Program Notes: Stéphane Conducts Mahler (September 30-October 1, 2022)

Updated: Sep 20

Program

September 17-18, 2022


Stéphane Denève, conductor

Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano Clay Hilley, tenor

Tōru Takemitsu

Night Signal (1987)

Qigang Chen

L'Éloignment (2003)


Intermission

Gustav Mahler

Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) (1908)

Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth's Misery)

Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn)

Von der Jugend (Of Youth)

Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty)

Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunken Man in Spring)

Der Abschied (The Farewell)

Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano Clay Hilley, tenor

 

Program Notes

By Tim Munro


We send messages across a distance.


In Tōru Takemitsu’s Night Signal, two groups of brass instruments send messages across time, across space, across Powell Hall. Qigang Chen’s L’Éloignement (“Distance”) explores the emotions of Chen’s move from China to the West: hope mixed with a sense of estrangement.

When he began work on Das Lied von der Erde, Gustav Mahler was 47. His beloved daughter had died, and his health was failing. In response, he wrote “the most personal thing I have yet created,” a song cycle about life, love, and regret.


In its epic final movement, we face death. But not with anger, not with bitterness. Rather, full of acceptance, even joy:


I seek peace for my lonely heart. I wander homeward…

Everywhere, the dear earth blossoms in spring and grows green anew!

 
Tōru Takemitsu

Night Signal

Tōru Takemitsu

Born 1930, Tokyo, Japan

Died 1996, Tokyo, Japan


Music “is a form of prayer,” wrote Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu. At the core of Takemitsu’s practice is the Japanese concept of ma, where space and silence is essential.

In Night Signal, a fanfare for brass ensemble, Takemitsu makes this space literal. Two brass groups are placed far from one another, across the hall. The ensemble is dark-hued, dominated by lower instruments.

The music is sparse, hardly there. Quiet, jazz-tinged statements pass from one group to the other, handed carefully across the concert hall space. “The Japanese sound ideal,” writes Takemitsu, “approaches the nothingness of the wind in the bamboo grove.”

First performance: September 14, 1987, by the Scottish National Orchestra, Matthias Bamert conducting

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: 4 horns, 2 trumpets, cornet, 3 trombones, tuba

Approximate duration: 3 minutes

 
Qigang Chen

L'Éloignment


Qigang Chen

Born 1951, Shanghai, China

“There is a Chinese proverb,” writes Qigang Chen, “that says when a man is uprooted, he gains vital force. If he remains stationary, he cannot flourish. Renewal of his surroundings brings new opportunities; whatever changes there may be, large or small, are always experienced like a great rebirth.”


Chen draws from deep personal experience. Born into the early years of China’s imposing and violent Cultural Revolution, his father spent time in a labor camp. Chen himself was subjected to ideological re-education.

After studies in his homeland, he moved to Paris. Chen’s career blossomed in Europe, leading to commissions from orchestras across the continent. He has maintained ties with China, and was Music Director for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.


L’Éloignement (“Distance”) explores the mixed emotions of Chen’s move to the West. While this uprootedness might “bring hope and excitement,” he writes, “change also means separation from the immediate environment, and from family and friends. It is this sense of distancing, or estrangement, that is described in the peasant song from northwest China, ‘Zou Xi Kou’ (‘Going beyond the western gorges’).”


In Chen’s works, Chinese folk elements are seen through a Western lens. Folk melodies typically fight through webs of sound, struggling to peek through. In contrast, the traditional melody in L’Éloignement is present, clear. This clarity of purpose, says Chen, allowed him to directly “express my own estrangement.”


First performance: November 6, 2003, by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra at Shanghai’s International Arts Festival

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: strings

Approximate duration: 15 minutes

 
Gustav Mahler

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

Gustav Mahler

Born 1860, Kaliště,modern-day Czech Republic

Died 1911, Vienna, Austria


Resignation

For Mahler, life and work were one, united. “Only when I experience do I ‘compose.’ And only when I compose do I experience.” He was guided by the idea that his own personal journey, expressed in music, might help others process their own emotions.


At 46, Mahler was brimming with optimism. He had just completed the epic Eighth Symphony, written at speed, “like it had been dictated to me.” Its music overflows with optimism and love, as if “the whole universe is beginning to ring and resound.”


Then tragedy struck. Mahler’s daughter Maria died suddenly. “Maria,” wrote his wife Alma, was “[Gustav’s] child entirely.” The two shared a deep bond, carrying on long conversations in Mahler’s typically solitary composition cabin.


Weeks later, Mahler was given a life-threatening diagnosis. “You’ve no cause to be proud of a heart like that,” said his doctor, who ordered him to cease most physical activity. Mahler, who gained relief and inspiration from the mountains, took this news, according to a friend, with “silent resignation.”


Into this world, Das Lied von der Erde was born. It began during “lonely walks,” according to Alma. “He worked feverishly the entire summer. The work expanded in scale under his hands.” What began as a collection of songs began to take the shape of a “sort of symphony.”

Words


German poet Hans Bethge’s anthology, “The Chinese Flute,” is a collection of poems from the eighth century, during the T’ang dynasty. It is not a scholarly edition. Bethge spoke no Chinese languages, and the book represents a third-hand translation from the original poems.


Bethge’s anthology allowed Mahler to go deep into an idea that had long preoccupied him: the impermanence of life. Bethge wrote that these poems capture “the unutterable beauty of the world, the eternal sadness and enigma of all being. ‘Transitoriness’ is a constant presence.”


Das Lied von der Erde forever altered Mahler’s music. He turns away from blazing victory, turns away from tragic grandeur. Turns instead towards fragility, vulnerability. “I believe,” he wrote, “it is the most personal thing I have yet created.”


Mahler’s music also draws on simplified versions of Chinese music: pentatonic scales and evocations of Chinese instruments. Indeed, Das Lied von der Erde fits into a long history of chinoiserie (literally, “Chinese-ish”), the imitation of Chinese art by Western artists. “There was a genuine fascination and desire for this other culture,” writes scholar Iris Moon. She believes there is a dark side. “It’s an incredibly destructive and troubling way of looking at the other.”


Listening guide


Das Lied von der Erde can be thought of as a two-part symphony. The first part: Songs 1-5, explore the phases of life. The second part: Song 6, opening with a knell, explores the transition to death.


1. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (“The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery”). From a poem by Li Bai. Das Trinklied is the first of four songs in the cycle that deal explicitly with death. Here, the tenor is unhinged, howling at the moon (in a range that strains most singers). Along with bitterness and cynicism, Mahler explores deep wells of despair.


2. Der Einsame im Herbst (“The Lonely One in Autumn”). From a poem by Qian Qi. This song was the first of the cycle to be composed. Here, the alto is resigned, contemplative. The song traces a journey from autumn into winter.


3. Von der Jugend (“Of Youth”). From a poem by Li Bai. Songs 3 and 4 look to the past. The shortest and lightest song, it forces the tenor to recover from Das Trinklied’s howls, to match Mahler’s delicacy. This song is also the cycle’s most explicit example of Chinoiserie (imitations of Chinese music).


4. Von der Schonheit (“Of Beauty”). From a poem by Li Bai. A youthful erotic awakening (Mahler added his own sensual touches to the poem).


5. Der Trunkene im Fruhling (“The Drunken Man in Spring”). From a poem by Li Bai. Der Trunkene is the cycle’s second drinking song. Unlike the poet Li Bai, who was renowned for his alcoholism, Mahler was a virtual teetotaler. In Song 1, the drinker is angry and bitter; in Song 5, the drinker seems resigned.


6. Der Abschied (“The Farewell”). From poems by Mong Kao Yen and Wang Wei. Der Abschied is the culmination of the cycle. Mahler’s own philosophy saw death as a part of life, and in Der Abschied we meet death as friend, not foe. Mahler made many additions to the text—the final six lines are entirely his.


First performance: November 20, 1911, at Concert Munich, conducted by Bruno Walter, with Sara Cahier and William Miller as soloists

First SLSO performance: November 14, 1957, Vladimir Golschmann conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 23, 2014, David Robertson conducting

Instrumentation: alto and tenor soloists, 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes (third doubling English horn), 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, tam tam, tambourine, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, mandolin, strings

Approximate duration: 63 minutes

 

Tim Munro served as the SLSO’s Creative Partner from 2018-2022. In 2023, he becomes Associate Professor of Music at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in Australia.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.