David Loebel conducts the NEC Symphony on October 5 in a program that pairs Mahler's Totenfeier with works by Beethoven, Berlioz, and Tchaikovsky. Loebel comments that this program incorporates music that is perhaps dominated by the themes of "Life, Death, and Destruction," what with the Dantesque scenes of damnation in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust and Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini. For "Redemption," listeners are invited back to Loebel's concert on November 9 when he looks at "two paths to Heaven" as described by Mahler and Olivier Messiaen.
Loebel's program note for October 5 examines the relationship between Beethoven's Leonore Overture and Mahler's Totenfeier.
The two works on the first half of the October 5 program, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2 and Mahler’s Totenfeier, begin with the same musical gesture— strongly stated Gs played in octaves. A more interesting connection, however, is the fact that they are both early versions of works that are better known in revised form. As such, both offer fascinating glimpses into how these two geniuses struggled to realize their musical goals.
None of his creations caused Beethoven more grief than his opera Fidelio, (originally entitled Leonore) and his agonized revising resulted in no fewer than four overtures. The overture we play this evening was, despite its title, the first that he composed. (Leonore No. 1 was actually the third; it was Beethoven’s initial attempt to shrink Leonore’s large overtures into an appropriately sized curtain raiser). In turning Leonore No. 2 into the more often performed Leonore No. 3, Beethoven retained the overture’s overall arc but left few details untouched. Taken together, the two overtures constitute one of the few examples of Beethoven’s process of revision made audible.
Mahler was a compulsive reviser, and the experience of conducting his symphonies gave him a fine sense of what “sounded” and what didn’t. Although to the casual listener Totenfeier seems virtually identical to its later guise as the opening movement of his Second Symphony, hearing the earlier version tells us much about the composer Mahler would soon become.
Like the reconstructed original version of the First Symphony with which we open our Mahler Unleashed festival, Totenfeier is scored for a modestly sized orchestra. Even with fewer instruments to deal with, Mahler’s inexperience clearly shows; for example, he writes notes for the flute and English horn that are below their ranges. Mahler also miscalculates Totenfeier’s orchestral balance, requiring conductor and orchestra to substantially adjust the dynamics so that the most important musical material can be clearly heard.
How did the young composer of Totenfeier become a master orchestrator, creating a unique orchestral palette fully commensurate with symphonies that sought to embrace the entire world? One might speculate that Mahler was influenced in this regard by the music of Richard Strauss; the two composers had met in 1887, a year before Mahler composed Totenfeier, and their cordial friendship lasted for the remainder of Mahler’s life.
From early in his career, Strauss notated dynamics so precisely that his scores nearly balance themselves. Mahler took Strauss’s example several steps further, some would say to the point of being an obsessive control freak. By 1894, when he completed his Second Symphony, Mahler was meticulously notating simultaneous but wildly varying degrees of loudness and softness. It is an odd sensation for a player to follow Mahler’s instruction to play fortissimo while the player next to him is playing pianissimo; after all, in any orchestra one’s natural tendency is to try to blend with one’s colleagues. But when an orchestra has the courage to take Mahler’s sometimes contradictory dynamics literally, the scores (like Strauss’s) become self-realizing and their tremendous emotional impact can reach the listener unimpeded.
In preparing for this evening’s concert, we have tried to approach both these works as if we had never even heard their better known revisions. Those listeners unfamiliar with the second versions can simply take the pieces at face value; those well acquainted with the revisions can marvel at Beethoven’s and Mahler’s self-critical craftsmanship and enjoy eavesdropping on their extraordinary creative processes.