Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Mahler

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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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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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler, Symphony No. 4

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was the greatest opera composer never to have composed an opera. Huh?  Once again: Gustav Mahler was the greatest opera composer never to have composed an opera. That statement is intended to be neither ironic nor provocative. Nor, well, stupid. I would explain. Compositionally, Mahler was, from the first, a dramatist: when composing, he thought in terms of dramatic scenarios. Whether a given work is instrumental or vocal, Mahler’s music, like Beethoven’s mature music before him, describes some sort of narrative, be it allegorical, metaphorical, or programmatic. Mahler came to his narrative impulse honestly. Along with the hyper-expressivity that was his late-nineteenth century German Romantic heritage, he was – like pretty much every German-speaking composer of his generation – a dyed-in-the-wool fan-person of Richard Wagner and the expressive ethos that drove Wagner’s music dramas. That Wagnerian ethos posited that music and literature must be combined to create archetypal stories/fables that resonated with the deepest of human impulses and experiences.  Mahler took this ethos for granted as a composer, and it was something he put into action on a daily basis as a conductor. Mahler conducted opera for a living, and starting in 1880 at the age of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Mahler, Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”

How much is enough? Everyone, please say hello to Gregg Valentino. (“Hello Gregg.”) For a time, Gregg held the record for having the world’s largest biceps: 28 inches around. Gregg grew those guns through a combination of exercise, steroids, and a really nasty topical oil called “Synthol.” However he managed to create those arms, we imagine Gregg has no trouble opening even the most reluctant of jars, although we also imagine that shopping for shirts can be something of a chore.  Gregg, dude, regarding those arms: how much is enough? Wrap your eyes around the marvel of technology and power that is Ferrari’s 6,496 cc (6.5 L) F140 V12 (12 cylinder) engine. At 8,500 rpm, this sweet puppy generates a power output of 789 hp (horsepower) and 530 lb⋅ft of torque at 7,000 rpm, making it – as of 2018 – the most powerful naturally aspirated production car engine ever manufactured. (A “naturally aspirated engine” is an internal combustion engine that relies solely on atmospheric pressure for its oxygen intake; as opposed to an engine with a supercharger or turbocharger, which forces oxygen into an engine.) The automobile into which that engine is its heart is a Ferrari 812 Superfast, which will set you back […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes (sort of): Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7, as “retouched” by Gustav Mahler

In November 1899 the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) told his friend, the violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner:  “Beethoven’s First, Second, and Fourth Symphonies can still be performed by modern orchestras and conductors. All the rest, however, are quite beyond their powers. Only Richard Wagner and I myself have done these works justice. And even I can manage it only by terrorizing the players; by forcing each individual to transcend his little self and rise above his own powers.”  Mahler goes on to say that: “Beethoven’s symphonies present a problem that is simply insoluble for the ordinary conductor. I see it more and more clearly. Unquestionably, they need re-interpretation and reworking. The very constitution and size of the orchestra necessitates it: in Beethoven’s time, the whole orchestra was not as large as the string section alone today. If, consequently, the other instruments are not brought into a balanced relationship with the strings, the effect is bound to be wrong. Wagner knew that very well; but he too had to suffer the bitterest attacks because of it.”   Mahler (who, I will gladly confess, is one of my very favorite composers) did not just talk-the-talk but eventually put his pencil where his […]

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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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