Matthias TrunigerMatthias Truniger of NEC's Music Theory department writes about an October 19 Mahler Unleashed concert in which an orchestra will perform, but no conductor will take the podium; Mahler will be in the atmosphere, but no Mahler will be performed.

This evening with Mahler's contemporaries is a study in influences, and an opportunity to hear composers who are rarely performed in the United States.

Mahler UnleashedHearing Mahler through
His Contemporaries

Tonight’s concert is focused around, rather than on, Gustav Mahler. Featuring works by his Austrian and Bohemian contemporaries Robert Fuchs, Josef Suk, Franz Schreker, and Anton Webern, the program reflects aspects of the cultural and historical environment in which Mahler’s music is rooted. Hearing these works gives an impression of the influences Mahler was exposed to early on in his career and of the powerful impact he had on composers of the beginning twentieth century.

The serenade plays a prominent role in this program: Fuchs’s Op. 14 and Suk’s Op. 6 are full-fledged serenades, while the pieces of Schreker and Webern relate to the genre by their expressive character and compositional style. A form of light but refined ensemble music, the classic orchestral serenade experienced a far-reaching revival in the late nineteenth century. Its generic features were a predominantly lyrical tone and a loose assemblage of relatively short, self-contained movements, often comprising several dances, marches, or scherzos.

In 1899, when Mahler conducted his Second Symphony in Vienna, one critic wrote that the Andante evoked the serenades of Robert Fuchs.(1) Fuchs was Mahler’s harmony professor at the Vienna Conservatory between 1875 and 1878. A staunch advocate of the classic Viennese tradition and a decided anti-Wagnerian, he taught at the conservatory for almost four decades before retiring in 1912. Among his many students, besides Mahler, were Hugo Wolf, Jean Sibelius, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Georges Enescu, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Fuchs’s music received support from the critic Hanslick and was praised by Brahms as “fine and skillful, charmingly invented, and always pleasing.”(2) To the general public, Fuchs was known as the Serenaden-Fuchs (serenade-fox)—the author of five orchestral serenades, which were frequently performed and universally appreciated in his day.

Fuchs’s Serenade No. 2 in C Major, Op. 14 (1876) includes four movements: a light, spirited Allegretto; a Larghetto waltz with three variations; a march-like, rhythmically accentuated Allegro risoluto; and a bouncing Finale Presto. Stylistically, the music is reminiscent of Schubert, blending melodic lyricism with folkloristic dance rhythms and drones. Each movement has a concise, clearly articulated form, either following a sectional plan or, as in the Finale, a sonata-form scheme. The harmonic language occasionally explores mediant relationships and enharmonic modulation, but is far away from the brooding chromaticism of Wagner and his followers.

Written sixteen years after Fuchs’s Op. 14, Josef Suk’s Serenade for String Orchestra in E-flat Major, Op. 6 (1892) breathes a different world. It is the music of an eighteen-year-old Bohemian composer and violinist, who was just about to complete his studies with Antonín Dvořák at the Prague Conservatory. As a final assignment, Dvořák suggested that Suk write a string serenade using only major keys. The result was a work that emphasizes chromatic third relationships, both within and among its four movements. The opening Andante con moto juxtaposes the key areas E-flat major and G major; the Allegro ma non troppo, B-flat major and G-flat major; the Adagio, G major and E major; and the Allegro giocoso, E-flat major and C-flat major (as well as B-flat major). Melodically and rhythmically, the music sounds distinctly Czech, often Dvořákian, especially in the waltz-like Allegro ma non troppo and in the dumka-like Adagio.

Suk’s compositional language changed remarkably over the years. Through his frequent travels with the Czech String Quartet, of which he was the second violinist for almost forty years, he had opportunities to familiarize himself with music of his Western and Eastern European contemporaries. In 1904/05, the deaths of Dvořák and his daughter Otilie, who had become Suk’s wife, set in motion the vast Asrael Symphony, Op. 27. Completed in 1906, this five-movement orchestral monument is arguably Suk’s greatest work, comparable in style and scope to Mahler’s late symphonies.

Like Suk, Franz Schreker was trained as a violinist, before he turned to composition; and like Mahler, he was a student of Fuchs at the Vienna Conservatory (1897–1900). In the early twentieth century, Schreker became a central figure of the contemporary Austrian and German music-theater scenes. His operas Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound, 1912) and Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized Ones, 1918), among others, were celebrated for their bold dramatic conception and innovative musical language, combining stylistic eclecticism with a keen sense of instrumentation and sound color.

Schreker’s Intermezzo, Op. 8 and Scherzo (1900) were composed as individual movements, most likely for submission to a competition in 1901. The Intermezzo was eventually awarded the first prize, by a jury that included Fuchs. The style of these movements appears indeed closer to the serenade tone of Schreker’s teacher than to the modernism of his own later works. His preoccupation with sound, however, clearly manifests itself in the lush sonority of the Intermezzo. The effect is achieved, on the one hand, through a consistent division of the ensemble into nine distinct parts and, on the other, through the clever use of ever-changing register combinations.

Great care for sonic differentiation is also apparent in Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement, 1905) for string quartet. The piece’s intricate contrapuntal textures are made transparent through a judicious combination  of different registers, articulations, dynamics, and playing techniques (arco, pizzicato, tremolo, con sordino). Written under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg, with whom Webern studied from 1904 to 1908, Langsamer Satz gives an example of that late late-Romantic style whose pervasive chromaticism eventually led to the dissolution of tonality. The most intensely chromatic moment in the piece arrives at its central climax, a unison gesture in triple fortissimo, where any tonal reference is temporarily abandoned.

The circle of modernists around Schoenberg—including his students Webern and Berg, as well as his colleague Schreker—belonged to the core of Mahler’s admirers and supporters in early twentieth-century Vienna. When Mahler died in 1911, Schoenberg spoke of him as “one of the greatest humans and artists,”(3) while Webern even called him “a saint.”(4) The rich sonic nuances and expressive musical gestures of Webern’s Langsamer Satz, and the brilliant orchestration of Schreker’s Intermezzo and Scherzo, no doubt testify to the influence that Mahler had on the music of his younger contemporaries.

  1. De la Grange, Henri-Louis. Mahler: 1860–1901. Garden City: Doubleday, 1973. 507
  2. Neunzig, Hans A. Brahms. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1973. 109
  3. Schoenberg, Arnold. Stil und Gedanke. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1992. 14
  4. Krellmann, Hanspeter. Webern. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1975. 27