Ellen PfeiferNEC's Ellen Pfeifer provides background on works "inspired by" and "retouched by" Gustav Mahler that are performed on November 30 by the NEC Symphony conducted by Hugh Wolff.

Nathaniel Stookey's Mahl/er/werk receives its first U.S. performance on this concert, and Mahler's Beethoven retouching, as explained in this note, may be even more controversial now than when Mahler created it for his own concerts.

Mahler UnleashedMusic by Mahler,
Inspired by Mahler,
Retouched by Mahler

Mahl/er/werk, by the 40-year old American composer Nathaniel Stookey, takes its name from a play on the German word "mahlwerk," or grinding machine. It uses hundreds of fragments from Mahler's nine symphonies – all in their original keys, tempos, and orchestrations – to create a kaleidoscopic remix of Mahler’s work in a 21st century context.

The piece, which is dedicated to Alfred Schnittke, had its world premiere on May 20, 2011 in Hamburg, Germany, with the NDR Sinfonieorchester and the Young ClassX Projektorchester, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor.

Nathaniel StookeyReviewing the performance, Michael Stitz, of Flensburger Nachrichten, wrote:

"Whoever was afraid of intellectually difficult music was quickly proven wrong. Stookey’s crazy puzzle ... of ... Mahler fragments turned out to be a highly intelligent and musically attractive, even vibrant homage to Gustav Mahler. The performance in Hamburg Arena was most successful in making classical music attractive to future fans."

Mahler the conductor, who revered Beethoven, nonetheless believed that “all Beethoven’s works need a certain amount of editing” for contemporary performance, according to Natalie Bauer-Lechner’s Recollections. In his massive and magisterial biography, Henry-Louis de la Grange describes Mahler’s retouching of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony: “He strengthened the wind section because ‘modern custom demands that today’s orchestral strings be twice as numerous as they were in Beethoven’s time.’ In the Finale too, Mahler used ‘instruments of more penetrating sonority’ such as the E-flat clarinet, and in the opening movement he doubled the solo oboe.”

Similarly, Mahler told Bauer-Lechner, “…in order that the music should be played as it was meant to sound, one has to add all sorts of dynamic indications to the parts, so that the principal voice stands out and the accompaniment retires into the background.”

Even during Mahler’s time, many critics found such retouching an intolerable violation of the score. And, today, with the “historically informed performance” movement deeply entrenched, Mahler’s edits may seem even more indefensible. And yet, Mahler’s interpretive decisions were based on the acoustic evidence of his extraordinary ear operating in the context of large 19th Century concert halls and 19th Century instrumental forces. NEC’s performance of the retouched Fifth will allow audiences a rare opportunity to hear Beethoven in the ideal version advocated by Mahler.

Photo of Nathaniel Stookey by Ole Lutjens