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Berliner Philharmoniker

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 8 PM

By Paul Griffiths

The Concert
At a Glance

Concluding with a long valediction like Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde seems to feel the shiver of night descending not only on its composer—terminally ill, though still in his 40s—but on a whole culture of huge achievement and grandiloquence. Words from ancient Chinese poets, distant in time and place, come to speak, or to sing, of evening, of autumn, of memory, of death. Solitary voices, tenor and baritone, stand on the edge of a world of sound and look out. And yet this end creates conditions for renewal, as exemplified by Thomas Adès’s Tevot, which conveys orchestral drama and song on into the 21st century.

Notes on the Program


Born March 1, 1971, in London.

Composed in 2005–06, Tevot received its world premiere in Berlin on February 21, 2007, with the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Tonight’s performance at Carnegie Hall marks its US premiere.

This is effectively Adès’s second symphony, coming a decade after his Asyla and bearing a title with similar connotations. The Hebrew word “tevot” is the ordinary musical term for “bars”; it can also mean “words.” In the singular, as “tevah”, it appears just twice in the Bible in very special and similar contexts: for the ark built by Noah and for the reed basket made by Moses’s mother to float him on the Nile. These tevot are both places of safety—asyla. They are also both structures that, made of natural materials, remain firm in fluid surroundings.

Music, of course, is all fluid, and some of Tevot flows with the music of sea and air the composer had invented for his operatic version of The Tempest. But music can also be firm, and it can be assertive, as parts of Tevot certainly are: the orchestra is similar to that of The Rite of Spring, though with the percussion tilted more toward tuned instruments.

The start is tremulously quiet, as if gearing up for the larger statements that gradually come forward and consume almost the whole orchestra. Then comes a shift, to a complex, intensive canon for woodwind and percussion (a department not much used up to now), leading to a passage marked “In volo” (“In flight”), where leaping gestures piggyback on each other to one climax after another. Subterranean gestures of lament move more and more into the foreground before a solo trumpet breaks out, accompanied by tuned anvils and succeeded by a breathless rush toward a chorale for oboes and vibraphone. But this is not a destination; nothing is still. As the chorale develops, it embraces more and more of the orchestra, carrying the music’s thrust toward a massive, emphatically decelerated amplification of the tuned anvils’ irregular rhythm, a wild dance at once exhilarating and unsettling.

The clamor has to subside, and it does, into a polyphonic stream that picks up the lament motif, growing and subsiding into a recollection of the opening, out of which emerges an adagio for super-high violins. Slowly descending, this scintillant material is greeted by ever-new variants of an expressive rocking melody—the song of the floating tevah, perhaps, or an image of music’s power to console.

Tevot may owe something in its sonic invention to Adès’s experience since Asyla as an orchestral conductor. Particularly relevant, perhaps, was a concert he gave at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 2005, around the time he was starting this score. On the program were The Rite of Spring and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony—works of pounding, pulsed dynamism and pure orchestral song such as one might have thought irreconcilable. Tevot could be their love child.

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GUSTAV MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde

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

Composed mainly in 1908, Das Lied von der Erde was first performed in Munich on November 20, 1911, with Sara Jane Cahier, contralto; William Miller, tenor; and the Konzertverein Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter. It received its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall on February 1, 1922, with Mme. Cahier; Orville Harrold, tenor; and the Society of the Friends of Music conducted by Artur Bodanzky.

Scoring: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo II), piccolo, 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, orchestra bells, suspended cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle), two harps, celesta, mandolin, and strings, in addition to the solo tenor and mezzo-soprano (or baritone) voices.

Created by someone conducting in the United States, composing in central Europe, and setting poems from eighth-century China, this work has strong claims on its title as “The Song of the Earth.” However, the voices singing here—those of the soloists and those also of the orchestra—are always and unmistakably Mahler’s, even if this is partly a new Mahler we encounter here. Nineteen hundred and seven, the year before he started this work, had seen his life changed. He had moved the center of his conducting activities from the court opera in Vienna to the Met in New York, which offered him a higher fee for fewer performances. Against that positive development, he had lost his elder daughter, Putzi, from diphtheria in the summer at the age of four, and he himself had been diagnosed with a heart condition. He felt himself from this point to be dying, and made in Das Lied von der Erde a great review of life—the tone is retrospective from the first—culminating in a prolonged farewell.

Also in 1907 he had been present at two important Schoenberg premieres, those of the younger composer’s First Quartet and First Chamber Symphony, and perhaps these prompted him to consider lighter, more dislocated textures. There could have been some impulse, too, from Chinese music, of which he reportedly took the trouble to listen to some early recordings before setting his Chinese poems. An East-Asian tone is evoked by some use of the pentatonic scale (having five steps) and certain color effects, done with remarkable restraint and sophistication.

In their millennium-long journey from Tang-dynasty China to Mahler’s composing hut in the South Tirol, the poems underwent some changes. Mahler’s source was Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), a small volume of 80 poems published by the German poet-orientalist Hans Bethge in 1907. Bethge, knowing no Chinese, worked from translations by Hans Heilman of versions in French by Judith Gautier and the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. Mahler chose four poems attributed to the most celebrated Chinese poet of the period, Li Bai (also known as Li Po, or Li Tai Po), which he placed first, third, fourth, and fifth in his sequence, though no Chinese original has been traced for the third poem (ironically the most oriental in Mahler’s setting), which may have been Gautier’s invention. For his second movement, Mahler took a poem by Chang Tsi, and in his finale he combined poems by Mong Kao Jen and Wang Wei, but in every case he adapted the texts transmitted by Bethge. Even before writing any music, or in the process of writing music, he made the words his own.

As with his Ninth Symphony the following year, he drafted the work during his summer vacation at Toblach, between June and the start of September, and worked up the final score during the ensuing concert season in New York. It was only during this later process that the piece achieved its definitive title.

Mahler called his work a symphony, and must have chosen and changed the texts partly with an ear toward symphonic form. The first song, for example, has certain qualities of a sonata allegro (repeated exposition, with two contrasting thematic areas), but one abruptly curtailed; then come alternating slow movements and scherzos, followed by an adagio finale which, as in the composer’s Third Symphony and his Ninth yet to come, seems to be the inevitable destination: this finale, “Der Abschied,” is about as long as all the other movements put together. There is also another kind of symphonic dialog going on, across the vast space between the voices. Both seek escape from the world, but where the tenor’s route leads ebulliently through the neck of a bottle, the baritone (or alternatively mezzo-soprano) is singing of evening and autumn as of death.

Spring, rather, is the season in which the tenor delights, the spring he evokes in his first song, with a lyrical change from the vociferousness that is almost forced upon him by the heavy orchestration, and again in his third, “Der Trunkene im Frühling.” Yet even here death is present, defined by defiance. “Dark the state of living, and of death!” goes the refrain of the opening song, heard three times in different minor keys. And the tenor’s other two songs, exotic and humorous, are touched with the same clouds.

But it is the other singer who stands at the work’s heart: alone (“Der Einsame im Herbst”), removed from the thrill of sensual pleasure (“Von der Schönheit”), and on the point of departure (“Der Abschied”), a departure that will last an eternity.

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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