Mahler’s Titan
Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847
Felix Mendelssohn
1809-1847
Felix Mendelssohn
Violin Concerto E minor, Op. 64

If ever there was a composer born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it was Felix Mendelssohn. He was raised in affluence and comfort, his precocious musical talent recognized and nurtured by his culturally sophisticated and highly supportive family. His home was a Mecca for the artistic and intellectual elite of Germany who also encouraged the prodigy and his talented sister Fanny. One of his admirers was the formidable grand old man of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Fortunately for the development of Felix's rare abilities, his carefully selected teachers, however impressed they may have been with him, were demanding. His strict training, especially in fugue composition, familiarized him with the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, who at the time was dismissed as a mere pedagogue. In 1829, Mendelssohn was central to a Bach revival with an historic performance of the Saint Matthew Passion in Berlin, virtually rescuing the great composer's music from the counterpoint classroom.

As a mature artist, Mendelssohn was acclaimed throughout Europe as a composer and conductor, especially in his native Germany and in England, where he had a private audience with the young Queen Victoria, who sang for him after he had played for her. His untimely death from unknown causes created a profound shock, and Mendelssohn societies promoting his music and ideas quickly sprang up all over middle and northern Europe.

Unlike Mozart, Mendelssohn was extremely self-critical, constantly requesting feedback and carefully perfecting his compositions. The Concerto in E minor had a long gestation period. Mendelssohn started the concerto in 1838 but did not finish it until six years later. He wrote it for his friend, the famed violinist Ferdinand David (1810-1873), concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig where Mendelssohn served as conductor from 1835 to 1843. The composer sought - and took - David's advice on technical aspects throughout its composition. David finally premiered it in Leipzig in 1845, but Mendelssohn was ill and unable to attend. Now one of the staples of violin repertory, the Concerto was considered daring and innovative at the time of its composition.

From the first bar, the Allegro molto appassionato opening broke new ground. Instead of the usual orchestral exposition of the main themes, the violin enters at once to present the principal theme on which the movement is built. Example 1 Mendelssohn gives the second part of the theme to the orchestra. Example 2 For the second theme, the roles are reversed, with the winds introducing the theme. Example 3 The cadenza, largely the creation of David, is placed unconventionally before the recapitulation. Relocating the cadenza away from its traditional place at the end of the movement stresses the continuity with the second movement, which follows without pause.

The Andante emerges out of a single quiet bassoon tone, emanating from the last chord of the opening movement. It is joined by other instruments for a short transitional passage, Example 4 after which the solo violin introduces the simple, almost religious theme. Example 5 The middle section in the minor mode turns slightly darker. Example 6

Another transition, based on the opening theme of the concerto, Example 7 leads into the Allegro molto vivace. Mendelssohn saved the demonstration of the violin’s virtuoso possibilities for this sparkling Finale. After an orchestral fanfare for the winds, Example 8 containing a rhythmic motive that the composer reuses for throughout the movement as part of other themes, the soloist enters with a flourish followed by a delicate, dancing theme that dominates the movement and recalls the atmosphere of the teenaged composer's first great hit, the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Example 9 The orchestra answers with a development of the opening fanfare. Example 10 The soloist then plays a new, more lyrical melody – also based on the fanfare - in counterpoint with the first theme, now in the orchestra, Example 11 Later, their roles are reversed. Example 12
Gustav Mahler 1860-1911
Gustav Mahler
1860-1911
Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 1 in D major

In the late 1880s Gustav Mahler 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. It took him from 1883 to 1888 to finish the First Symphony and another eleven years to have it ready for publication.

In the interval, the symphony underwent major changes. At its premiere in Budapest in 1889, Mahler called it a ”Symphonic Poem in two parts” and added an elaborate literary program which he later repudiated. In its first version, the symphony had five movements, but Mahler immediately discarded the original second movement. He also expanded the size of the orchestra and revised the orchestration drastically. The discarded second movement, an andante titled “Blumine,” resurfaced only in 1967 and is now occasionally performed with the symphony.

At the time he started the symphony, Mahler was also composing a cycle of four songs with orchestra, titled Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). The themes from two of these songs found their way into the symphony: The second song, "Ging heut Morgen übers Feld", became the main theme of the first movement, Example 18 while the fourth song, "Die zwei blauen Augen," became a variation on the main theme of the third movement. Example 19

In light of Mahler’s later symphonies, the First is relatively tame. Nevertheless, it was received with hostility and ridicule at the first performance, bewildering the audience and annoying the critics. Its originality lies in the innovative orchestration and harmonies and in the intensity of the emotions it conveys. “Of all romantics, this arch-romantic has most to give to the music of the future,” wrote Copland in 1941, before the resurgence of Mahler’s popularity.

The first movement begins with an eerie introduction, the first two notes of which later become a birdcall, as well as the first two notes of the main theme. It is punctuated by a distant fanfare and a wailing oboe cry. Example 1 The allegro section begins with the second Wayfarer Lied in the cellos, the heart and soul of the symphony that serves not only as the main theme of this movement, but also as the basis of the themes of the second and final movements. Example 2 & Example 3 The birdcall from the introduction and another call also play an important accompanying role throughout this movement. Example 4 The music of the introduction recurs in the middle of the movement. Mahler's genius was his ability to keep all his thematic balls in the air, a feat brilliantly achieved in the coda. Example 5

The second movement, the scherzo, has the rhythm of the Ländler, Example 6 an Austrian folk dance. Although it conforms to the classic minuet and trio structure, Mahler spins out the first section far beyond the standard repeat structure. The Trio recalls the birdcall theme from the first movement. Example 7

A macabre timpani ostinato accompanies a lonely double bass introducing the main theme of the third movement, a funeral march based on none other than the nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques” in the minor mode. It is a spooky parody, said to have been inspired by the popular picture by the French painter Jacques Callot of a dead hunter accompanied to his grave by the forest animals; and Mahler continues the theme with the traditional canon. Example 8 But, as evidenced in the example above, Mahler had already used this motive in the opening of the fourth Wayfarer song, "Die zwei blauen Augen." He then transforms the theme into a dance with more than a hint of Jewish folk music, Example 9 an aspect of Mahler’s heritage about which he manifested considerable ambivalence. The middle section in this movement, both hypnotic and calming, comes directly from part of the fourth Wayfarer song. Example 10In the following example, the Jewish klezmer band appears combined with the sweeping strings reminiscent of a Viennese waltz; symbolic of the two conflicting sides of Mahler's identity and sense of self? Perhaps. Example 11

The Scherzo leads directly to the stormy finale, which in the original program notes was titled Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso – from hell to heaven. It opens with one of the most threatening passages in classical music. Example 12 The theme is then taken up in the main body of the allegro. Example 13 In the Finale, Mahler ties together the previous themes, even those of the discarded "Blumine" movement as a gentle, even comforting, second theme. Example 14 The development section introduces a transformation of the theme that opens a glimpse of pathway to "Heaven" and as if coming from off-stage. Example 15 There are also reprises of material from the first movement, here combining it with the funeral march motive from the Scherzo. Example 16 The road, however, is not an easy one, with moments of intense gentleness interrupted by more than one backward glance. The final resolution comes in a coda of heroic proportions, including a triumphant, full-voiced reprise of the distant fanfare from the opening of the Symphony. Example 17
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016