Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Gustav Mahler

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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