A Classic Encounter With Mahler…And Death

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(photo via Getty Images)

(photo via Getty Images)

[pullquote quote="One of the great singers that explored the depths of that kind of pain was the great Dusty Springfield. I think Mahler would have had this on his Ipod." credit="Terri Hemmert"]At the latest Classic Encounter we focused on two composers who spent quality time in Vienna. The first was the great Austrian composer Arnold Scoenberg (1874-1951). The mass audience “gets” Schoenberg like they “get” Frank Zappa. Schoenberg was a game changer and his music still sounds revolutionary, over 50 years after his death. The mere mention of his 12 tone compositional style still sends some people running for the exits. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra doesn’t scare easily. In fact, the previous week, they performed Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, a piece for one female voice and a small group of musicians. This goes over with some traditionalists like Yoko Ono on American Bandstand. But give it a try. It’s worth the work.

The Classic Encounter concert featured his Piano Concerto, composed in 1942. Think you might find this a bit more accessible. Some in the audience may have thought the orchestral tuning before the piece was actually the Schoenberg they were about to hear. Sorta like the audience at the Concert For Bangladesh giving Ravi Shankar and his musicians a big round of applause for their tuning. Fun and games.

Of course, at Classic Encounter we love to have a laugh, and this video of someone’s take on Schoenberg’s piano works was lots of fun. Those darn cats nailed it. Must take hours of practice.

The other great Austrian composer we covered was Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). During his lifetime, his compositions were not appreciated, and he was more renowned as a conductor. He also encouraged and mentored many young composers, including the aforementioned Schoeoberg. The concert featured Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde (The Song Of The Earth), composed in 1908 and 1909. Mahler never heard this work performed. He basically composed it and stuck it in a drawer, to be discovered after his death. Had he gotten around to conducting it, he might have made some changes, because the degree of difficulty for the alto and tenor who have to sing what he wrote, and compete with a full orchestra playing full blast…I don’t know how they pulled it off. It seemed an impossible task. But the work is so brilliant, I’m glad he never had a chance to “fix it.”

Mahler was going through a terrible time in his life. He had been forced to resign his conductor/music director job (anti-Semitism one of the main reasons), his precious four year old daughter came down with Scarlet Fever and died, and he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition that would soon take his life. One of those events would have been a bad year. Three…devastating. Mahler took comfort in a collection of Chinese poetry translated in German. These poems became the libretto of this amazing work.
Dealing with this stress and grief, and facing his own death, he used the creative process to help him deal with this tragic period of his life. He felt this work was so intense he asked, “Won’t people go home and shoot themselves?”

Das Lied Von Der Erde opens with a lone tenor holding his own with an orchestra that was not scored to politely accompany the soloist.

The translation of the opening poem reads, “Now beckons the wine in the golden goblet, but drink not yet, first I’ll sing you a song! The song of sorrow shall resound in gusts of laughter through your soul. When sorrow draws near, the gardens of the soul lie wasted, joy and song wither and die. Dark is life, and so is death.” The realization of how fate can be devastating, and how wine dulls the pain reminded me of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The CSO and chorus did an amazing performance of that piece just a few weeks ago. You are probably familiar with the opening, O Fortuna. These are poems written by monks bemoaning the unfairness of fate, and how we should just go get drunk and get all the wild sex you can manage. Never had monks like that in Catholic school. But here is basically the same theme and intensity.

There are six movements of Das Lied Von Der Erde. The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow. The Lonely One In Autumn. Youth. Beauty. The Drunkard in Spring. And, The Farewell. When I began preparing for this program, I put on the CD and after awhile drifted off into a deep sleep. Happens a lot when you have a schedule like mine. I woke to the last five minutes of the peace, and thought it was a dream. I honestly had never heard anything so beautiful and dream-like. It was a shimmering orchestral score with an alto repeating one word (in German) and almost fading away. I didn’t even know what she was singing about, but was so moved. After listening to this piece constantly for a week, I felt like I had never anticipated hearing a piece of music live so much in my life. And when the CSO got to the Farewell, I was not disappointed. I could hardly breathe the last five minutes. It was that beautiful. The last poem ends, “He alighted from his horse and handed him the drink of farewell. He asked him where he was going, and also why it had to be. He spoke, his voice was vieled: ‘Ah! my friend, fortune was not kind to me in this world! Where am I going? I am going to wander in the mountains. I seek rest for my lonely heart! I journey to the homeland, to my resting place! I shall never again go seeking the far distance. My heart is still and awaits its hour.!'” Then Mahler adds, “The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green again! Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue! Forever…forever…” “Forever” in German is “Ewig.” The alto singing “ewig” with that orchestral accompaniment is one of the most moving moments I’ve ever heard. Stunning. We probably wouldn’t know much about Mahler if it wasn’t for Leonard Bernstein, the brilliant conductor and composer, who made it a life’s mission to bring Mahler to the masses. Who better to discuss this work.

When you’re listening to music, like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, you can feel the beats and almost picture the lines in the score. You can count 1,2,3,4, 2,2,3,4. But the ending of this piece transcends lines in the score. It moves like water. Maher accomplished this in the 4th movement of his 5th symphony.

We all have soundtracks of our lives, music that defines certain events, times and loves. Some of us are insane enough to program the soundtrack of our death. I may have to add these two Mahler pieces to mine. Which means I’ll have to hang in there for awhile because these pieces are quite long. But the final piece has been and still is, the In Paradisum of Faure’s Requiem. Like the Mahler, this music makes me feel like I’m floating….to heaven, I hope.

Because of my eleven years working with the symphony, and the CSO’s dedication to the music of Mahler, I thanked Martha Gilmer, my lecture partner, for exposing me to so much Mahler. He has now moved up my composer hit parade chart to #2…second only to Bach. I can’t imagine Bach ever being bumped out of the #1 spot. So I was thrilled to find in my research that Mahler was influenced by Bach’s Passion Oratorios. Part of my Holy Week/Easter weekend tradition is listening to a recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This section shows Bach’s influence.

Continue The Classic Encounter With Terri Hemmert

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