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Berliner Philharmoniker

Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 8 PM

By Paul Griffiths

The Concert
At a Glance

Farewell. Farewell. Farewell. Mahler’s last three symphonies all say the same thing, but so differently. The Ninth—like the immediately preceding, unnumbered symphony Das Lied von der Erde, but now without a singer at the conclusion as a guide—ends with a slow movement in which gestures of leave-taking are extended over a half-hour span. Sadness, regret, awareness of death, a sense of lifting off—these things are easy to hear in such music. Yet Mahler’s great endings have also proved, for later composers, great beginnings—as perhaps he was himself about to find in his Tenth, and as Magnus Lindberg discovers in a work made to accompany the colossal, departing Ninth.

Notes on the Program


Born June 27, 1958, in Helsinki.

Composed in 2007, Seht die Sonne will have its world premiere in Berlin on August 25, 2007, with the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. It receives its US premiere tonight at Carnegie Hall.

If something is coming to an end in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, it may be less a human life than that of a genre: the symphony, slowly disappearing, as indeed it seems to have done.

Symphonic thinking, though, has proved more resilient. Magnus Lindberg is one of many composers (Thomas Adès is another) with no wish to write symphonies but a passionate desire for symphonism—for cogent development, for broad spans of motion and arrival sustained by harmony, and for using the heft of full orchestral resources. The work that won Lindberg international attention—Kraft (1983–85), whose title means “power”—was a half-hour orchestral score explicitly designed to assert a modernist’s right to the weight and amplitude of Mahler or Richard Strauss. Since then, Lindberg has become the master of more traditional harmonic and rhythmic forces, and created many works of symphonic scope and scale. Among these are Aura (1993–04), a 40-minute work in four movements performed without pause, and a symphonic triptych of compositions that may be played independently: Feria, Parada and Cantigas (1997–2001). To these may be added his concertos, for piano, clarinet, cello, and violin.

Seht die Sonne (See the Sun), scored for almost exactly the same orchestra as Mahler’s Ninth, adds further and magnificently to the tally. The title comes from another work of a century ago, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, whose radiant finale, in C major, has an enormous chorus greeting the rising sun that ends the night in which the ghosts of the cursed king Waldemar and his men have ridden the sky. Lindberg’s score duly begins on middle C, which might be interpreted as a reverberation from out of the Schoenberg, and pursues its own journey, perhaps from dawn to twilight. There are three movements, but, as in Aura, the musical sweep is continuous and does not stay still long enough for any movement to have a characteristic tempo or tone. The three might rather be understood as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

Right at the start, over the echoing C, the horns sound out the basic material as a robust melody. This will never be repeated, but its elements recur in all kinds of transformations—especially in the first movement, which occupies about half the total design. Lindberg has likened his practice to that of a Baroque composer writing a chaconne, and, as in that form, his theme is eight measures long. Baroque stability, though, is a thing of the past. Instead of revolving again and again through the same eight-measure pattern, Lindberg’s music strikes off, into a development that is supple in speed but unflagging in energy. The rush of color allows no section of the orchestra much respite, though an episode for the flute family alone arrives shortly before the turn into the second movement.

This movement similarly starts with a recollection of the past from an emphatically contemporary standpoint: a quasi-chorale for the brass. However, the music soon accelerates and regains the drive of the first movement as it rises toward a sequence of vociferous climaxes. The inevitable subsiding eventually leaves just a solo cello playing, gathering the accompaniment of its companion cellos and basses as it carries the music into the finale.

What initiates this last stage is the cello’s remembering the tempo and some aspects of the melody from the opening of the first movement. The music is again big and strong, but where one might expect it to be moving toward a reaffirmation of the opening, it has quite another destination in mind.

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GUSTAV MAHLER Symphony No. 9

Born July 7, 1860, in Kalischt (Kalištĕ), Bohemia; died May 18, 1911, in Vienna.

Composed mainly during the summer of 1909 and refined in 1910, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony received its world premiere in Vienna on June 26, 1912, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter. It received its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall on November 19, 1931, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.

Scoring: piccolo and 4 flutes, 4 oboes (doubling English horn), 3 clarinets plus soprano clarinet and bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani (2 players), bass drum, side drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, 3 deep bells, harp, and strings.

Mahler wrote his last three works during the time he was working as a conductor in New York, at the old Metropolitan Opera and with the Philharmonic in this very hall. As had long been his habit, he kept creative work for the long summers, and the three final vacations of his life—those giving him respite from his stints in New York—he spent in the South Tirol, producing in turn Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth Symphony, and the Tenth. Having begun the Ninth in June 1909, using some ideas from the year before, by early September he had sketched out the entire work. He took the draft with him when he left for New York the next month, and worked during the concert season on the orchestration, which he finished shortly before sailing back to Europe at the start of April 1910.

By this time, the enormous Eighth Symphony had still not been performed: that happened in September 1910, leaving Mahler no time to introduce the Ninth. The posthumous première, as with Das Lied von der Erde, can only have enhanced the sense of a great adieu, for here was a composer speaking from beyond the grave. However, the tone of farewell is very much written into the music—indeed, the word itself is inscribed there. Mahler took the motif of a falling whole step from Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” sonata, and marked the word “Leb’wohl” (“Farewell”) over its appearances late in the first movement. Moreover, this same motif had appeared, with a different rhythm, in the finale of Das Lied von der Erde, setting the word “Ewig” (“Always”), which the singer repeats through the long dissolve that brings that work to a close.

The “farewell” motif appears in the opening measures, where the music is brought into being from wisps that sound as if hanging in the air from something already disintegrated: a single note reverberating between cellos and horn, the harp like a tolling bell, another horn giving out what seems to be the echo of a fanfare. As the violins enter to carry the music forward, the rhythm becomes established as a slow rowing. The music is singing “farewell” in almost every measure, and yet it is also singing “always,” for, though we are clearly in D major, the melody largely avoids falling onto the keynote. With a darkening of harmony comes a move into the minor, and the rhythm gathers in urgency, accruing tones of military march: hence the dichotomy, not so much of themes as of atmospheres (drifting away against staying put, endless regret against vigorous engagement in the world), that is developed through the first movement.

Antagonistic, the two kinds of material work against each other, which entails some degree of interpenetration. Whatever the tumult or the pressure of events—the pressure to experience—“farewell” will always intervene and bring us back to the deathly rowboat. But, equally, the “always” of that rowing cannot be accepted for long by a consciousness that is still alive and questing.

Alban Berg, playing this first movement through on the piano, heard as much: “The whole movement is based on a premonition of death, which is constantly recurring. All earthly dreams end here; that is why the tenderest passages are followed by tremendous climaxes like new eruptions of a volcano. This, of course, is most obvious of all in the place where the premonition of death becomes certain knowledge, where, in the most profound and anguished love of life, death appears ‘with greatest force’; then the ghostly solos of violin and viola, and those sounds of chivalry: death in armor.”

What follows, violently grotesque, is a dance medley in absurd C major. A Ländler (one of those country dances that in Mahler seem to represent at once the health and the vacuity of everyday life) is followed by a slightly faster and more emphatic waltz. These two mingle, and alternate with a third dance, a slower Ländler. All three dances feature the falling whole step that was so momentous in the first movement. Here it is not, except in the slower number. Questions of life and death are masked. Still, they show through.

After this frantic dance comes a frantic march, whose main theme drives headlong through crowds of variants in brilliant and dynamic polyphony. The key is A minor, that of the deathward Sixth Symphony; but, in the middle, the snarls and ferociousness clear for an episode in D major that looks back to the first movement—with a new interpenetration of the “farewell” motif as a turning figure—and forward to the finale. The new figure is subjected to ironic distortion leeching through from its surroundings here, but it survives.

It survives to become the mainstay of the concluding, culminating adagio, in D-flat, which begins as a resolute hymn for strings, but which soon, under warning first from a low bassoon, starts to fray. A tendency to break down—present from the beginning of the work and obviated only by sarcasm in the middle movements—bears the music toward highly attenuated but also intensely beautiful textures. A middle section in the minor (notated as C-sharp minor) offers some final Alpine images. The last page, marked adagissimo, pianissimo and with all but the first violins muted, is the sound of everything ebbing away.

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Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Paul Griffiths is the author of numerous books on music, including The New Penguin Dictionary of Music and, most recently, A Concise History of Western Music (Cambridge University Press).

© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation