das Lied and then upon completing his titular Ninth Symphony (also begun that same summer) telling friends that it was actually his Tenth because Das Lied was really the Ninth. But the curse could not be defeated that easily. For partway into his Tenth Symphony in 1911, death indeed claimed Mahler, leaving that work incomplete.
Meanwhile, Mahler the conductor had quickly filled the gap left by the loss of Vienna by accepting the directorship of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. His years were now divided between conducting and administrative duties in America and composing in Europe: an arduous existence indeed in the days before the jet plane. In 1909, he moved on from the Met to become music director of the New York Philharmonic. Both institutions paid him handsomely, but their wealthy patrons bedeviled his existence with their demands, and he found the Big Apple's high-pressure style — even a century ago — hard to bear. Certainly, it was not the right place for a man with a weak heart.
Nevertheless, when Mahler returned to Toblach in the summer of 1909 to do his most intensive work on the Ninth Symphony, his spirits were higher than they had been a year ago. He was more philosophical about the imminence of death and yet his passion for life was more intense than ever. He wrote to his wife: "I feel marvelous here! To be able to sit working by the open window and breathing the air, the trees and flowers all the time — this is a delight I have never known till now." To Bruno Walter: "I am experiencing so infinitely much now. … I see everything in such a new light. … I am thirstier for life than ever before and find the 'habit of existence' sweeter than ever. … How foolish it is to allow oneself to be submerged by the brutal vortex of life; to be untrue even for a short hour to one's self and to the highest things above us. … Strange! when I hear music — even when I am conducting — I hear quite specific answers to all my questions — and am completely clear and certain. Or rather, I feel quite distinctly that they are not questions at all."
These words strongly contradict the Ninth's reputation as Mahler's sorrowful, resigned farewell to life. This idea comes mostly from its last movement: a long, elegiac Adagio that seems to leave earth regretfully behind. But most of this 80-minute work is a vigorous struggle between the composer's passion for life and the specter of death. A secondary theme is the battle between pursuing false values (symbolized by movements two and three) and embracing what makes life truly worth living.
Listening to Mahler's Ninth
After the Ninth Symphony received its posthumous premiere in Vienna (under Bruno Walter's baton as the composer would have wished) in June 1912, the younger composer Alban Berg wrote insightfully about his impressions of the work. "The first movement is the most heavenly thing Mahler ever wrote. It is the expression of an exceptional fondness for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it, to enjoy nature to its depths — before death comes. … The whole movement is permeated by premonitions of death. All earthly dreams lead to it; that is why the most tender passages are followed by tremendous climaxes, like new eruptions of a volcano."
Many other commentators have hailed this epic movement as the composer's greatest achievement. It is a nearly 30-minute battle between the joy of living (represented by the key of D major) and the fear of death (the key of D minor). The music begins with odd, hesitant rhythms and a tolling harp — motives that will permeate the movement. Leonard Bernstein suggested that these rhythms reflected the irregular heartbeat Mahler was so painfully conscious of whenever he exerted himself. Violins then begin singing a tender, yearning theme (it has the feeling of a rocking lullaby) in D major that seems to embody Mahler's love for life. Notice also a downward-sighing two-note motive; Mahler called this "Farewell," and it was inspired by a similar motive in Beethoven's "Les Adieux" Piano Sonata.
But soon the sweetness of life is assaulted by louder, very tormented music in D minor: the threat of death. The music rises to the first of the movement's big climaxes before the now troubled life theme can reassert itself. All this material is presented and developed in a rich counterpoint of independent instrumental lines; elaborate counterpoint will be extensively used throughout the Ninth.
We will hear four alternating cycles of these opposing musical worlds. The D-minor death music becomes easier to distinguish because it subsequently returns in a faster tempo than the life music. Each assault becomes progressively longer, louder, faster, and more brutal in its climax. From the last climax, the life theme emerges staggering and badly wounded. Consoled by an eerily lovely passage for flute, piccolo, and horn, it manages a little burst of jubilation over its hard-fought victory. And then the music fragments and fades away, with the two-note "farewell" calls in the winds and a solitary violin whispering the life theme.
After such sublime music, the second-movement Scherzo comes as a rude shock. Mahler scholar Donald Mitchell stresses that both the Ninth's middle movements are meant to be satirical: the second in a naive, rustic way and the third movement using the utmost musical sophistication. Of this Scherzo — a regular feature in Mahler symphonies — Deryck Cooke, comments that it presents "the 'dance of life' as something utterly tawdry, stupid and empty." It begins rather innocently as a rustic Austrian ländler dance for woodwind band and strings that Mahler instructs be played "rather clumsily and coarsely." The first movement's descending "Farewell" motif is very prominent here, now sounding rather mindless. In a faster tempo, an aggressive, stomping waltz with vulgar brass outbursts soon barges in. Yet a third dance follows: an extremely sentimental ländler featuring warm horns and afflicted with a bad case of the trills. The eventual return of the opening dance leads to a hectic combination of all three dances. Ultimately, the first dance, despite many attempts, is unable to re-start itself, and the music again fades into little fragments: in Michael Steinberg's words, "an intriguing mixture of the ghostly and the cute."
The remarkable third-movement Rondo-Burleske is intense, concentrated music whose elaborate counterpoint shows Mahler's devotion to Bach, while its unhinged tonality and dissonance point ahead into the 20th century. Marked "very defiantly," it sounds like a wild march built out of the little melodic fragments we hear in its belligerent opening measures. The composer emphasizes the shrill cries of high woodwinds. A contrasting section is a littler gentler, as the violins in their lower range present a jaunty, football-half-time theme. As the first march returns and the counterpoint grows more hectic, the music resembles a sound portrait of Mahler's frenetic existence in New York. Suddenly, the hurly-burly is arrested by a cymbal crash, and we hear a radiantly uplifting passage as solo trumpet and strings sing a marvelous transformation of the previously wild melodic ideas. Significantly, the key is again the "Life" key of D major. Perhaps this interlude represents the life-giving peace and beauty of Toblach. But the frantic march returns, whirling faster and faster.
Mahler frequently closed his symphonies in a different key from the one in which they began: a strategy known as “progressive tonality.” After all the pain and struggle that has taken place, the original key of D major seems no longer attainable, and so he chooses to slip downward to the key of D-flat major for his great Adagio finale. The violins cry out a unison plea for mercy, and then the full string section pours out a noble, consoling chorale, richly harmonized. Twice, a ghostly bassoon interrupts, eventually transforming the chorale into plaintive, weeping music featuring solo viola and violin. The chorale resumes, becoming more weighty, tragic, and riddled with dissonance. Suddenly, the key shifts, and we hear ethereal, bucolic music for English horn, flute and other woodwinds over the tolling harp from the first movement; it is the loveliest of Mahler's dreams of a rural idyll. Again, the chorale returns and reaches a great climax, topped by tragic brass.
With this, the Ninth's last struggle is over, and now the music begins to fade peacefully, becoming slower, almost pulseless, and several times actually stopping all together. Near the close, violins sing a beautiful, yearning melody arcing upward. This is a quotation from the fourth of Mahler's earlier Kindertotenlieder ("Songs of the Death of Children"); its words speak of the sunshine on the heights where the dead children dwell. Mahler biographer Michael Kennedy suggests that this is a fleeting memorial to Mahler's little daughter, Maria, dead two years earlier. On this tender, consoling thought, the Ninth closes in peaceful acceptance.
Instrumentation: 4 flutes, piccolo, 4 oboes with fourth doubling on English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, piccolo clarinet, 4 bassoons with fourth doubling on contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 timpanists, percussion, harp and strings.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008
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