Mahler and Mozart – November 16 & 17, 2018
Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 (“Little Fugue”)
Johann Sebastian Bach | 1685-1750
Throughout his long conducting career, Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) sought to popularize classical music. To this end he transcribed many works in colorful orchestrations; he also collaborated with Walt Disney in 1940 on the film Fantasia. His 37 orchestral transcriptions of J.S. Bach’s instrumental and vocal works gained him many admirers – and many detractors. The most famous of these transcriptions was the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, used in Fantasia.
Bach composed the four-voice organ Fugue in G minor during his tenure in Arnstadt (1703-1707). Stokowski made two orchestral arrangements in 1930, one shorter, one longer.
Chorale Prelude “Wachet auf” from Cantata BWV 140 Orch. Eugene Ormandy
Cantata No. 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme is currently among the cantatas most frequently performed, but even more popular is the organ chorales based on Luther’s melody. Bach employed different styles and techniques in his organ chorales, most of which are relatively short and simple. “Wachet auf,” however, belongs to a set of longer, more elaborate chorale preludes, published by Georg Schübler in 1748 as Six Chorales of Various Kinds Performed on a Two-Manual Organ with Pedal. Five of the six chorales, including “Wachet auf,” are transcriptions from his cantatas rather than original compositions. Ormandy orchestrated the chorale in 1968.
Gustav Mahler | 1860-1911
Most of Gustav Mahler’s music expresses his life-long battle with fate and with the uncertainty of existence, which may explain how he could have written two of the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) immediately following the birth of his second daughter in 1904.
One of the last great figures of the late Romantic movement, Mahler was at the same time one of the harbingers of twentieth century music. In the 1880s he was building his reputation as a symphonic and operatic conductor. As he moved from one conducting post to another, usually as the assistant conductor in opera houses, he had only limited time for composing. Most of his early surviving compositions are Lieder, and many of them settings of poems from the German folk poetry collection known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). His volatile and neurotic personality was anathema to turn-of-the-century Europe where hiding behind a facade of stability was the norm. Although people pointed to him in the street and whispered, perhaps it is our uncertainty in the future that made Mahler’s music so popular in the second half of the twentieth century.
The German Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), linguist and Orientalist, was a master of 30 languages, who made his mark chiefly as a translator of Oriental poetry and a writer of poems conceived in the spirit of Oriental masters. Many of his poems were discovered among his papers after his death and published posthumously. Among those were 428 poems – only 166 were published – Rückert’s response to the death of two of his children in the winter of 1833-34 from scarlet fever. Rückert’s influence was widespread, and many famous composers set his poems to music, including Franz Schubert, Clara and Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss. He was one of Mahler’s favorite poets: “It is I to the letter, I could have written them myself,” he said of his poems. In 1901 he started to set to music the five sensuous and romantic poems that became the Rückert Lieder.
At the same time Mahler set to music three poems from Rückert’s Kindertotenlieder collection. The subject appealed to him, perhaps because at age 14, his beloved younger brother Ernst had died of scarlet fever, the same illness that had killed Rückert’s son, also named Ernst. The unfortunate timing of the two poems Mahler added three years later, after the birth of his daughter, greatly upset his wife Alma.
Mahler, of course, was neither the first nor the last composer, classical or popular alike, to obsess about misery in his songs – among his models Franz Schubert’s 24-song cycle on unrequited love, Winterreise. Perhaps the greatest beauty of such cycles is in the emotional nuances, to which the listener must be sensitive, with often little hope of relief from the unrelenting gloom. And yet, with his sensitivity to each line of text, Mahler reflects the subtle changes in mood in the poems’ flashbacks, suggestions of a better eternal life, or the contrast between personal grief with ordinary lives of others for the moment untouched by tragedy.
Orchestral instruments have over time acquired particular affective personalities, the oboe, for example, often associated with melancholy. So it is no surprise that this instrument bears a special relationship with the singer in these songs, frequently paired in duets with no other accompaniment.
Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551 “Jupiter”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | 1756-1791
Mozart composed his three last symphonies – or at least finished them – in the short span of six weeks in June-August 1788. In spite of the ceaseless flow of his musical output, he had composed no symphonies during the preceding two years, nor was he to write any in the following three, the last years of his life.
These three symphonies were not composed on commission but were probably written for a series of subscription concerts that Mozart planned for 1788-89 in Vienna but which apparently never materialized for lack of support. At this point, in Vienna at least, his star was already in decline despite the success of his two great operas in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte, Don Giovanni (premiered in Prague) and The Marriage of Figaro. He was desperately in need of money – in large part because he was constitutionally unable to curb his extravagant spending habit. However, the notion that Mozart never heard these symphonies performed is the creation of nineteenth-century romanticism; in fact, Mozart probably scheduled the C major symphony for a concert in Frankfurt in October 1790.
The three symphonies reflect very different moods, the darkest being No. 40. It is almost as if the tragedy of this symphony saw its resolution only the in triumph of No. 41. The nickname “Jupiter” is a late addition in an unknown hand, inspired probably by the majestic-sounding first movement. Olympian it may sound to us, but according to Eric Blom, Mozart borrowed the little auxiliary G major theme in the first movement from his comic bass arietta “Un bacio di mano” (K.541); the text that accompanies this theme runs, “Voi siete un po’ tondo, Mio caro Pompeo,” (You are a little chubby, my dear Pompeo).
Unlike No. 40, this symphony breaks no new ground either in form or content; its greatness lies not with its novelty but with its classic elegance. Despite the fact that Mozart composed 41 symphonies, this was not the vehicle he chose as an outlet for his greatest creative inspirations; many of the symphonies were among his earliest compositions. Haydn, on the other hand, was constantly tweaking the form throughout his long life to make each symphony different or innovative – often even quirky.
Of particular interest in Symphony No. 41 is Mozart’s use of the four-note opening motive of the final movement, which he then develops into a complex fugue. Mozart was partial to this motive and had previously used it in two masses and his B-flat Symphony K. 319 (No. 33). Other composers, mostly notably Felix Mendelssohn, used the motive as well, either in imitation of or tribute to the composer who was valued more after his death than during his lifetime.
Program notes by:
Joe & Elizabeth Kahn