Guest blog- Peter Davison on Mahler and Strauss at Orchestra of the Swan

Last Friday’s Orchestra of the Swan performance of the Strauss Emperor Waltz and Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” and “Das Lied von der Erde” were prefaced by a wonderful and thought-provoking pre-concert talk by Mahler scholar and Vftp contributor, Peter Davison. In it, he not only finds the connections between these three remarkable and iconic works, but also helps us to see the hidden hand of Arnold Schoenberg, who created the chamber versions of these large orchestra scores we recorded this weekend.

Fortunately, for those who weren’t there, we can now publish the text of Peter’s talk.

Vienna: city of dreams and nightmares

Tonight we shall hear a waltz by Johann Strauss II and two song-cycles by Mahler which capture the spirit of Viennese music at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries. These pieces have all then been arranged in the 1920’s for chamber ensemble by the revolutionary Viennese composer, Arnold Schönberg, who projected into this music an aching nostalgia for a lost age. This combination of forward-looking idealism and longing for the past is a typical paradox of the times. In the Vienna of 1900 everything seemed possible, yet everything remained uncertain; a scenario which still has much to teach us to us today, since many of the ideas which have created our modern world were shaped there. The music of those prophetic times also continues to fascinate us, because it explores how modernity affects our deepest sense of identity.

If we go back 150 years to 1860, when the composer Gustav Mahler was born, Vienna was capital city of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was ruled by the Hapsburgs. They were one of Europe’s oldest royal families and, as a dynasty, they represented changeless stability. Franz Josef I was emperor from 1848 to 1916; 68 years of stolidly conservative leadership. His empire was vast, stretching across much of central Europe and south through the Balkans. It encompassed a wide range of ethnic groups. German-speakers were dominant, but there were also Magyars, Serbs, Albanians, Italians, Poles, Czechs and many other nationalities. As the 19C progressed, a mixture of clumsy governance and nationalist rivalries eroded the state’s power, although the ruling elite in Vienna were slow to notice this decline.

Vienna at this time was famously called “the city of dreams”, but we might equally call it a city of nightmares. During the latter half of the 19C, Vienna grew rapidly in size; the result of a belated industrial revolution which drew in many foreign workers. It became a microcosm of the strains felt all over the empire. Despite the outer appearance of an imperial city, hidden behind its neo-classical façades were poverty, over-crowding, prostitution, disease and extremist politics. Not least, Vienna became a centre of anti-Semitism. This split between appearance and inner truth was the chief pre-occupation of many of the city’s artists and intellectuals. The more conservative artists allied themselves with the governing elite, reflecting Vienna’s inflated sense of power and its appetite for escapism. But the more perceptive minds adopted a critical stance aimed at exposing the uncomfortable truths concealed behind bourgeois conventions. Thus Vienna became a breeding ground for revolutionary ideas, which were hotly debated in the city’s many coffee-houses. This was the time when Freud put forward his theories about the unconscious and when Karl Kraus penned his satirical diatribes. There were also innovations in painting, sculpture and design led by Klimt and the Secession movement. Adolf Loos meanwhile created a new austere kind of architecture which was intended to be a critical commentary upon the ornamental excess of the city’s many imperial buildings. Invention and creativity were in abundance, but this was the very same climate which was shaping the nihilistic political ideology of Adolf Hitler, who also became a resident of the city.

But, above all, Vienna was a city of music. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert had lived there; so also Brahms and Bruckner. A generation later, and Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler were both active in the city. As the First World War approached, the radical Second Viennese School of Schönberg, Berg and Webern came to the fore. Binding all these generations of composers together were the two great traditions of art-music for which Vienna was renowned; symphony and song. However, Vienna was also famous through-out the world for its distinctive popular music, the waltz; that irresistibly lilting triple-time dance popularised by the Strauss family. Yet, for many, the waltz was ambiguous; at once evidence of the city’s vitality and a symbol of its decadence and hedonistic excess.

The stresses and strains within the Austro-Hungarian Empire were a major factor in causing the First World War, and in Vienna, during the years just prior to 1914, an apocalyptic sensibility emerged alongside its penchant for escapism. The establishment’s indifference to its dwindling authority compelled composers such as Mahler and Schönberg to pursue an aggressive critique of prevailing values. They intuited imminent disaster and sought truth amidst a society filled by falsehood. As Jews, they were both outsiders with a strong impulse to assimilate the culture around them, yet eager to reject its decadent values. Tonight’s programme explores how Mahler and Schönberg both tried to create new and ethically challenging music from the musical styles and forms of the past.

In 1918, after its military defeat, the Habsburg Empire collapsed. Vienna was no longer a powerful city. For Schönberg, the war had been a personal trauma, but it strengthened his resolve to renew the musical life of the city. Before the war he had been pilloried for his bold musical experiments, so to out-flank the conservatives he created an Association for Private Musical Performances. The general public and the critics would not be permitted to attend, but without a paying audience each event had only a shoe-string budget. One solution to this problem was to make chamber arrangements of large-scale to save money. It is three such reductions that we will hear tonight; all of them the outcome of financial rather artistic necessity. But you will find that Schönberg’s remarkable ear for sonority and his skill in orchestration allowed him to capture much of the spirit of the original music. Despite the occasional hint of the salon, it is often possible to hear the contrapuntal details of these pieces with greater clarity than in their full-scale versions.

But let us now examine the programme in detail, exploring its web of intriguing connections. The concert opens with the Emperor Waltz by Johann Strauss II. This famous work was written to celebrate the meeting of two powerful monarchs in 1889; the Kaiser of Germany and the aforementioned Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria. Ironically, these were the chief instigators of the First World War, and for that reason, The Emperor Waltz might appear an odd choice for Schönberg to have arranged. But Schönberg was fond of Vienna’s popular music and in particular Johann Strauss II, who was far more than a good tunesmith. For Schönberg the waltz represented the innocence and pleasure of a bygone age and he appreciated Strauss’s taut thematic organisation and expressive use of orchestral colour.

By 1925, when this arrangement was made, Schönberg had already invented his controversial twelve-tone technique and created the freely dissonant harmony of what we now call modern music. This is a long way from sound of Mozart, Beethoven and even Brahms, but Schönberg was protesting against a culture he considered to have been emptied by fakery and failure. He believed he was protecting the inner meaning of music, and because the truth was uncomfortable, music could not have a pleasing surface. Yet the paradox remains that tradition remained important to Schönberg as the basis of his musical experiments and theories. The past was a lost golden age, and honouring it provided an anchor amidst a society where nobody knew what to believe any more. No figure in this regard meant more to Schönberg than Mahler. Both the example of his life and the radical edge of his music meant a lot to the younger composer. It is therefore no surprise to discover him paying homage to Mahler in the two chamber-scale song-cycles which we will hear tonight.

In 1933, Schönberg was driven from Europe by anti-Semitic persecution, which left him filled with bitterness at his enforced exile. He converted to Judaism and left for the USA, signalling the final abandonment of his old Viennese life. The consequences for classical music which had sprung from his ambivalence towards Vienna and its musical traditions continue to perplex audiences today. Was it unavoidable, as he often claimed, that he should write such difficult music? Perhaps not, for Mahler had felt similar ambivalence towards Vienna, but found ways to transcend its malign influences by turning inwards or retreating into Nature.

But now we must come to Mahler. Who was he, and how did he achieve his pre-eminence in musical life? He was born in 1860 in Kaliste, a small village in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was the son of an aspiring Jewish wine-merchant who moved with his family to the provincial town of Iglau, while Mahler was still young. The boy showed musical talent, took piano lessons and was soon renowned as a prodigy. As a Jew, Mahler would have experienced much prejudice and felt alienated from ordinary society. Furthermore, his sensitivity to music and natural beauty was in marked contrast to the bawdy tavern that was his home. His most formative experiences would have been the deaths of eight of his fourteen siblings while in infancy. They were ghosts which haunted him for the rest of his life. Later Mahler trained at the Vienna Conservatoire as a pianist and composer but, realising that he could not make a living as a composer, he decided to become an orchestral conductor. During the period of his apprenticeship as a young conductor, Mahler worked at many of the great European opera houses, before in 1897 achieving his long-held ambition to become Director of the Vienna Court Opera. In those days, this was the most powerful position in the musical world. To reach such dizzy heights, overcoming anti-Jewish sentiment and still preserving his reputation as a reformer, was testament to a remarkable and dynamic personality. Yet being a radical among conservatives was an endless source of conflict in his life. Mahler was often a thorn in the side of authority.

We know Mahler today chiefly for his ten extravagant symphonies, but without his many songs, these mighty works would not have been written. The symphonies amplify the musical and philosophical ideas of his songs, turning them from vignettes into major public utterances. It is through these two Viennese genres that we glimpse the opposites in Mahler’s personality. The private man was a sensitive lyrical miniaturist, while Mahler the public figure was a visionary prophet speaking to the masses. It is where the private and public Mahler meet that his music becomes most characteristic and profound.

To understand Mahler, we have to place him in the context of the immense changes in European culture happening around him. By his time, musical Romanticism was at its height, although under Wagner’s influence, music had left behind the fairy-tale world of the early-Romantics like Weber and Schubert. Romantic music became more self-questioning and self-conscious. Mahler’s music occupies the battleground between this darker Wagnerian world and the innocence of the early-Romantics, embodying the contrast between what the poet Schiller called the naive and sentimental attitudes to Nature. The naive attitude suggests unity with Creation. The artist thus expresses spontaneous joy and exuberance. In the sentimental state, the artist feels the pain of separation from Nature, which causes intense longing and fear of death. Indeed, death often pervades Mahler’s music which is suffused with funeral marches and expressions of anguished grief. But it is an ambiguous presence, for death also offers an end to earthly woe and unity with Creation.

As it happens, the two Mahler song-cycles in tonight’s concert do not sound particularly Viennese. The Songs of a Wayfarer date from 1885 and come from the beginning of his career, before he returned to Vienna. The other, The Song of the Earth, written in 1908-9, comes from the end of his compositional career. Between them were 23 years of frenetic living as a conductor, opera-house manager and composer. Despite this gap of time and the intervening intensity of his life, we are struck by the consistency of the musical style and the similarities in the poetic symbolism in both works. The earlier Songs of Wayfarer were inspired by the German fairy-tale tradition, and they often imitate the simplicity of folk-music, anticipating Mahler’s so-called “Wunderhorn” style. Vienna is only present in discreet allusions to Schubert’s song-cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. The Songs of a Wayfarer express the poet’s torment when he discovers that his beloved will marry another. He is filled with depression and suicidal anger. He can reconcile himself neither to Nature, from which he seeks consolation, nor the human world, which he perceives as enduringly false. Death offers the wayfarer a chance to escape, but at the close of the cycle, the outcome is uncertain. Does he take his own life or does he return to the everyday world to face his fate?

Twenty years or so later, and Mahler was at the top of his profession, having achieved many of his creative ambitions. He had married a beautiful young wife, Alma, and had two little daughters; Maria and Anna. But in his sixth symphony, written in 1905, Mahler had foreseen terrible tragedy. And so it was. Fate delivered him three terrible hammer-blows. In the summer of 1907, his elder daughter Maria died from Scarlet Fever. In that same year, Mahler was compelled to resign his post at the Vienna Opera after much intrigue against him. But the blow that defeated him was the discovery of the serious heart-condition which led to his death some four years later. In the wake of these calamities, Mahler composed Das Lied von der Erde – The Song of the Earth; a sequence of six songs based on ancient Chinese poems which he had read in German translation. The texts reflect upon the transience and illusoriness of life’s joys. It expresses fear in the face of human mortality, finding ultimate consolation in Nature’s cycle of renewal each spring.

Vienna is a more tangible presence in this later work. The first song, The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow, uses waltz-rhythms to depict the poet’s hedonistic abandon and despair. There is also a Jugendstil ornamental delicacy the more stylised songs such as Of Youth and Of Beauty. Throughout the work, there are allusions to the orient, especially in the use of the pentatonic scale which seems to suspend our sense of forward progression in time. The East exerted a strong influence upon art and design in fin de siècle Vienna, as well as being a source of new ideas in philosophy and religion. The East represented all that was exotic and mysterious to Europeans. By writing in a quasi-oriental style, Mahler was observing his own culture through alien eyes and taking distance from it. No longer angrily critical as Schönberg was to remain, Mahler was withdrawing into his inner world.

Vienna is most obviously referenced in Das Lied von der Erde by allusions to its two greatest musical traditions; symphony and song. The former the musical form of public utterance, the latter the form of private confession. In this work, Mahler made a synthesis of the two genres. The inner man and the public face are able to be one and the same. His music transcends what Vienna had come to represent; the split between inner and outer. The city was, after all, just one part of Mahler’s hectic creative life. He preferred to compose in the summer months while living in the countryside, and this is where he truly belonged and where he found peace and creative inspiration.

Das Lied von der Erde was written as a response to Mahler’s annus horribilis in 1907 but, as in his earlier song-cycle, real life was only a point of departure to express more universal feelings. Indeed, both song-cycles share much in common. They struggle with nihilistic despair and alienation in the face of bitter life experience. Both seek renewal in Nature. However, in Das Lied, the scale of the work, the sophistication of its musical language and the intricate cross-referencing of themes suggest a symphonic conception. There are also thematic links in the Songs of a Wayfarer, but on a miniature scale.  In The Song of the Earth, themes are developed organically and generate larger forms, yet somehow these are always consistent with the poetical demands of the text. Mahler created musical forms rooted in the traditions of Viennese music which match the lyrical material to perfection.

The end of Das Lied von der Erde contains some of the most ecstatically beautiful music ever-written, as the liberated soul mingles with the distant blue haze of the horizon. With astonishing musical imagination, the boundary between life and death seems to dissolve. The sounds of Nature echo each inner shifting of the soul as it embarks on its final journey. The joy of a spring morning serves as a metaphor of Nature’s infinite abundance and capacity for renewal. Mahler purges the negative feelings which at the start of the work had overwhelmed the drunken poet. In some sense, he has also purged the memory of Vienna which had humiliated and betrayed him. This new beginning was an anticipation of life after death, but perhaps also the embracing of a new life beyond Vienna in the “New World” of the United States, where Mahler went to work for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

This sense of a new beginning is in contrast to the second of the Wayfarer songs which paints a similarly idyllic picture. But at the end of song, the music collapses into melancholy. By comparison, The Farewell, the final song of Das Lied von der Erde, affirms the ancient Chinese belief that all Creation is a unity and that all separation is an illusion. Because all living things are bound together, Mahler seems to say to us, the interconnectedness of Nature must be treated as sacred. Man must feel compassion for others, as he is shares the birth-pains of growth along with all other animate creatures. By affirming these beliefs, Mahler has an important message for us today as we face imminent catastrophe through our abuse of the environment. We are forced question what the art-historian, Kenneth Clarke, called “heroic materialism”; our ceaseless striving to conquer Nature and extract from it what we want at any cost. Mahler reveals the futility of this approach, reconciling us to our vulnerable dependency upon the natural world.

Finally, you should listen out this evening for birdsong. The bird in Mahler is a messenger of hope. In both song-cycles, the poet cannot hear the bird’s message. Instead it torments him, because depression and alienation block the reassurance which Nature offers. Both song-cycles lament this feeling of separation, and both use the ritualised grief of the funeral march to purge the negativity which prevents communion with Nature. Yet the difference in outcome of these two pieces is striking. Fateful gloom concludes the earlier song-cycle, while ecstatic release marks the end of the later work. The Songs of a Wayfarer so very nearly finish in a mood of dreamy serenity, but for the return of the last song’s plodding funeral march in the final bars. Mahler always believed that death meant release from earthly misery but, in the Songs of a Wayfarer, the young apprentice has to leave Mother Nature’s loving embrace and face his fate in the world. But, by the time Das Lied von der Erde was completed, just two years before his death, Mahler could envision the soul released from its travail forever.

Peter Davison

19 November 2010

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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