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Louis Conducts Mahler


Program Notes


FRI APR 21, 8 pm
SAT APR 22, 8 pm

LOUIS LANGRÉE conductor | KELLEY O’CONNOR mezzo-soprano | STUART SKELTON tenor

SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417, Tragic

Adagio molto—Allegro vivace
Menuetto: Allegro vivace



Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”)

Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (“The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery”)
Der Einsame im Herbst (“The Lonely One in Autumn”)
Von der Jugend (“Of Youth”)
Von der Schönheit (“Of Beauty”)
Der Trunkene im Frühling (“The Drunkard in Spring”)
Der Abschied (“The Farewell”)

Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417, Tragic

• Born: January 31, 1797, Vienna
• Died: November 19, 1828, Vienna
• Work composed: 1816
• Premiere: Possibly November 19, 1849, Leipzig, August Ferdinand Riccius conducting
• Instrumentation: flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
• CSO notable performances: Three previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1935, Eugene Goossens conducting | Most recent: January 1984, Michael Gielen conducting (also Carnegie Hall)
Duration: approx. 31 minutes

Between 1814 and 1816, Schubert worked as a teacher in his father’s school in suburban Vienna. He cared little for the situation, and soothed his frustration by composing: in 1815 alone, he wrote nearly 150 songs, the Second and Third Symphonies, a Mass and other church music, piano pieces and a half dozen operettas and melodramas. The torrent of music continued unstaunched, and he stole enough time from his pedagogical duties to compose 200 pieces between the Third Symphony and this Symphony in C minor, completed in April 1816. He thought a change of scene might improve his attitude toward teaching, and, just as he was finishing the new Symphony, he submitted the following application (in the third person) for the position of musical director at the German School in Laibach:

1. Applicant has been educated at the Konvikt [i.e., Imperial and Royal Seminary], and was a Court Chorister and composition pupil of Antonio Salieri, first Court Conductor, on whose kind recommendation he applies for this post.

2. He has gained such thorough knowledge and experience in every type of composition for organ, violin and the voice that, as the enclosed references testify, he is considered in every way the most capable among all the competitors for the post.

3. He promises the best possible application of his abilities to the carrying out of his duties should he be graciously considered a fitting applicant to fill the post.

Schubert did not get the job in Laibach, and he decided he had had more than his fill of teaching. He left his father’s school that spring to devote his full time to composing, and never again held a regular job. His only employment during the remaining twelve years of his life was as music tutor for two summers on the Hungarian estate of Count Esterházy. Lacking virtually any income, he lived on the charity of his friends. The Symphony No. 4 was one of the last compositions Schubert wrote before retiring from teaching—at the age of nineteen.

Schubert apparently composed the Fourth Symphony for an informal orchestra of amateurs and professionals in which he played viola, though there is no record that this friendly band ever tackled the work. It may have been heard in a performance in 1849 in Leipzig by the “Euterpe Musical Society,” though George Grove (of music dictionary fame) and Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) reported discovering the manuscript in a dusty closet in Vienna in 1867, a mission that also unearthed the music for Rosamunde and the Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6. Publication of the full score had to await the complete edition of Schubert’s works issued by Breitkopf and Härtel in 1884.

Sometime after the piece was completed, Schubert appended the word “Tragic” to the last page, the only of his classical sonata-form works to which he gave a subtitle. Grove guessed that this sobriquet may have been inspired by the composer’s dire financial situation at the time, but he could find little other justification for the appellation. It could also refer to the stormy nature of the Symphony’s first and last movements, in which Schubert tried to instill some of the heroic emotionalism he admired so greatly in such of Beethoven’s minor-key works as the Fifth Symphony, Coriolanus Overture, and String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 4. Dr. Percy Goetschius, the respected American theorist and teacher, thought the title “inaccurate, pompous and a bit pretentious.... There is to be found in this Symphony no more than a general, artificially emphasized dramatic strain, and a few pathetic touches, but no genuine tragic outbursts.” The Symphony is more agitated and, in the lovely second movement, nostalgic than it is truly tragic, but there runs through much of the work a restlessness that is reflected in its unsettled harmonic structure. In this quality of disquiet, Schubert’s C Minor Symphony is prophetic of much of the impassioned music of the Romantic era that was just beginning during his lifetime.

The Symphony opens with a stern, unison note spread across the full orchestra, from which grows a slow introduction filled with yearning chromatic motives passed among the instruments. The main theme, introduced by the violins when the quick tempo begins, is a bustling melody with an underpinning of rapid, repeated notes. A fiery transition leads to the contrasting second theme, which, as in Beethoven’s Coriolanus Overture, is not so much lyrically peaceful as emotionally tethered. The compact development section is based on the stormy main theme. The recapitulation begins, surprisingly, not in the expected key of C minor but in G minor, then recalls the second theme in E-flat major and dispenses its emotional clouds with a coda in the bright tonality of C major.

Had Schubert intended this to be a truly tragic symphony, he would not have allowed the second movement to glow with such sweet serenity. Its theme is one of those tunes of utter simplicity and seeming obviousness that few other than the greatest masters could construct. Twice, an episode of darker emotional hue interrupts the course of this melody, but the overriding impression of the movement is halcyon and idyllic.

The third movement, though marked “Menuetto,” is closer in spirit and technique to one of Beethoven’s rousing scherzos. The theme of the first section winds chromatically through a descending pattern that defies any single tonality. The theme of the central trio, displayed by the woodwinds, bears a close resemblance in its opening gesture to that of the first movement, a subtle unification of the work’s overall structure that Schubert learned from that other great C minor symphony—Beethoven’s Fifth.

The finale resumes the troubled tenor and impetuous haste of the first movement, and with even wider harmonic peregrinations. The recapitulation of the themes and the coda that closes this Symphony, however, turn again to the joyous key of C major that concluded the earlier movement—the tragedy, such as it was, has turned to triumph.

Dr. Richard E. Rodda


Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”)

• Born: July 7, 1860, Kalist, Bohemia
• Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna
Work composed: 1908–1909
• Premiere: November 20, 1911, Munich, Bruno Walter conducting
• Instrumentation: solo alto (mezzo) and tenor voices, 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes (incl. English horn), 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, mandolin, timpani, bass drum, cymbals a2, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambour de basque, triangle, 2 harps, celeste, strings, tenor | Most recent: May 2000, Jesús López-Cobos conducting, Petra Lang, mezzo-soprano, Keith Lewis, tenor
• CSO notable performances: Seven previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1924, Fritz Reiner conducting, Alma Beck, contralto; Daniel Beddoe,
• Duration: approx. 63 minutes

“Das Lied von der Erde is the most personal utterance in Mahler’s creative work and perhaps in music. Every note he wrote speaks only of himself; every word he set to music, though it may have been written a thousand years ago, expresses but himself.” So Bruno Walter, Mahler’s friend and protégé, conductor of the premiere and intimate observer of the gestation of Das Lied von der Erde, wrote of this incomparable masterpiece of self-revelation and farewell. The emotional engine driving Das Lied was stoked in the summer of 1907, when Mahler was struck by three blows of fate: he left the Vienna Opera after a turbulent decade as its director; he suffered the death from scarlet fever and diphtheria of his beloved four-year-old daughter, Maria; and he himself was diagnosed with heart disease. “I have lost any calm and peace of mind I ever achieved,” he wrote to Walter. “I stand vis-à-vis rien [‘face to face with nothing’], and now, at the end of my life, I have to begin again to learn to walk and stand.” If he wanted to preserve his life for very long, his physician advised, it would be necessary to limit his physical exercise and to curtail his hectic schedule of performing and composing. Mahler agreed to the former, not to the latter. “I had often implored him to give up his long bicycle rides, his climbing and his swimming under water, to which he was so passionately attached. There was nothing of that sort now,” his wife, Alma, recorded in her memoirs. “We avoided strenuous walks owing to the ever-present anxiety about his heart. Once we knew he had valvular disease of the heart we were afraid of everything. He was always stopping on a walk to feel his pulse; and he often asked me during the day to listen to his heart and see whether the beat was clear, or rapid, or calm. He carried a pedometer in his pocket. His steps and pulse-beats were numbered, and his life a torment.” The emotional and creative result, Mahler told Walter, was that “in this solitude my thoughts naturally become more subjective, and the sadness of my condition seems intensified.”

Both as an antidote to the traumas of his private life and as the irresistible fulfillment of his artistic calling, however, Mahler continued his work unabated throughout 1907. He accepted a contract to conduct at The Metropolitan Opera during the following winter, led programs in Helsinki (where he met Sibelius) and St. Petersburg, and presented his last opera production (Fidelio, October 15th) and his last orchestral concert (his Second Symphony, November 24th) in Vienna. In December, he sailed for New York, making his debut at The Met in Tristan und Isolde on New Year’s Day, 1908. Amid all this activity, he was wrestling with ways in which to transmute the grief of that year into music (“I don’t choose what to compose, it chooses me,” he once said), but his ideas did not become focused until he returned to his villa at Toblach, in the Dolomites, in the spring. There, he received a recently published book of poems by Hans Bethge from Theobald Pollak, Court Councilor and a close friend of Alma’s family. The volume, titled Die Chinesische Flöte (“The Chinese Flute”), contained 83 verses upon the subject of the individual’s brief sojourn on this eternally blooming earth that Bethge had freely adapted into German from French translations of the Chinese originals by Léon Hervey de Saint-Denys (1872) and Judith Gautier (1867, the daughter of Théophile Gautier, whose poetry was set by, among many other French composers, Berlioz in his Les Nuits d’Été).

Mahler found both comfort and inspiration in Bethge’s verses, and he was fired with the idea of setting several of them as songs with orchestra. He chose seven (two poems are used in the finale, separated by a funeral march), which were attributed to the eighth-century poets Li-Tai-Po, Tchang-Tsi, Mong-Koo-Yen and Wang-Wei, made some changes in their texts, and retitled them to hew them more closely to his frame of mind and the purpose of his gestating composition, and worked on the score in his isolated composing hut at Toblach “at white heat throughout the summer of 1908,” according to Alma. The draft was completed before he gave the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in Prague on September 15th. As was his custom, he orchestrated the work during the winter, while he was in this country conducting The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Das Lied was for Mahler a personal testament, perhaps the finest and most deeply moving part of his artistic legacy, one that he invested with his most profound emotions, his longing for life, his sadness, his undimmed belief in the fundamental beauty of the earth, and the pain and poignancy he felt at the prospect of leaving it. “Can this be endured at all?” he asked Walter of the new piece. “Won’t the people kill themselves afterward?” The composition of Das Lied von der Erde in 1908 seems to have purged some of Mahler’s scorched emotions from the previous year, however, and he admitted to his friend that through it he had regained a measure of inner calm and delight in nature.

Mahler, who was more than a little superstitious during his later years (Alma left an amazing account of the couple’s attempt to contact the soul of their dead daughter at a New York séance), faced the prospect of composing a ninth symphony with great trepidation—Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Dvořák had all died after reaching that number. By avoiding assigning a number to Das Lied von der Erde, which followed his Eighth Symphony by two years, he rationalized to Alma that he had “given God the slip.” After completing Das Lied, he quickly began his next symphony, telling her that “actually, of course, it’s the Tenth, because Das Lied was really the Ninth.... Now the danger is past.” He was wrong. The Ninth Symphony proved to be the last work that he completed (though he left the Tenth as a nearly performable torso), and Das Lied von der Erde was not premiered (by Bruno Walter in Munich) until six months after his death. Mahler’s titular equivocation left open the issue of the specific generic designation of Das Lied. Walter said that Mahler first called the piece a “symphony in songs,” but that he altered it to “symphony for alto and tenor soli with large orchestra” by the time that the score was done. Though some commentators have managed to discover the outline of traditional symphonic form in Das Lied, the work, unique in its balance, structure and emotional progression, is more song-cycle than symphony.

There is no hour in all of music to match Das Lied von der Erde. The immediacy of the solo voices, the attenuated, chamber-like orchestration, the power of the images embodied in the words, the universality of its theme—all these make Das Lied a work that can speak to the innermost recesses of our humanity as can few others. Michael Kennedy wrote:

It has everything. It is filled with indefinable sadness and longing and yet ultimately it is not depressing; it is simple in design; it is fantastically beautifully scored; and it provides the soloists with wonderful opportunities.... Das Lied von der Erde is Mahler’s supreme masterpiece because he, who was essentially a programmatic composer however much he may have wished to deny this, found in it the ideal program for the projection of his musical character and capability. It is music filled with his love of life, a love sharpened to the point of poignancy by awareness of man’s mortality and the transitory nature of existence. He brought to its composition an element of artistic objectivity and detachment while at the same time being gripped by intense emotion.... It is the best of Mahler, his speaking likeness; and admirers of the work have only to hear a fragment of it to be transported at once into its unique atmosphere. It becomes part of one’s metabolism.

—Dr. Richard E. Rodda