Program 9

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Rückert Lieder for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra

Composed in 1901-1902.

Premiered on January 29, 1905 in Vienna, conducted by the composer with baritone Friedrich Weidemann as soloist.

Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was Professor of Oriental Literature at Erlangen and Privy Counselor for King Friedrich Wilhelm IV at Berlin from 1841 to 1848. (Mendelssohn was Kapellmeister at the German court at the same time; he wrote his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Theater in 1842.) Rückert was known as both a productive scholar, with many translations of texts from Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic and Sanskrit, as well as a prolific writer of poems, many of which were influenced by the forms, images and content of Oriental verses. His poems, which appeared in many periodicals, anthologies and collections during his lifetime, were popular and highly regarded, and they inspired musical settings from a number of 19th-century composers, including Schubert, Schumann, Marschner and Litolff. Among the most notable of Rückert’s thousands of poems were the 428 verses collectively titled Kindertotenlieder — “Songs on the Death of Children” — that he wrote in 1832-1834 to assuage his grief over the death of his infant son; they were published only posthumously, in 1872. Gustav Mahler came to know the Kindertotenlieder through his extensive readings in German philosophy and literature, and they appealed to him mightily not only for the expressive quality of their poetic images and the refinement of their language and structure, but also for their first-person viewpoint, the revelatory expression of self that he believed was the dynamic force driving artistic expression. (“Only when I experience do I compose — only when I compose do I experience,” was his life-long dictum.) When Anton Webern asked him in 1905 about his attraction to Rückert’s poems after having been immersed for many years in the folkish verses of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Mahler replied, “After Wunderhorn, Rückert was the only thing I could do — this is poetry at first-hand; all other poetry is second-hand.”

In the summer of 1901, when he escaped from the pressures of directing the Vienna Court Opera to his country retreat at the village of Maiernigg on the Wörthersee in Carinthia, Mahler made orchestral settings of six of Rückert’s poems, three of which were from the Kindertotenlieder. Three years later, he added two more settings to the Kindertotenlieder cycle, which has remained one of his most esteemed works. Mahler did not regard the other three Rückert settings of 1901 — Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen — as a unified cycle, though their texts, which evoke love, nature and philosophical resignation, are related in the gentle contrast that they provide to the tragedy of the Kindertotenlieder. The following summer, after he had met and married the talented and beautiful Alma Schindler, he appropriated two more Rückert poems for musical treatment — Um Mitternacht and Liebst du um Schönheit. In her reminiscences of Mahler, Alma recorded a delightful tale about Liebst du um Schönheit, which her husband wrote to celebrate their love and new life together: “I used to play Wagner a lot at the piano, and this gave Mahler the idea for a charming surprise. He had composed for me the only love-song he ever wrote — Liebst du um Schönheit — and he slipped it between the pages of Die Walküre. Then he waited day after day for me to find it; but I never happened to open the volume, and his patience gave out. ‘I think I’ll take a look at the Walküre today,’ he said abruptly. He opened it, and the song fell out. I was overwhelmed with joy, and we played it that day twenty times at least.” He gathered the five independent Rückert songs together with two others on Wunderhorn texts (Revelge and Der Tamboursg’sell), and published the set in 1905 as Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (“Seven Last Songs”).

Rückert wrote Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (“I breathed a gentle fragrance”) when his wife decorated his desk with a lime-tree branch for his birthday. (The text plays on the pun of the German words Linde [“lime-tree”] and linde [“gentle”].) Mahler’s caressing treatment captures perfectly the poem’s sweetness and affirmation of love.

Liebst du um Schönheit (“If you love for beauty”), Mahler’s paean to his marital love at the beginning of what proved to be the happiest period of his life, is rapturously lyrical and glowingly optimistic.

“The very text of Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder (‘Do not look at my songs’),” according to the composer’s close friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, “is so characteristic of Mahler that he might have written it himself.” Its mood is playful and tinged with humor.

Um Mitternacht (“At Midnight”), scored for full complement of winds but without strings, is one of the most dramatic of Mahler’s creations. A nighttime uneasiness dominates much of the music, which is haunted by a starkly eerie scale descending into the most subterranean reaches of the ensemble. The mood brightens for the closing stanza, the brass is marshaled, and the song ends in sun-bright affirmation as poet and composer entrust themselves to God’s care.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (“I have lost touch with the world”), which the composer told Bauer-Lechner represented himself, is both a vocal analogue to the transcendent introspection of the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, on which Mahler was also engaged in 1902, and a preview of the resigned, peaceful acceptance that closes both the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. This movement limns an ineffable elegiac emotion that Mahler was capable of expressing better than any other composer; it may well be the finest symphonic song that he ever wrote.

Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

Composed in 1902; much revised through 1911.

Premiered on October 18, 1904 in Cologne, conducted by the composer.

“Oh, heavens! What are they to make of this chaos, of which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble in ruin a minute later? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent and flashing breakers?” So Gustav Mahler wrote during the rehearsals for the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in Cologne to his wife, Alma, in Vienna. He was concerned that this new work, so different in style and aesthetic from his earlier symphonies, would confuse critics and audiences just when his music was beginning to receive wide notice. Deryck Cooke noted the ways in which this Symphony and its two successors differ from the Symphonies No. 1 through No. 4. “Gone are the folk inspiration, the explicit programs, the fairytale elements, the song materials, the voices,” Cooke wrote. “Instead we have a triptych of ‘pure’ orchestral works, more realistically rooted in human life, more stern and forthright in utterance, more tautly symphonic, with a new granite-like hardness of orchestration.”

What brought about the radical change in Mahler’s symphonism in 1902? Heinrich Kralik’s comments typify the bafflement among scholars: “Nothing is known of any outward experiences or inner transformations during that period that could account for the new mode of expression. There was no outward struggle that could have threatened the composer’s career [which also included directing the Vienna Opera] and shattered his peace of mind. Mahler’s music provides us with the only indication that his inner life underwent a change at that time.” With a rare unanimity, commentators have ignored the central biographical event in Mahler’s life during the time immediately preceding the composition of the Fifth Symphony — he fell in love, a condition not unknown to alter a person’s life.

In November 1901, Mahler met Alma Schindler, daughter of the painter Emil Jacob Schindler, then 22 and regarded as one of the most beautiful women in Vienna. Mahler was 41. Romance blossomed. They were married in March, and were parents by November. Their first summer together (1902) was spent at Maiernigg, Mahler’s country retreat on the Wörthersee in Carinthia in southern Austria. It was at that time that the Fifth Symphony was composed, incorporating some sketches from the previous summer. He thought of this work as “their” music, the first artistic fruit of his married life with Alma. But more than that, he may also have wanted to create music that would be worthy of the new circle of friends that Alma, the daughter of one of Austria’s finest artists and most distinguished families, had opened to him — Gustav Klimt, Alfred Roller (who became Mahler’s stage designer at the Court Opera), architect Josef Hoffmann and the rest of the cream of cultural Vienna. In the Fifth Symphony, Mahler seems to have taken inordinate care to demonstrate the mature quality of his thought (he was, after all, nearly twice Alma’s age) and to justify his lofty position in Viennese artistic life. Since neither Mahler nor Alma explained the great change of compositional style of 1902, the question can never be securely answered. Mahler’s renewed musical language seems too close in time to the vast extension of his social life engendered by his marriage, however, to have been unaffected by it. In an 1897 letter to the conductor Anton Seidl, Mahler confirmed the symbiotic relationship of his music and his life: “Only when I experience do I compose — only when I compose do I experience.”

The musical style that Mahler initiated with the Fifth Symphony is at once more abstract yet more powerfully expressive than that of his earlier music. In his study of the composer, Egon Gartenberg noted that the essential quality differentiating the later music from the earlier was a “volcanic change to modern polyphony,” a technique of concentrated contrapuntal development that Mahler had derived from Bach. “You can’t imagine how hard I am finding it, and how endless it seems because of the obstacles and problems I am faced with,” Mahler confided to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner while struggling with the Symphony’s third movement. Free of his duties at the Opera between seasons, he labored throughout the summer of 1902 on the piece at his little composing hut in the woods, several minutes walk from the main house at Maiernigg. So delicate was the process of creation that he ordered Alma not to play the piano while he was working lest the sound, though distant, should disturb him (she was a talented musician and budding composer until her husband forbid her to practice those skills after their wedding), and he even complained that the birds bothered him because they sang in the wrong keys (!). Every few days he brought his rough sketches to Alma, who copied them over and filled in some of the orchestral lines according to his instructions.

The composition was largely completed by early autumn when the Mahlers returned to Vienna, but Gustav continued to revise the orchestration throughout the winter, daily stealing a few early-morning minutes to work on it before he raced to the Opera House. The tinkering went on until a tryout rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic early in 1904. Alma, listening from the balcony, reported with alarm, “I heard each theme in my head while copying the score, but now I could not hear them at all! Mahler had overscored the kettledrums and percussion so madly and persistently that little beyond the rhythm was recognized.” Major changes were in order, Alma advised. Mahler agreed, immediately crossed out most of the percussion parts, and spent seemingly endless hours during the next seven years further altering the orchestration so that it would clearly reveal the complex musical textures. Hardly any two performances of the work during his lifetime were alike. The premiere in Cologne brought mixed responses from audience and critics. Even Bruno Walter, Mahler’s protégé and assistant at the Vienna Opera and himself a master conductor and interpreter of his mentor’s music, lamented of the first performance, “It was the first time and, I think, the only time that a performance of a Mahler work under his own baton left me unsatisfied. The instrumentation did not succeed in bringing out clearly the complicated contrapuntal fabric of the parts.” It was not until one of his last letters, in February 1911, that Mahler could finally say, “The Fifth is finished.” Mahler had indeed solved the problems of the work with its final revision, according to Bruno Walter. “In the Fifth Symphony,” Walter wrote, “the world now has a masterpiece which shows its creator at the summit of his life, of his power, and of his ability.”

Though there have been attempts to attribute extra-musical dimensions to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (one, a 23-page analysis of the work’s musico/metaphysical aspects by Ernst Otto Nodnagel of Darmstadt — “What an eccentric!” Alma noted of him — appeared soon after the premiere), this is “pure” music. “Nothing in any of my conversations with Mahler and not a single note point to the influence of extra-musical thoughts or emotions upon the composition of the Fifth,” wrote Bruno Walter. “It is music — passionate, wild, pathetic, buoyant, solemn, tender, full of all the sentiments of which the human heart is capable — but still ‘only’ music.” For his part, Mahler, who once thundered across a dinner-party table, “Pereant die Programme!” (“Perish all programs!”), did not create any written description of the Symphony, as he had for his earlier works, but determined to let the music speak unaided for itself. He insisted that the audience have no program notes for the premiere or for later performances in Dresden and Berlin. The only quasi-programmatic indication in the score is the title of the first movement — Trauermarsch (“Funeral March”) — but even this is only an indication of mood and not a description of events. It is with this work that Mahler left behind the mysticism, mystery and symbolism of Romanticism and entered the modern era. It stands, wrote Michael Kennedy, “like a mighty arch at the gateway to 20th-century music.”

Mahler grouped the five movements of the Symphony into three parts. Thus, the opening Trauermarsch takes on the character of an enormous introduction to the second movement. The two are further joined in their sharing of some thematic material. The giant Scherzo stands at the center point of the Symphony, the only movement not linked with another. Balancing the opening movements are the Adagietto and the Rondo-Finale of Part III, which have the quality of preface and summation.

The structures of the individual movements are large and complex, bearing allegiance to the classical models, but expanded and re-shaped, with continuous development and intertwining of themes. The Trauermarsch is sectional, alternating between music based on the opening trumpet summons and an intensely sad threnody presented by the strings. The following movement (“Stormily moving. With great vehemence”) resembles sonata form, with a soaring chorale climaxing the development section only to be cut short by the return of the stormy music in the recapitulation. The Scherzo juxtaposes a whirling waltz/Ländler with trios more gentle in nature. The serene Adagietto, perhaps the most famous single movement among Mahler’s symphonies, serves as a calm interlude between the gigantic movements surrounding it. The closing movement (Rondo-Finale) begins as a rondo, but interweaves the principal themes with those of the episodes as it unfolds in a blazing display of contrapuntal craft. The triumphant chorale that was snuffed out in the second movement returns here to bring the Symphony to an exalted close.

©2013 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

August Symphony Series performance location

Door Community Auditorium - Fish Creek 

The Peninsula Music Festival - 10347 Highway 42

Unit B Green Gables Shops 

P.O. Box 340, Ephraim, Wisconsin  54211


Phone: (920) 854-4060