Recovery and Renewal- The Threads and Themes of MahlerFest XXXI

— By Kenneth woods

Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is a work that ends with the beginning of a journey.

Across the first five movements, and through much of the sixth, the narrative voices we hear are passive ones.  In the third and fourth songs, the poetry of Li T’ai-po observes youth and beauty, but as if through a glass wall. In the second song, “The Lonely one in Autumn” Chang Tsi describes a describes a soul paralysed by grief and isolation. In the first and fifth songs, Li T’ai-po brings us into the nihilistic world of a heroic figure reduced to seeking consolation in endless drink. “Dark is life, is death” laments the poet, “Let me be drunk!”

The sixth song of Das Lied von der Erde, Der Abschied (“The Farewell”), is as long as the other five put together. For much of the song, the poet speaks of an atmosphere of expectant but doom-laden waiting. “I stand here and await my friend for a final farewell,” says the poet. There follows a long funeral march, after which the long awaited friend arrives. And it is here that the piece turns. The voice of the friend and that of the narrator quickly blur. “Fortune was not kind to me in this world! Where do I go? I walk, I wander in the mountains. I seek peace for my lonely heart. I go to my homeland, my abode.” For a piece which has mostly existed in the realms of observation or emotional paralysis, Das Lied von der Erde ends with a renewed sense of purpose, agency, and the beginning of a new, eternal journey.

“Fortune was not kind to me in this world,” is a line which could have been autobiographical at the time Mahler set it. As most Mahlerians will know, Mahler had just experienced his famous “three blows of fate” in the summer of 1907. He had been forced from his position at the Vienna Opera by anti-Semitic intrigues, he had lost his beloved daughter Maria to scarlet fever, and he had been diagnosed with a serious, potentially fatal heart condition.  This series of tragedies brought on a creative crisis, leaving Mahler temporarily unable to compose.

When he finally broke his silence, it was not without effort. “I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn,” he wrote to Bruno Walter. The first music he wrote after those three blows was the desolate second song of Das Lied von der Erde, Der Einsame im Herbst (“The Lonely One in Autumn”). However, much like the narrator of Der Abschied, once the new journey was begun, Mahler never looked back, and his final creative chapter, comprising Das Lied and the Ninth and Tenth symphonies was to be his greatest. Das Lied von der Erde is on one level about loss and departure, but on another, it is about recovery and renewal.

Mahler was by no means alone among great composers in reaching a point of creative crisis before a final, late burst of inspiration and energy. Beethoven went through nearly 7 years of creative stasis between his middle and late periods. In Mahler’s case, it was the discovery of Hans Bethge’s translations of ancient Chinese poetry, Die chinesische Flöte, somehow gave Mahler a much-needed source of poetic inspiration.

Of course, not all poetic inspiration comes from poetry. In 1890, Johannes Brahms wrote his String Quintet in G major, opus 111, and declared his intention to forever set down his pen. “I have worked enough; now let the young ones take over,” he said. Poetic inspiration came in the form of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms wrote the Clarinet Quintet we perform on our Chamber music Concert this year. The inspiration of Mühlfeld elicited from Brahms not only the four great works for clarinet (including the Clarinet Trio and the two Clarinet Sonatas), but a great, final flowering of autumnal masterpieces, including songs, piano works and an astonishing set of chorale preludes for organ. The composer Hans Gál wrote of the music of Brahms’ last five years that “Imperceptibly the first day of winter had arrived; the sun was low over the horizon. In 1891 the music his last period began… what it may lack in gushing fullness is replaced by an indescribably noble, spiritual concentration of technique and expression.”

Richard Strauss and Brahms were very different men, but Gál’s touching description of Brahms’ final period also provides a very apt description of the music of Strauss’s last years. At his peak, Strauss was perhaps the most public musician in the world- a composer of gargantuan works for the concert hall and the opera house which attracted huge audiences and fed longstanding pubic debates. He was a conductor of international standard. Yet, in his later years, as the culture which had nourished him throughout his life collapsed into madness and catastrophe, Strauss turned inward. His final opera, Capriccio, is a work of great wisdom and beauty, but hardly a natural piece for the theatre. It is an examination of the age old philosophical question, “which is the greater art, poetry or music?” Strauss no longer seemed to need or want his public, and his late works are touchingly introspective. It is no accident that his last opera begins not with a grand overture, but with a beautiful piece of pure chamber music, the Sextet which opens our annual Chamber Concert. Again, what Gál said of the aging Brahms could apply equally well to the elderly Strauss, “The man had calmed down and withdrawn into himself.”

Die chinesische Flöte was the last of many literary works, ranging from Goethe’s Faust to the folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which helped shape not only Mahler’s vocal music but his symphonic output throughout his life. The British composer John McCabe was, like Mahler and Strauss, both a performer and a composer of genius. As a pianist he was not only a noted advocate for a huge range of 20th C. works, but also the first artist to record the complete piano sonatas of Haydn. McCabe’s 1998 work Pilgrim, given its North American premiere on our chamber concert this year, was inspired by John Bunyan’s classic novel Pilgrim’s Progress. Originally composed in the sextet version you will hear this week, McCabe later orchestrated it for double string orchestra, in the process giving us one of the very greatest works in the rich tradition of English string orchestra music, worthy of placement alongside Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The themes McCabe found most inspiring in Pilgrim bear a remarkable similarity to those which make Das Lied von der Erde so rich. “It made a great impression,” wrote McCabe, “not least because of its theme of a journey of self-discovery, and a recovery or renewal of faith. These are ideas which have a strong interest for me, not in religious terms but in their application to every aspect of human life (including great journeys), and this piece reflects my response in musical terms to this concern. One feature which, upon completion of the score, struck me with some force, which is that almost all the thematic material is essentially striving upwards – there is a constant upward movement (sometimes over a lengthy period) throughout the work.”

Richard Strauss and Mahler were both friends and rivals. Zemlinsky and Mahler were probably more rivals than friends, at least where love was concerned. The glamorous Alma Schindler had been Zemlinsky’s lover before dumping him in favor of Mahler, whom she considered clearly the greater talent. Zemlinsky was a major figure, however, and it is wonderful that we can hear his youthful Cello Sonata on this year’s Afternoon Recital. Like Mahler, Strauss and McCabe, George Enescu was a multifaceted genius as both performer and composer. Hailed recently in Musical Opinion  as “almost certainly the greatest composer to have not yet been fully embraced in the pantheon of the giants,” Enescu’s musical gifts seem almost superhuman. He was said to be able to recall and write down every note of every piece Bach ever composed, and was equally proficient as both a violinist and pianist. As a child prodigy he found early inspiration in a meeting with his idol, Brahms. Just as Brahms had often turned to Gipsy and Hungarian folk music for inspiration, much of Enescu’s music was inspired in part by the folk music of his native Romania, including his Violin Sonata no. 3, “dans le caractère populaire roumain.” Our Afternoon Recital also includes Phantasma by our 2018 visiting composer, Jesse Jones, perhaps the only composer I know of to be a virtuoso mandolin player as well as a conductor and pianist.

If Strauss and Mahler were the two dominant composer-conductors of their day, Sibelius and Mahler were certainly the dominant symphonists of their generation. The popular anecdote about their friendly debate over the nature of the symphony tells only part of the story of how their work as symphonists compares. Sibelius said of their discussion about the nature of the symphony that:

“I admired its style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. . . . Mahler’s opinion was just the opposite. “No!” he said, “The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.”

Of course, an examination of both composers output reveals that this supposedly antipodal approach was more a social misunderstanding than anything else. Although there are obvious differences in scale, language and orchestration, Mahler’s music is every bit as rigorous and logical as Sibelius’s. Das Lied von der Erde is a perfect embodiment of a “profound logic that create(s) an inner connection between all the motives.”

Likewise, Sibelius’s music could, like Mahler’s, be both simultaneously all-embracing and painfully personal. He was no stranger to the kinds of personal creative crises which gripped Mahler and Brahms before they entered their late periods. Sibelius had one of the most distinctive and instantly recognisable voices of any composer, but his refusal to repeat himself meant that most of his major works came at great personal cost. His wife, Aino, despaired at his dependence on alcohol as a compositional aid. But when inspiration came, the results were staggering. So it was when Sibelius composed his Fantasia sinfonica in 1924. That year saw both Sibelius and his marriage to Aino in crisis. “Aino… is at the end of her tether…I am on the wrong rails. Alcohol to calm my nerves and state of mind. How dreadful old age is for a composer! Things don’t go as quickly as they used to, and self-criticism grows to impossible proportions.” The texts of Mahler’s two harrowing drinking songs in Das Lied von der Erde could well have been autobiographical sketches of Sibelius’ life at the time of the composition of the Seventh Symphony.

Aino, disgusted by his drunken state during a recent trip to Gothenburg, refused to accompany Sibelius to the triumphant premiere of the Fantasia sinfonica. In the end Sibelius found the strength to conduct a triumphant concert, and Sibelius quickly realised that the Fantasia sinfonica was really meant to be his Seventh Symphony. We have here “an indescribably noble, spiritual concentration of technique and expression,” but, as with Brahms “winter had arrived; the sun was low over the horizon.”

Renewal came harder to Sibelius than to Mahler or even Brahms. In the end, he had two more masterpieces to give the world after the Seventh, his final tone poem, Tapiola and his music for The Tempest. Years of struggle on an Eighth Symphony ended when Sibelius is believed to have burned the incomplete manuscript in his dining room. Other than that, the last thirty years of Sibelius life seem to have been creatively barren. Was there somewhere an instrument of poetic inspiration that could have unleashed his genius once more as Die chinesische Flöte had for Mahler’s?

Or was the cause of Sibelius’ final silence simpler? “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh,” he told a friend, “then it shall be my last.” To better Sibelius’ last symphony is a harrowing benchmark, one I’m not convinced any composer before or since has convincingly achieved. It is to every perceptive listener’s great regret that Sibelius had “withdrawn into himself” thirty years before his death, but the legacy he left us is more than worthy to stand beside that of his colleague and sometime antipode, Gustav Mahler.

Welcome to MahlerFest XXXI.