Since 1967, John Heiss has taught NEC students the roots of 20th-century modernism both in the classroom and as a conductor and coach. Each year Heiss recruits students interested in performing 20th- and 21st-century music to join the NEC Contemporary Ensemble. On November 15, the group performs works by Mahler, his Viennese modernist contemporaries and successors, and more recent composers who have perpetuated "The Aura of Mahler."
After Mahler, what can happen? His vast landscapes embrace multitudes—coarseness, tenderness, anxiety, tension, and release, all in abundance. High art and “folk” art intermingle. Sehnsucht (longing) and Weltschmerz (world-pain) are dramatic and persistent. Then, in 1911, he is suddenly gone at the young age of 51. This concert attempts to reveal his impact on his Viennese contemporaries and successors, as well as their direct impact on composers of today.
Schoenberg and Mahler knew each other well, sharing a mutual esteem that is well-documented. Little known, however, is the fact that the Schoenberg Opus 19 piano pieces, begun in 1909, remained unfinished until the day of Mahler’s funeral. That day, while walking home from his funeral, Schoenberg’s imagination was triggered by two Viennese churches' bells ringing out their elegy. Based on these chimes, he worked out the sixth and final piece in his head while walking, entered his house and just wrote it down.
The violinist Rudolf Kolisch, Schoenberg’s brother-in-law, who taught at NEC from 1971 to 1981, told me this story. Kolisch added that the pianissimo sighing figure on high D#-E-D#, a frequent motif in all six pieces, was both a direct homage to Mahler, and (in number six) an acknowledgement of the loss Schoenberg felt.
An ongoing lineage from the Opus 19 pieces (1911) is evident in my own Four Short Pieces (1961), written when I was quite young, and the Four Studies (2011) of Katherine Balch. Both her pieces and mine are direct responses of young composers entranced by the Schoenberg set. The time line 1911-1961-2011, with its two 50-year intervals, is striking.
Berg and Webern were Schoenberg’s two most distinguished students and his lifelong friends. Together with Schoenberg they began as late Romantic composers, who soon evolved a new musical language of increasing chromaticism, while retaining distinct echoes from the era of Romanticism.
When Schoenberg abandoned the key signature in 1908, Berg and Webern quickly followed him, thus ushering in the new Expressionist style, which today we call free-atonality (as distinct from 12-tone atonality which came much later, in 1923.) All of their free-atonal pieces have parallels to Mahler. Intensely emotional, and highly intuitive, this music abounds with Sehnsucht and Weltschmerz. It projects a deep sense of searching and hoping, with that fateful mood typical of these years immediately prior to World War I.
Mahler, of course, never fully abandoned tonality, yet remained steadfastly loyal to his younger colleagues, professing some confusion about their music, while declaring confidence that he would soon understand it better! Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern provided a sharp contrast to Mahler’s hour-long symphonies with their development of an important new form: the short piece. This was revolutionary! Perhaps by way of reaction to Mahler’s “heavenly length,” they have given us “earthly brevity”—compression instead of prolongation, concision in lieu of opulence.
Their short pieces are (to this writer) powerful and fantastic. In their brevity lies richness. Like the Haiku poem, the short story, or the Vermeer miniature paintings, they say a lot in a little space. Schoenberg was so proud when he said, “My student Webern can write a whole novel in a single sigh!” Or, note his revealing comment on a short piece he composed for a friend’s birthday: “I’m sorry about the length of this; I didn’t have much time. If I’d had more time, I could have written you a much shorter piece.”
So consider another theme for this concert: “Less is More,” if you will. Even in our pairing of the young Mahler with the prescient re-imagining of his early Adagio by Schnittke, we see Mahlerian length compressed into something visionary and mysterious. And in Kurtág, we encounter a fusion of minimalization with the fantastical. Such is the way with music. Great masters thrive in their own time, only to be reinterpreted and enlarged in later generations by new composers, who work in ways germane to their era.