Program Notes for July 17th, 2008

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Gustav Mahler photographed in 1909

Gustav Mahler
photographed in 1909

Adagietto from Symphony #5 in C# minor (1902)
Gustav Mahler (b. Kalischt, Bohemia, 1860; d. Vienna, 1911)

Mahler had two careers, as a composer and as a conductor. His conducting activities eventually led him to positions at the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Calling himself a “holiday composer,” he composed feverishly during the off-season and completed nine numbered symphonies. Combining careers, he led the premiere performances of his first eight symphonies.

The composer famously claimed that to compose a symphony was to create a world. In his own works the horizon of each symphonic world is wide. Ethereal moments and calculated, clumsy effects often appear side by side. A dance might keep the image of death at bay–as long as the dancing lasts.

Like its composer, the Adagietto from the Symphony #5 exhibits a dual life, or in this case, an afterlife. As the fourth movement of a five-movement symphony, the Adagietto is an ethereal moment, an antidote to the stormy worlds of the other movements. Here the reduced orchestration consists of strings and harp, and the movement begins in a state of absolute calm. As the music intensifies in waves, it eventually leads to a climax of searing intensity, finally falling back in utter exhaustion.

Along the way there are passages that have entertained musical analysts for many happy hours, as they try to explain the sophisticated technical means by which Mahler obtained his effects. One section of the Adagietto returns, transformed, in the final movement of the symphony.

There are many listeners who know the symphony well, but there is an even larger audience that can recognize the Adagietto because Luchino Visconti used it in his visually sumptuous 1971 film Death in Venice. Here Visconti drew upon Mahler’s Adagietto, and little else, as music for his narrative.

The character of the film’s protagonist is based, at least in part, on the real-life Mahler. Visconti conflated two of Thomas Mann’s fictional characters, the author Gustav von Aschenbach from Death in Venice and the composer Adrian Leverkühn from Dr. Faustus. A question for film buffs: does Mahler’s Adagietto appear in its entirety the last time it is heard? (Hint: why not?)

Samuel Barber photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1944

Samuel Barber photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1944

Knoxville: Summer of 1915, op. 24 (1947)
Samuel Barber (b. West Chester, PA, 1910; d. New York, 1981)

Samuel Barber’s career was a happy confluence of genius, talent and opportunity. He received early encouragement from his aunt, a famous Metropolitan Opera contralto, and from his uncle, a composer. Young Samuel Barber composed his first opera at the age of 10. Entering the Curtis Institute at 14, he studied piano, singing and conducting. He later took up residence at the American Academy in Rome as a winner of the Rome Prize. Along the way he studied conducting with the eminent Fritz Reiner.

One of only two composers to have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice, Barber collected numerous other honors as well, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the selection of his Vanessa as the first opera by an American composer to be performed at the Salzburg Festival, and a commission for an opera, Antony and Cleopatra, for the inauguration of the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966.

Barber composed his Knoxville: Summer of 1915 on a text by James Agee, for the soprano Eleanor Stebor, who later sang the title role of Barber’s Vanessa in its premiere at the Met. Barber once said that, when setting text to music, he would immerse himself in the words, letting his music “flow out of them.”

Agee had taken a similarly spontaneous approach in writing his autobiographical short story Knoxville: Summer of 1915. He said that he wrote the bulk of the work in about ninety minutes, and that he had set out with the express purpose of letting it stand as originally conceived, without any significant revision. Agee’s publisher later included the Knoxville: Summer of 1915 as a preface to A Death in the Family, the author’s great posthumously published novel.

Samuel Barber set less than half of Agee’s lines to music in Knoxville: Summer of 1915. One passage that the composer did not set appears as an epigraph at the beginning of the published musical score, to be seen but not heard: “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Always sensitive to the nuances of words, Barber provides his performers and his listeners with evocative musical images of lines such as “rocking gently” and “a streetcar raising its iron moan.” At the stunning climax of the work, Agee’s speaker, and Barber’s musicians, lament that the adults, although loving and mindful, “will not, no, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”

J. S. Bach

J. S. Bach

Symphony #6 in F major, op. 68 (“Pastorale”) – 1808
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
On December 22, 1808, Beethoven presented his new Symphony #6 as part of a desperate entrepreneurial event. Taking advantage of the fact that the Theater an der Wien was closed for the Christmas season, he set about to produce a concert in the theater. He hired an orchestra and auditioned singers. He made sure that tickets were printed and sold, and that money was collected. He also hoped that some funds would be left over at the end, after all expenses had been paid. Unfortunately, the condition of the entrepreneurial “bottom line” is unknown.

What history does report are the freezing conditions inside the theater (the result of a money-saving ploy), the four-hour length of the concert, the dispute between Beethoven and his hired orchestra players, the inadequacy of his last-minute-replacement soprano soloist, and the magnificent piano playing of the composer. It was under these conditions that those fraternal twins, Symphony #5 and Symphony #6, received their first performances. Beethoven dedicated both works to the same pair of noble patrons, Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky, upon publication, but the two works are quite different from each other.

Unlike the fate-driven Fifth, the Sixth Symphony is easygoing from the outset. Instead of “Fate knocking at the door,” it is Nature who gently presents the listener with the “Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country” (Beethoven’s own subtitle for the first movement). Instead of a noble slow movement comes a rustic “Scene by the brook” in which the cuckoo and other birds converse.

Instead of a truly frightening third-movement Scherzo, there is a “Merry gathering of country folk,” and the village band can’t quite seem to come in together. But now comes quite an innovation, for there are two more movements to follow. After the depiction of a storm there is a final “Shepherd’s Song: Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.” The work concludes, as it began, gently and with “happy feelings.”

Story-telling works like the Pastorale Symphony had an enormous influence on later composers of a narrative inclination, like Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, just as Beethoven’s non-programmatic works had a great influence on another line of composers, including Brahms. In this way Beethoven summed up the possible paths for his successors in one unrealistically conceived concert in the winter of 1808.

Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.