Gustav Mahler – Conducting Composer or Composing Conductor?
I must admit that the exact statistics are still to be researched, but I am confident that Mahler’s 1st Symphony “Titan” has become a clear champion when it comes to Music Directors’ “inaugural” concert programs. Really? Yes, the list is long, but just to show the tip of the iceberg here are some from around the world: Claudio Abbado with Berlin Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel with LA Philharmonic, Manfred Honeck with Pittsburg Symphony, Edo de Waart with Hong Kong Philharmonic, and Jakub Hruša with Bamberg Symphony Orchestra to name a few.
If not Mahler’s 1st, it is his 5th Symphony almost as frequently. Now, lets be frank – my first concert as Music Director with WSO during The Asper Foundation Opening Night Gala does not feature Mahler’s 1st Symphony or his 5th, it is the 5th by Tchaikovsky. You thought “that’s it?” Wrong!
Just a week later I am starting to rehearse this unique milestone of symphonic music, a symphony that forever changed the course of music history for my first Masterworks series program as the WSO’s Music Director.
What is so fascinating about Mahler’s music and especially his “Titan” when it comes to making a clear statement, to mark the new beginning? Why do conductors and orchestras and above all numerous audiences feel so enchanted, elevated, moved, overwhelmed, entertained (!) and inspired by the endless range of emotions this work presents?
To find an easy answer to these questions is impossible. But after the years spent on stage with this music and many performances I was lucky to conduct, I feel that one of the strongest reasons is the unique synthesis of Composer-Conductor or rather Conductor-Composer Mahler himself represented. Long before getting noticed and respected as a composer, Mahler gained reputation of being one of the most innovative, brilliant and demanding conductors. He held a succession of conducting posts of rising importance in the opera houses of Europe (Ljubljana, Olomouc, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, and Hamburg), culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera. During his ten years in Vienna, his innovative productions and insistence on the highest performance standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. As conductor, he was meticulous while preparing his performances and openly complained “tradition is laziness!”
However, when Mahler conducted the premiere of his 1st Symphony in Budapest in November 1889, where he was Music Director at the time, it was received with open hostility.
The premiere was a debacle: Mahler had presented the audience with a programmatic symphonic poem, yet no explanatory program notes or descriptive titles were provided to assist the listener’s interpretation of what the music was portraying. This caused much confusion and annoyance among the audience, which were particularly bewildered by the extreme and dramatic change of mood established by the funeral march.
Mahler has never spoken about this, but I have a strong feeling that he uses this rather obscure scene – forest animals’ procession at the hunter’s funeral – as a metaphor to depict the hostile attitude of orchestral musicians towards him as conductor; conductor being buried by the orchestra musicians rather then a hunter by forest animals.
Mahler chose the title “Titan” as a reference to Jean Paul’s great novel of the same name. “Titan” was included in the title of the symphony’s second (Hamburg) and third (Weimar) performances, after which it was permanently removed. How significant the relationship between the program, Jean Paul and specifically his novel Titan remains a question open to debate. A direct explanation for the removal of the program notes is given by Mahler in a letter he wrote to Max Marschalk in 1896: “Originally, my friends persuaded me to supply a kind of program, in order to facilitate the understanding of the D major [Symphony]. Thus, I had subsequently invented this title and explanations. That I omitted them this time was caused not only by the fact that I consider them inadequate, but also because I found out how the public has been misled by them.”
The final programmatic form of the symphony was in four movements and these are the following:
Frühling und kein Ende (Spring and No End)
Mit vollen Segeln (Under Full Sail) (Scherzo)
Des Jägers Leichenbegängnis, ein Totenmarsch in Callots Manier (The Hunter’s Funeral Procession (Funeral March in the anner of Callot))
Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso. (Allegro furioso) (From Hell to Paradise)
Mahler was also subject to many cartoons and acid caricatures following 1st Symphony premiere:
His expressive conducting style did not go well with the very conservative audiences:
I find many of these caricatures actually very helpful for my understanding of Mahler’s intentions. And here we come to a crucial issue: Mahler-Composer is overwhelmingly clear about how Mahler-Conductor, and with that all other conductors, should perform his music.
The score contains so much meticulously written down observations of all sorts that it is virtually impossible to not follow these. Very often it even says: “note for a conductor.”
In his conducting style Mahler clearly departed from a kind of being “rhythm beating machine” and created body language that was illustrative of dynamics, character, emotional content, accents and phrasing, energy and resignation.
One of the more striking examples of what body language can represent in conducting is of course Leonard Bernstein, who also was pioneering Mahler’s music in Europe after more than 50 years of neglect following the raise of anti-Semitism and Nazis reign:
Bernstein also claimed that ”the real reason for the 50 years of neglect that Mahler’s music suffered after his death” was ”not the usual excuses we always hear: that the music is too long, too difficult, too bombastic.” ”It was simply too true,” he explained, ”telling something too dreadful to hear.”
What Bernstein actually means is that Mahler’s music possesses an unrivaled universal power of making us re-think and re-invent ourselves again and again. It confronts us with a mirror in which our flaws are as obvious as our good virtues. But it also provides us with answers and tools to correct these flaws, I believe. And he does this through artistic honesty and human integrity of creator and performer, Composer and Conductor.
Two years ago I have ended my 12-year tenure as Music Director of Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie, Germany, with a subscription concert performance of Mahler’s 7th Symphony.
I have started my blog with statistics about Mahler “Titan” being an ultimate inauguration work. Well, farewell concerts tend to feature other Mahler symphonies as frequently… Sir Simon Rattle has recently conducted Mahler’s Sixth Symphony during his farewell concert with Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducted Mahler’s 3rd saying good-bye to Birmingham, Lan Shui conducted the 2nd Symphony departing from Singapore and Alan Gilbert has conducted the 7th in his last concert as Music Director of New York Philharmonic. By the way – the new Music Director of New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden, started his tenure with Mahler’s 5th.
It looks almost like “all the roads lead to Mahler,” not to Rome… Do not worry, at this moment I am not deliberating with which symphony by Mahler I will finish my tenure in Winnipeg after hopefully many, many happy years. 😉 With that in mind I would like to welcome you to our performance of Mahler’s 1st Symphony “Titan” and my first Mahler with the amazing Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.