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Live Abbatia  Music Collective

'Mahler to Bocairente' / 22 August 2020

Gustav Mahler - First Symphony (arr. Jaume Santonja)

Notes to the program Pablo Sanchez-Quinteiro

Origin and circumstances of the composition:

The First Symphony was composed by the young Gustav Mahler in the years 1877-78 during a stage in which his career as a conductor was on the rise, but nevertheless his vocation as a composer was inevitably relegated to the background.

At that time Mahler held the position of assistant conductor to Artur Nikisch at the Lepizig Orchestra. It is a period of tranquility personally, as difficult circumstances such as the death of his parents or the suicide of his brother Otto are yet to come.  

Sentimentally it is an intense period as Mahler lives an intense romance with Marion von Weber, the wife of the grandson of the composer Carl Maria von Weber, whom he meets thanks to his work recovering the incomplete score of the opera Die drei Pintos .

However, the symphony is a kind of crucible of all the vital, interpretive and compositional experiences accumulated by the young Mahler throughout his life.


Premiere and impact of the play:

It is a topic as repeated as it is inaccurate to say that Mahler's symphonies were premiered and received with the greatest rejection by the public and critics. For example, the Second, Third and Eighth were received and reinterpreted with resounding successes. However, the premiere of the First Symphony, which actually took place as a symphonic poem in five movements entitled Titan , in the city of Budapest, where Mahler occupies the role of chief conductor, was a resounding failure, in which the critics he primed himself with the more extravagant and innovative aspects of the score.

Although the political circumstances that caused in Hungary a rejection of the cultural and artistic manifestations coming from centralist Austria undoubtedly influenced the failure, it was inevitable that the originality of the score, absolutely innovative, provoked a rejection that lasted almost constantly. throughout the life of the composer. It was, however, due to its moderate dimensions -in the Mahler symphonic context- and due to a later acceptance of its still nineteenth-century language, the most performed Mahler symphony in the composer's lifetime. In fact, it was the composer's first symphony played in Spain, specifically in Valencia (1909), a fact that unfortunately went unnoticed by the musical world of the Valencian Community and Spain in the years of the Mahlerian double anniversary (2010-11).

The originality of the work is evident from its very start in an almost inaudible and prolonged natural of the string that is interrupted by the songs of wood and the calls of the metals from outside the stage. No one to date had started a symphony in such an unusual way, far from the symphonic canon established by Beethoven and which at that time was exemplified in the Brahms symphonic cycle. It is enough to compare the beginning of this work and the contemporary Third Symphony by Brahms to see how Mahler practically builds from scratch a symphonic world diametrically opposed to what is known.

The second performance of the work took place in Hamburg, in a new version of the score, and experienced a similar fate. The programmatic indications added by Mahler had little effect. From that moment Mahler makes more radical decisions, modifying the score again, eliminating the second movement, the only slow one in the work, called Blumine , and transforming the poem into an apparently abstract score, already considering it as his First Symphony.

Program and structure of the work:

The work revolves around the life events of the protagonist of Jean Paul's novel, Titan. The score reflects various episodes of the hero's life in a tragicomic context that reaches a dramatic character in the end. But the text is nothing more than an excuse to express the experiences and aspirations of the young composer.

The first movement begins as a Naturlau t "sounds of nature", with fanfares and bird calls. It took Mahler a long time to get the introduction to sound the way he wanted; each effect is precisely calculated, taking into account not only the most delicate dynamic nuances, but also the placement of the performers on and off stage. Unlike Beethoven's cuckoo in the Pastoral Symphony, he sings the interval of a fourth instead of a third. After the introduction the sounds of nature become a charming and undulating melody. That melody, which begins with the descending fourth of the cuckoo, comes from the second of The Songs of the Wandering Comrade Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld (“I walked through the fields this morning”). Mahler transforms the Lied by continually making the music sound new. After an introspective and long section that transports us to the landscape of the introduction, but now wrapped in a more disturbing atmosphere, the reappearance of the theme of the wandering comrade prevails over the reluctance of wood and metal, finally resurfacing in an exultant way. A new change of polarity, in a movement that by itself constitutes a symphonic poem, practically resolved.

Blumine is a short Andante that begins and ends with a lyrical trumpet melody, accompanied by trembling strings. The trumpet melody, natural and simple, alternates with a melancholy song on the oboe. Despite its apparent simplicity, chromatically it is an elaborate and refined piece, worthy of being performed regularly.

The Scherzo returns to the bipolarity of the first movement with the two expansive and exultant extreme sections and a melancholic trio, which in the best performances is overwhelming due to its intense lightness.  

The provocative third movement is an astonishing mix of a sad and distorted version of Frère Jacques, an exaggerated funeral march, bits of crude band music in which oboes and trumpets dance to the rhythm of the bass drum; and as a conclusion the ethereal music of the wandering walker. As if that were not enough, the first exhibition of Frère Jacques at the beginning of the movement corresponds to the soloist double bass that acquires in this symphony a prominence hitherto unusual in the history of music.  

The contrast between the delicate conclusion of the previous movement and the start of the Finale is in Mahler's own words like "lightning bursting from a dark cloud; the cry of a wounded heart". Once again it is a fight of extremes; between a music in search of victory and a lyrical outpouring of unfathomable beauty. Mahler's melodic invention and his talent for fully exploiting all the expressive resources of the orchestra make this journey from light to darkness an epic experience for listeners and performers alike. Without a doubt, Mahler has known since the beginning of his career how to answer the peremptory question in the symphonic genre of “the problem of the end”.

Camera version: Attractiveness and historical relevance.

The history of the chamber arrangements of Gustav Mahler's symphonies begins in the aftermath of the First World War. At that time Arnold Schoenberg decides to found the Society for Private Musical Performances ( Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen ), focused on the presentation of contemporary scores under the highest interpretive demands. The limited economic means of society made it difficult to interpret the orchestral scores in their original form, so they were offered in chamber arrangements specially prepared for the occasion. The performances were guided by the absence of any concession, both towards the public and towards the critics, by the planning of a large number of rehearsals and by the repeated programming of the same works throughout several concerts. Obviously, the indifference towards any kind of success or failure was absolute.

During its three active seasons, the Verein played a decisive role in the dissemination of contemporary creations. In total, one hundred and thirteen concerts were held with one hundred and fifty-four scheduled works. Only two orchestral works by Gustav Mahler were adapted for the Verein : The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen arranged by Arnold Schoenberg and the Fourth Symphony, transcribed by Erwin Stein. Schoenberg likewise began work on a transcription of Das Lied von der Erde , but never completed it.

After the economic failure of the Society –due mainly to the Viennese hyperinflation-, these orchestral arrangements, as well as the philosophy and values that had inspired them, fell into disuse. Fortunately, thanks to the revival of Mahler's music that began in the 1960s and became established in the 1980s, Erwin Stein's arrangement was rediscovered and even Schoenberg's version of Das lied von der Erde was eventually completed by Reiner. Riehn (1983).  

Initially these modern interpretations were motivated by historical or practical reasons, but performers and musicologists soon realized that chamber arrangements went beyond this. Thus, for example, by allowing a more transparent realization of the score, they gave a new light to the counterpoint and the polyphonic writing of the work. It should never be forgotten that clarity was always one of Mahler's main concerns as the conductor. On the other hand, performing Mahler's symphonies with a reduced ensemble allows them to be brought to life from a much more nuanced and subtle perspective, typically characteristic of the world of chamber music.  

But at the same time, it is surprising to see how the symphonic nature of the work remains intact in these arrangements. This is justified in part by the chamber character of many passages in the original score, but also by the irreducible greatness and transcendence of this music. There are hardly any losses and yet much to gain from these arrangements, to the point that they offer us a new and revealing perspective on the essence of these symphonies.  

Pablo Sanchez-Quinteiro

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