Songs and colours of water and earth: Mahler, Schoenberg, and Orchestra Wellington

Continuing the series of posts that explore links between the WCL music collection and Orchestra Wellington’s 2023 Inner Visions season, today’s blog investigates the connections between their July concert ‘Three Colours‘ and books about Arnold Schoenberg (Five Pieces for Orchestra) and Gustav Mahler (Das Lied von der Erde) whose music frames the programme. In between these pieces, sits Richard Strauss’s Burleske for piano and orchestra, an exuberant work of the composer’s youth.

Burleske, which will feature Jian Liu playing the mercurial solo part, dates from 1885-1886 when Strauss was 21 years old. At the time of Burleske‘s genesis, Strauss had completed his tenure as Hans von Bülow’s assistant with the Meiningen Court Orchestra, and was deep in the phase of his ‘Brahms Adoration’. Burleske offers some unabashedly Brahmsian moments, but Strauss’s musical identity — which would be realized more fully in a few years, with Don Juan — is entirely clear. In fact, by the time Burleske had its premiere in Eisenach in 1890, the public had already been introduced to Don Juan in Weimar, a performance that cemented Strauss’s reputation as a leader of the avant-garde.

Strauss wrote Burleske for Hans von Bülow to perform as soloist, but the veteran pianist and conductor did not warm to the piece, writing to Brahms in January 1891 that ‘Strauss’s Burleske decidedly has some genius in it, but in other respects, it is horrifying.’ Strauss himself came to view the piece as something of an aberration, but despite his doubts, Burleske endured: in 1947, a festival dedicated to Strauss and his music was held in London, and the 83-year-old composer conducted a performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra, the programme consisting of BurleskeDon Juan, and Symphonia Domestica. You can read more about Strauss’s life and music in an earlier blog post.

The first performance of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra also took place in London, at one of Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts in the Queen’s Hall. The orchestra had never encountered such music, and Wood devoted an almost unprecedented amount of rehearsal to the Five Pieces, ‘three consecutive rehearsals of an hour each,’ as Eugene Goossens (then a violinist in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra) remembered:

Wood, cutting, thrusting, parrying, and dissecting with that long white baton, fighting down the thing that all conductors have to fight sooner or later in varying degrees – the hostility of an orchestra that has fatally prejudged a novelty – eventually secured order out of chaos.” Eugene Goossens, The New York Times, 3 September 1944

Despite Wood’s meticulous preparation, the audience at the premiere on 3 September 1912 was hostile, derisive, and baffled. Undeterred, Wood  invited Schoenberg to come to London in January 1914 to conduct a second performance, and this received a far better reception: a note included in the programme stated that ‘Herr ARNOLD SCHOENBERG has promised his cooperation at today’s concert on condition that during the performance of his Orchestral Pieces perfect silence is maintained.’ Any hostile elements in the audience were drowned out by substantial applause.

It is from Schoenberg’s Five Pieces that the title for this week’s concert, ‘Colours’ is at least partially derived. The third of the pieces, unnamed at the time of composition in 1909, and even in the first edition of the score in 1912, later acquired the title ‘Farben’, possibly shortened from Akkordfaerbungen (‘chord hues’). When Schoenberg conducted a performance of the Five Pieces at Salzburg in 1920, this central piece was subtitled ‘Der Traunsee am Morgen,’ reflecting Schoenberg’s initial idea for the piece, seeing the colours of dawn on the waters of the Traunsee through the eye of an accomplished painter.

Evocations of light, liquid, and colour are also central to the poetic texts in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). This symphony or song cycle was completed in 1909, making the work contemporaneous with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces. After Mahler read Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), a collection of free translations (‘Nachdichtungen’) by Hans Bethge of existing translations of Tang dynasty poetry into German and French, he was moved by their expression and imagery, choosing  poems by Li Bai, Quian Qui, Men Haoran, and Wang Wei to set to music.  In the first poem, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ (‘The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow’), we hear of cellars full of golden wines (‘Dein Keller birgt die Fülle des goldenen Weins!’) and the eternal blue of the heavens (‘Das Firmament blaut ewig’). The second movement, ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ (‘The Solitary One in Autumn’ begins with images of bluish mists creeping over a lake,  while the frosty grass seems sprinkled with jade dust.’ Another image of colour and water occurs in the fourth movement, ‘Von der Schönheit’ (‘Of beauty’) where the poet describes girls picking lotus flowers at a river bank, as ‘Golden sun plays about their form/Reflecting them in the clear water.’ (Gold’ne Sonne webt um die Gestalten/Spiegelt sie im blanken Wasser wider’). 

Detailed discussion and contextualization of Das Lied von der Erde can be found in three excellent books in the Wellington City Libraries collection, each written from a different perspective, and with a different intention in the author’s mind:

Gustav Mahler : songs and symphonies of life and death : interpretations and annotations / Mitchell, Donald
Donald Mitchell (1925-2017) was a pioneering Mahler scholar, his research and writing on his subject spanned many decades, and was frequently revised and updated. Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death (1985) followed on the heels of two groundbreaking studies, Gustav Mahler: the Early Years (1958) and Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years (1975). Mitchell’s Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death focuses on Mahler’s vocal music, with a deep discussion of Das Lied von der Erde that illuminates the composer’s sketches and process, his interpretation of the poetic texts, and the personal significance of this monumental work.

The real Mahler / Carr, Jonathan
Insofar as anybody can attempt to reveal the ‘real’ Mahler in a book of any length, Jonathan Carr offers a brave, and compelling attempt, which concentrates on the events and achievements of Mahler’s final decade before his death in May 1911. Writing as a journalist, and enthusiast, rather than as a career musicologist, Carr looks closely at Mahler’s life and relationships with  family and colleagues;  this approach offers a human perspective on the enigmatic composer and conductor. Carr also highlights  Mahler’s frenetic pace of life, conducting, composing, traveling, and attempting to maintain control over the constant ferment of the Vienna Court Opera before his eventual departure. Carr’s achievement in this book is to view Mahler as human and vital, rather than doomed and tragic, despite the many tribulations of his last years.

The Mahler symphonies : an owner’s manual / Hurwitz, David
David Hurwitz’s Owner’s Manual is both a written and aural guide to exploring ten monumental musical works. Designed as a way of introducing new listeners to Mahler’s music, this book is equally useful for a more informed audience, as Hurtwitz identifies and discusses the themes and melodies, instrumental solos, and other musical landmarks that help the listener to orientate themself within the music. Hurwitz also draws attention to the musical ideas that recur within different symphonies, showing the ways that each symphony grew or evolved from its predecessor. The dazzling instrumental effects, and emotional intensity that contribute to the fearsome and joyous maximalism of Mahler’s music, become immediately more accessible and personal for readers of this book.

Meanwhile, Schoenberg’s life as a composer, artist, and theorist, is the subject of books by Harvey Sachs and Malcolm MacDonald, while the correspondence between Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky offers us the voices of two inimitable creative minds.

Schoenberg : Why He Matters / Sachs, Harvey
The vehemence of Harvey Sachs’s title suggests a defensive or combative approach to his subject. However, Schoenberg: Why He Matters is a thoughtful account of Schoenberg’s achievements and significance. While Sachs’s book contains elements of biography, its primary focus is to communicate Schoenberg’s position in relation to early-twentieth-century modernism. Sachs also considers Schoenberg’s personality and interactions with his peers, as well as how he regarded himself as part of the chronology from the ‘first Viennese school’ (Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) through the rigorous structures of Brahms’s music, and the explosion of emotion and expression in music by Strauss, and Mahler. Sachs also explains, with precision and clarity, the origins and development of serialism, one of Schoenberg’s most significant achievements.

Schoenberg / MacDonald, Malcolm
This biographical study of Arnold Schoenberg presents the composer and theorist as a ‘vigorous polemicist,’ as an inspiring but demanding teacher, and as a leading figure in modernist aesthetics. MacDonald does not shy away from admitting Schoenberg’s genius, tempering that with an appraisal of the thorniness of his personality. Central to this book are five comprehensive studies of different elements of Schoenberg’s work that are inextricably connected: Roots, Tonality, Philosophical Considerations, Total Chromaticism, ‘Twelve Tones Related Only to One Another’, and Tonality Enlarged. MacDonald explains complex concepts in a clear and coherent manner, enhancing the reader’s understanding of Schoenberg’s music and aesthetic philosophy.

Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures and Documents / Schoenberg, Arnold
Jelena Hahl-Koch, the editor of this remarkable book, summarises perfectly its unique qualities in the first two sentences of her foreword: ‘The friendship between the two leading artistic personalities of the twentieth century, the founders of abstract painting and atonal music, has already been the subject of several studies. Now, their correspondence has become available, furnishing many new insights into their creative processes and personalities, for neither man, in the decisive period between 1911 and 19154, had another correspondent with whom he could so thoroughly discuss and share his creative problems, going beyond the merely technical.’ The mutual respect between Kandinsky and Schoenberg is clear in every letter, as they discuss art and innovation. The painful exchange of letters in 1923, when Kandinsky had invited Schoenberg to join the Bauhaus faculty, despite his Jewishness, illustrates the pervasive anti-Semitism that clouded Schoenberg’s life in Europe so perniciously. Schoenberg’s pained, yet eloquent response to Kandinsky points out that such prejudice would ultimately only lead to violence, and this exchange marked the end of their connection.

To explore the artistic atmosphere in which Mahler and Schoenberg were working, here are two books whose exploration of graphic and decorative arts provide additional context for the wider creative milieu:

Vienna 1900 complete / Brandstätter, Christian
The best adjective to capture Brandstätter’s Vienna 1900 Complete is ‘sumptuous’. This large-format book unites an exceptional array of visual material — including drawing, painting,  interior and furniture design, printing, photography, crafts, fashion plates, ceramics and glassware, jewelry, postcards — that illustrate the extraordinary efflorescence of artistic production in Vienna at the fin de siècle. Valuable as a reference work for anybody interested in the material culture of Vienna during its ‘crucible of modernism’ phase, Brandstätter’s book can also simply be enjoyed for the extraordinary images and objects on every page, and the author’s knowledge of their creation.

Expressionism / Wolf, Norbert
In addition to his musical genius, Arnold Schoenberg was an accomplished artist, taking an uncompromising and subjective view of his subjects that marks his work as Expressionist. In a 1949 interview, Schoenberg speaks emphatically about the role of painting in his life and the connections between his graphic and musical modes of expression. Although Norbert Wolf does not deal explicitly with Schoenberg’s painting and drawing in his book Expressionism, his survey of many artists contemporary with Schoenberg presents a broad view of Expressionist art and its philosophies, again helping to contextualise the environment in which Schoenberg composed works such as the Five Pieces for Orchestra.

Finally, if you are unable to attend Orchestra Wellington’s ‘Three Colours,’ we can offer several recordings of the works by Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg, of which the following form a sample:

Das Lied von der Erde / Mahler, Gustav
This 2018 recording of Das Lied von der Erde has received rapturous reviews from a number of critics, notably in the Guardian and in Gramophone. Soloists Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) and Robert Dean Smith (tenor) sing with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, in a performance noted for its incisive attack, courage, and lyricism. Jurowski’s booklet essay emphasizes the connections between the lieder of Mahler and Schubert, acknowledging Mahler’s absorption of the early nineteenth-century lyric tradition and his expression of it on a giant scale.

The Warner recordings / Hélène Grimaud
Released in 2014, this boxed set collects the complete recordings Grimaud made for Erato and Teldec between 1996 and 2001. Alongside performances of piano concertos by Brahms (Concerto No. 1 in D minor), Robert Schumann, Gershwin, Ravel, Beethoven (Concerto No. 4 in G major), and Rachmaninoff (Concerto No. 2 in C minor) with a variety of orchestras and conductors, the set includes a riotous rendition of Strauss’s Burleske with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and conductor David Zinman. Grimaud’s characteristic energy infuses Burleske with exactly the dynamism required, and the orchestra responds in kind to create a dramatic and witty dialogue. pieces for orchestra ; A survivor from Warsaw ; Accompaniment to a Cinematographic scene ; Herzgewaechse ; Serenade / Schoenberg, Arnold
A collection of works spanning Schoenberg’s career, the Five Orchestral Pieces (London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Craft) open the recording as a prelude to the eight agonizing minutes of A Survivor from Warsaw (with the London voices, and narrator Simon Callow). The contrast between these two works, written nearly forty years apart, illustrates the continuity and the disjuncture between Schoenberg’s early and later works. Herzgewaechse (Op. 20) of 1911, and Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (Op. 34) of 1929, illuminate two more stages in Schoenberg’s work. The Op. 24 Serenade of 1923 with the 20th-Century Classics Ensemble and bass-baritone Stephen Varcoe, completes the recording.