|No. 218 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast218|
This week’s Friday Blog and Podcast should really be a Sunday Blog and Podcast, as I chose to defer my bi-monthly podcast offering to coincide with Easter Sunday, and share a great work for your listening pleasure.
In past years – because we issue our podcasts on Fridays, we have had our fair share of “Good Friday” suggestions – be it Dupré’s Way of the Cross, or Beethoven’s Christ at the Mount of Olives. This year, however, I wanted to provide a more up-beat offering, one that brings to a close the Lenten season with a bang!
Gustav Mahler’s family came from eastern Bohemia, then part of the Austrian Empire. The Mahler homestead was in a village halfway between Prague in Bohemia and Brno in Moravia, in the geographic center of today's Czech Republic. The Mahlers belonged to a German-speaking minority among Bohemians, and was also Jewish – religiously, Mahler has been described as a life-long agnostic. At one point he converted to Catholicism, purely for the purpose of obtaining the directorship of the Court Opera of Vienna as it was unthinkable for a Jew to hold such a prestigious position.
Mahler may not have been a practicing Christian, but he was in many ways very spiritual, not unlike Brahms. Much of Mahler’s compositions, and in particular the latter works after the Annus horribilis of 1907 – one that saw the death of his daughter Maria from Scarlet Fever and his diagnosis of heart problems – show his humanist side. His so-called tragic symphony and the Kindertottenlieder are works that are particularly indicative of this period of personal turmoil.
In other symphonic works, Mahler does borrow hymns from the Christian faith – for example, Veni Creator is at the heart of the first movement of his Symphony of a Thousand, and a chorale by Friedrich Klopstock, "Resurrection Ode," that he heard sung at the funeral of the conductor Hans von Bülow. This ode, with additional lyrics by the composer, forms the climax of his second symphony, which is the single work on today’s Easter podcast.
The genesis for the Resurrection symphony isn’t von Bülow ‘s funeral, but rather a 1988 tone poem he called Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites). Leaving it for a few months to complete his Symphony No. 1, he finished his funeral piece in September of that year. By 1893 he had decided the piece was really part of a symphony--and he found he had ideas from previous compositions to apply to it.
The third-movement scherzo is based on the theme from the song "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" (Antony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish), written for Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The fourth is another song, "Urlicht" (Primal Light), that he used in its entirety, with voice, and withheld from the Wunderhorn collection.
This brings us back to the von Bülow (who had not liked the Todtenfeier when Mahler had played it for him years earlier) and his funeral. As Mahler told a friend, "It struck me like lightning ... and everything was revealed to my soul clear and plain." Mahler took part of Klopstock's poem and wrote additional poetry to go with it, building his final movement toward this culminating text. He completed the symphony in 1894, and though he continued to adjust the score well into 1909, it was first performed under Mahler's baton by the Berlin Philharmonic in December, 1895. It was the only one of his symphonies that was truly successful in his lifetime.
Otto Klemperer (1885 - 1973) met Gustav Mahler while conducting the off-stage brass at a performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, serving as an assistant to Oskar Fried in 1905. Klemperer and Mahler became friends.
Mahler wrote a short testimonial, recommending Klemperer for a conducting position at the German Opera in Prague in 1907, on a small card which Klemperer kept for the rest of his life. Later, in 1910, Klemperer assisted Mahler in the premiere of his Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand.
Klemperer went on to hold a number of positions, in Hamburg (1910–1912); in Barmen (1912–1913); the Strasbourg Opera (1914–1917); the Cologne Opera (1917–1924); and the Wiesbaden Opera House (1924–1927). From 1927 to 1931, he was conductor at the Kroll Opera in Berlin.
In 1933, once the Nazi Party had reached power, Klemperer, who was of Jewish descent, left Germany and moved to the United States. (Like Mahler, Klemperer had previously converted to Catholicism, but returned to Judaism at the end of his life). In the U.S. he was appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and took United States citizenship in 1937. After completing the 1939 Los Angeles Philharmonic summer season at the Hollywood Bowl, Klemperer was visiting Boston and was diagnosed with a brain tumor; the subsequent brain surgery to remove "a tumour the size of a small orange" left him partially paralyzed. The following years of declining health and alcohol abuse came to a head in the early 1950s - a severe fall during a visit to Montreal in 1951 forced Klemperer to remain there for a year (during which he advised the Montreal Symphony). Subsequently, he needed to conduct seated in a chair.
Klemperer’s left-wing views made him increasingly unpopular with the US State Department and FBI: in 1952 the United States refused to renew his passport. In 1954 Klemperer again returned to Europe, and acquired a German passport. His career was turned around in 1954 by the London-based producer Walter Legge, who recorded Klemperer conducting Beethoven, Brahms and much else with his hand-picked orchestra, the Philharmonia, for the EMI label. He became the first principal conductor of the Philharmonia in 1959.
Klemperer’s recording of the Mahler Second, with the Philharmonia, is my choice for this week. The power of Klemperer's 1960s readings arises from constantly pressing forward with no pause for sentiment. Klemperer achieves a great sense of unity but only through a tortured psychic journey.
In closing, a small caveat. Following the opening movement, Mahler calls in the score for a gap of five minutes before the second movement. This pause is rarely observed today. Often conductors will meet Mahler half way, pausing for a few minutes while the audience takes a breather and settles down and the orchestra retunes in preparation for the rest of the piece. A practical way of following Mahler's original indication is to have the two soloists and the chorus enter the stage only after the first movement. This creates a natural separation between the first movement and the rest of the symphony and also saves the singers more than twenty minutes of sitting on stage.
We inserted a short silence after the first movement in our podcast – under a minute.
I think you will love this music too.