NEC music history chair Katarina Markovic writes on the two works performed at the opening concert of Mahler Unleashed: the earliest known version of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, and a work premiered the same year, Strauss's Don Juan. Video of Markovic's related lecture appears here.
The stars must have aligned in a special way for music in November of 1889! Just nine days apart, two seminal symphonic works were premiered by two young aspiring composers and sometime friends: on November 11, Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Don Juan” received an enthusiastic welcome in Weimar, and on November 20, to much puzzlement of the Budapest audience and critics, Gustav Mahler conducted his own Symphonic Poem in Two Parts.
The two works launched the musical world into two parallel whirlwind adventures that would produce, on the one hand, tone poems such as Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life, 1899) and the Alpine Symphony (1915), and on the other, Mahler’s remaining nine symphonies—pieces at once connected through their orchestral and harmonic boldness, and yet as different in approach to genre, structure, and musical signification as imaginable. “Two miners, digging the same tunnel from opposite sides and meeting on their subterranean ways”—thus Mahler characterized years later their relationship.
The differences start right from the first measures: we are amazed that from the same bows of the same string instruments, two such radically different heroes can emerge.
Strauss’s hero, inspired by the ages-old legend of Don Juan and modeled specifically on Nicolaus Lenau’s literary character from 1844, is ebullient, self-confident, and dazzling, sweeping us away in a grand upward sixteenth-note gesture into a clearly-profiled E-major theme first asserted in the strings and then echoed in the horns and trumpets.
This hero seems invincible at first. A series of conquests, flirtations through the violin soli, harp glissandi, feeble flute protestations, and sneaky escapes in the celli will ensue, bringing the first section of this seemingly free fantasy into the order of a completed sonata form exposition, and with it the first intimation of the hero’s weakness: his instability, his self-doubt. Nevertheless, he pushes on, rushing breathlessly through his theme and losing focus along the way. He stumbles across reminiscences of past and current emotions—low strings and flute encounters, leading to islands of serenity and contentment.
In the middle of the development section, when the G-major oboe solo is first answered by the muted horns—an early premonition of the sage melancholy of the Four Last Songs (1948)—and then interlocked with clarinets and bassoons, the quest seemingly comes to a long halt. Has he arrived home? Can home be in G-major if his spirit sprang forth from E-major? “No, no!”—his Ego in the four horns breaks through in a surprising C major.
The unbridled energy of youth shall not yet be tamed, and the charade continues through devilish pizzicatti, soaring tutti, until it all aimlessly tumbles down from the crash of the diminished seventh chord and into the low Bs of the trombones and basses. But even when the low winds and a trembling violin solo clearly portend the end to come, the hero’s Will again prevails: the temporarily shaken spirit gathers strength, sequencing upwards through the strings and transforming the desperation of the low B into an anticipation-building dominant pedal, which leads us into the recapitulation and the return into the hero’s self-possessed E-major.
Soon, his Ego soars again in the horns and envelops the whole orchestra in an extraordinary culmination, during which we don’t even mind that the lyrical theme from the exposition has been usurped by the hero’s forceful seduction. The endless self-obsession is suddenly frozen on the dominant seventh chord; from the most dramatic silence of the graveyard, an old man’s statue challenges him to a dinner: the eerie A minor with a dissonant F stab in the trumpets signals his willing demise. Death comes gently, even tenderly, as his ebullience and Will are revealed as the pure world of phenomena, an empty appearance pierced through and exhausted as a balloon. The pragmatic Strauss bows down to the post-Tristanesque, Schopenhauerian Wagner, whose hero finds his transcendence only in death.
That is also the nature of Mahler’s hero. He is a wanderer, an Ahasuerus, eternally roaming the foreign lands of his adopted homeland, carefully measuring his inner strength against the force of the outer world. His hero needed to be embedded in the shimmering and glimmering of the unfathomable dawn of the Bohemian woods.
As part of this nature, he is not visible at all at the beginning—“Wie ein Naturlaut,” “as a sound of nature” Mahler writes on the score, and indeed, we hear the immaterial world of organic creation, of gradual crystallization of matter; at first only distant horn calls, isolated bird chirps, rumblings of subterranean torrents, and only then, little by little, over a long dominant pedal on A, do we witness the organic formation of a human life, we watch it grow and launch a youthful, heroic journey across the fields, singing the “Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld” (“I went this morning over the field”) melody of his “Gesellen” song.
Mahler had a clear idea of the transient nature of his hero: when he heard the scoring of the Introduction of his First movement in Budapest in 1889, he found it “too concrete, too material.” He then worked on this beginning over the next ten years, tweaking the details of orchestration, until he accomplished the inimitable effect that we hear in modern performances: the widely scored pedal on A over seven octaves in the strings, some with harmonics, all suspended in time and space, waiting for life to begin.
This is, however, not the sound that the Budapest audience heard in November of 1889. They heard a significantly smaller orchestra, and no harmonics in the strings. At NEC's September 26 performance we will hear this exact sound—the one he himself criticized and worked to correct—thanks to a manuscript that was discovered in the Mahler-Rosé collection in the early 1990s at the University of Western Ontario, containing the first, third, and last movements of the work. It is a unique glimpse into the creative process of a symphony that started its life as a “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts” with five movements and no programmatic subtitles, went through years of revisions during which the movements acquired and then again shed different programmatic designations and finally ended up being a four-movement symphony, unconventionally structured and according to Mahler himself, his “most spontaneous and daringly composed” work.
The question arises: why would we resurrect a piece that Mahler himself felt is faulty and which he endlessly revised? The answer is in a word that Mahler cherished: “Ewig”—forever, eternally… The revision process never ended for Mahler. Considering that Mahler saw each of his works at every stage of their existence as, on the one hand, “entirely free of error” and, on the other, in need of eternal revising, there is, in fact, no hierarchy between the different versions of this work. Had Mahler lived twenty more years, who knows what the “final” version of this composition would look sound like?!
From the very start, even in this early version, we wonder for several minutes of the piece what will our home key be, who will emerge as our hero. He is surely no Don Juan! Just as sections of a stable D major are quickly diluted with melancholic shadings of D minor, so does our hero’s core, the home he longs for in D major, reveal itself as the elusive goal of this entire journey. Our hero reaches for it—sometimes by sheer force as in the powerful Breakthrough gesture in the First movement, where the subterranean forces have mounted a formidable obstacle culminating in the dissonant sonority of a diminished chord on the seventh degree of B-flat minor.
Where to go from this moment in the development section where a recapitulation is awaited? It is exactly here, in the gesture that follows, that Mahler for the first time solves this situation, relived in so many of his later symphonies, and it was a successful solution from the very first version: a sudden, unexpected breach by the brass fanfares and the swell of the entire orchestra into the D major chord over its dominant A. Mahler described it “as though falling from the heavens.” The home key has been wrested away, but is it over? Is there a deserved victory, or is this again a deception? The First movement ends in a rush, teasingly, and only after the dreams of the next three movements will we wake up in horror to the realization that the battle has yet to take place.
The deception of the inner movements starts off as a sweet daydream, taking us through a bouquet of experiences—trumpet serenades, peasant celebrations, brightly lit waltz halls, children’s nightmarish visions, sardonic reversals of destinies, hurdy-gurdy and Bohemian street musicians’ sloppy entertainment—they all mockingly ingrain in our consciousness the falseness of the outer world.
By eliminating the entire second Blumine movement, Mahler curtailed some of these experiences. The sobering moment of truth comes attacca, in the form of the horror fanfares of the Finale. In a similar gesture to the Schreckensfanfaren at the outset of the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mahler with one disgusted gesture rejects the illusions of contentment and conformity. The hero must not conform and comply! “Tradition is laziness” Mahler exclaimed and his Hero engages in the fight of his life—against the initially misguided F minor, against the painful memories of lost youth and purity of the First movement’s Bohemian woods, even against a conventional love theme in the strings in D-flat major. We know, no matter how beautiful, that this too is tragically false: it is the exact opposite, as far away as can be from the hero’s D major destiny.
Mahler’s own youth as a composer reveals itself here. The long D-pedal over which appear reminiscences of the First movement, and then a long, arduous exploration of the Finale’s lyrical theme are perhaps supposed to bring us closer to the end goal of the symphony. Mahler battles here with the same tradition that he despises—he needs to address the burning question of the conflict between the D major of our hero’s home, and the F minor that has usurped this movement. The D major pedal solves nothing: we will hear in this reconstructed performance how lost he becomes: the lyrical theme exhausts itself, deteriorates and disperses aimlessly into a dissonant, senseless sonority after which there is no other option except to bring back,simply and brutally, the F minor horror fanfares. It is they, not the hero, that will have the burden to clear the way for the return, and yet another Breakthrough gesture of the D major.
Mahler was bothered by this self-imposed necessity, and after the Budapest premiere, he found the solution. The earliest manuscript shows Mahler’s pen forcefully and confidently shortening the long D to a half-note, and slipping from the D pitch in the basses to D-flat and then to C. He then decides to eliminate the long, aimless disintegration of the lyrical theme and instead organically, over the dominant C pedal, prepares the return of the Finale’s main theme in F minor.
But this is what the audiences heard for the first time only in Hamburg in 1893—a more satisfying and gradual entry into the final section of the work. True, this is still the “wrong” key, but the nature of this gradually unfolding recapitulation process, happening in the viola’s initially insecure fugato gesture, and then gathering strength along the way, is obviously not as formidable an opponent for the D major, as were the horrifying fanfares. The hero will return again, with his Breakthrough gesture, and will easily assert his true nature. Mahler’s hero, unlike Strauss’s, will overcome death through patience, through trial and failure, through battle and heroism. The victory he wins for himself, will not be given. It must be earned.
Even with all the striking changes that Mahler made to this early version of his First Symphony—structural, orchestral, and harmonic changes that lay the foundation for the revitalization of the symphonic genre in late 19th-century music—what leaves us breathless after hearing this work is what Mahler left unchanged: the juxtapositions of contrasting musical materials, the melodic inventiveness that needed no further tinkering, the positioning, scoring, and effect of the thunderous Breakthroughs in the overall trajectory of the symphony.
This precious seed already contains all the elements that grew into the organism of his ten symphonies, numerous songs, and Das Lied von der Erde.