Ottawa Symphony

Mahler V Program Notes

 

Join Dr. Alexis Luko in discovering our April 1st program.

Dr. Alexis Luko is an Associate Professor of Music in the School for Studies in Art and Culture and is also cross-appointed to the College of the Humanities. She holds a Ph.D. from McGill University and previously worked as a Visiting Professor at the Eastman School of Music and the College Music Department at the University of Rochester. Learn more.

Mahler V Program Notes

Provided by Dr. David Gardner

Retrouvez les notes en français en cliquant ici

Alexina Louie
Songs of Paradise

          Alexina Louie, born in 1950 in Vancouver of second-generation Chinese parents, has become a name to be reckoned with in Canadian music. She studied at the University of British Columbia and then at the University of California, San Diego, returning to Canada in 1980 to take up residence in Toronto. She gained national prominence with O Magnum Mysterium: In Memoriam Glenn Gould, a work she says that was “ripped from my soul” after the great pianist’s death in October 1982. William Littler of the Toronto Star said: “This is one of those special pieces able to cast a spell over its listener.” Alexina Louie has been casting aural spells ever since. She was named Composer of the Year in 1986 by the Canadian Music Council.

            Songs of Paradise was written in 1983 for the Thunder Bay Symphony. The composer wrote the following note to accompany the recording of this work by the CBC. “For some time now, I have been preoccupied with the conflict between the art of creation and its fragile existence in an often hostile external world. Songs of Paradise was written as an expression of the mysteries and the wonder of nature and art, and as a celebration of the creative spirit. Besides the more obvious programmatic elements (the music, colourful depiction of the beauty and mystery of nature through shimmering percussion effects, fluttering in the strings, and the predominance of the winds, with their bird-calls and tremulous warblings), the composition is a glimpse into the beauty of the creative spirit, a paradise of the soul. After a mysterious opening, the brass summons the full orchestra, solo violin, then solo piano to reveal their songs. A hymn to the universe in the brass introduces the final segment, where the various musical elements are recalled.”

We have long come to recognize Alexina Louie’s unique voice: orchestration that is brilliant but not harsh, musical ideas that are suffused with warmth, impressionistic sounds that conjure up a mysterious other world. This spiritual, quasi-oriental soundscape in her music and its rich aural textures makes her music very accessible. It is atmospheric and seems to connect this world with some other spiritual space. She has achieved this by blending Asian and Western musical influences. The result is distinctly her voice – an invitation to inspect a world of the spirit via an embrace of tonality, modality and dissonance.

Sergei Prokofiev
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Opus 63

            By the 1930s Prokofiev, now in middle age, was mellowing. In his youth he had enjoyed his reputation as an iconoclast – an attitude that sold well in such avant-garde places as Paris in the 1920s (Prokofiev had left Russia on an exit visa in 1918). He concertized and composed in Europe and the United States during this period. Yet, as with so many Russian émigrés, he heard the siren call of Mother Russia. In the late 1920s Prokofiev began to make some exploratory visits to his homeland. He discovered that his desire to write more simply and lyrically was becoming increasingly compatible with the views of the Soviet authorities regarding what they found acceptable, or not, from a Soviet composer. During one of these lengthy stays in Russia, in 1935, he completed his masterly ballet score, Romeo and Juliet, and this Violin
Concerto No. 2.

            The Concerto was written in response to a commission from friends of the French violinist Robert Soëtans, but as Prokofiev explained in his autobiography: “I readily agreed since I had been intending to write something for the violin at the time and had accumulated some material ... The variety of places in which the Concerto was written is a reflection of the nomadic concert-tour existence I led at that time; the principal theme of the first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the orchestration I completed in Baku, while the first performance was given in Madrid in December, 1935.” By January, 1936, he, and his family, had returned to Russia for good.

            While Prokofiev no longer wished to shock by sheer force of decibels and clashing harmonies and rhythms (as, for instance, he had done in his Scythian Suite), we still find him willing to surprise. Instead of the soloist waiting for the orchestra to traverse the exposition of the main thematic material, here it is the orchestra that is made to linger, at least for the exposition of the first theme, as the solo violin enters all alone with this first of many beguiling melodies. If you are won-over by this opening, just wait for the second theme which is even more beautiful, if that is possible. The graceful magic that suffuses the score of Romeo and Juliet seems to have spilt over into this concerto, also. So, don’t be surprised if your imagination conjures up weightless ballerinas wafting across the stage to the long-breathed phrases that Prokofiev presents to us here with such prodigality. Indeed, one might accuse the composer of deliberately setting out to ravish our senses – for he succeeds completely. Even so, Prokofiev sticks strictly to the expectations of sonata form in this movement, though his ending is rather cheeky.

            In the second movement, the soloist sings a long, breathtakingly beautiful cantilena over pizzicato strings, coloured by pecks from the woodwinds. The centre of the movement contains a short scherzo-like passage with fluttering figurations from the soloist. The clarinet then leads an intermezzo-like section but throughout it is the main theme that keeps returning and which makes this movement so haunting.

            The finale is a contrast. Ostensibly in 3/4 time, if this is a waltz, it is not for angels, given its strange rhythmic twists! The drive and unexpected harmonic turns recall the younger Prokofiev, but above all it is a vehicle to exploit the virtuosity of the soloist. Gradually Prokofiev cranks up the excitement and we are drawn into a sense of inevitable acceleration, a race to the finish.

Who wins? Well, we are all winners, for this is one of the masterpiece violin concertos of the twentieth century.

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 5

            1901/2. A new century. A new beginning: new ideas, marriage, a fifth symphony. All breaks with the past. Gone the extensive quotations from his songs (especially from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) that featured so prominently in his first four symphonies; gone the associated detailed programmatic themes – man’s struggle against Fate (Symphony No. 1); Resurrection (Symphony No. 2); the pantheism of Symphony No. 3; the indestructibility of innocence (Symphony No. 4). Symphony No. 5 was a new departure: absolute music – a purely symphonic argument based on two great opposites in man’s pantheon of emotions – tragedy and joy. That was not of itself a new idea for a symphony, Beethoven pursued a similar scheme in his Eroica Symphony. The originality of Mahler’s treatment was to eschew any attempt at transformation: there is no resolution of tragedy into joy. Instead, Mahler seems set on showing that these two extreme emotions exist simultaneously like a coin faced with the masks of Tragedy and Comedy – always apart, always together.

            Structurally, the symphony has unusual proportions. Although ostensibly in five movements, it is at the same time tripartite. The first movement (a funeral march) acts as a greatly extended slow introduction to the second movement. Together, as Part I, they essay the depths of grief and tragedy, with vehement protests along the way. The gargantuan Scherzo (Part II) is a total and abrupt contrast. By its sheer size it also carries the main weight of the symphony. It is an exuberant dance, a dance of life, a Ländler with contrasted trios. The famous Adagietto then serves as the introduction to the final movement: together they make Part III. However, the Adagietto (not the full‑blown, weighty slow movement we might have expected) also acts as an introspective interlude between the exuberant spirits of the Scherzo and the equally exuberant goings‑on of the finale. Thus, the first three movements present the tragic and joyous faces of life’s coin and constitute the major thrust of the symphony’s argument. Then follows the Adagietto before the joie de vivre of the Scherzo is celebrated as a formal, abstract pageant in the Finale – Mahler revelling in the complexities of fugue and rondo form all within the one movement! There is considerable cross‑referencing of subsidiary themes – particularly between the first two and between the last two movements – and one major (audible!) effort to bind the whole edifice of this symphony together. To quote the late Deryck Cooke: “The final climax, before the symphony races away to its cock‑a‑hoop conclusion, is a full restatement of the big brass chorale introduced so fleetingly at the end of the second movement. Ultimately it is this explicit cross‑reference between the most anguished movement of Part I and the most joyous movement of Part III which is the main cross‑beam holding together the dangerously disparate elements of total darkness and total light at either end of the symphony.”

            And what of points along the way? Closer inspection inevitably reveals that these ‘new’ beginnings do have a past. The imperious opening summons by the solo trumpet, for instance, comes from the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. In No. 5, Mahler uses it as a recurring device to hold together the various elements of the Funeral March. Even the references to his songs have not totally disappeared. The opening movement’s main march theme is related to Der Tamboursg’sell (where a deserter is being marched to execution) and there are further fleeting references to his Wunderhorn songs in Part III. A major cross‑thematic link helping to bind the first two movements together as Part I, first appears as the vehement, bitter protest section (the first trio) of the opening movement and becomes a central feature of the next movement. But between the angry outbursts of the second movement are glimpses of what is to come – a brief hint of the brass chorale that will eventually carry the day at the jubilant close of the symphony. The Scherzo, of enormous proportions, makes full and ecstatic use of the horns – both solo and tutti. They appear throughout the movement, but have particularly effective moments in the two slower trio sections – especially in the first trio where the music becomes more reflective and nostalgic. The exuberance of the opening is not entirely without challenge, however. As the movement progresses Mahler allows a hint of menace to creep in that rather tightens the smile which seemed so innocent and spontaneous at the outset of the movement. The Adagietto has a kinship with another Mahler song: lch bin der Welt abhanden gekommen [I am lost to the world]. In this case the world is entrusted entirely to divided strings and harp – a movement of great sensuousness, beauty and eloquence. Its principal theme reappears (at a quicker tempo) as the second subject of the Finale. Snatches of Wunderhorn‑like motives also swirl into the vortex of Mahler’s creative imagination. There is ironic allusion by the bassoon to Lob des hohen Verstandes (where the donkey judges the song contest between the nightingale and the cuckoo – guess who wins!): ironic, because it is in this movement that Mahler chooses to unleash his mastery of that favourite of musical pedants – the fugue! The movement ends with a tour de force as the fugue subject, played in unison by strings and woodwinds, becomes a counterpoint to a full statement of the chorale, triumphantly intoned by trumpets and trombones.

            And then there is the orchestration. Brilliant, lean, original – and much revised. The final version was not completed until 1910, a few months before Mahler’s death. Part of the problem lay with Mahler’s rapidly changing concept of orchestral sound. This became critically important with his new interest in complex polyphonic textures and the consequent necessity to make the many interweaving themes audibly distinct. That it took such a long time to reach a satisfactory solution, even though he was already renowned for his superb control of orchestral colour, indicates how enormously difficult was the task he had set himself.

On all fronts, then, this was a new beginning. It was not a tag end of the old century spilling over into the new. It was decisively original and seminal to the more radical manoeuvres of Schönberg that were yet to come – and was still to echo, in our own time, in the major scores of Shostakovich and Britten.

 

©David Gardner