Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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May 03, 2018

May 12, 2018 Program Notes

Born Hamburg, Germany, 7 May 1833; died Vienna, 3 April 1897.
Nänie, Op. 82
Composed 1880-81 and premiered 6 December 1881 with the composer leading the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. The work calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 3 trombones, timpani, 2 harps, strings and chorus. Duration about 15 minutes.

A Nenia or Naenia (Nänie in German) is a dirge or funeral song of ancient Rome. When a friend of Brahms, the painter Anselm Feuerbach, died, the composer honored him by setting to music the sonnet Nänie by Friedrich Schiller (an author Beethoven also used for his “Ode to Joy”). Brahms’ choice of poem was doubly appropriate, because Feuerbach painted portraits with a “classical” poise and also chose ancient Greek subjects, while Schiller’s poem has tremendous “classical” restraint or dignity and makes several references to Greek mythology.

“Even the Beautiful must die,” the poem begins, and goes on to tell how even Orpheus could not bring back Eurydice from Hades, Aphrodite (Venus) could not save her lover Adonis from being gored by the wild boar, and the sea nymph Thesis could not prevent her mortal son Achilles’ death in the Trojan War. The only comfort is that there is nobility or glory in a Klaglied, a song of lamentation.

For this choral work Brahms wrote music of the utmost gentleness and tenderness, beginning with a choir of woodwinds and horns, led by the oboe, preceding the quiet entrance of the chorus. The music becomes more agitated when mentioning the death of Achilles on the battlefield, then moves into a new section describing the gods and goddesses themselves weeping at the loss of the Beautiful. Finally, the music returns to the opening section with its oboe melody, and Nänie concludes with the chorus dwelling on the word herrlich: “noble” or “glorious.”

Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54
Composed 1868-71 and premiered 6 December 1871 with the Karlsruhe Philharmonic, Hermann Levi conducting. The work calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings and chorus. Duration about 15 minutes.

Schicksalslied is a setting of a short poem by the German Romantic Friederich Hölderlin, embedded in his novel Hyperion, about a Greek freedom fighter who becomes a solitary nature-dweller. The poem first describes the lives of the Immortals, living in eternal bliss, free of fate, enjoying shimmering divine breezes, the way sacred harp strings feel the touch of the harpist. In contrast, human beings feel no rest from one hour to the next, like water pouring down cliff after cliff into uncertainty.

The orchestral introduction to Schicksalslied is gentle and solemn, uniquely Brahmsian in sound, with a steady timpani beat adding to the solemnity. The chorus enters quietly but soon seems radiant with joy as it sings of the breezes caressing the gods. After a hushed description of the gods’ eyes gazing with eternal clarity (ewige Klarheit), the timpani beat returns, perhaps a bit ominously, for the mood will suddenly change.

Violent agitation in the strings leads to the chorus lamenting the tormented restlessness of human life: Doch uns ist gegeben auf keiner Stätte zu ruhn (But our lot is to find no place to rest). After this outcry the whole verse is repeated quietly, with intense sadness given to the word ruhn (rest). The agitated section returns, with a more dramatic fading away on the words ins Ungewisse hinab (down into uncertainty). As if to imply feelings that go beyond language, Brahms ends the piece by returning to the gentle, heartfelt introduction for the orchestra alone, now played with a slightly greater intensity, as if tinged with a deeper sympathy for humankind.

Born Kalischt (Kaliste), now Czech Republic, 7 July, 1860; died Vienna, 18 May, 1911.
Symphony No. 1
Composed 1888-89 and titled “Symphonic Poem” at its premiere with the composer leading the Budapest Philharmonic, 20 November 1889; revised several times before its publication in 1899. Tonight’s performance features 4 flutes (2nd, 3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet and Eb clarinet), Eb clarinet (doubling on Bb clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, harp and strings. The SSO has performed Mahler’s First Symphony with Guy Victor Bordo (13 May 1995) and Andrews Sill (29 September 2007). Duration about 53 minutes.

Gustav Mahler once said that each of his symphonies was a “world” in itself. While his First Symphony is his shortest and—at least in terms of having four movements and no vocalists—most conventional, it certainly creates a unique world of its own. To be sure, like other Mahler symphonies it veers between extremely different moods, from utterly peaceful to utterly tormented, from yearningly romantic to caustically mocking—sometimes within a few bars! But it all miraculously hangs together, both musically and dramatically, whatever mysterious story it seems to be telling.

Significantly, Mahler labeled this work simply “Symphonic Poem” when he led the premiere in Budapest in 1889. But he had always referred to it as a “symphony” in his notes, and over the course of a decade and three more performances in German cities he made changes and eliminated the second of the five movements, a short slow movement he called “Blumine” (“Blossoming” or “Bouquet”). He toyed with symbolic titles for each of the movements, but--like Robert Schumann with his “Spring” Symphony--he took them out before final publication in 1899, allowing listeners to have their own impressions.

1. Langsam. Schleppend. (Slow. Dragging.) The symphony opens on a single sustained note, concert A, spread over seven octaves. As at the beginning of Wagner’s opera The Rhinegold, we seem to be at the dawn of a new day, or perhaps spring, or a new life or even a cosmic event. (Mahler did write “Like a call of Nature” on the first page of the score.) A two-note descending theme is heard in various woodwinds—a fragment that will soon be part of longer themes and indeed become the basis for the entire symphony. A fanfare from the clarinets, echoed by offstage trumpets, adds a new mood of anticipation. Woodwinds begin to imitate birdcalls—most notably that of the cuckoo, the same two-note descending theme. As the tempo picks up, we hear a tune which Mahler adapted from his own Songs of a Wayfarer for voice and orchestra: a song beginning “I went this morning over the fields.” The music becomes increasingly joyful and exuberant.

After a repeat of this section we return to the very opening of the symphony, but with different orchestral colors and moods. A new march-like theme appears in the horns, and later the woodwinds introduce a forward-driving theme that will play a major role in the finale. All this music combines with the fanfares, the Wayfarer theme and the “cuckoo” call to form a wildly excited conclusion.

2. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell. (Strongly paced, but not too fast.) The scherzo of this symphony is in the form of a Ländler, an Austrian “country” dance, a forerunner of the waltz. Joy, confidence, playfulness are abundantly displayed, with the woodwinds and horns dominating. The Trio section, where the strings predominate, is a slower, dreamy waltz, sweet and gentle. A brief transition takes us back to the Ländler tune and a raucous close.

3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen. (Solemn and measured, without dragging.) This is one of the strangest slow movements, almost surrealistic, that Mahler or any other composer has ever devised. It opens with the familiar children’s song “Frère Jacques” (known as “Bruder Martin” in German lands) played at first by a solo string bass, in a minor key and with the rhythm of a funeral march. As other instruments join in for a “round,” a perkier counter-theme is heard, first on the oboe. Suddenly (the score is marked “with parody”) we seem to be an Austrian tavern with very tipsy patrons, or perhaps it’s a klezmer band in a Jewish village.

The mock-funereal rhythm returns, but the mood changes once again, to one of longing and tenderness, as Mahler borrows another passage from Songs of a Wayfarer. This one is from the concluding song, as the Wayfarer, restless after his beloved has rejected him, finds a moment of peace under a linden tree. Its blossoms snow upon him, and for the moment “everything is good again . . . love and grief and world and dream.” But the mournful theme of the blue eyes of his beloved is briefly heard, and “Frère Jacques” returns, with an even bolder tavern or klezmer interruption, before the music quietly fades away.

4. Sturmisch bewegt. (Stormily paced.) A shockingly wild outburst begins this movement, the longest of the four. The forward-driving theme from the first movement appears in a darker form, plowing through all the agitation until it seems to wear itself out. The interlude that follows features one of Mahler’s great passionate melodies for the strings.

The stormy music returns, even more agitated, but this time it gives way to the triumphant music heard near the end of the first movement. This too fades as we re-enter the springtime world of the very opening of the symphony, complete with cuckoo and other bird calls. The passionate theme for the strings returns, eventually taken up by the whole orchestra in a sweeping climax. But there is more to come, as the fanfares and triumphant music return for the ecstatic celebration that ends the symphony.

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