Music from 1909 by two different masters—Mahler and Strauss—hints at a fork in the road that offered itself to composers, and down one of which Schoenberg's ideas hurtled just a few years later.
We began our Mahler Unleashed festival on September 26 by examining where Mahler and his contemporary Richard Strauss stood in 1889. That year the 29-year-old Mahler, in the midst of a meteoric rise as a conductor, took his first public step as a composer of symphonies. Strauss, then 25, showed himself to be a fully-formed composer with his brilliant tone poem Don Juan. For this evening’s concert we fast-forward twenty years, focusing on the paths taken by Mahler, Strauss, and their younger colleague, Arnold Schoenberg.
By 1909 Strauss’ attention had turned mainly to opera, his days of writing tone poems largely behind him. Mahler had composed ten extraordinary symphonies (nine numbered works plus Das Lied von der Erde, a symphony in all but name). Meanwhile, Schoenberg completed his Five Pieces for Orchestra using a radical atonal language that all but negated traditional harmony.
Both Strauss and Mahler knew Schoenberg; neither knew quite what to make of him. However, they both gingerly approached the atonality that ultimately found full expression in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music. Strauss’ operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1908) were harmonically revolutionary but the composer, as if frightened by what he had unleashed, backed away from the precipice. His next work was his “Mozart opera,” Der Rosenkavalier (1909–10); for the rest of his long life Strauss ventured not much further than the traditional harmonies of his earlier pieces.
As for Mahler, his Ninth Symphony stretches the system of major and minor keys almost to its breaking point; for one brief, terrifying moment in the Adagio of his unfinished Tenth, he abandons tonality entirely. We can only speculate how Mahler would have reacted to Schoenberg’s explorations had he not died in 1911.
With hindsight, we can see that 1909 was significant for more than just the future of symphonic music. In Mahler’s and Schoenberg’s works we can hear the looming cataclysm that destroyed the Europe they had known; in Strauss’ Rosenkavalier we hear, with painful regret, that even the most gorgeous sounding nostalgia could not ward off what was to come.
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From the instant of its premiere in January, 1911 (a mere four months before Mahler’s death) Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier became one of the most beloved operas in the repertoire. Ever the shrewd businessman, Strauss did not object when opportunities arose to exploit his opera’s huge success, as long as the financial arrangements suited him. He himself made a piano roll of the work’s popular waltzes and allowed the score to be arranged as accompaniment for a silent film of the opera. Later, he sanctioned a concert version of the Act III waltzes and, in 1944, made yet another waltz arrangement himself.
Der Rosenkavalier Suite appeared in 1945, most likely cobbled together by the conductor Artur Rodzinski and published under Strauss’s name. Although it includes much of the opera’s best-known music, it concludes by interrupting the transcendently beautiful Octavian-Sophie-Marschallin trio with a clumsy, vulgar reprise of the big waltz tune.
In an attempt to rectify this lapse in taste, I devised the version of the suite we are playing this evening. I made one small cut to the published score and, more importantly, restored both the entire final trio and the opera’s inimitable ending. This has necessitated occasionally reinforcing the vocal line and adding a few notes to cover vocal parts that are not otherwise played by the orchestra. In making this version, I am following the example of such conductors as Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, Antal Dorati, and Norman del Mar, all of whom made Rosenkavalier arrangements of varying length and complexity.
I realize that this is in some ways a fool’s errand. Certainly, a potpourri of Rosenkavalier’s “greatest hits,” no matter how skillfully assembled, is no substitute for a proper staged production. On the other hand, it is no insult to our many fine American opera companies to say that only two or three of them have the financial and artistic resources to mount a full production of any kind, let alone one that is adequately cast and well rehearsed. (In German speaking countries, by contrast, Rosenkavalier is a repertoire piece in all the large and even some medium-sized theaters). This leaves our audiences largely unable to hear this glorious music played live and our orchestras stuck playing a suite that omits some of the score’s greatest moments. My hope is that this version of Der Rosenkavalier Suite proves to be a modest but adequate solution.