Program Notes for July 20th, 2008

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Gustav Mahler  photographed in 1909

Gustav Mahler
photographed in 1909

Das Lied von der Erde (1908)
Gustav Mahler (b. Kalischt, Bohemia, 1860; d. Vienna, 1911)
Transcription for chamber orchestra begun by Arnold Schoenberg (1920) and completed by Rainer Riehn (1983)

Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) is Mahler’s testament to human resilience. It represents a sea change in the music of a composer whose world-view, though large in its horizons, had usually been optimistic. In 1907 Mahler took three strikes. His daughter Maria died of scarlet fever, he learned of his own serious heart condition and he left his directorship of the Vienna Court Opera under unpleasant conditions.

While Mahler’s immediately preceding work, his Symphony #8, had been “public” music of great optimism, Das Lied von der Erde is private music of defiance, despair and, finally, acceptance. Mahler responded deeply to imagery that he found in a gift volume of poetry, Hans Bethge’s German versions of Chinese lyrics, published in 1907 under the name Die chinesische Flöte (“The Chinese Flute”). The composer subtitled his work “A Symphony for Tenor and Alto (or Baritone) Voices and Orchestra,” and the six movements explore as wide a world as any of his numbered symphonies.

In the first movement, “Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow,” the dramatic opening outburst is counterpoised by a somber refrain line, “Dark is life, [dark] is death.” The second movement, “The Lonely One in Autumn,” questions whether the “sun of love” will ever shine again. Movements three through five arguably take over the function of a traditional symphony’s scherzo movement, painting in turn a scene of jade and porcelain in “Of Youth,” a picture of breathless love masked by proud appearance in “Of Beauty” and a canvas of twittering reverie in “The Drunkard in Spring.” The final movement, nearly as long as the other movements put together, is a setting of two poems with extensive orchestral commentaries. The movement ends slowly and hypnotically, with words by Mahler himself, as the soloist repeats the mantra “Ewig, Ewig” (“Forever…”).

In 1920 Arnold Schönberg sketched out a chamber-orchestra version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, intending to present it at his Society for Private Musical Performances. Such a procedure might seem like a contradiction in terms, since Mahler had composed for the resources of a much larger orchestra. However, Mahler had often used his large orchestra as a variable palette of chamber-music-like tone colors. Furthermore, his Symphonies #4-6 and his orchestral song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”) had already been presented in reduced versions at these concerts.

When the Society for Private Musical Performances went defunct in 1921, Schönberg left his transcription unfinished, to be taken up and completed several decades later by Rainer Riehn. If Mahler’s original orchestration is like an oil painting, or at times a watercolor, the chamber-orchestra version is closer to an etching, where individual musical lines can appear in black-and-white clarity.

J. S. Bach

J. S. Bach

Symphony #9 in D Minor, op. 125
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)

Beethoven produced eight symphonies in the twelve-year period between 1800 and 1812, but it was only at the end of the next twelve-year period that his single remaining symphony appeared. At one time the composer had planned a trilogy of symphonies, two of which were completed in 1812 and published as No. 7 and No. 8. The other projected work was abandoned, however, and there is little in the way of surviving sketches to link it to the later Symphony #9.

Concentrated work on the final symphony, as revealed in the composer’s sketchbooks, began only in 1823. The first performance, although under-rehearsed and riddled with artistic and administrative difficulties, was a resounding success. The profoundly deaf composer appeared onstage to give musical advice during the performance, but he was largely ignored by the performers. At the conclusion, the alto soloist had to make sure that Beethoven turned to face the audience in order to accept the thunderous applause. Finally, the Imperial Commissioner of Police had to make a crowd-control appearance.

Beethoven was very coy about tipping his hand at the beginning of the Symphony #9. The bare sound of open fifths in the strings lacks context. From this void, Beethoven creates his musical matter. Much of the first movement is concerned with a gradual revealing of the implications of this opening sound. At the conclusion of the movement, a disturbing coda signals that some tensions still await resolution.

The demonic Scherzo and its more relaxed Trio alternate in an ABABA fashion. When the Trio initiates one appearance too many near the end, it is summarily crushed. For many listeners the crown jewel of the Ninth Symphony is the magnificent slow movement, the Ode to Joy notwithstanding. The music moves in the rarefied atmosphere of the late string quartets and late piano sonatas. Here Beethoven called for a new technology, the valve horn, a necessity in order to negotiate the fourth-horn solo passages.

The Finale begins with the most horrendous clash Beethoven could imagine, even outdoing its infamous prototype in the “Eroica” Symphony. After sifting through various musical styles and systematically discarding themes from the previous movements, the music settles on a new tune, presented first by the low strings and finally by the full orchestra. Now comes the segment for which the soloists and chorus have been patiently waiting, as the bass-baritone soloist introduces Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

In its expression of Enlightenment ideals, the poem made a strong appeal to Beethoven’s sensibilities. This was a composer whose only opera extols high-minded actions, who re-titled his “Eroica” Symphony (minus Napoleon’s name) in the light of political events, and whose own life was a botch in the application of those ideals. Schiller himself grew to dislike his own poem, thinking certain passages to be hopelessly anachronistic; he culled it when a new edition of his poems was published. Beethoven set 36 of Schiller’s 108 lines, omitting extravagances such as “cannibals who drink gentleness from the golden blood of joy’s grapes.”

Of great interest to Beethoven was Schiller’s assertion that “all mankind will become brothers,” and the composer rose to the occasion in order to make the point. For instance, nothing in Schiller’s text demands the seemingly incongruous Turkish march in Beethoven’s setting of the Ode. The passage has been understood variously as comic relief or as playing to the then-current Viennese taste for faux-Turkish music. More profoundly, though, the march shows that even Vienna’s military enemy of the not-too-distant past could claim its rightful place among those who “run your course joyfully, like a hero going to victory.” The chorus answers, “Let me embrace you, o you millions.”

The stamina required to sing the vocal parts is legendary. Today’s musical pitch, about a half-step higher than in Beethoven’s day, makes the music more brilliant but also more taxing to sing in 2008 than in 1824. All thought of human difficulties disappears, however, as the orchestra and chorus launch into the final Maestoso section moments before the end. This music soars, in the words of the Ode, “over the stars.”

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.