Asher Fisch Conducts Mahler

Program Notes

Mahler’s affecting song-symphony, The Song of the Earth, drawn from delicate lines of Chinese poetry, forms the heart of today’s concert. Orchestral excerpts from Britten’s operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes and 1940s Americana, courtesy of former MSO music director Lukas Foss, comprise the first half of the program.


Three American Pieces for Violin and Orchestra

Lukas Foss
(Born 15 August 1922; Berlin, Germany; Died 1 February 2009; New York, New York)

Composed: 1944

First performance: ???

Last MSO performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion (triangle, suspended cymbal, snare drum, bass drum), piano, strings

Approximate duration: 13 minutes

The composer, conductor, pianist, and music educator Lukas Foss hardly needs an introduction to Milwaukee audiences: He served as the MSO’s music director from 1981 to 1986 and was an active figure on the classical music scene throughout his illustrious career. As a professor, he served on the music faculties of UCLA, SUNY-Buffalo, and Boston University.

Foss was in his early 20s when he penned the Three American Pieces for violin and piano. They were later orchestrated, and have also been recast for flute and piano. All three are rife with 1940s Coplandesque Americana. “Early Song” features broadly lyrical passages contrasted with energetic, galloping music. “Dedication” is a three-part form whose outer sections highlight a long-lined cantilena of simple beauty; they enclose a more active middle section. The moto perpetuo hoedown of “Composer’s Holiday” is interrupted only briefly, near the end, by a divergent dolce e leggiero melody; the rustic dance music returns to build in excitement to a knee-slapping conclusion.

Recommended recording: Itzhak Perlman; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics)


“Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes, Opus 33a

Benjamin Britten
(Born 22 November 1913; Lowestoft, England; Died 4 December 1976; Aldeburgh, England)

Composed: 1945

First performance: 7 June 1945; London, England (opera)

13 June 1945; Cheltenham, England (Four Sea Interludes)

Last MSO performance: September 2014; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1st and 2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (chimes, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, xylophone), harp, strings

Approximate duration: 16 minutes

Benjamin Britten has been hailed as “the greatest English composer since Purcell.” His prodigious output includes operas, solo vocal music, chamber music, concertos, symphonic works, film music, and choral music. Britten’s War Requiem (1961) is one of the towering works of the 20th century.

Peter Grimes is a singular masterpiece, a watershed in the history of English opera. Its central character—the first of many roles written for the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner—is a misanthrope, a proud fisherman whose boy apprentice has died under “accidental circumstances.” Grimes resolves to “fish the sea dry,” and to create a respectable place for himself in the seaside village society by marrying the schoolmarm Ellen Orford.

When a second boy falls to his death while descending from Grimes’s cliffside hut, Peter is demonized by the townsfolk. Pressed to the brink of insanity by the guilt inflicted upon him, he ultimately takes his fishing boat out to sea and sinks it, drowning himself in the process.

Britten’s opera is remarkable for its insightful delineation of character—the principals, the secondary roles, and the sea itself. Its intricately rich score includes six orchestral interludes, four of which comprise the suite heard on today’s concert. In “Dawn,” which acts as a transition between the Prologue and Act 1, we can hear in the flute and violins a thin glint of sunlight breaking through the clouds; harp, violas, and clarinets add glimmering arpeggios; the sonorous brass harmonies call to mind the deep sea below. At opera’s end, after Peter has drowned himself, this music returns to remind us of nature’s endless patterns, indifferent to the quotidian events of humanity.

“Sunday Morning” opens Act 2. Accented notes from the horns evoke large, clanging church bells; woodwinds, strings, and trumpets suggest smaller bells, and a solo flute portrays waking birds. A full-bodied tonal palette emerges as textures are overlaid and actual bells now announce the Lord’s Day. Britten said “Moonlight”—which introduces Act 3—depicts “summer night, seascape, quiet.” Its unsteady rhythm and restless harmony might evoke the ebb and flow of moonlit waves, but there’s also a sense of foreboding. (Things are not going to go well for Peter Grimes.)

“Storm” links Scenes 1 and 2 in the first act. It vividly portrays not only a gale blowing in from the sea, but also the protagonist’s anxiety-ridden psychological state. An arching melody—with the characteristic interval of an ascending ninth—is heard as the storm subsides a bit; it is to this melody that Peter had sung “What harbor shelters peace, away from tidal waves and storms?” in the foregoing scene. The dream it articulates is drowned by the squall’s turbulent swell.

Reginald Goodall conducted the premiere of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. A few days later, Britten conducted the Four Sea Interludes on a concert in Cheltenham.

Recommended recording: Benjamin Britten; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (London)


Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)

Gustav Mahler
(Born 7 July 1860; Kalischt, Bohemia (now Kalište, Czech Republic); Died 18 May 1911; Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1907-08

First performance: 20 November 1911; Munich, Germany

Last MSO performance: September 1991; Zdenek Macal, conductor; Claudine Carlson, mezzo-soprano; Jon Fredric West, tenor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), piccolo, 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (tam tam, suspended cymbals, cymbals, glockenspiel, triangle, bass drum), 2 harps, celeste, mandolin, strings

Approximate duration: 63 minutes

In Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), Gustav Mahler synthesized the two musical genres that had occupied him throughout his compositional life: symphony and song. Though he wrote numerous Lieder for voice and piano, Mahler also worked to create the “symphonic song,” both through the use of orchestra accompaniments for the earlier Songs of a Wayfarer (1883-85) and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and by expanding the scale of the song and elaborating its accompaniment. He also utilized songs in his symphonies, particularly the first four. In some instances, these provided the inspiration for purely instrumental movements; in other (Symphonies 2, 3, and 4), the voice is employed, to great effect.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Mahler reached the culmination of his symphonic songs with settings of texts by Friedrich Rückert—the cycles Kindertotenlieder and Rückert-Lieder—and with his great “song symphony” Das Lied von der Erde. Chronologically, Das Lied comes between the gargantuan Symphony No. 8 (1906), the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand,” and the valedictory Symphony No. 9 (1909). Though Mahler had begun a tenth symphony in 1910, it was never completed; he died at the too-young age of 50.

For his texts, Mahler chose poems from Hans Bethge’s collection Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute). Bethge’s translations are not based on the original Chinese texts, however; essentially, they are recomposed German poems based on earlier translations into French and German. It might be useful, for our purposes, to think of Das Lied as a series of six tableaux, each depicting a different scenario.

In “Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow), the tenor soloist promises to sing us a song. It is one rife with cynicism and irony: “Dark is life; death is death,” he reiterates at the end of each strophe. His bitter despair is pointed up even more because Mahler repeatedly sets the vocal line in an uncomfortably high range and keeps it there.

Following the full orchestra of the first movement, “Der Einsame im Herbst” (The Lonely One in Autumn) opens with a bare two-part texture: a solo oboe and the first violins; more instruments join quietly. At her entrance, the mezzo-soprano’s melodic line is basically a descending scale, followed by an ascending one. In his performance directions, Mahler alternates between a highly expressive approach and one with no expression, thus underlining the duality of a warm, human presence in the midst of an otherwise bleak landscape.

“Von der Jugend” (Of Youth) paints a pleasing picture of friends chatting and drinking in a green and white pavilion. In one of his Young People’s Concerts, Leonard Bernstein called a unison passage for four flutes in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 (first movement) “Chinese music.” With that in mind, one could argue that this song is the most “Chinese” sounding of the piece. Its music is stylized and artificial, perfectly capturing the callowness and superficiality of youth described in the tenor’s sung text.

Trilling flutes open “Von der Schönheit” (Of Beauty) with a graceful birdsong. Interestingly, this movement uses the largest orchestral complement in the entire work—for the big central passage representing the galloping horses. It has been said that fragile beauty yearns for its own destruction, just as the comely virgins in the song lust after the handsome horsemen who trample their flowers. To that end, the music on the final pages of this movement is some of the most delicate Mahler ever set down—a perfect depiction of tender grace.

“What do I care about spring? Let me be drunk!” Those words of bravado from the tenor soloist encapsulate the message of this short, humorous movement, “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (The Drunkard in Spring). The central dialogue between the singer and the little bird makes use of an important musical image that will recur in the lengthy final song—and which opened the fourth—birdsong.

The last movement, “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), is by far the longest. The sun is setting. The poet contemplates the beauty of nature and awaits a friend. When the friend appears, it is to bid a final farewell. The composer transforms this uncomplicated story to create an affecting symphonic threnody, with unmatched depictions of twilight and birdsong and a funeral march of agonizing heartbreak. The ending, though, is not sad: It is exquisitely sublime. As in Mahler’s time-stopping 1901 setting of Rückert’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I have lost track of the world), the longing is for life, not death. “The dear earth blossoms in spring,” sings the mezzo-soprano. “Eternally, the horizon shines blue… eternally… eternally… eternally…” (ewig… ewig… ewig…).

Sadly, Mahler did not live to hear the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde. His friend, disciple, and former assistant, Bruno Walter, conducted the first performance. Walter chose two Americans from the roster of the Vienna Court Opera to sing the premiere, Sara Cahier and William Miller.

Recommended recording: Dame Janet Baker, James King; Bernard Haitink; Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips) 

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.