Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Gustav Mahler

Dr. Bob Prescribes Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 10

A Nice Hike In early September of 1940, Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma (1879-1964) – now married to the Jewish author Franz Werfel (1890-1945) – walked from France to Spain in order to escape the Nazi occupation of Europe. (Time out. We read constantly about those intrepid individuals who, in order to escape the Nazis, “walked across the Pyrenees from occupied France to neutral Spain.” The image so conjured is one of daring and desperate people braving an alpine climb and descent – after all, the Pyrenees rise to a height of 11,168 feet – all the while avoiding border patrols, searchlights, and barking dogs. In fact, the crossing from the French town of Cerbère to the Spanish town of Portbou involves walking a roughly two-mile-long path up and over a hill along the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a stroll, for heaven’s sake, one that hardly constitutes a hike!) Alma had been told to bring only what she could carry, but she showed up in Marseilles (the point of departure for escapees) with twelve trunks worth of luggage. The man who arranged her escape from France was the American journalist and first order hero Varian Fry (1907-1967). (For our information: working for […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler Symphony No. 6

Mahler’s first four symphonies, composed between 1888 and 1901, are “program symphonies”: multi-movement works that tell an extra-musical, literary story. In order to help his audience follow those “stories”, Mahler (1860-1911) prepared written “programs” for each of his first four symphonies. For example, in reference to the titles he gave the movements of his Symphony No. 3 (“Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”; “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”; “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”; “What Man Tells Me”; “What the Angels Tell Me”; “What Love Tells Me”) Mahler wrote the conductor Josef Krug-Waldsee: “These titles can certainly be instructive. . . [They represent] an attempt to give non-musicians some point of reference or signpost to suggest the ideas, or rather the mood, of the individual movements and their relationship to each other and to the whole. They also give a hint of how I conceived the increasingly articulate expression, which proceeds from the muffled, static and merely rudimentary existence (of the forces of nature) [in the first movement], to the tender image of the human heart, which reaches towards God [in the final movement].” Nevertheless, in that same letter to Krug-Waldsee, written during the summer of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler Symphony No. 5

When it came to his music, particularly its orchestration, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was fussy. Starting with his Symphony No. 5, which he began in 1901 and initially completed in 1903, Mahler was never completely satisfied with anything he composed; he was always reworking this, re-orchestrating that, fussing to a degree that pretty much everything composed between 1901 and his death in 1911 must be considered a “work in progress”.  Mahler’s fussing with his Fifth Symphony began soon after its completion in 1903. After a reading in 1904 he removed a considerable bit of the percussion parts. In 1906 he again made significant revisions in anticipation of a performance in Amsterdam. In 1908 he revised the symphony yet again. Finally, in early 1911, just a few months before his death on May 18, he wrote: “The Fifth is finished. I have been compelled to re-orchestrate it completely. I cannot understand how I could have written so much like a beginner at that time [meaning 1901-1903]. It is clear that the method I had used in the first four symphonies deserted me altogether, as if a totally new message demanded a new technique.” That “new message” to which Mahler refers is the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler, Symphony No. 3

Mahler composed the great bulk of his Symphony No. 3 during the summers of 1895 and 1896. (Mahler was a “summer break” composer, who had to work around his conducting schedule.) It is a huge, sprawling, 6-movement work, roughly 100 to 105 minutes in performance. (The recommended performance, conducted by Claudio Abbado, runs 102 minutes and 42 seconds: that’s 1 hour, 42 minutes, and 42 seconds.) Not only is the third Mahler’s longest work, it is also the longest symphony in the standard repertoire.  (For our information, Mahler originally intended the symphony to be longer: he planned to include a seventh movement, an orchestral setting of the song “The Heavenly Life.” In the end he chose not to include the song here in the Third Symphony; instead it became the fourth and final movement of his Symphony No. 4.) Among the many things Mahler told Natalie Bauer-Lechner about his Third Symphony-in-progress was its programmatic plan, a plan he later withdrew and wished to god he’d never mentioned at all. Nevertheless, it is the key to understanding his expressive intentions and the dramatic progression of movements as the symphony unfolds, and we press it joyfully to our collective bosoms in gratitude. […]

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Music History Monday: Mahler’s Last Words

We mark the passing, on May 18, 1911 – 109 years ago today – of the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. Mahler, who was born on July 7, 1860 in the Bohemian village of Kalischt, died all-too-young in Vienna, two months shy of his 51st birthday. But before moving on to the painful circumstances of Mahler’s death and his “last words”, we would mark the painful circumstances of the death of his exact contemporary, the Spanish-born composer and pianist Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz Y Pascual, or simply Isaac Albéniz. Albéniz was born on May 20, 1860 – 39 days before Gustav Mahler – in Camprodon, a town in northern Catalonia not far from the French Border. A spectacularly gifted child, he made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of four and began his concert career at the age of nine. As a composer, he embraced the music of his native Spain in 1883 at the age of 23, when he began composing avowedly “Spanish-styled” works. His great masterwork is Iberia a set of twelve virtuosic piano works composed between 1905 and 1909, completed just three months before his death. (For those interested in an examination of […]

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Music History Monday: Transfigured Night

On March 18, 1902 – 117 years ago today – Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (meaning Transfigured Night) for string sextet received its premiere in his native city of Vienna. Considered today to be Schoenberg’s first “major” work, the music prompted what are euphemistically called “disruptions” (meaning catcalls and hisses) and even some fisticuffs among the audience, though it evoked respect and admiration as well.  About those disruptions and fisticuffs. In fact, Transfigured Night is a fastball down the middle of the late-Romantic era musical plate. Typical of so much nineteenth century music, it is a piece of “program music”: an instrumental work that “describes” a literary story. Typical of so much late-nineteenth century German music, it employs an advanced harmonic language based on that of Wagner and Brahms. So why all the fuss at the premiere of Transfigured Night? I would suggest that much more than the music itself, that disapproval had to do with the ethnicity of its composer and the political atmosphere in Vienna in 1902. And therein lies our story. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Schoenberg was born on September 13, 1874 in the Leopoldstadt ghetto (or the “2nd district”) of Vienna, into a poor Jewish family of Hungarian […]

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Music History Monday: “Ma: I got the Job!”

On October 8, 1897 – 121 years ago today – Emperor Franz Joseph I of the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary officially named Gustav Mahler Director of the Vienna Court Opera.  For the 37 year-old Mahler, it was the culminating moment in what had been (and sadly, what would continue to be) a very difficult life. He was born on July 7, 1860 in the village of Kalischt, in central Bohemia, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is today part of the Czech Republic. Mahler’s was a lower middle class Jewish family; they spoke German and were thus a double-minority among their predominately Catholic, Czech-speaking neighbors.  Mahler grew up abnormally sensitive and morbidly imaginative; a constant witness to his father’s brutality and his mother’s helplessness. According to Henry Raynor:  “All the Mahler children were incapable of facing reality and suffered from a sense of inevitable tragedy.”  Young Gustav’s sense of morbid tragedy was also a function of the disastrous mortality rate of his siblings. Of the fourteen Mahler children, seven died in infancy and only four (including Gustav) lived into full adulthood. Mahler’s musical talent was prodigious. He attended the Vienna Conservatory from 1876 to […]

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Music History Monday: Émigrés

We mark the birth – on July 16, 1901, 117 years ago today – of the Austrian composer and conductor Fritz Mahler. While we might not recognize his first name, we surely recognize his surname, and Fritz’ father was indeed a cousin of the great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. His present obscurity aside, Fritz Mahler was a well-known musician in his time. He studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. He emigrated to America in 1936, where he taught at Juilliard and conducted the Erie Philharmonic and the Hartford Symphony. For us, for now, the key phrase is “he emigrated to America in 1936”: Fritz Mahler was one of the hundreds – the thousands – of artists, scientists, writers, and intellectuals who managed to escape Europe in the 1930s. And thereby hangs our tale. Catastrophe On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was appointed Chancellor of Germany: head of the German government. Until April 30, 1945, when a palsied and defeated Hitler put his 7.656 mm Walther pistol against his right temple and scrambled his diseased brain, he presided over as malignant and criminal a regime as modern Europe has ever seen. Once in power, Hitler […]

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Music History Monday: “The Song of the Earth”

106 years ago today – on November 20, 1911 – Gustav Mahler’s magnificent Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) received its premiere in Munich under the baton of Mahler’s conductorial protégé, Bruno Walter. The house was packed for the premiere; among the audience were the composers Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Conspicuous by his absence was Gustav Mahler himself, who had died in Vienna at the age of 51, six months before: on May 18, 1911. Das Lied von der Erde is a symphonic song cycle, consisting of six songs for alto and tenor voice and orchestra. Mahler fully conceived of Das Lied as a “symphony” and had originally intended to call the piece his Symphony No. 9. But having contemplated that Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, and Dvorak had all died either during or soon after the composition of their ninth symphonies, he decided not to tempt fate any more than necessary. Das Lied von der Erde is about loss, grief, memory, disintegration, and, ultimately, transfiguration. It is the most autobiographical work Mahler ever wrote, a work composed in response to three catastrophic events that occurred, back-to-back, in 1907. Background Mahler was appointed music director of the […]

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