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PROGRAM NOTES: Danish National Symphony Orchestra

by Eric Bromberger

Helios Overture, Opus 17

CARL NIELSEN
Born June 9, 1865, Nørre Lyndelse
Died October 3, 1931, Copenhagen
Approximate Duration: 13 minutes

In the winter of 1903, Carl Nielsen and his wife left their three small children behind in Copenhagen and took an extended trip to Greece. Nielsen’s wife, the sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen, had a traveling scholarship to study the art of ancient Greece, and the composer was happy to come along for a vacation with her. The faculty of the Conservatory of Music in Athens recognized that they had a distinguished guest (Nielsen’s opera Saul and David and his Second Symphony had just been successfully premièred), and they gave him a room at the Conservatory (with a view of the Acropolis) where he could work for the next several months. For a composer who had recently escaped the icy mists of a Scandinavian winter, what feature of Greece could be more impressive than its blazing sunlight? Perhaps the result was inevitable: in March 1903 Nielsen began a piece of musi inspired by the Greek sunlight, and on April 23 he completed the Helios Overture (Helios is the Greek god of the sun). The new overture–really a sort of tone poem–was first performed in Copenhagen on October 8, 1903, by the Royal Theatre Orchestra under the direction of Johann Svendsen.

In a note in the score, Nielsen suggested the subject of this music: “Silence and darkness–then the rising sun with a joyous song of praise–it wanders on its golden way–and sinks quietly into the sea.” That description also suggests the form of the Helios Overture: it opens quietly as the sun rises from the Aegean, rides a long crescendo as the sun swings directly overhead, then trails off on a long decrescendo to the quiet close of sunset. Low strings suggest subdued pre dawn stirrings, and soon the golden sound of French horns heralds the arrival of the sun–its ascent is marked by a noble violin tune and ringing salvos of trumpet fanfares. Nielsen traces the sun’s trajectory across its zenith with a blistering fugato, perhaps to suggest the mathematical precision of its path through the heavens, and the music reaches a jubilant climax. Then slowly the sun winds its way down the blue sky, and the music sinks into silence, once again on the sound of horns and low strings.

Wesendonck Lieder

RICHARD WAGNER
Born May 22, 1813, Leipzig
Died February 13, 1883, Venice
Approximate Duration: 21 minutes

In Zurich in February, 1852, Richard Wagner met the wealthy Swiss silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, who would become one of his most generous patrons. Over the next few years Wesendonck would give the struggling composer a place to live, pay off many of his debts, and give him substantial advances in payment for operas not yet written. Wagner repaid this great generosity by having a lengthy affair with Wesendonck’s young wife Mathilde. Though this affair may have remained platonic, it was passionately felt on both sides, and Mathilde–an amateur poet–effectively became Wagner’s muse through the 1850s. In these same years Wagner was struggling to compose The Ring: by 1857 he had completed Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and had begun work on Siegfried, but–discouraged by the prospects for these operas and under the spell of his unconsummated love for Mathilde–he set this vast project aside to compose Tristan und Isolde (1857-59). And it was during the first year of his work on Tristan that Wagner took time off to compose five songs on poems by Mathilde.

This was a very intense time emotionally for Wagner, and at a remarkable social gathering in Zurich in the fall of 1857 he read the libretto of Tristan to an audience that included his wife Minna, his current love Mathilde and her husband, and his future wife, the 19-year-old Cosima von Bülow, who was visiting with her husband Hans. The mood of longing, pain, death, and a sense of ecstasy just beyond reach that lies at the heart of Tristan und Isolde is also very much part of the poems by Mathilde Wesendonck that Wagner chose to set, and in fact he called two of these songs “studies for Tristan und Isolde.” He wrote the songs between November 1857 and May 1858 and then took them through several revisions. Wagner himself made an orchestral version of the final song, and conductor Felix Mottl orchestrated the first four after Wagner’s death.

The first two songs contrast sharply, with the lullaby-like Der Engel followed by the tense Stehe still!, which drives to a great climax on the word “nature,” then trails off to a quiet close. Im Treibhaus is one of the “studies for Tristan und Isolde,” and many have felt a connection between this song and the prelude to Act III of the opera. Listeners will certainly sense the kinship between this dark and expressive song–with its hothouse flowers longing for their distant homeland–and the mood of unfulfilled longing in the opera. Schmerzen offers a soaring restatement of the connection between sorrow and pleasure, while Träume is the other “study” for Tristan und Isolde–it would re-emerge as the duet in Act II.

Symphony No. 1 in D Major

GUSTAV MAHLER
Born July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia
Died May 18, 1911, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 52 minutes

Mahler’s First Symphony is one of the most impressive first symphonies ever written, and it gave its young creator a great deal of trouble. He began it late in 1884, when he was only 24, and completed a first version in March 1888. But when it was first performed–to a mystified audience in Budapest on November 20, 1889–it had a form far different from the one we know today. Mahler would not even call it a symphony. For that first performance he called it Symphonic Poem, and it was in two huge parts that seemed to tell a story: the opening three-movement section was called “Days of Youth,” while the concluding two movements made up what Mahler called the “Human Comedy.” But as Mahler revised the symphony for later performances, he began to let slip quite different hints about the “meaning” of this music. At one point he called it the “Titan,” borrowing the title of Jean Paul Richter’s novel about a wild young hero who feels lost in this world. Some further sense of its content comes from the fact that the symphony borrows several themes from Mahler’s just-completed Songs of a Wayfarer, which are about his recovery from an ill-fated love affair. But finally Mahler, who had a love-hate relation with verbal explanations of his music (denouncing them one moment, releasing new ones the next), abandoned any mention of a program. When he finally published this symphony in 1899, he had cut it to only four movements, greatly expanded the orchestration, and suppressed all mention of the “Titan” or of any other extra-musical associations. Now it was simply his Symphony No. 1.

And what a first symphony it is! The stunning beginning– Mahler asks that it be “like a nature-sound”–is intended to evoke a quiet summer morning, and he captures that hazy, shimmering stillness with a near-silent A six octaves deep. The effect is magical, as if we are suddenly inside some vast, softly-humming machine. Soon we hear twittering birds and morning fanfares from distant military barracks. The call of the cuckoo is outlined by the interval of a falling fourth, and that figure will recur throughout the symphony, giving shape to many of its themes. Cellos announce the true first theme, which begins with the drop of a fourth–when Mahler earlier used this same theme in his Wayfarer cycle, it set the disappointed lover’s embarking on his lonely journey: “I went this morning through the fields, dew still hung upon the grass.” A noble chorus of horns, ringing out from a forest full of busy cuckoos, forms the second subject, and the brief development–by turns lyric and dramatic–leads to a mighty restatement of the Wayfarer theme and an exciting close.

Mahler marks the second movement Kräftig bewegt (“Moving powerfully”); his original subtitle for this movement was “Under Full Sail.” This movement is a scherzo in ABA form, and Mahler bases it on the ländler, the rustic Austrian waltz. Winds and then violins stamp out the opening ländler, full of hard edges and stomping accents, and this drives to a powerful cadence. Out of the silence, the sound of a solo horn rivets our attention–and nicely changes the mood. The central section is another ländler, but this one sings beautifully, its flowing melodies made all the more sensual by graceful slides from the violins. The movement concludes with a return of the opening material.

The third movement opens what, in Mahler’s original scheme, was the second part of the symphony. Deliberately grotesque, this music was inspired by a woodcut picturing the funeral of a hunter, whose body is borne through the woods by forest animals–deer, foxes, rabbits, shrews, birds–who celebrate his death with mock pageantry. Over the timpani’s quiet tread (once again, the interval of a fourth), solo doublebass plays a lugubrious little tune that is treated as a round; the ear soon recognizes this as a minor-key variation of the children’s song Frère Jacques. The first episode lurches along sleazily over an “oom-pah” rhythm; Mahler indicates that he wants this played “with parody,” and the music echoes the klezmer street bands of Eastern Europe. But a further episode brings soft relief: muted violins offer another quotation from the Wayfarer songs, this time a theme that had set the words “By the wayside stands a linden tree, and there at last I’ve found some peace.” In the song cycle, these words marked the disappointed lover’s escape from his pain and his return to life. The march returns, and the timpani taps this movement to its nearly-silent close.

Then the finale explodes. It is worth quoting Mahler on this violent music: “the fourth movement then springs suddenly, like lightning from a dark cloud. It is simply the cry of a deeply wounded heart, preceded by the ghastly brooding oppressiveness of the funeral march.” Mahler’s original title for this movement was “From Inferno to Paradise,” and while one should not lean too heavily on a program the composer ultimately disavowed, Mahler himself did choose these words and this description does reflect the progress of the finale, which moves from the seething tumult of its beginning to the triumph of the close. Longest by far of the movements, the finale is based on two main themes: a fierce, striving figure in the winds near the beginning and a gorgeous, long-lined melody for violins shortly afterwards. The development pitches between extremes of mood as it drives to what seems a climax but is in fact a false conclusion. The music seems lost, directionless, and now Mahler makes a wonderful decision: back comes the dreamy, slow music from the symphony’s very beginning. Slowly this gathers energy, and what had been gentle at the beginning now returns in glory, shouted out by seven horns as the symphony smashes home triumphantly in D major, racing to the two whipcracks that bring it to a thrilling conclusion.

What are we to make of Mahler’s many conflicting signals as to what this symphony is “about”? Is it about youth and the “human comedy”? Is it autobiographical, the tale of his own recovery from an unhappy love affair? Late in his brief life, Mahler even suggested another reading. When he conducted his First Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in 1909, Mahler wrote to his disciple Bruno Walter that he was “quite satisfied with this youthful sketch,” telling him that when he conducted the symphony, “A burning and painful sensation is crystallized. What a world this is that casts up such reflections of sounds and figures! Things like the Funeral March and the bursting of the storm which follows it seem to me a flaming indictment of the Creator.”

Finally we have to throw up our hands in the face of so much contradictory information. Perhaps it is best just to settle back and listen to Mahler’s First Symphony for itself– and the mighty symphonic journey that it is.


The Danish National Symphony Orchestra is generously supported by:
The A.P Møller and Chastine Mc-Kinney Møller Foundation
The Carl Nielsen and Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen Foundation
The Knud Højgaard Foundation
DAMCO – Global Logistic Solutions

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