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.

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Exploring the visions of Bartok and Strauss

On Saturday 3 June, music by Richard Strauss and Béla Bartók bookends Myth and Ritual, the second concert in Orchestra Wellington’s 2023 Inner Visions season. This programme leads the audience into exotic territories through Salome’s infamous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ in Herod Antipas’s palace, Arjuna Oakes‘s new work Safe Way to Fall, and John Psathas’s Zahara (2006) — a saxophone concerto inspired by the journey of shipwrecked American sailors through the Sahara Desert in the early nineteenth century. Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin evokes another dangerous environment through its musical depiction of the traffic, noise, and viciousness of a big city.

In this blog, we introduce six books in the Wellington City Libraries collection that explore the pieces by Strauss and Bartók and offer a variety of personal and analytical perspectives on the inner vision that both composers realised in their music.

The subject matter of Bartók’s pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1926), with its dances and ‘seduction games’, and the unrestrained licentiousness and blasphemy in Strauss’s opera Salome (1905) caused both works to be censored in the early twentieth century. After its premiere in Dresden, Salome was initially proscribed in London, where its first performance (heavily cut) did not take place until 1913: despite Gustav Mahler’s best efforts, he could not persuade the censors in Vienna to permit a performance at the Hofoper; the New York premiere took place in 1907, but the piece was deemed ‘repugnant to Anglo-Saxon minds’ and not performed again at the Metropolitan Opera House until the 1930s. In 1909, however, the Scottish singer Mary Garden had performed the role, at the rival Manhattan Opera House in a French language production of Salome. A year earlier, in Paris, the astonished correspondent of the New York Times had witnessed Garden rehearse the  ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ wearing a body-stocking of ‘nearly transparent flesh-coloured silk’ with bare arms and feet beneath veils of ‘soft organdie’:

Nothing more thrilling than Miss Garden’s rendition of the dance has been seen recently on the lyric stage, and the bacchanalian finale is most wonderfully carried out. Miss Garden whirls and sways and stands on her toes until you are fascinated and wonder how she can do it; and finally she ends at the feet of Herod asking for the head of John the Baptist.

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Schumann and Psathas in Orchestra Wellington’s Circle of Friends

In this post Corrina, one of the librarians from our Te Awe Library, explores some of the music featuring in Saturday night’s Orchestra Wellington concert at the Michael Fowler Centre, focusing on John Psathas’s new concerto ‘Leviathan’, and Robert Schumann’s ‘Symphony No. 2 in C major’, and exploring some of the books and recordings in our collection that may enrich our readers’ responses to the music of these two remarkable composers.

John Psathas’s ‘Leviathan’ is the second of his works for orchestra and solo percussion to be featured in Orchestra Wellington’s 2022 season, following a performance of his All-Seeing Sky earlier this year.

Leviathan, which was commissioned by Tonhall Dusseldorf GmbH in 2020 as part of the Beethoven 250th Anniversary Year and the Beethoven Pastoral Project, received its world premiere in October 2021 with the Berlin Radio Symphony, soloist Alexej Gerassimez (also the dedicatee of ‘Leviathan’), and conductor Markus Poschner. You can read more about the conception behind ‘Leviathan’ – and its connections with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 – in Psathas’s own words here. Gerassimez will be the soloist at the New Zealand premiere of Leviathan here in Wellington.

We hold a variety of recordings and scores of Psathas’s works, including:

View from Olympus / Psathas, John
Three of Psathas’s best-known works – Omnifenix, View from Olympus, Three Psalms – performed by outstanding soloists Joshua Redman, Lance Philips, Pedro Carneiro, and Michael Houstoun, with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marc Taddei.

Gyftiko : violin / Psathas, John
This is a beautifully produced Promethean Editions score of Psathas’s 2011 piece for solo violin Gyfitiko, commissioned by the Michael Hill International Violin Competition.

Sleeper : piano / Psathas, John
A minimalist yet explosive work for solo piano, Sleeper was composed for a recital by Stephen de Pledge at the 2008 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts.

Beethoven’s music also has a significant presence in Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major. Schumann began work on his second symphony, possibly motivated by hearing a performance of another work in C major, Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. Schumann’s ‘symphonic thoughts’ began to translate themselves into musical sketches, but it took almost a year for him to complete and orchestrate the Symphony, before its premiere in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus on 5 November 1846.

Berliner Philharmoniker Sir Simon Rattle / Schumann, Robert

The Symphony includes allusions to other composers, especially Beethoven and J. S. Bach. Following the quiet fanfare that opens the Symphony, Schumann writes Bach’s name into the music (using the notes BACH or B-flat, A, C, B-natural). Later, in the Symphony’s fourth and final movement, Schumann introduces a new – but somehow familiar melody – halfway through: a quotation of the final song in Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved). In Beethoven’s song, this music sets the words:
‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder / Accept, then, these songs
Die ich dir, Geliebte, sang / I sang for you, beloved.

Such ciphers and hidden messages are a recurring feature in Schumann’s music, and this was not the first time Schumann had made a musical connection with An die ferne Geliebte in one of his own pieces: his op. 17 Fantasie for solo piano also contains a fleeting reference to Beethoven’s song cycle. Such subtle allusions to the music of Schumann’s composer-heroes formed a fundamental role in the realisation of his aesthetic and creative ideals.

Schumann : the faces and the masks / Chernaik, Judith
This 2018 biography of Schumann by one of the leading contemporary Schumann scholars illustrates with enticing detail the links between Schumann’s music and his literary interests that helped him to realise his ambition to be a ‘poet of tones’. Cherniak also explores in compelling detail Schumann’s relationship with Clara Wieck, the outstanding pianist who would become his wife, his interactions with other composers, and his responses to the musical events of the day. Cherniak’s command of her subject and her accessible writing style make this a very readable study of Robert Schumann.

Schumann / Schumann, Robert
This 2014 recording on the Naïve label offers three works by Schumann, his Abegg Variations, op. 1, his Kinderszenen, op 15, and the Fantasie, Op. 17 that includes an illusion to Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte. Lisa de La Salle’s interpretation of these early piano pieces by Schumann offers performances that are idiomatic and idiosyncratic. In her performance, de la Salle’s approach to Schumann’s articulation emphasises the eccentric humour of Schumann’s music in ways that other pianists have smoothed over. Reactions to this recording have differed wildly, but de La Salle illustrates the complexities of Schumann’s personality and aesthetics in a thought-provoking style.

Robert Schumann : herald of a “new poetic age” / Daverio, John
Exploring Schumann’s early desire to be a writer, then his quest to become a virtuoso pianist, and finally his pursuit of composition and music criticism, Daverio’s study blends biography with analysis of a variety of representative musical works. In particular, Daverio offers a compelling and readable portrait of a composer and writer who sought to realise the poetic spirit of Romanticism in mid-nineteenth-century music.

The symphonies / Schumann, Robert
All four of Schumann’s complete symphonies – including the 1851 version of his Symphony No. 4 – with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin provide a lively portrait of the composer as a symphonist. The smaller forces instrumental of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe sound crisp and sprightly throughout and lend this music a clarity that may initially seem unsettling when we are more accustomed to performances by full-sized symphony orchestras. Nézet-Séguin’s approach is energetic, his tempos sometimes breathlessly swift, but the orchestra’s ability and artistry are more than equal to their conductor’s demands in this 2012 recording.