Program Notes: Now and Then
Mahler and Foin
Mahler: Symphony No. 5
For woodwind quintet and string orchestra; world premiere performance
Quintessence is a loose set of variations on La Folia (also known as "Follia" in Italy, "Folies d'Espagne" in France, and "Faronel's Ground" in England), one of the oldest known musical fragments in European musical history.
“Quintessence,” the fifth and highest element in ancient and medieval philosophy, permeates all nature and is the substance composing the celestial bodies.
This piece begins with the theme presented in its most basic form, followed by variations for the four terrestrial elements, each featuring the instrument that was most evocative of that element: Earth (bassoon), Water (English Horn), Air (Clarinet), and Fire (Piccolo). As is sadly its lot in most woodwind quintets, the French Horn bravely acts as the all-important, unacknowledged wingman in all the movements. Each variation is set in a different modal scale. The finale briefly combines all the instruments into the “quintessence” of the Folia, bringing all the elements together in the original scale before dissolving into the aether.
I dedicate this piece to Ron and Adrienne in appreciation for all the musical memories New Philharmonia has provided me.
Symphony No. 5
Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt (Kalište) near the Moravian border of Bohemia on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. He began writing his Fifth Symphony in 1901 and completed it the following year. He himself conducted the premiere in Cologne on October 18, 1904. The score calls for four flutes, two piccolos, three oboes and English horn, three clarinets, D clarinet, and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam‑tam, slapstick, glockenspiel, harp, and strings. Duration is about 68 minutes.
Mahler’s first four symphonies, all written in the nineteenth century, are all inspired by or based on songs, especially the songs of the collection of folk‑poetry known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). By the turn of the century, Mahler had stopped drawing upon that source for good, though with one last glimpse in the finale of the Fifth Symphony. His next songs were settings of the poet Rückert, including his finest cycle, Kindertotenlieder, which he had started before he began work on the symphony. The Fifth is the first purely orchestral symphony since No. 1, with no vocal parts and no hint of musical shapes dictated by song.
The group of three instrumental symphonies—Nos. 5, 6, and 7—reveal Mahler’s growing interest in the independence of the instrumental lines, in a highly contrapuntal texture. He more frequently uses small subsections of the orchestra, as if the entire ensemble consisted of an immensely varied series of chamber groups. The Fifth was written under the specific influence of Beethoven’s late quartets, which Mahler described to a friend as “far more polyphonic than his symphonies,” and of the intricate tonal counterpoint of J.S. Bach, whose work he studied for hours on end.
Mahler drafted the first two movements during the summer of 1901 at his newly-built retreat in the Carinthian resort town of Maiernigg. The remainder had to wait, because the opera season was starting, and his duties in Vienna left him little time to compose during the winter. But when he got back to the symphony the following summer, he was a different man. At a dinner party on November 7 he met a young woman of spectacular beauty and considerable self‑assurance, Alma Schindler, a composition student. Within three weeks Mahler was talking of marriage and almost against her will Alma was realizing that “He’s the only man who can give meaning to my life, for he far surpasses all the men I’ve ever met.” By December 9, Alma had accepted him. When they married on March 9, Alma was already pregnant.
It was only the least of the complications in their life together. In some respects two people can hardly have been less well suited to each other, whether by age, temperament, character, or interests. Mahler was passionately in love with her, but overbearing in his demands that she entirely devote her attention to him, even to the point of giving up composition. Alma was capricious, flirtatious, and conceited, though also very intelligent and witty, musical, capable of great generosity and petty meanness. Yet virtually everything Mahler wrote for the rest of his life was composed for her. Indeed, the famous Adagietto movement was his confession of love, according to the conductor Willem Mengelberg, who insisted that both of them told him this was so.
The symphony is laid out in five movements, though Mahler grouped the first two and the last two together, so that there are, in all, three “parts” tracing a progression from tragedy to an exuberant display of contrapuntal mastery and a harmonic progression from the opening C‑sharp minor to D major. The opening movement has the character of a funeral march, rather martial in character, with a trumpet fanfare and a drumlike tattoo of the strings and winds at the outset. The Trio is a wild, almost hysterical outcry in B‑flat minor gradually returning to the tempo and the rhythmic tattoo of the opening. The basic march returns and ends with a recollection of the first song from Kindertotenlieder, which Mahler was almost certainly composing at the same time. The second trio, in A minor, is more subdued and given largely to the strings. Last echoes of the trumpet fanfare bring the movement to an end.
The second movement, “Stormy, with the utmost vehemence,” takes the frenetic outbursts of the first movement as its basic character and contrasts them with a sorrowful march melody in the cellos and clarinets. They alternate three times. A premature shout of triumph is cut off, and the main material returns. The shout of triumph comes back briefly as a chorale in D (the key that will ultimately prevail), but for now, the movement ends in hushed mystery.
Mahler told Natalie Bauer‑Lechner that the scherzo was to represent “a human being in the full light of day, in the prime of his life.” Cast on a large scale, it nonetheless moves with great energy, often as a lilting and whirling waltz with a featured solo horn, and sometimes by turns sardonic, boisterous, even brutal.
The last part begins with the famous Adagietto, once almost the only movement of Mahler’s music that was heard with any frequency. When Mahler wrote it, he was recalling the musical worlds created for the second song of Kindertotenlieder and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, though he does not use either song to shape this exquisitely restrained movement. The melody grows in sweeping arches to a climactic peak that is not hammered with fortissimos but whispered as if with bated breath.
Mahler builds his finale as a grand rondo in which, after an opening horn call, a bassoon quotes a phrase from one of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs, Lob des hohen Verstandes, which describes a singing contest the outcome of which is controlled by a donkey. Good natured satire of academic pedantry is the point of the song, and Mahler here undertakes his own cheerful demonstration of counterpoint, the academic subject par excellence in music theory, treated in a wonderfully exuberant and free‑wheeling way. He is concerned to build up a symphonic structure, alluding to the theme of the Adagietto with music of very different spirit. The climax of the symphony brings back the chorale theme from the second movement, the one earlier passage in all that tragic realm that hinted at the extroversion of D major, now finally achieved and celebrated with tremendous zest.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)
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