Thursday, April 28, 2011

Brahms' First: Years in the Making

This post about Brahms' 1st Symphony is a transcript of a pre-concert talk of mine from several seasons ago. For more about the composer talking about his creative process at the time he completed the symphony, check out this post at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog.

The Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, performs Brahms 1st at their next Masterworks Concerts – May 14th & 15th at the Forum. Also on the program, Brahms' Violin Concerto with concertmaster Odin Rathnam celebrating his 20th season as the orchestra's concertmaster and a little something called “Brahms Fan-Fare” by Stuart Malina who always considers himself a Brahms Fan.
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On a bright February day, Robert Schumann jumped into the Rhine, a suicide attempt that became his last public act before being taken away to an asylum. A few days later, Johannes Brahms jotted down a musical idea in his notebook, the opening of a new symphony.

In an article called “New Paths,” Schumann, a composer and writer about music, declared Johannes Brahms the heir to Beethoven, anointing him the Musical Messiah for the future of Classical Music.

Brahms, a short man with long blondish hair, boyish looks and a voice barely changed, long before he grew that famous beard, was 20.

He’d appeared on Schumann’s doorstep the previous September to play some of his piano music for him but after he’d started to play, Schumann tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Wait a moment, my wife must hear you.” And that was how Brahms met one of the greatest pianists of the day.

That month, Clara Schumann turned 34.

And so the long association with the Schumann family began, though unfortunately it was too late for Robert to teach him how to become the Musical Messiah: five months later, Schumann would be taken to the asylum where he would remain the last two years of his life. Clara, a few months away from giving birth to her eighth child, needed to increase her concert schedule to bring in much needed money, so their new friend Brahms stayed home to help raise the children, including their 9-year-old daughter Julie.

Meanwhile, that first sketch of a symphony just wouldn’t turn itself into one: he even had a dream where he was playing it as a piano concerto. The ideas for a second movement scherzo, dropped from the concerto, were later used in the German Requiem and he wrote a whole new finale in the Hungarian style. The whole process of conversion to completion into the Piano Concerto in D Minor took three years. It was not long after Schumann’s death that Brahms realized he was in love with Clara and decided this relationship had to end. Clara wrote a letter after seeing Brahms off to the train station, feeling as if she’d been to two funerals in three months.

Brahms then worked briefly with a women’s chorus in his hometown of Hamburg. When he fell in love with one of the women in the choir, he wrote a happy chorus called “Bride’s Song” but when he broke off that relationship, he wrote a companion “Grave Song” full of dire thoughts about Fate. The symphony sketch that became his 1st Piano Concerto started off with a dramatic roll on the kettledrums, but in the new “Grave Song,” it became relentlessly pounding kettledrums.

Not long after this, Brahms asked his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, to send him some large-sized manuscript paper because he was starting to work on a symphony again: this time, what had started out as chamber music for winds and strings was going to be turned into a symphony, but shortly afterward he changed his mind: “If in these days after Beethoven you presume to write a symphony, they’d better look entirely different!” The original manuscript called it a Symphony-Serenade before he crossed out the word “Symphony.” It became his 1st Serenade in D Major, a chance to practice his skills at writing for orchestra on something less substantial than a full-blown symphony.

Brahms was 25.

Meanwhile, Wagner and Liszt were championing the “New Music” which Brahms thought would send music into the “manure pit.” This didn’t earn him any points with contemporary composers who were still waiting to see what Schumann’s Anointed was going to produce. And so he began a third attempt at a symphony under this cloud. Meanwhile, a Viennese critic, examining the few pieces Brahms had produced so far, wrote that rather than looking back to Beethoven and Schubert (whose Unfinished Symphony hadn’t surfaced yet) – composers who’d been dead only thirty years – he was looking back to earlier centuries for inspiration from Bach (only recently rediscovered) and the Renaissance (virtually unknown to the general public). He would create something new by learning from the old. Followers of the New Music thought this silly.

Now friends again with Clara Schumann, Brahms sketched a number of chamber works one summer, continuing to work on the opening movement of a symphony “from previous sketches,” sending her a copy of the rough draft by July 1st. This is essentially the first movement of the 1st Symphony as we know it, but without the famous introduction. It was finale that was the real thorn. When Joachim heard about it, he hoped to be able to give the premiere that October. Little did he know it wouldn’t be 14 weeks but 14 years before it would be finished. There was also an F Minor String Quintet that didn’t seem just right, so he put it back in the oven.

Brahms was now 29.

He hoped to get the conductorship of the Hamburg Philharmonic. He’d just gone to Vienna when a letter reached him that in he fact he did not get the job. If he had, he might have had a use for that symphony, but still, why did it take so long to actually finish it? But in Vienna, he could walk the places were, only 35 years earlier, Beethoven had walked. When his G Minor Piano Quartet was played at the home where Mozart had composed “The Marriage of Figaro,” one of the musicians said “Here is the heir of Beethoven.”

Brahms was now 30.

Meanwhile, many things were happening: his parents separated and then his mother died, he wrote “A German Requiem” and he was turned down a second time for the conducting post in Hamburg. The String Quintet became a sonata for two pianos. Clara found him insufferable and often dis-invited him to dinners, and she’d wonder why he wrote all these dark, depressing pieces. Perhaps at 34, he felt he was too old to have his career ahead of him (at that age, Beethoven had composed his “Eroica” and Schubert was already dead 3 years). She suggested maybe he should get married: little did she know he was already in love – with her daughter, Julie.

Brahms suggested Clara should move to Vienna and perhaps spend less time concertizing – like she was doing this for fun? She needed the money and now two of her children were ill. Their friendship cooled once again. The 2-Piano Sonata which Clara said begged to be orchestrated was turned into the F Minor Piano Quintet. Then came the premiere of the German Requiem which left Clara in tears: here, she felt, was the realization of the promise her husband had seen 14 years earlier! After the performance, they quarreled and parted with more tears.

There was an old piano quartet in C-sharp Minor he’d never finished, the first one he’d started back when he was first in love with Clara; he started work on it again, changing it to that dramatic key of C Minor. And he wrote two melodies – a song better known as Brahms’ Lullaby composed for an old-girlfriend-now-married-with-her-first-child (in the accompaniment, he quotes a Viennese waltz she’d sung to him back in the days they were friends, so while she’s singing a love-song to her baby, another love-song is being sung to her). The other was scribbled down on a postcard from Switzerland, supposedly an old alp-horn tune he’d heard to which he added these words: “High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I greet you a thousand times!” This became the melody that would soar out in the horn over shimmering strings once the last movement of the C Minor Symphony succeeded in struggling through its opening turmoil, allowing the finale to unfold its great hymn.

And the melody worked its magic on Clara – they were friends again, he visited the family, began the Love-Song Waltzes for four voices and piano duet, all about young love, shy to build: Clara wondered who the young girl was that inspired these delightful tunes? Then, a few days after his 36th birthday, she told Brahms some great news – Julie was engaged to marry an Italian count! She had no idea why Brahms, struck speechless, just ran out of the house. Then it hit her who the young girl was behind the “Liebeslieder Waltzes.” No one had any idea. Brahms was devastated and the rest of the waltz-songs changed mood, now focusing on jilted love and broken vows. He wrote his bitterest piece, the “Alto Rhapsody” which he dubbed his “Bridal Song,” a grueling battle with grief and despair. He vowed he would never marry.

Settling into a new apartment where he ended up spending the remaining 24 years of his life (eventually, he would die there), his routine was now fixed: up early, strong coffee, walking, then working or loafing. The piano was the focus of this small apartment, with its huge bust of Beethoven in the corner. He worked things out in his head rather than through laborious drafts like Beethoven. He was a great believer in walking and his carpet was well-worn with his constant pacing. Friends who listened at the door to hear if he were busy would not hear much when he was – a few notes at the piano, some humming, footsteps. Brahms had said a composer’s most valuable piece of furniture was a wastebasket: when he was done with a piece, he burned all the sketches.

He toyed with the idea of writing an opera – on the fairy tale that became “The Love for Three Oranges” which Prokofiev would later use; another was about gold prospectors in California! – but he decided, like marriage, opera was something he would never try, either. In 1873, he wrote a set of variations for two pianos based on a theme Haydn had used and before he’d finished them two months later he realized they needed to be re-worked for orchestra. His next work was not a symphony but a string quartet, one he’d started working on 20 years earlier – also in the dramatic key of C Minor. He said he had written enough music for twenty quartets before he’d finished one.

Brahms was now 40.

Then the stock market crashed and Vienna was hit hard. He had success, though, with three new works – the Haydn Variations and two string quartets. Now he decided it was time to pick up the symphony... but the C Minor Piano Quartet intervened, the third time around. In it, he’d used a theme based on what Schumann called his “Clara Theme,” a musical depiction of the letters of her name. Clara never liked this first movement, finding it too dark and depressing. Brahms wrote to friends hinting it was inspired by Goethe’s “Werther,” about a man, in love with another man’s wife, who commits suicide by shooting himself with a pistol borrowed from her husband. He told a friend he was working on “highly useless pieces in order not to have to look into the stern face of a symphony.” That summer he took a vacation by the Baltic Sea and by the end of August had completed the last movement of the symphony that had first come to him 22 years earlier and whose first movement he’d completed 14 years before. Once he’d figured out what to do with that finale, it took him a few summer months to complete it.

Rather than starting with the dramatic rolling of the kettledrums as it had first started, the symphony now began with relentless fate-like treading of the drums, later incorporating into its first theme one of the rhythmic motives from Beethoven’s 5th with its “Fate-Knocks-at-the-Door” motive as it appeared in the scherzo (the triplet figure, dee-duh-duh DAAH). The final movement began out of the mists like Beethoven’s 9th, searching for a theme before landing on the hymn tune that someone told him sounded just like The Ode to Joy (“any ass can see that,” Brahms responded). What most people didn’t see was where the opening idea of that theme may have came from.

Remember Schumann’s “Clara Theme”? C - B - A - G# - A (in the key of A Minor) with the G# standing in for the R, and the B – or as the Germans called it, “H” (since “Chiara” was Italian for Clara, meaning “bright”) for the L. Schumann often crafted themes like this through a “secret alphabet.” When Brahms was in love with a girl named Agathe, he buried his love for her in his G Major String Sextet by spelling out her name in the melody (minus the T) which he answered with A-D-E, German for “farewell.” It was just a personal association, not that the listener should hear it, necessarily.

Back to the C Minor Symphony’s finale. In the searching violin not-yet-a-theme peering over the mists, he writes C - B - C - A-flat which in C Minor resolves to the G (A-flat on the piano is the same note as G-sharp which should resolve into A Minor). Now look at the “Clara Theme” above. He wouldn’t quote it outright, necessarily, but it’s characteristic of the way Brahms might alter a theme, switching notes around as it evolves. This is then followed by that great alp-horn tune he’d sent to Clara on a postcard seven years before, greeting her a thousand times. A conscious personal association? When it finally resolves to that great Beethoven-like hymn, the tune, now firmly in C Major, is C - B - C - A - G.

Perhaps in addition to having to deal with the ghost of Beethoven in his first symphony, he also needed to deal with the ghost of Clara?

Brahms was now 43. And two years later, after finishing his 2nd Symphony and the Violin Concerto, he grew his beard.

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- Dick Strawser

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3: Getting Behind the Music

(This post is my pre-concert talk for the Harrisburg Symphony's performances of Mahler's 3rd Symphony, April 16th & 17th, presenting background information and biographical context for the work.)

A couple of years before Gustav Mahler composed his 3rd Symphony, a friend – or perhaps just a fan – wrote to him asking “whether it is necessary to employ such a large apparatus as the orchestra to express a great thought.”

Mahler responded that “the more music develops, the more complicated the apparatus becomes to express the composer's ideas.”

In Bach's day, a handful of musicians might suffice to play the orchestra parts in his Brandenburg Concertos. Haydn or Mozart might use 25 or so, Beethoven would have been quite happy with around 40. But 65 years after Beethoven's death, composers at the other end of the 19th Century like Mahler and Strauss would expect orchestras of 75 to 100 to play their works. In the 2nd Symphony, his “Resurrection” Symphony, Mahler called for at least 120 (as many strings as possible would leave this open-ended) in addition to two vocal soloists and a large choir. His Third Symphony would call for about 118 considering the largest possible contingent of string players and including additional reinforcements for several parts like the 1st Clarinet, 1st Trumpet, harps and off-stage snare-drums – then add the alto soloist and the rather modest size of the women's choir and boys' choir. Sometimes it's not just the budget that determines the size of this “apparatus,” but the available space on the stage.

Ten years after the 3rd, Mahler's 8th Symphony was dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand” by a marketing-minded manager at the world premiere in Munich – which involved an orchestra of 171 plus vocal soloists and choristers numbering 858 – in other words, 1,029, to be exact...

One could argue that the grander this “apparatus” is doesn't necessarily mean Mahler's idea in his “Resurrection” Symphony is any “grander” than Handel's idea in his oratorio, Messiah, which can get along with about 50 performers (though even in Handel's day, there were “gala performances” with a choir of hundreds and an orchestra to balance it).

The form of the piece – another aspect of presenting the composer's idea – also expanded, becoming more complex in the century since the death of Mozart.

As far as symphonies go, a typical symphony of four movements written at the end of the 18th Century might be about a half-hour long. By comparison, Mahler's 3rd Symphony, written at the end of the 19th Century, and was going to contain seven movements instead of the final six, lasts about an hour-and-a-half to an hour and 40 minutes...

And one could also argue whether or not sheer length makes Mahler's “idea” any more intense, more universal, more “grand” than Beethoven's? Except recall that Beethoven's 5th is around a half-hour long and Beethoven's 9th, written 20 years later, is about 70 minutes long...

Part of the problem with composers' ideas and the “apparatus” in which they present them, is how to get this across to the listeners. Music is an indirect language that can't be translated the same way a spoken or written language – like a novel or a poem – can be. A painting or a sculpture might represent something but it still leaves the viewer to interpret and react to it. Music, open to different interpretations, depends on what the listener brings to it, what the listener is able to take away from it.

In one sense, there are – basically – two kinds of music (aside from the “Good Music” and “Bad Music” response). Music can be abstract, a logical architecture built on pre-conceived forms doing more-or-less expected things. Think Beethoven's 1st Symphony. Or it can support a story, illustrating the events and characters, situations and emotions we find in a tale told in words, but here expressed in music. Think of tone-poems like Richard Strauss' Don Quixote or Paul Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice, with or without Mickey Mouse (Walt Disney's Fantasia is actually a very accurate rendering of the story the music is illustrating).

In between are varying degrees of that – for instance, music that implies a story which can be further subdivided into a story (and I use the term loosely, here) imposed on it by the listener or the critic or a story implied by the composer as a means of explaining the music or guiding the listener.

Here, Beethoven's 5th could be an example of the first, in which people listen to the struggle of the first movement, the dark uncertainty of the scherzo emerging into the sunlight of triumph in the finale and decide it is about Man's Struggle with Fate, though Beethoven said nothing about it beyond calling the opening motive “Fate Knocks at the Door.”

An example of the second would be Beethoven's 6th, called his “Pastoral,” in which Beethoven supplied illustrations by giving each movement titles – “Pleasant impressions upon arriving in the countryside,” “Scene by the brook,” complete with bird-calls, “Thunderstorm” (quite literal in its sound effects) and “Thanksgiving after the storm.”

In the late-19th Century, this “program” music was all the rage and anything that didn't have a program often frustrated listeners who had to know what a piece was “about” in order to understand it. Richard Strauss wrote tone-poems like Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) which suggested a story with explanatory titles about the hero's battles with his adversaries. He also set a philosophical work to music, Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra in which he tried to interpret Nietzsche's views in music, something that might have been familiar to an audience where most people had probably read the work – it had been published only 10 years earlier and was a best seller.

Curiously, the year before Strauss wrote his “Zarathustra” piece, Mahler set a poem from Nietzsche's book as a movement in his 3rd Symphony, part of a grand scheme he had planned with an elaborate outline of what the different movements would be, giving them a detailed “program,” as we call it, to let the listener know what he's up to at any given time.

In the vast first movement – actually, the last to be composed – he even marked in the sketches things like “Pan Awakes,” “Summer Marches In,” “The Rabble,” “The Storm” and so on... The subsequent movements were given titles like “What the flowers in the field tell me,” “What the animals in the forest tell me,” “What Man tells me” – this is the “Midnight Song” with the text from Nietzsche (see illustration, right) – “What the angels tell me” and finally, “What Love tells me.”

If you're seeing a kind of ladder of awareness, here, we go from the calling forth of primordial matter in the opening – following this incantatory horn theme that begins the piece – through flowers to animals to mankind to the gates of Heaven and finally Love in a spiritual sense, the Love or Forgiveness from God.

Despite Nietzsche's poem, this symphony presents a very anti-Nietzsche viewpoint – Mahler originally thought he would call the whole symphony “A Summer Night's Dream” or “The Happy Life” or, “The Happy Science” after another of Nietzsche's books but then realizing it wasn't Nietzsche's viewpoint he was implying but his own, then maybe “MY Happy Science”... and then for good measure, “Dream of a Summer Morning,” “A Summer Noontime Dream” with a specific warning that it has nothing to do with Shakespeare.

Eventually, he rejected all of these and just called it his Third Symphony. However, while working on the middle movements – written that first summer – he told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, “calling it a symphony is actually incorrect because in no way does it adhere to the usual form. Creating a symphony means to construct a world with all manner of techniques available. The constantly new and changing content determines its own form.”

But since Mahler is full of contradictions, both as a musician and as a person, a year later, nearing completion of the work, he told her it's the same basic structure as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – Adagio, Rondo, Minuet, Sonata-Allegro Form – except, in his work, the sequence of movements was different with greater variety and complexity within the movements. So at first it wasn't a symphony but, if you really look at it, it was. Perhaps he could've called the whole symphony, “What Art Tells Me.”

But speaking of contradictions, by the time the entire symphony was ready for its world premiere six years later, this vast symphony built on these elaborate outlines – the music's “program” – he changed his mind and said he would forbid making these titles, these picturesque details, these comments and images public. The music stands on its own as an abstract work. “Down with programs,” he would write, setting himself in opposition to his friend and frequent musical adversary, Richard Strauss.

Oh, and he was recommending his new young wife, Alma, burn all her copies of Nietzsche.

Critics and many listeners, knowing there was a program behind the piece, clamored to be informed, complaining they couldn't make sense without it. If Mahler was concerned his music – or his “idea” – would be misinterpreted, he now ended up having people superimposing their own ideas on his music in order to “explain” it.

Arnold Schoenberg, the composer who had just completed his tone-poem Pelleas and Melisande and written his Transfigured Night five years earlier, heard the first performance of Mahler's 3rd in Vienna and wrote to the composer that “I felt the struggle for illusions; I felt the pain of one disillusioned; I saw the forces of evil and good contending; I saw a man in a torment of emotion exerting himself to gain inner harmony. I sensed a human being, a drama, truth, the most ruthless truth!”

So the modern-day argument is “do we mention this program or not?” Most writers agree that, since it was what Mahler was specifically using as the inspiration for the music when he was writing it, it has its place. But considering he changed his mind, then, perhaps it has no place. Just to make things more confusing, the last performance of it Mahler himself conducted, he allowed the titles of the movements to be used in the program-book after all (speaking of contradictions).

Mahler was in his mid-30s when he wrote his Third Symphony. He was almost 42 when he premiered the work and by then had completed his 4th and 5th Symphonies and also married Alma Schindler (see photograph, right), three months before the 3rd premiere – she was 21, Mahler was 19 years her senior.

We tend to break Mahler's symphonies into biographical periods – the first four form one group because, composed between the ages of 28 and 40, are all inspired by or include earlier songs setting poems from the folk-collection, Des Knabens Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) – three of these symphonies include the voice and all of them were conceived with elaborate programs.

The next three – the 5th, 6th and 7th – are entirely instrumental and seemingly abstract, without programs – or at least without any commentary that Mahler made public. He would tell a friend something tantalizing about this or that detail, perhaps, but it's not enough to pin some story or “idea” underlying each movement much less the entire work. He wrote these in his early-to-mid-40s – so perhaps one could argue that the exuberance of youth has given way to Middle Age. One can infer the 5th is a Struggle-with-Fate Symphony and, after all, he had referred to the 6th as his “Tragic” Symphony (though the first one he had begun since his marriage to Alma).

The 8th Symphony – the one dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand” – setting the hymn Veni creator spiritus in the first half and the final scene of Faust in the second, was written when he was 46. And “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth) which he considered a symphony in all but name despite its being a vast song cycle, he described as his most personal, autobiographical work yet, written in his late 40s following the death of his daughter and his own diagnosis of a heart condition.

The 9th Symphony – essentially a farewell to life – was again purely instrumental, but it is impossible to listen to this work and not feel this too is a struggle-with-fate symphony, but without Beethoven's victorious ending (unlike Tchaikovsky's last symphony, the “Pathetique,” which ends with a requiem, Mahler's farewell is one of acceptance and transfiguration). The 10th Symphony, its sketches filled with personal comments in the margins following the revelation of Alma's infidelity, was left unfinished when Mahler died, burned out at the age of 50.

People often mock Mahler's later symphonies for being too personal, autobiographical and egotistical, a man leaning out the window shouting “Look at me! I'm dying!” But he did inscribe a motto at the beginning of the great Adagio that eventually concluded his 3rd Symphony, “What Love Tells Me”:

“Father, Look upon my wounds! Let no creature be lost!”

Autobiographical or not, he did entitle the movements “What the Flowers tell ME.”

Incidentally, this symphony was not supposed to end with an Adagio – a slow movement was originally the 3rd of 7 movements. This 7th movement was to be a song he had composed three years earlier. “Das Himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life) was, in one sense, the initial starting point for his 3rd Symphony – following the flowers and animals and more abstract ideas like love, it became “What the Child tells me.” This child-like innocence, a naïve view of life in Heaven – where the music is better than anything on Earth – infused much of the 3rd Symphony's inner movements: fragments of it can be heard in the scherzo but especially in the “Angels” movement – when the alto soloist admits to having broken the Ten Commandments and the angels tell her to pray to God, to love God.

It is also interesting to note, reading these folk-poems with their Christian connotations that Mahler – born and raised a Jew – did not officially convert to Catholicism until February, 1897, (two years after he outlined the 3rd and had completed all but its first movement) when he had been offered the post of music director at the Court Opera in the anti-Semitic imperial capital of Vienna, a career goal he had been working towards during those two years – if not exactly required by law, he was not going to gain the post if he was a Jew but he wasn't assured the appointment until a few months later. There were comments made at the time to Natalie Bauer-Lechner that, while on the one hand he hoped to gain “applause and money” with this new symphony he was working on, on the other he knew it would be beyond the typical concert-going audience to appreciate which might have imbued the 1st movement, completed only six months before his official conversion, with a different light on its struggle between the intellectual and populist elements, the movement ending with its evocations of town bands and a march designed to appeal to the popular taste.

But at some point, he decided this song, “The Heavenly Life” (or as the original Wunderhorn poem was called, “Heaven is Full of Violins”) needed its own symphony, so he excised it from the 3rd and outlined a plan for a 4th Symphony whose basic idea was “Life After Death,” a fitting sequel to his 2nd Symphony, “The Resurrection” where the idea of resurrection is about mankind's rebirth, not the Resurrection of Christ. And since Mahler said the opening of that 2nd Symphony was a vast funeral march for the hero of his 1st Symphony – which is sometimes referred to as “The Titan” – it makes the 3rd Symphony the transition between Death and Resurrection to Eternal Life in Heaven – a cycle of four more-or-less interrelated symphonies. There are several moments when I'm listening to the 3rd and I hear something that I think, “wait, didn't I hear that in the 1st Symphony?” or like the bird-calls and other sounds of nature heard in the 3rd Movement, harking back to the finale of the 2nd Symphony as well as various parts of the 1st Symphony? Is it just because they're “fingerprints” of Mahler's style, sounds that he fell back on (consciously or not) because they were all written within a span of 12 years?

After he completed the 4th, he told Natalie Bauer-Lechner, who was a frequent companion of his (along with his sister) during these summer composing holidays, that there was a close connection between all four symphonies – “the content and structure of the four are combined to create a definite unified tetralogy.” Whether this is coincidental – the composer looking back and seeing how his subconscious had been at work – or whether it was a conscious plan, at least as he began work on the 2nd, there's no other direct proof. Still, he finished the 2nd when he was 34 and had basically outlined the 4th when he was 37, so in a sense, they all share the same small time-frame for their conception. He was basically outlining the 3rd and 4th Symphonies even before he had begun serious creative work on the 3rd!

Mahler's career as a conductor – he was still located in Hamburg at the time: later, he would make the career move to Vienna – meant that he had only a few months during the summer to get away from everything so he could compose. He would sketch and draft things during these summers and then work them out on his “down-time” during the year.

I've mentioned Natalie Bauer-Lechner (see photograph, left, taken several years later) who figures prominently in Mahler's life during these years. She was two years his senior, the violist of an all-female string quartet and a friend whom Mahler valued for her intelligence and insights though he often found her personality annoying. She, for her part, had assumed that Mahler, in his mid-30s and still an eligible bachelor, would eventually realize she would make the ideal mate, rather than just someone to take pleasant walks in the country with or to sit around and talk about music and creativity after spending the day composing. She left 30 diaries behind containing many details about these conversations (as well as those with other artists she knew).

Her hopes about marrying Mahler, however, met a sudden end when Mahler unexpectedly announced his engagement to Alma Schindler whom he'd met only a few weeks before. Mahler seemed surprised that Natalie had “feelings” for him – so perhaps there's something to be said that “Love” didn't tell him everything...

Another friend of Mahler's – and one who also figures in Natalie Bauer-Lechner's would-be Love Life – was the poet Siegfried Lipiner (see photograph, right) who was highly regarded as a young poet but published nothing after he was 24, yet he was highly regarded by both Wagner and Nietzsche.

And Mahler, too. They were good friends and it was Lipiner's poem “Genesis” that formed the original seed from which the 3rd Symphony grew – the cosmological dream of Nature coming to life and working its way up through flowers and animals to mankind and angels and God's Love. The first movement of Mahler's symphony has many marginal comments or section headings taken from Lipiner's poem.

The first movement abounds in Nature as much as the Flowers' & the Animals' movements do – “Pan awakens,” the great God of nature from Greek Mythology from whom we also get the word “panic” and sections Mahler marked “what the rocks and mountains tell me.” In fact, when Bruno Walter arrived that summer, walking up to the composing hut where Mahler spent much of his time composing, he saw Walter look up at the sheer cliffs of the mountains behind them and told his young friend, “No need to look up there any more – that's all been used up and set to music by me.”

Speaking of this “composing hut,” overlooking the shores of the lake where Mahler and his friends and family vacationed that year, it looks rather disappointing – tiny, more like one of those garden sheds you see in suburban yards but made out of cinder-blocks and with a piano and a desk instead of a lawn mower and hedge-clippers... Mahler arrived there at 6am, his breakfast would be left silently outside the door at 7 and he would not open the door again until noon or perhaps, on a productive day, 3:00...

That first summer, sketching out the symphony's plan and writing the middle-movements which he called, primarily, “humoresques” before settling down to the more serious movements – the Midnight Song from Nietzsche (which didn't exist in the original plan) and the Adagio which, only then became the finale. When he moved the “What the Child Tells Me” movement to the 4th Symphony's plan, he apparently moved what he'd been sketching as ITS “morning bells” movement to become the “Angels” movement with its children's voices imitating the pealing of bells. But it was too late in the summer to start on the 1st movement, so he had to put this off.

At some point during the winter, he wrote down a few pages of sketches for this movement which it turns out he forgot and left behind. He had to write to a friend of his to go to his apartment, find them and mail them to him. By June 21st, he wrote to this friend to thank him for having done this and then on July 11th (a few days after his 36th birthday), wrote back to him that he'd finished the 1st Movement – a half-hour's music in three weeks? Still, Natalie Bauer-Lechner mentions in her diary that he finished it on July 28th – revisions? the orchestration?

She also mentioned a few days later that Mahler told her he'd changed the ending of the slow movement, the final moments of the whole symphony, having completed the 1st movement. He said “it was not plain enough” but also mentioned “it now dies away in broad chords and only in the one key, D Major.” As you experience the ending, you'll probably be struck by the fact that, though it might seem simple – compared to what came before – it hardly “dies away.” Were there more changes to be made before it was officially “complete”?

The “Flower” movement was performed by itself a few times – even before the whole symphony was finished – and the 2nd, 3rd and 6th movements were performed as a unit a couple of times before the official world premiere of the complete symphony in 1902. But by then, Mahler was completely opposed to the whole program issue, suppressing the titles and the story about its composition, Nature and all. The audience was left on its own – and of course the argument for any work of art is that it transcends whatever initially inspired it to stand on ITS own. (You can read more about this first performance in a post on the Harrisburg Symphony Blog which can you can access through the symphony's web-site.)

So without a program telling you what to listen for, how do you grasp a 90-minute work? There are themes and fragments of themes – conflicts of mood or style just like you'd have in Beethoven – there is an over-all arch of direction from beginning to end with sounds and themes that recur, perhaps not literally but like reflections.

The opening horn theme – an incantation that, originally, is a call to awaken Nature – comes back in various guises: it may resemble the big theme in the last movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 which in itself sounds a lot like Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' theme. Sometimes it's a chorale, sometime it's swamped by a vulgar march (the most exciting parts of the movement, designed to appeal to the public taste) – in the end, it is transformed into the main theme of the finale, more chorale-like, and unfolds in long-spinning fragments.

In the 3rd Movement, there's an off-stage trumpet – imitating a post-horn – interrupting the animals' dance (almost a polka) – at one point, Mahler commented about how Nature, here, seems to be making faces at you, sticking out its tongue – with time suspended, they seem to listen as if hypnotized before resuming their dance.

The Nietzsche song takes us into a dark, deep place – midnight of the soul – which is then contrasted by the sudden brightness of the angels' chorus, like a door opening up and life bursting in – actually, heaven bursting in joyfully. Here, we might realize the symphony's opening call actually derives from a phrase in that song, “The Heavenly Life” now in the 4th Symphony, at the point where the Alto soloists weeps about breaking the Commandments but the Angels tell her to love God – essentially offering absolution and forgiveness. From this, we move to the consolation of the last movement, which, if it isn't exactly a “happy” ending to resolve the conflicts of the first movement, is a transcendent one.

When Mahler conducted the work in Amsterdam a year after its premiere (with a chorus of over 500 singers, 200 of them, children), a Dutch composer who hadn't thought much of him or his music, met him and changed his mind. He found there was “much that is ugly in the 1st Movement” but that after two or three hearings you know what he is intending to say and it all seems quite different.

“His music has the power of changing people, of initiating catharsis.” By comparison, Strauss' popular tone poems – he mentions Ein Heldenleben and Don Quixote with their detailed “programs” – which “make a sad showing beside Mahler's 3rd Symphony.”

Other composers had introduced folk music into their “classical” music language, but Mahler was perhaps the first “serious” composer to introduce popular music, music of the “lower class” – the town-band's marches in the first movement, the dances that form the basis of the 3rd movement as opposed to the “concert hall” minuet-like dance of the 2nd movement (flowers or not) – often placing “vulgar” music – considering “vulgar” as “pertaining to the people or popular element” rather than rude behavior or dirty jokes – up against music associated with a more elite class. This is something that often made Mahler's audiences uncomfortable – not just the dissonances of his harmony or the sound-effects of sliding trombones near the beginning.

This was all part of the symphony's potential universality – its ability to embrace the world, to create something that is a varied as the world itself.

As Mahler wrote to a friend four months after completing the 3rd Symphony, “No one will hear, of course, that nature encompasses everything that is eerie, great and even lovely (this is precisely what I wanted to express using the whole work as a kind of evolutionistic development).” He said that most people's image of Nature was only flowers, birds, forest fragrances – “nobody mentions the god Dionysus or the Great Pan,” who figure so prominently in the first movement, ideas he took from Nietzsche's “Birth of Tragedy.” “There,” he told his friend, “you have a kind of program, a sample of how I make music – always and everywhere only the sound of nature!” He goes on, “If I have now and then given them titles, I wanted to provide sign posts for the emotion, for the imagination. Here it is the world, nature as a whole, that is awakened out of unfathomable silence and sings and resounds.”

- Dick Strawser

- - - - -
Bibliography: primarily from Henry-Louis de La Grange: Mahler (Vienna: The Years of Challenge) [Oxford 1995]; Constantin Floros: Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies [Amadeus Press 1993]; Bruno Walter: Gustav Mahler [Vienna House, Inc., 1973].

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gustav Mahler's "Doomsday" Symphony

Since the Harrisburg Symphony is performing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3 this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm – I'm doing the pre-concert talks an hour before each performance – I thought it would be appropriate to post some excerpts from my recently completed music appreciation thriller, “The Doomsday Symphony,” a scene involving Mahler's most recent posthumous symphony which gives the novel its title.

Two of the main characters, Dr. T. R. Cranleigh and Zoe Crevecoeur, have just returned from Dresden, May 1849, rescuing Richard Wagner from the history-changing clutches of the villain, Klavdia Klangfarben, who is out to eliminate the music written by four of the most influential Great Composers. They have returned to Harmonia-IV, that parallel universe where dead composers go but continue to compose.

In this scene, they’re on the edge of the woods outside the city. They’ve just run into some talking flowers (yes, a parody of a scene from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”) and notice someone further off the beaten path...

*** ***** Excerpt from Chapter 40 ***** ***

Just beyond the flowers, I noticed a man with his back to us sitting on a large mushroom-shaped cushion. He appeared to be playing the bassoon, though I couldn't hear a single note he was playing.

Everything he wore was some shade of bluish-purple, blending into the shadows so well, it was difficult even to see him, at first.

The man turned out to be Alexander Skryabin, much annoyed having his meditation disturbed. He wasn't playing the bassoon so much as smoking it, having modified it like a hookah. Judging from the sweet aroma, my guess is it wasn't tobacco.

"I am working on my Mysterium, my greatest composition. Leave me, please," he said imperiously, closing his eyes.

"You've been writing it for almost a century? How much is left to finish?"

"All of it, of course. It is the ultimate creation, meant only for my own appreciation."

With that, drifting away, he stopped talking.

…We kept walking along, figuring there was no sense bothering [him] further: in a parallel universe, he was his own parallel universe.

Another bend and more voices lay ahead. This was one busy place!

Certainly, someone here must know where we are?

The first man I see is easily recognizable.

"Oh my God, it's Mahler!"

He stood next to a large-built man looking vaguely familiar but I couldn't place him.

The two were looking over a score lying open on this table covered with many dishes of food like they were in the midst of a reception.

Zoe said, "wasn't that the man talking to Wagner back in Dresden?"

"Of course! I didn't recognize him in the top hat."

Mahler saw us and waved us over to join them.

I knew that Gustav Mahler, despite being a titan of the symphony, was a relatively short man in real life but he looked almost diminutive next to this hulk in the black trench coat and top hat. Who he was or what he was doing here, I had no idea.

Mahler explained as if we were late-comers and not total strangers appearing from nowhere, "I was just telling Herr Schweinwerfer about my newest symphony – put the finishing touches on it yesterday, in fact!"

The man named Schweinwerfer ignored us as he paged through the score.

Zoe and I looked at each other in great relief. That confirmed we were back at Harmonia-IV, at least, so now all we had to do was find our way back to the city. But to talk with a man like Mahler about his latest symphony was an opportunity not passed up lightly. We stood on his other side.

It was his Symphony No. 17, even though there were a few other large-scale works he didn't call symphonies that probably were. Recently, he'd become looser about the concept of the symphony as a "musical organism."

"After all, 'symphonic' means something that is developed or expanded through development, not just a four-movement work in a set and acceptable pattern."

This one was a massive work – two hours in length – with eight movements and a typically huge orchestra: thirteen horns, seven trumpets, six trombones, three tubas and quintuple woodwinds including two contrabassoons. "Enough to wake the dead!"

Schweinwerfer laughed what could only be described as a malevolent laugh, deep and resonant. "Everyone will call it your 'Doomsday' Symphony!"

"Doomsday – yes, I like that," Mahler said, "that's exactly what I had in mind. I'm not sure about this series of chords, though," pointing at one on the next page.

My eyes bugged out just looking at it.

"There are seven of them placed structurally throughout the piece, each becoming increasingly weightier, violent, expanding till the last one is like the hammer-stroke of fate that initiates nothing less than the destruction of the world!"

No doubt, judging from the look of this one!

Like the hammer-strokes of his 6th Symphony translated to a universal level, would he take the last one out for fear it would ultimately fell the world-hero?

Schweinwerfer said it would unleash dark matter from the black hole that would destroy Earth on the winter solstice of the year 2012.

As Schweinwerfer laughed, Zoe tugged at my arm, pointing to the right. There on the horizon were two unmistakable figures advancing rapidly toward us.

They were not Sebastian and Xaq as I'd hoped.

"Ah," I said, excusing myself for changing the topic, "can either of you show us the way back to the center of town? It's rather urgent."

Mahler graciously pointed the way, down the path to our left. "But must you go so soon?"

"I'm afraid so: we're trying to avoid those two unpleasant people."

Mahler looked up. "Kedaver? I should think so."

...[We quickly left, heading in the opposite direction...]

"Ach, my angel of destruction," Schweinwerfer said, grabbing the familiar figure by her waist, "my little devil of temptation!"

Klangfarben resisted but clearly she was no match for him and Kedaver wasn't about to take him on.

Mahler, meanwhile, engaged the lawyer in a conversation about a possible law suit he was contemplating.

"Abner, those bastards are getting away!"

"And so, my angel, someone put a bullet through your neck, too, and now you're here?"

"I'm not dead. Leave me alone!"

"Ah, so then this time, I could kill you? And keep you here forever?"

[Schweinwerfer is referring to Klangfarben’s having killed him back in Dresden in May 1849, while trying to delay Wagner so he would be captured by the royalist army and eventually tried and probably executed for treason, but that was a previous chapter. In a subsequent chapter, conductor Rogers Kent-Clarke, who’d met Puccini at his haberdasheria, is trying to locate the entrance to the black market hiding place where he could find the opera Puccini had been telling him about (see this earlier post).]

*** ***** Chapter 42 ***** ***

The directions Puccini gave him sounded simple enough but Rogers Kent-Clarke kept wondering if he had somehow taken the wrong path – literally as well as metaphorically…

This was so unlike his character, the mild-mannered assistant conductor usually reacting to others people's biddings rather than forging his own path through life. Even on the podium, he had to conduct it the way the regular conductor planned to, so as not to confuse the musicians. Here, he was on his own and it was kind of thrilling.

Even when he conducted on his own – like this lousy Collierville Festival where he was billed as a guest conductor – he found himself relying on other conductors' interpretations or, instead, listening to recordings. He'd become used to not applying himself. He hated doing new works: you had to study the scores because there was nothing else to go by.

But to present a previously unknown opera by Puccini, now, that would be a coup worth the work it would take to learn it. He could imagine the excitement of anticipation and the boost to his career.
People would be talking about him. "Oh, you're the guy who discovered that new Puccini opera!" What if it were a masterpiece on the order of Turandot? Even if it were only another Fanciulla, it was still Puccini and still new. With N. Ron Steele's backing, it should be a cinch finding a company to produce the world premiere.

The only drawback he could see was Steele's wife [Rosa Budd] as the tragically wronged virginal maid. The composer's wife was likely to be the meatier part, a mezzo, unsuitable for Rosa's peculiar lack of range and talent.

His fantasies were interrupted by the sound of a squabble coming from beyond those trees. Who knew how long he'd been looking for this secret mineshaft's entrance, so he thought he'd interrupt these people and ask.

Was this a tea-party in the middle of the woods? And who was that arguing with that other man – Gustav Mahler? What luck!

The big guy in the top hat kept shouting while scuffling with a beautiful woman in a stunning black leotard with wildly streaming platinum blond hair. Should he rush out and rescue her? Maybe she was a mezzo – she’d look fabulous as the composer's wife in La vendetta di sposa! But what was Mahler, looking very unconcerned, doing here?

"Excuse me," he said meekly, stepping forward from beneath the trees' shade.

Immediately, they all came to a stop, turned and stared at him.

Mahler waved him over with an invitation to join their little party.

The woman broke free of the big man's grasp, then, with the man in the black cravat, took off down the path in the opposite direction, streaming curses behind her, her hair streaming in the breeze.

"Sorry to interrupt," Kent-Clarke began, "but I was looking for a..."

"You're just in time," Mahler said, cheerfully clapping him on the shoulder.

The bigger man stuck out a massive paw by way of introduction.

"Siegfried Schweinwerfer's my name and the world is coming to an end, soon. You must prepare!"

"Pleased to meet you. I'm Rogers Kent-Clarke, a well-known conductor in the United States... internationally, I mean," quickly correcting himself.

Mahler said he was just showing Schweinwerfer his latest symphony.


The composer began explaining a little bit about it, paging through the score, pointing out things he thought a conductor would especially appreciate.

Speechless, Kent-Clarke was holding in his hands a huge, brand-new symphony by Mahler!

The whole time Mahler was talking to him – "me," he thought, "a lowly assistant conductor!" – Kent-Clarke realized, "This trumps a Puccini opera, any time, in my book!" With several choruses involved and twelve vocal soloists – perhaps something Rosa Budd could handle, but who cared? – not to mention this huge orchestra, why, it must be a "Symphony of TWO Thousand!"

He listened attentively as Mahler told him how many years it had taken to complete – seven – and how the big central scherzo, "The Apocalyptic Dance of the Four Horsemen," had already been thoroughly revised five times.

Even the choral selections from the Popul Vuh, he explained, had been based on the numerical symbolism of the Mayan calendar, creating a web of complex counterpoint rhythmically intersecting like several time-spans across a cosmic disturbance.

To his percussion, he added several of Harry Partch's instruments, tuned in quarter-tones and sounding completely other-worldly, representing the static nature of Eternity.

The final movement which he called "The Rapturous Song of the Final Cataclysm," was a spacious adagio, gradually increased in unbearable intensity until the very end – "in fact," Mahler chuckled, "the very end of Time itself!"

"Amazing," Kent-Clarke said, "a 'Symphony for the End of Time'!"

That was good, too, but Mahler felt Schweinwerfer's "Doomsday Symphony" was more marketable.

Suddenly, it dawned on Kent-Clarke there really was no reason for him to go looking for some old mineshaft Puccini had been telling him about: black market or no black market, he had just found his vehicle.

But, Kent-Clarke wondered, would he be able to “ride” this symphony back to the Other Side? Surely, Mahler wouldn't bother entrusting it to the first conductor who came along? And who was he – a mere unknown!
If he managed to premiere this, he would be unknown no longer. Everybody would know his name. "Gilbert Kaplan, eat your heart out!"

The only way was for him to steal it, right out from under Mahler's nose, then run as quickly as he could back to that field where he'd found the gateway. How difficult could that be?

Meanwhile, Schweinwerfer was thinking about his own plot. He had to get this score over to the Other Side where its premiere would bring about the apocalyptic end of the world. Then he would be vindicated.

Clearly, this conductor, a Trespasser, was hungry and ambitious. He had only to wait for the right moment – and he'd steal the score!

*** ***** Excerpt from Chapter 51 ***** ***

Rogers Kent-Clarke stood by the table, listening to the conversation as he munched on more of those little sandwiches cut in the shapes of clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds, laid out upon the table like a spread of playing cards. He liked especially the heart-shaped ones with bits of pimento skewered to the top, held in place by tooth-picks.

“From the heart, may it return to the heart,” he said after a reasonable pause, raising his tea-cup as a toast to Mahler who smiled back at him, pleased with the quote from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.

Mahler and Schweinwerfer discussed, each with their considerable passions, their thoughts about the inevitable end of the universe – more, Schweinwerfer declared, than the mere destruction of Earth. Mahler was disappointed it was not just a cleansing of the Earth, making way for a new world, a new and better society, starting over and this time, eventually, getting it right.

As the party progressed, others wandered by, unexpectedly, people out on a stroll stumbling across Mahler’s little reception quite by accident. Verdi was there, said a few kind but patronizing words, clearly bored with Mahler’s symphonic rhetoric, but spoke, as usual, about his plans for Lear which he continued to toy with more than a century after his death. He lamented how he’d not had great success in his posthumous career, so he often found himself glancing over at Puccini’s shop and envying him his retirement. But still, the idea of Lear gnawed at him unrelentingly.

Even Skryabin stopped by again, drawn by the smell of sardines on rye toast, delighted to find in the middle of his woods a table loaded with zakuski, the Russian repast similar to British “high tea.” All it needed, he said, was a samovar and perhaps a pretty young maid to be pouring out cups of steaming orange-flavored tea.

Schweinwerfer, doffing his battered top hat, greeted Skryabin cordially with dripping sarcasm, asking him how his ecstasy was today – “better than yesterday’s?” Briefly, they discussed their cosmic world-views but refrained from arguing beyond mere superficial statements.

“He’s mad, you know,” Skryabin whispered to Kent-Clarke, pointing at the philosopher with his toothpick.

“I thought that’s what philosophers always were,” the conductor responded, trying to appear as mild mannered as possible, hiding his excitement. It wasn’t often someone like him had a chance to stand around chatting with the likes of them. (Perhaps it was a dream…)

Kent-Clarke realized this would be his opportunity. Several guests were preparing to leave, offering their farewells. Verdi had long gone when Skryabin woke up poor Lyadov, so bored with the conversation he could barely stay awake. Together, they wandered off down the path and Kent-Clarke, thanking Mahler once again, quietly followed them, disappearing into the bushes along the trail.

Schweinwerfer nodded after him with a wink and a wave, then warmly shook Mahler’s hand, thanking him for his time and pointing at the score, saying something under his breath, before he, too, turned and left.

Mahler, sipping the last of his tea, gazed out over the empty fields, wondering if anyone else would stop by. Skryabin, he thought, was whacky enough but this Schweinwerfer was a complete riddle all by himself. It was one thing to be passionate about your views and another to be close to incomprehensible not to mention so depressingly irredeemable.

There was a commotion in the distance, something he could barely see. There were several groups of people converging on a couple – hadn’t they stopped by to say hello? Yes, it was, but the police had suddenly charged them from the woods, yelling. The woman with the platinum hair and that cad, Kedaver, turned and ran into the forest.

What did that mean? Why were the police after those people?

When he turned back to get some more tea, he noticed a large blank space where the score had been.

It was gone!

Mahler screamed.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

- Dick Strawser

Friday, April 08, 2011

Bartók, Father & Son

Gretna Music presents the Calder Quartet who will be performing all six string quartets by Bela Bartók over the span of two evenings, Friday April 8th and Saturday April 9th at Elizabethtown College’s Leffler Chapel. The concerts are at 7:30 pm and an hour before each program, there will be a pre-concert talk.

(You can read my post about Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 and its biographical background, here.)

Tonight, at 6:30, I’ll be interviewing the composer’s son, Peter Bartók.

When I mention this to friends, eyebrows shoot up and I’m met with questioning looks: familiar with Bartók’s music, they are not aware that his son could still be alive. After all, Bartók was born in 1881, wasn’t he?

Peter Bartók, the second son of Bela Bartók, was born in 1924 when his father was 43 years old. He was with his parents in New York City during much of the time they were living there, what turned out to be Bartók’s last years.

Peter went on to become famous in his own right as a recording engineer and is currently living (and maintaining Bartók Records) in Florida which is where we will reach him by way of Skype!

In 2002, he published a memoir about his famous father which he called, simply enough, “My Father.” It is not easy to track down – it took a few weeks by way of Interlibrary Loan for me: the folks at Gretna Music are still waiting for the copy ordered on-line – but I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Bartók’s music, obviously, but to anyone interested in human side of the lives of Great Composers, those personal details that often get lost in the “and-then-he-wrote” biographies and chronologies.

And Bartók certainly is a Great Composer, generally regarded as one of the three greatest voices in the first half of the 20th Century along with Schoenberg and Stravinsky, though he founded no “school” and the events of World War II coincided with his deteriorating health to cut short a career that might have had more impact if circumstances had been different.

But it is not always good to play “What If,” tempting as it is – after all, consider what Mozart could have written if he lived to be as old as Beethoven, dying in 1813 instead of 1791 at the age of 35; or Schubert, rather than dying at the age of 31, if he'd lived to be 80, dying instead in 1877; and so forth.

One thing I learned from reading Peter Bartók’s book was that there might have been a 7th String Quartet (”My Father,” p.114). Unfortunately he was unable to get around to it in that final summer: he left two other works incomplete, as it was – the last 17 measures of the 3rd Piano Concerto still needed orchestration and “filling in,” not a great problem, but the Viola Concerto, though “ready” according to the composer, was in such a state, the sketch pages unnumbered, it was difficult to tell what went where and which came next.

The two photographs of father and son, posted here, were found on-line, taken in 1932 when Peter was about 8 years old, his father 51 – and around the time Bartók was composing the first volumes of teaching pieces called “Mikrokosmos,” many of which originated with the piano lessons Bartók gave his son. Another photograph, taken on one of their vacation mountain hikes can be seen here.

Just to place his life within the chronology of his father's life, Peter was 3 when Bartók composed his 3rd String Quartet and 21 when his father died in New York City at the age of 64.

When I first opened the book just to glance at it, once it arrived at the local library – thank you, East Shore Public Library for tracking it down – I saw this:

“My father’s objection to radio went beyond his fear of unwanted musical sounds at home.” (”My Father,” p.30)

Now, having spent 18 years working in radio, this intrigued me. As a composer, I could imagine the sound of a radio would be an intrusion into the solitude needed to write.

But there was more to it than this, as Peter explains: “radio and phonograph,” his father talked about in a later lecture on ‘Mechanical Music,’ “may discourage people from making their own music, so they never experience the satisfaction that goes with music-making, even if clumsy.”

That’s true, considering family life in Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s. In the days before such “mechanical music-making” became technologically possible, people made their own music at home, being actively involved in it, not simply the passive couch-potato of today.

Later in the book, he quotes from this lecture more extensively:

“While conceding the usefulness of radio for sick or otherwise immobilized people, [the lecture] contained some critical thoughts: the easy availability of music coming out of a home loudspeaker at the flick of a switch – no need to dress up, buy tickets and sit in silent attention with some thousand others in a big hall – may lead to superficial listening: people can turn the music on and off at any time, make it loud or soft, and they ‘may even chat during the music!’ He characterized radio music for many as no deeper experience than ‘being caressed in a lukewarm bath.’” (”My Father,” p. 226)

He concludes by pointing out that playing a radio with the windows open should never be allowed: “Without laws,” his father writes, “protecting the quiet of others, radio may become one of God’s curses on humanity.” (”My Father,” p. 227)

It makes me wonder how Bartók would fare in New York City today, beset by muzac everywhere and boom-boxes galore. It is almost impossible to avoid being subjected to “mechanical music” today.

Of course, his argument against the radio – the convenience, not having to get dressed or buy tickets or sit in silence in a communal socio-religious setting – is often the complaint of many of the younger generations who argue these are reasons the Concert is Dead.

As a friend of mine on Facebook commented, when I posted this quote, “a different time.”

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Blogging Here and There

More there than here, however...

It’s been a busy week at Dr. Dick Central and I hope, later today, to post something here about my impending interview with Peter Bartók, the son of composer Bela Bartók whose six string quartets will be featured in a two-evening series of concerts with Gretna Music at Elizabethtown College’s Leffler Chapel. The Calder Quartet will play three quartets each evening - No.s 1, 3 & 5 on Friday, No.s 2, 4 & 6 on Saturday. I’ve been reading Peter’s biography of his father, appropriately entitled, simply, “My Father,” which he published in 2002. The interview is Friday evening at 6:30 and we will be connecting with Mr. Bartok from his home in Florida by way of Skype!

Meanwhile, I’ve been blogging about Beethoven Violin Sonatas coming up in next Tuesday’s Market Square Concerts' recital at Whitaker Center with violinist Miriam Fried and pianist Jonathan Biss – I feel compelled to mention that program is at 6:00 rather than the usual 8pm, so, no, that is not a typo. There’s some biographical background about the four sonatas they’ll be performing – including a touching portrait of the composer around the time he composed the last of his violin sonatas – as well as some reminiscences about hearing Miriam Fried play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony in 1984 and hearing Raya Garbousova, one of the great cellists of her generation, play the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony in 1963 – an important influence in my early musical experience. That makes three generations of this family I will have had the chance to hear here in Harrisburg: Jonathan Biss is Miriam Fried’s son and Raya Garbousova was Miriam Fried’s mother-in-law, therefore Jonathan’s grandmother.

There’s also a preparatory post for the up-coming performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 which the Harrisburg Symphony will be performing under the baton of Stuart Malina on the weekend of April 16th and 17th. I’ll be presenting the pre-concert talk an hour before each concert (assuming I can finish my taxes in time). The post over at the Symphony Blog describes what it was like at the 3rd Symphony’s world premiere in 1902 and includes video excerpts from a performance by Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic dating from the mid’70s.

Last weekend, I was the pre-concert talker for both nights of the Lancaster Guitar Festival with performances by Ernesto Tamayo and Friends and by Czech guitarist Vladislav Blaha. It was great to hear them play and great to see an enthusiastic audience response - especially following the sad news of the Pennsylvania Academy of Music's closing announced a couple of days earlier. This is something I also want to write more about in the near future.

Something else I've wanted to write about is the recent death of composer Lee Hoiby who was a friend and kind of mentor to me over the years. I last saw him when he came to Harrisburg to hear Stuart Malina play his "Sextet for Winds & Piano" with the Dorian Wind Quintet just two years ago. I've managed to post a brief bit about his death over at the Market Square Concerts blog and hopefully will manage a more fitting, more personal tribute to him once the dust settles here.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

More Spohr and Several Years Ago

(This is a revised and expanded post, originally from 2007, reposted here in honor of Spohr's 227th Birthday Anniversary, today.)

The other night I was tooling around through Google, looking for something else and found a reference to Spohr’s 10th Symphony. Suddenly I was back in the library at Eastman almost 40 years ago, when I was browsing through the old-fashioned card-catalogue and found a manuscript copy of Ludwig Spohr’s 10th Symphony.

There was a bit of trivia that immediately played through my mind: how many composers, other than Beethoven, completed only nine symphonies and died?

Bruckner doesn’t count because he didn’t complete his ninth (though there is that awkward Symphony No. 0). But Mahler would, basically, and so would Dvorak, once you got all the earlier symphonies published and renumbered. And Ralph Vaughan Williams, too. Schubert’s a little tricky since he didn’t really finish the “Unfinished,” did he? And if you’re going to count that one, then what about all the other unfinished symphonies he never finished, either? Not to mention the fact there really is no Symphony No. 7 in the official catalogue.

Oh yeah, and Ludwig Spohr.

Most people have never heard of Ludwig Spohr – or Louis Spohr as he’s often known. For some reason, he styled himself with a French first name though Beethoven often signed himself “Luigi Beethoven” and you don’t see people jumping up and down arguing we should call him Luigi, not Ludwig... but I digress.

In his day, Ludwig Spohr was an important violinist, conductor and composer. Until Paganini came along, Spohr was the most famous violinist on the concert circuit and he did a great deal to advance violin technique in the early 19th Century. He also became one of the first actual conductors. Following the demise of the ever-present continuo harpsichord, most orchestras by the early 19th Century were “led” by the first violinist or concertmaster (in England, even today, that position is still called “Leader”) who would set the tempo and threw important cues while playing at the head of the violin section, sometimes using the violin bow almost like a baton when he wasn’t playing. Spohr shocked his fellow musicians when in 1820 he put the violin aside and pulled a stick of wood from his coat pocket, placed his music stand facing the orchestra and proceeded to wave this... this baton around. He also championed a lot of new music – particularly Wagner. Even though he didn’t particularly care for “Lohengrin,” Spohr thought it was important that it be heard.

He also didn’t seem to have a handle on Beethoven, at least the later music. He played some of the Late Quartets which were mystifying to players and audiences alike when they were still new (one could argue, still today) but one time, realizing, as he put it, his “accompanists” didn’t quite grasp the piece, he decided they should substitute one of his own, more easily accessible quartets instead. True, the standard quartet approach was a principal violin part with the “accompaniment” of three other string players, but that was hardly the concept behind most of Beethoven’s quartets to begin with. The important thing was, though, that Spohr at least played them – you can’t say that about everyone, back then.

As a composer, Spohr’s style is often considered out-moded, belonging to a now easily derided period called “Biedermeier” with its middle-class, amateur-oriented, non-inflammatory values in music, poetry, literature, architecture, even furniture design. His personal attitude considered Mozart the pinnacle of perfection and while he might have been more adventuresome than some of his contemporaries, his harmonic digressions are more of the “purple patch” variety than anything “organic” like Beethoven or Wagner.

Of course, compared to Beethoven or Wagner, we might think something like this of little consequence. But in those days, Beethoven was the avant-garde composer, the purveyor of modern music who annoyed, to a certain extent, the status-quo. Spohr, on the other hand, was more popular and considered by many to be better. It was not a time when audiences – or composers – were concerned about posterity: it was the entertainment value of the here and now that was more important. This was why, for all his genius at writing songs and with masterpiece after masterpiece of chamber music and at least two of those symphonies (or to be more specific, one and a half of those symphonies), Schubert’s big dream was to make it big in the opera house: that’s where the most gratifying reputations and profits were being made, not in the concert halls.

When Beethoven was struggling with his Late Period and Schubert was trying to break into the business, Spohr ruled the roost.

So why don’t we hear any of his music today?

He wrote what was probably considered “nice” music, not “great” music that appealed to the comfort level of his audience – “Biedermeier” is nothing if not “nice” – and when tastes changed, fickle audiences quickly jumped on somebody else’s bandwagon. Do you think the contestants of (and I can’t believe I’m mentioning this program in my blog) “American Idol” are really concerned about posterity?

Anyway, I started by telling you about his 10th Symphony. I checked the score in the Eastman library – it was in the manuscript collection and you couldn’t sign it out – and sure enough, it was a hand-written ink copy (not printed) with editor’s and conductor’s markings in red and blue pencil of a “Symphony No. 10 in E-flat by Louis Spohr.” Is this a discovery, does anybody else know about this?

Paging through his autobiography which was written near the end of his life, he mentions two works that never saw the light of day: one more symphony and one more string quartet, both suppressed because they didn’t meet the standards, he felt, of their predecessors – I can’t remember the exact flowery (and very Biedermeier) wording he had used. Comparing photocopies and reproductions of his own handwriting and musical manuscripts as I could find, it became clear this particular symphony score was not Spohr’s original manuscript but maybe that of a copyist’s getting it ready for a performance.

Somewhere I found a reference to one of the movements having been performed in a private concert in Germany in the 1920s and one movement of this particular manuscript had more thorough markings than the rest of the symphony. So yes, it was no secret, musicologically speaking, and may even have been performed before, in part or in whole. I was very curious – not so much about the music but why the composer deemed it “not worthy to stand at the end of the fine long procession of its predecessors” (as I remember his comment) and also why those predecessors were no longer considered worth maintaining in the repertoire.

This symphony was composed in 1857, two years before his death. By rejecting this symphony (and its contemporaneous string quartets), Spohr was clearly feeling the doldrums of reduced creativity, having “passed it” in modern parlance. Perhaps in the symphony his return to earlier, more classical models was a way to get around his lack of inventiveness as he aged (he was 73, after all) but it may also have back-fired, since it would certainly be unable to stand comparison with the advances in Romantic style that one can follow from his earliest symphonies (the 3rd, for instance, was composed a year after Beethoven died) to his 9th (completed in 1850, the year Wagner premiered Lohengrin).

Checking his biography (though I no longer have access to a copy of his Autobiography), it seems in 1857 Spohr was “pensioned off against his wishes” (forced into retirement) by his employer, the Elector in Kassel. Then, that winter, he fell and broke his arm which brought an end to his violin playing (though he still conducted a performance of Jessonda in Prague in 1858 – not coincidentally, perhaps, while Wagner was in the midst of composing Tristan. Spohr died the following year, 1859, at the age of 75.

Meanwhile, back at Eastman in the mid-1970s, I located scores of several of Spohr’s symphonies in the library plus some chamber music as well as vocal scores of his most popular operas, Faust and Jessonda. It was while plowing through Jessonda that I discovered something that made me just sit there and go “wow” with suitably dropped jaw.

If you’re a music student or an afficionado, you’ve probably heard of the “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The chord is basically considered one of the most important starting points for the development of late-19th Century harmony and it’s basically a pile-up of embellishing tones resolving, ultimately, to a dominant 7th chord. The opera was composed between 1857 and 1859.

Here is the opening of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde:

Now, what I found in the vocal score of Spohr’s Jessonda - opening the main character's entrance aria - was an almost identical passage: the same key, the same 6/8 meter and (as I recall) the same rhythms but, more importantly, virtually all the same pitches but one – the next-to-last note in Spohr is a C-natural, an “upper-neighbor” embellishment, where Wagner’s A-sharp is a chromatic passing tone.

Spohr composed his opera in 1823.

Yet no one calls it “The Jessonda Chord.” Nor does anyone accuse Wagner of plagiarism, either.

Was Jessonda so forgotten 25 years later that Wagner could steal this, even subconsciously, without anyone noticing? Hmmmm...

Eventually, this curiosity turned into a concert. My particular doctoral program (technically a DMA in composition with an emphasis on performance rather than a PhD with an emphasis on research) required a recital program in addition to a concert of my compositions. Now, I was nowhere near having the talent (or the courage) to try a piano recital so they said I could conduct a chamber orchestra. And that’s how Spohr’s 10th got its first complete performance in Rochester (if not anywhere else).

It was in April 1974 that Eastman’s First and Only SpohrFest took place at the Cutler Union Building. It opened in the parlor, the piano in front of an ornate fireplace, with me accompanying a friend of mine singing Jessonda’s aria, complete with the so-called “Tristan Chord.” Then I conducted an Octet Spohr had composed for a tour of England (he incorporated variations on “The Harmonious Blacksmith” as a tribute, thinking it was an English folk-song and not a piece by Handel - I actually had to shoosh the audience at one point because they started to giggle at the presumed triteness of one passage). It was not necessary for these musicians to be conducted (it is, after all, chamber music), it just gave me something to do and also saved some rehearsal time since none of them were familiar even with his much better known Nonet.

And then we moved across the hall to a large open space set up for the chamber orchestra, about 30-35 musicians in all, and there I conducted Spohr’s 10th, having hand-copied the score and all the parts myself. (There is an additional funny tale to tell since the first rehearsal took place on the afternoon of Good Friday and I had my qualifying Oral Exam for the DMA that morning, but I’ll save that for another time.)

I don’t think anyone, myself included, jumped up and down with excitement at the discovery of a neglected masterpiece or even an unjustly neglected genius in its composer. The audience was for the most part appreciative of the context, hearing music – first of all, not in a concert hall setting but in something closer to the idea of a house-concert with a nice sized music room like the Mendelssohns had in Berlin around the same time – that for one reason or another Time has not been kind to. But yet it’s not that it’s “bad” which is so terribly subjective a response: it’s just that it no longer speaks to us the way Beethoven or Mendelssohn or any number of other composers from that era still do today. And yet Spohr was one of the great composers – well, popular composers – of his day.

So it was amusing to run across this on-line while googling:

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'His nine symphonies (a tenth was left unfinished, but was brought to completion by Eugene Minor and premiered by the Bergen Youth Orchestra) show a progress from the classical style of his predecessors to the programme music of the ninth symphony, Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons).'
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The Bergen Youth Orchestra gave the 10th its “world premier [sic]" in 1998 but then there would be no reason for them to know I had done it in an otherwise undocumented private performance (more or less) 24 years earlier. I also don’t know in what state the original manuscript might have been in – since my score (by another hand) could have been someone’s attempt to complete the work, it’s possible Spohr abandoned it before finishing it. It had been my assumption he had withdrawn it which would imply it had been completed, copied and probably performed (or at least read through), possibly even published before he decided otherwise.

Whatever state the symphony had been left in, I assume from the handwriting the score I was working from would have been copied by some contemporary of Spohr’s rather than a more modern calligraphic style. If the red and blue pencil markings in the slow movement were intended for that 1920s performance, there seemed to be a difference in the handwriting to indicate one was, say, mid-19th Century and the other one early-20th.

But I don’t have a copy of the original manuscript from Eastman’s Sibley Library: it was bound and in fairly delicate shape, so there was no question of photocopying it. I made my own copy by hand, spending hours sitting in the Sibley Listening Room and I was not particularly concerned about musicological details such as which was the copyist’s markings and which were the red or blue pencil markings… Checking my own hand-written copy, now, I notice I indicated these penciled-in markings were by someone named Sauer and now I vaguely recall there was an inscription in the manuscript indicating its use in that 1920s performance. Unfortunately, I didn't write that down.

And I don’t have a recording of the performance to prove anything, for that matter, just my copy of the score and (somewhere) the parts.

After this post appeared originally on a previous blog of mine, I heard from Eugene Minor who was going to send me a photocopy of the manuscript he had worked from which was Spohr’s calligraphy. Unfortunately, I never received this. He also said that it was being (or had already been) recorded.

A more recent e-mail from a reader at the Spohr Society of Great Britain – which led to my reposting the information, here – informs me there are now two competing recordings of Spohr’s 10th. The earlier one (paired with the 3rd), conducted by Howard Griffiths on the CPO label with the NDR Radio Philharmonic of Hannover, was originally released in the fall of 2007, six months after my original post.

The other was released just this past February on the Hyperion label, paired with the 8th, with Howard Shelley conducting what used to be called L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande but now goes by Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana.

The question, I suppose, is not so much have we resurrected an important masterpiece, saving it from oblivion, but helping to place the music that we do know and regard as masterpieces in some kind of historical context, letting us know what else was out there at the time, forgotten or not, what other people were composing or listening to and which was often highly thought of. After all, not everybody who gets to ride the Fame Bus makes it to the end of the line: sic transit gloria mundi...

- Dick Strawser

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Story Behind a Newly Discovered Puccini Opera

News arrived today that there is a previously unknown opera by Giacomo Puccini, "La vendetta di sposa." Here is a bit of information on how this discovery came to light.
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Opposite a large park, he saw a shop, a light in its front window.

"Kind of late to be open," he said to himself. "Who'd be shopping at this time of night?" Cautiously, he went over to check, thinking "if I were back home, this could be a break-in!"

But instead of burglars, there was a well-dressed man leaning against the counter, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette while paging through a newspaper. Rogers Kent-Clarke could recognize this man anywhere. The name ornately painted on the glass was unnecessary. "Welcome to Puccini's Haberdasheria."

He was aware, finally, there were other people on the street, walking in the park - he was not alone, after all. Looking around like Scrooge on Christmas morning, it occurred to him, "if it's July 24th, why isn't it as hot here as it was in Collierville?" Feeling definitely under-dressed, what better place to be than a clothing store?

But the man at the counter saw him standing there and motioned for him to go away. "We're closed," he mouthed and went back to reading his paper. Kent-Clarke continued waving until the man eventually relented.

Puccini figured the man must be having a fashion emergency. Given his condition, checking him up and down with a practiced eye, while any store-clerk in a discount retailer could probably help, the man would certainly benefit from an expert's advice. Besides, Puccini figured, he wasn't doing anything else, so he opened the door to let the man in.

"Welcome to Puccini's," he said graciously with a slight bow.

Kent-Clarke wondered if he'd be able to afford the prices, here, but maybe he could find a light jacket or sports coat in his price-range. That way, he might engage him in more personal conversation. A blazer would be a wonderful souvenir, but that wasn't why he was here.

He started to explain how he'd just arrived but his luggage hadn't.

"Ah, a tourist," Puccini said, mentally measuring his arms and legs for a new suit. The man was dressed for warm weather, inappropriate for Harmonia-IV. "What part of Parallelia are you from?"

"Paralellia? I've just dropped in from Pennsylvania."

"Pennsylvania? Never heard of it – sounds very quaint, no? And what would the signor be interested in, today?"

"Do you take Visa?" Kent-Clarke checked his wallet.

"Your passport is immaterial to me, signor." But Puccini saw there were many bills in the wallet, American dollars, worth far more on the Harmonian black market than any other currency.

Puccini started humming "Musetta's Waltz" as they began with a blazer, something light bluish-gray, accenting the man's eyes. Meanwhile, Kent-Clarke kept up the small-talk.

Recognizing the tune, he began humming along.

"Ah, you know the music?" Puccini beamed at the recognition.

"Yes, actually – I've conducted 'La Boheme' many times. It's always been one of my favorites." He didn't feel he was lying – maybe gushing too much, but not lying.

Puccini debated whether he should lower the price of the blazer or double it.

The customer said he'd come back for a suit in a day or two – at this point, it was obvious he was lying – but all the same, Puccini offered him some coffee and a biscotti. So they sat, watching the handful of people walking past the shop windows, occasionally glancing in.

And they talked. The visitor was very curious.

Puccini, carefully hiding his wariness, assumed this must be one of those Trespassers he'd heard about. It was flattering to be considered one of the Great Composers worth "killing off," but should he call the police?

He explained he gave up composing – the rat-race was an eternity, now that he was dead – but for any unpublished stuff lying around somewhere, Kent-Clarke should check with his publisher, Ricordi. They'd found many things he had lost and a few things he wished they hadn't. No, there was no full-scale opera, finished or otherwise, waiting to be unearthed.

There was a long silence while both sipped their coffee. Puccini debated telling him about this before deciding it could be fun: what could the man do about it, anyway?

"There was one opera I wrote since I arrived here in Harmonia-IV, after I finished writing 'Turandot.'"

"You finished 'Turandot'?" Kent-Clarke's jaw nearly hit the floor with a thud.

"Well, of course: just because I died didn't mean the opera had to be dead-on-arrival. Besides, all good intentions not withstanding, Alfano rather botched it as far as I was concerned." He left the topic dangling tantalizingly.

The new one, "La Vendetta di Sposa" was based on a story from his own life. There was this young girl, Doria, working as a maid at his villa. Elvira – his wife – became jealous of her, began tried forcing her into admitting having an affair with the composer.

"Elvira even dressed in my clothes, hoping to trap her in the garden. She spread nasty rumors in the village until Doria's family shunned her and her boyfriend denounced her. Eventually the poor maid committed suicide. At the autopsy, it was discovered she was still a virgin."

Now that he was dead, Puccini figured he could tell that story, how the girl's family sued his wife and won. Elvira eventually opted to live in a different parallel universe and never bother him again, but he'd recently heard the Makropolous Opera Company was taking "La Vendetta di Sposa" on tour, there.

He chuckled into his coffee cup.

Kent-Clarke began salivating at the idea of taking "La Vendetta" back to the States. He hoped the part of Doria was suitable for Rosa Budd [the untalented wife of SHMRG's CEO, N. Ron Steele] – with Steele's backing, people might just take notice of him, now.

His stock would surely soar, even if Rosa fell flat on her face. He could take it to other companies, have real sopranos take it on. Yes, his success would be assured.

For a moment, he'd forgotten he still needed to get his hands on the score. How likely was it Puccini would just hand him a copy?

Unfortunately, Puccini continued, wondering about his customer's silence, posthumous scores were not allowed to be taken back to the Other Side. After they're registered with the library, they're kept locked in a vault.

"There is a place where many composers also keep copies of their scores – it’s like a black market music shop but very difficult to get to."

Needless to say, Kent-Clarke was all ears.

Puccini explained it was in an old abandoned mine north of the city, beyond the Bois de Bologna, a fashionable park where many people liked to hang out on a summer day. At the extreme northern edge of the woods, where the paths all came to a stop and respectable people no longer continued, there was an old rusty gate leading to another path.

"About a mile beyond that, you'll find the entrance to the mine – can't miss it. Tell them 'Schicchi' sent you – that's my code-name, there."

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excerpt from The Doomsday Symphony (Chapter 34) by Dick Strawser

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While Harmonia-IV (part of a string of parallel universes), a place where many composers have gone after they've died (and where they continue to compose) may be, in short, fictional, the incident which inspired Puccini's posthumous opera, "La vendetta di sposa," is a true story which happened between him and his wife over what she assumed was an affair the composer was having with one of their young maids. It certainly would have made a good verismo opera subject.

Another work described in "The Doomsday Symphony" is Beethoven's latest (likewise posthumous) symphony, described here at its first rehearsal.

Watch for a future post about Mahler's most recent symphonic work which gives the novel its title.

- Dick Strawser