This program pairs the first symphonies of the two musicians who are the focal points of the BSO’s 2008–09 season: Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein. There were remarkable parallels between these two composer-conductors, of which Bernstein was well aware. Both were born into the Jewish faith, yet struggled throughout their lives to find their own spirituality. Both spent the majority of their careers as conductors of towering authority, while simultaneously struggling to find sufficient time for their own creative work. More specifically, both served as music directors of the New York Philharmonic, half a century apart.
Beginning with performances of the “Resurrection” Symphony in 1948 when he was still in his twenties, Bernstein devoted his career to interpreting and recording the Mahler symphonies; indeed, Mahler’s popularity in America today is largely due to his advocacy. He wore Mahler t-shirts and seemed at times to believe himself to be the reincarnation of the Austrian master. Undoubtedly the greatest sadness of Bernstein’s otherwise phenomenally successful career is that, outstanding and varied as his compositions were, he believed they never measured up to the legacy of Mahler’s ten mighty symphonies.
Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah"
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, August, 25, 1918; died in New York City, November 14, 1990
When his powerful Jeremiah Symphony was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony under his own baton on January 28, 1944, Leonard Bernstein, age 25, was in the midst of the most remarkable year any composer—certainly any American composer—has ever had. Two and a half months earlier—November 14, 1943—he had made an electrifying debut with the New York Philharmonic, substituting at the last moment for the indisposed Bruno Walter on a Sunday afternoon concert that was broadcast on nationwide radio. Suddenly, he was the hottest conductor around. And Jeremiah immediately served notice that he was a symphonic composer of real promise. Given a New York premiere by the Philharmonic on March 29, it was rapturously received by critics and audiences and won the New York Music Critics Circle Award for best new orchestral work of 1943–1944. To complete his conquest of American music, Bernstein premiered his brilliant ballet Fancy Free in April at the Metropolitan Opera House and in December unveiled the Broadway musical On the Town (based on the ballet's scenario), which ran for 463 performances. His wildly eclectic career had been set in motion, and he seemed the young crown prince of New York.
But in the summer of 1939 when he began work on what became Jeremiah's third movement and even in late 1942 when he returned to this piece and transformed it hastily into a three-movement symphony as an entry in a competition sponsored by Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony (oddly, it didn't win even though Koussevitzky was already Bernstein's mentor), he was still leading a hand-to-mouth existence. Hanging out in various NYC apartments, he pressed his friends into service copying pages as he completed the work's masterly scoring in just ten days.
Bernstein described all three of his symphonies as expressions of an ongoing musical search for faith. His father, Sam Bernstein (to whom he dedicated Jeremiah), was a Talmudic scholar, and his grandfather and great-grandfather had been Hasidic rabbis in Russia. But steeped though he was in Judaism, Bernstein fought a love-hate battle with his heritage all his life. Of this symphony he said: "I wouldn't say that it's God up there watching over me, as much as me down here looking up to find Him—I guess you would call that a chief concern of my life." And of Jeremiah's quiet ending: "The faith or peace that is found … is really more a kind of comfort, not a solution."
Jeremiah takes it name and expressive program from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who warned the ancient Israelites to repent and mend their ways or be destroyed. But they ignored his warnings; Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian empire, and its people were sent into captivity. In the work's finale, an extended song for mezzo-soprano, Bernstein set words drawn from the opening of the book of Lamentations, as Jeremiah mourned the lost Holy City and his people.
In a program note for the work's New York premiere, Bernstein wrote: "The symphony does not make use to any great extent of actual Hebrew thematic material. The first theme of the scherzo [second movement] is paraphrased from a traditional Hebrew chant, and the opening phrase of the vocal part in 'Lamentation' is based on a liturgical cadence still sung today in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. Other remembrances of Hebrew liturgical music are a matter of emotional quality, rather than of the notes themselves.
"As for programmatic meanings, the intention is again not one of literalness, but of emotional quality. Thus the first movement ('Prophecy') aims only to parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet's pleas with his people; and the scherzo ('Profanation') to give a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people. The third movement ('Lamentation'), being a setting of poetic text, is naturally a more literary conception. It is the cry of Jeremiah, as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged, and dishonored after his desperate efforts to save it."
Bernstein's longtime editor Jack Gottlieb, however, says that the composer quoted more extensively from Jewish liturgical music than he was perhaps aware. "The opening theme of the first movement is derived from the High Holy Day liturgy, heard for the first time as part of the Amidah ('standing') prayers, or 18 blessings. This compilation of fixed benedictions … probably constitutes the second most important Jewish prayer after the monotheistic creed of Sh'ma Yisrael ('Hear, O Israel'). This theme nourishes the growth of the movement.
"The scherzo ('Profanation') theme … is based on cantillation motives used during the chanting of the Bible on the Sabbath, especially the Haftara ('concluding') portion. The motives are well known to those who chant Bible passages in preparation for Bar Mitzvah. …
"Significantly, the conclusion of the 'Lamentation' recalls the Amidah theme from the first movement, indicating that the foreboding prophecy has been fulfilled."
Symphony No. 1 in D Major
Born in Kalischt, Bohemia, July 7, 1860; died in Vienna, May 18, 1911
When Gustav Mahler, age 29, premiered his First Symphony in Budapest on November 20, 1889, the audience responded with tepid applause and scattered boos. At subsequent performances in Berlin and in Vienna the reaction was even more negative. Only audiences in Prague and in Amsterdam (where Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra were creating a Mahler clique) applauded warmly.
Before we start feeling smug about our superiority to those benighted audiences a hundred years ago, consider what kind of music they were used to hearing. Works contemporary with Mahler's First include Brahms' Fourth Symphony (1885), Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony (1886), Dvorák's sunny Eighth (1889), and Tchaikovsky's super-Romantic Fifth (1888). Now forget about all the 20th-century music you've heard, time travel back to 1889, and consider how you might have reacted to Mahler's musical mood swings, daring orchestral sounds, searing dissonances and shocking mixture of popular and classical idioms if these were the symphonies you were accustomed to. For in what was probably the most remarkable and daring first symphony ever written (only Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique can match its shock value), Mahler revealed himself as fully and radically himself.
Strangely, Mahler had expected an easy success. As he later told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner: "Naively, I imagined it would be child's play for performers and listeners, and would have such immediate appeal that I should be able to live on the profits and go on composing." Yet he was also fully aware of the originality of his artistic vision. Of his first two symphonies he wrote: "My whole life is contained in them: I have set down in them my experience and suffering … to anyone who knows how to listen, my whole life will become clear, for my creative works and my existence are so closely interwoven that, if my life flowed as peacefully as a stream through a meadow, I believe I would no longer be able to compose anything."
When Mahler was composing this work, he would have dearly loved to have been able "to live on the profits," for he was leading a rather precarious existence. There were no summers off or peaceful cottages deep in the woods for him then, and any composing he accomplished had to be done in odd hours, often late at night. He jumped rapidly from one opera house to another, as assistant and eventually conductor. But, despite his unquestioned talent, he found keeping a job difficult. Obstinate and uncompromising, he made a bad subordinate. Symphony No. 1 was composed during the winter of 1887-88 in moments stolen from his work as co-conductor of the Leipzig Stadttheater; by May he had been forced to resign. By September he had signed a contract with the Royal Opera House in Budapest, but that too lasted little more than a year.
The symphony the Budapest audience heard was different from the one we hear today. Already an innovator in matters of symphonic form, Mahler had originally created a five-movement work divided into two sections: the first comprising the opening movement, a slow movement titled "Blumine" that he eventually tossed out (performed by Maestra Alsop and the BSO two seasons ago), and the Scherzo second movement; the last, the Funeral March and the fiery finale. He called it a "Symphonic Poem." The subtitle "Titan," after a novel by Jean Paul Richter, was later added, then dropped as Mahler grew uneasy with having non-musical programs attached to his symphonies. Unsatisfied, he returned many times to revise this work: reducing it to the conventional four movements and refining its orchestration. The version we hear now is his last word from 1906.
Mahler admitted to a friend Max Marschalk that the work was inspired by a passionate love: "The symphony begins where the love affair ends; it is based on the affair which preceded the symphony in the emotional life of the composer." Who was the lady? In 1884, Mahler wrote a song cycle for baritone or mezzo and orchestra: Songs of a Wayfarer. It was perhaps inspired by a thwarted affair with a soprano in Kassel, Johanna Richter, and two of its songs figure prominently in this symphony. But the lady might also have been Marion von Weber, the wife of a prominent Leipzig citizen; this scandal probably hastened Mahler's departure from that city.
Mahler marked the slow introduction to the first movement as "Wie ein Naturlaut"—"like a sound of nature." He compared it to life awakening on a beautiful spring morning. A quiet pedal on A, stretched from highest violins to lowest basses, hovers expectantly. Gradually little motives come to life: a pattern of descending fourths in various woodwinds (the interval of the fourth is central to this work), a military fanfare on the clarinets (Mahler grew up in a army garrison town), woodwind bird calls. Then the tempo accelerates, the key solidifies onto D major, and we hear in the cellos the jaunty walking theme of the second song of the Wayfarer cycle in which the disappointed lover strides out into the countryside to drown his grief in nature's beauty. Notice how parts of the theme are tossed chamber-music style from instrument to instrument; this is a Mahler trademark you will hear throughout the work. Later, the walking song returns and gradually builds to a big climax, the only loud moment in this subtle movement. Enroute to this climax, listen for a series of heavily accented, downward swoops in the violins; this anguished music will return much later in the symphony's finale.
Movement 2 is a robust peasant ländler dance based on the composer's 1880 song, "Hans und Grethe," and likely inspired by his rural Bohemian childhood. The clattering sounds are the violas and cellos striking the strings with the wooden part of their bows. The trio section is very sentimental, even a little boozy, with lurching glissandos for the strings and some tipsy dissonant harmonies for the woodwinds.
The funeral-march third movement in D minor is what really outraged Mahler's first audiences, for it mixes tragedy and levity, "vulgar" music with "serious" symphonic themes in a schizophrenic manner unique to this composer. The stifled sound of a muted solo bass lugubriously introduces the German children's song "Brüder Martin" (better known as "Frère Jacques") as a funeral dirge, which spreads solemnly in canon through the orchestra. Then Mahler abruptly launches an incongruous episode of up-tempo popular music c. 1880, mingling traces of klezmer with the schmaltz of a Hungarian gypsy cafe. And then amid all this craziness, he offers up a lyrical section in G major of great peace and loveliness, using the melody of the last of the Wayfarer songs, in which the unhappy lover finds solace under a linden tree.
"The cry of a wounded heart" (Mahler's description) assaults us in the screaming, violently dissonant opening of the finale. Hysteria reigns for many moments, only to yield unexpectedly to peace: one of Mahler's most beautiful spun-out melodies shared between the cellos and violins. The frenzy returns, but trumpet fanfares hint of triumph to come. But first we return to the slow morning music with which the symphony began. In a final struggle, the downward-swooping violin motive from that movement finds resolution in the trumpet victory theme. Following Mahler's instructions, the seven horn players rise to their feet and play "as if to drown out the entire orchestra" in one of the most thrilling endings in the symphonic repertoire.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008