Program Notes: Mahler's Ninth

Saturday, March 2, 2019 at 8:00pm

Sunday, March 3, 2019 at 3:00pm


Peter Oundjian, conductor

Lars Vogt, piano


MOZART Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467

MAHLER Symphony No. 9


By Tim Munro

Two composers, born a century apart. Both raised outside Vienna, but both deeply associated with the city’s musical life. Mozart struggled for a decade to survive as a freelancer there, while Mahler came to resent its inhabitants’ conservative taste and virulent antisemitism.


Two composers, whose music is as different as chalk and cheese. Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 467 is jeweled perfection, with hummable melodies and a jaunty final movement that sends listeners to intermission with a spring in their step.


Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, on the other hand, is a sprawling, rugged, imperfect universe. It embraces life, death, youth, and love; it celebrates the sacred and the secular, the sublime and the ridiculous.


But Mahler dearly loved the music of Mozart. As a conductor, he helped put Mozart’s operas at the core of the repertoire, and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is something of a musical love-letter to the long-dead composer.


Do we hear echoes, parallels? In the Viennese beauty of their melodies, in the dance rhythms that are never far away? Or do we hear the sounds of Mahler bidding farewell to nostalgia for Mozart’s Vienna, as Europe edged slowly towards an uncertain future.


Learn more about the performances here.

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria

Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria


Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467


Leopold Mozart arrived in Vienna on a freezing day in 1785. He had come to visit his son, Wolfgang. Leopold, himself a musician, was worried: Wolfgang had left stable employment for the bright lights and an uncertain future in this cultural capital.


What he found was a man in demand. Wolfgang was building a lucrative freelance career, catering to Vienna’s rich. He was overwhelmed with work, dashing from concert to wig-fitting to party to concert. He was presenting his own subscription concerts, a risk that was paying off.


On March 10, Leopold entered Vienna’s grand Burgtheater. He sat proudly (and no doubt stoically) in the packed hall, waiting to hear Wolfgang’s newest piano concerto, completed just one day prior. The audience was abuzz with talk of the young Mozart, still in his twenties.


Leopold had long taught his son to write music not just for connoisseurs but also musical newcomers. “Do not forget the so-called ‘popular style,’ which tickles long ears,” he wrote. Wolfgang listened: the concerto Leopold heard that day in the Burgtheater welcomed all listeners.


The first movement unfolds a drama full of characters and conflict and incident. Strings enter tentatively; woodwinds rebuke them; the two sides are soon caught in argument. Later, the piano acts as participant, as antagonist, as peacemaker. The tone of the musical conversation keeps shifting: fractious to calm to jaunty.


Mozart’s famous slow movement begins with a musical miracle. Hushed violins unfold a melody that is both simple and complex. It strikes our heart, yet is a parade of contradictions: a floated opening; dramatic swoops; sighing sadness; a peaceful end. Somehow both immaculate and very human.

The third movement revels in Leopold’s “popular style.” Skipping strings, perky woodwinds, and boisterous fanfares tickle our ears as it would have tickled those of Leopold and his neighbors in the Burgtheater.


Father and son had a fractious relationship; they would later fall out painfully. But at this moment, with this concerto, perhaps the two found a temporary understanding, an uneasy truce.


First Performance: March 10, 1785, Vienna First SLSO Performance: December 11, 1942, Vladimir Golschmann conducting with Robert

Casadesus as soloist

Most Recent SLSO Performance: November 14, 2009, Sir Andrew Davis conducting with Robert Levin as soloist

Scoring: solo piano, flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 29 minutes



The Mozarts: Wolfgang Amadeus, Maria Anna (his sister), and Leopold. Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce.

GUSTAV MAHLER Born July 7, 1860, Kaliště, Czech Republic

Died May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria


Symphony No. 9


Movement 1: Andante comodo (“At a comfortable walking pace”)

Out of the silence, a heartbeat stutters. A distant horn call rustles the strings. Then— tentatively, so tentatively—a melody begins...


Alma Mahler with her and Gustav’s two daughters, Maria and Anna.

Farewell

Gustav Mahler knew death. As a child he lost six brothers, and just two years before working on the Ninth Symphony he suffered his deepest pain: Maria, his eldest daughter, died.


Mahler himself felt vulnerable. Diagnosed with a serious heart condition, he could no longer rest and recharge on long walks in the woods. He knew his life would be cut short.


Two sounds draw us into the Ninth Symphony. The first: cellos and french horn playing a fragile heartbeat, perhaps Mahler’s own. As the movement cycles through surges of love, optimism, and desire, this heartbeat comes back again and again, cutting off hope. A shadow of death, always close.


The second: a simple melody, filled with nostalgia. Every element of this melody will be severed, altered, and transformed during this movement, creating a universe of emotions. Its first two sighing notes are borrowed from a piano sonata by Beethoven with the subtitle Les Adieux (“The farewell”). Indeed, we can sing the word “fare-well” to this gesture.


At the movement’s climax, the orchestra tumbles into an oblivion of four trombones, crying to the heartbeat figure at the top of their lungs. The music collapses, fading slowly until the end of the movement. On an early draft, Mahler wrote over the last page, “Farewell! Farewell!”


Movement 2: Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb. (“At the pace of a leisurely dance. Somewhat clumsy and very rough.”)


A summer’s market day in the square. Violas and bassoon tune up their instruments; a band of clarinets practice a difficult lick. A band of fiddle players start up a catchy melody.


The town square of Iglau (now Jihlava).

Dancing

In the Germanic village of Iglau (now Jihlava in the Czech Republic), music came alive in the town square. Bands from across the region played for the crowds gathered on busy market days.


And young Mahler listened. This serious, quiet boy, head always stuck in a book, imitated the songs and dances on his toy accordion.


Mahler answers the first movement’s pain of “farewell” with a second movement that is full of musical memories of youth. We are thrust right into Mahler’s buzzing town square. Dance melodies compete for attention, interrupting each other, playing over each other.


The four melodies:

  • A slow ländler. In this traditional Austrian dance, couples turn around one another with small steps, executing complicated hand holds.

  • Two fast waltzes. The first waltz takes our breath away with its speed, force, and strange harmonies. The second is more dangerous, terrifying us with its buzzsawing brass and squealing winds.

  • An even slower ländler. This dance is the calm in the storm. Its melody evokes the first movement’s sighing gesture of farewell, and the music finally rises to heartfelt passion.


Early commentators on the symphony referred to the “senseless brutalities” of this music, to the “noisy” sound of the instruments. But can we also hear in Mahler’s music some of the joyful discovery of youth?


Movement 3: Rondo. Burleske. Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig. (“Very lively. Very defiant.”)Three groups eye each other across a schoolyard. The trumpet fires the first insult; the strings respond. Woodwinds join with their own taunt.


Mockery

“Burlesque” is where serious and silly meet. The word comes from the Italian burla,meaning “joke,” and the Latin burra, meaning “a triviality.” Historically, this was a chance to make fun of something serious: Shakespeare mocking sentimental tragedies, Cervantes parodying medieval romances.


For Mahler, the comic and the serious had always been bedfellows. When, at an early age, this Jewish child was bored at temple, he stood up and sang a bawdy secular song. Later, one of his earliest compositions was a light polka dance introduced by a funeral march.


The third movement is deadly serious. Mahler asks for the music to be played in a “defiant” manner: instruments are rude and raucous, certain they are correct. The resulting musical melee bludgeons any sense of “farewell” with sheer brute force.


But the third movement is also deadly silly. Mahler mocks a “serious and high- minded” musical form, the fugue, by layering so many melodies at such a speed that it risks collapsing under its own weight. Contemporaries thought the music sounded like a “threat” to conservative values.


For one magical moment the sky clears. A trumpet plays a quiet melody, surrounded by a trembling halo; we feel the warmth of the sun. It can’t last. A clarinet snarls, things fall apart. The burlesque must continue!


Movement 4: Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend. (“Very slow and held back.”)

Violins strain to reach notes on their lowest string. Defeated, they sink slowly into the warm embrace of the whole string section.


Alma Schindler around the time she met Gustav Mahler.

Alma

They were mis-matched from the start. Gustav, a quiet, bookish “intellectual,” comfortable in solitude. Alma, a cosmopolitan, at home in a crowd. Each an independent spirit, each dreaming of life as a composer.


But in early 1900s Vienna, ambition was possible for only one of them. “You must become ‘what I need’ if we are to be happy together,” wrote Gustav to his wife. He commanded her to quit composition, to think only of his career.


Alma gave in, but by 1909, when Mahler began work on his Ninth Symphony, the marriage was at its lowest point. He lost himself in work. “Over the years I have forgotten how to do anything else,” he wrote.


In a draft of the Ninth Symphony, Mahler scrawled, “Oh love! Obliterated!”


The fourth movement sinks into the arms of a lower key, D flat major. This key mutes the brightness of the strings: if the first movement’s D major is an electric bulb, then the fourth movement’s D flat major is candlelight.


But there is something else in this music. At the very end of the symphony, Mahler quotes music from his own song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”). The Rückert poem he set ends with these words:


I am dead to the world’s tumult, And I rest in a quiet realm! I live alone in my heaven, In my love and in my song.

The music of the fourth movement again and again tries to pull away from its roots, to float to a “quiet realm.” Early on, a violin note (played “without emotion”) floats high above contrabassoon and double bass, rumbling in the depths.


Perhaps with this symphony Mahler is ultimately asking: How do we say farewell? Do we look at what we’ve lost with tears and nostalgia? Do we resist it with anger? Or do we find an answer in acceptance, in living alone “in my heaven, in my love and in my song?”


First Performance: June 26, 1912, Vienna, Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

First SLSO Performance: December 2, 1971, Walter Susskind conducting Most Recent SLSO Performance: November 22, 2008, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: 4 flutes, piccolo, 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn), 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, tam tam, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, 3 deep bells), harp, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 1 hour and 21 minutes


Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Creative Partner

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