Mahler's First

Saturday, May 21, 2022 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre

buy tickets

Concert sponsored by  

Mahler's First Amy Hwang Miyabi Henriksen


Winners of the Young Artist Competition
Charles Griffes - Poem for Flute
Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 1
Program Notes

GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)


Composed: 1887-8 with many revisions

Premiered: Budapest, Austria-Hungary, 1889

Mahler was so unsure of what shape his first Symphony should take (or even what it was) that it was first billed as a symphonic poem, then a “tone poem in symphonic form.” It was only in 1896 that he took the plunge and called it a symphony; Mahler knowing that Brahms was on his deathbed may have had something to do with this. For exactly two performances, he gave it the subtitle Titan (the title of a book he was reading that month), then changed his mind again. For a while, it had two movements, then four, then five, then four again, leaving a trail of different versions (and their accompanying tales of emotional woe) that has fed generations of Mahlerologists. He finally stopped tinkering with it in 1899.

Looming over the symphony is Mahler’s very messy love affair with the soprano Johanna Richter, whom he met while directing the Kassel Opera. The affair inspired (or caused) Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, a cycle of lost-love misery written while he conducted another affair with the wife of Carl Maria von Weber, who was his employer at the time (and who tried to shoot him as a result). Two of the songs turn up in the Symphony, and give a strong clue as to what the music “means”.

The first movement begins with a mysterious five-octave-wide pedal on A, under which a slow falling chain of fourths is answered by a fanfare figure first from the clarinets, then from offstage trumpets – Mahler’s first use of this effect. A simple falling-fourth “cuckoo” motif sets up the arrival of the main subject – the melody of Ging Heut’ Morgen, one of the Songs of a Wayfarer. There follows a surprisingly straightforward sonata workthrough of the song. A five-note figure associated in the song with the phrase “Ei, du – gelt?” (“Hey, how are you doing?”) comes to dominate, with the “cuckoo” looming over all.

At one stage, the second movement was Blumine, a piece recycled from Mahler’s music for an unsuccessful play and dedicated to the then-beloved Johanna. A slightly odd trumpet solo with a different, smaller orchestra from the other movements, the obviously-interpolated Blumine was the understandable target of derision from the critics, and Mahler withdrew it; unfortunately, he left behind references to it elsewhere in the symphony. The actual second movement is a faux-rustic Ländler, a triple-time country dance, in the unsurprising dominant key of A. There is even a classical-style Trio, in the unlikely (but explainable) key of F.

The slow movement is the most characteristically “Mahlerian” of all the movements, where multiple styles and references hint at an unstated “program” behind the music. It is based on the minor-key folk tune Bruder Jakob (Mahler calls it “Bruder Martin” and is simply wrong), far better known in its major key version as Frère Jacques. Mahler claimed to have based the movement on a woodcut he saw of a hunter’s funeral, attended by all the creatures of the forest. The melody is first heard in a double-bass solo (the first in any symphony), then handed around the orchestra before being confronted with a radically different subject arranged for a Klezmer ensemble within the orchestra – clarinets, oboes, trumpets and drums - in an unusually explicit reference to Mahler’s Jewish origins. Just before this appears, we hear the melody of another of the Songs of a Wayfarer – “Die zwei blaue Augen” – “The two blue eyes” – and have to wonder if there is a personal narrative behind the musical irony. Of course there is.

The finale begins in the very unlikely key of F minor. Theory buffs will be glad to know that this is the parallel minor of the relative major of the parallel minor of the symphony’s key. The movement is in a surprisingly orthodox sonata form (once one has got over the shock of its key), with a soaring second subject appearing in D flat major – again, theoretically explainable given sufficient willpower – before a vertiginous modulation to D major and the blazing return of the falling fourths, and finally the fanfares, of the first movement. On the way, Ging Heut’ Morgen and even Blumine make their farewell appearances – in poor Blumine’s case, unrecognized. Mahler should have thought of that.

Gabriela Ortiz - Antrópolis
Program Notes

GABRIELA ORTIZ (born 1964)


Composed: 2017

Premiered: New York, 2017

Gabriela Ortiz is a leading member of the current generation of Mexican composers. She gives this description of the origin of her Antrópolis:

The word antro means a grotto or cavern. In Mexico, before the nineties, antro referred to bars or night clubs of dubious reputation. However, nowadays - and especially among young people - this word is used to refer to any nightlife venue, whether it is a bar, club or disco.

I once imagined the title of a future work, one that would synthesize the music of Mexico's legendary dance halls and bars - Antrópolis, a new word to name a piece that would evoke the sound of the city through its dance halls and nightclubs.

In 2017, Carlos Miguel Prieto commissioned from me a short work to celebrate the 80th birthday of composer Philip Glass. As a result, Antrópolis came to life, a piece in which I wanted to pay a very personal tribute to some of those antros- the emblematic dance halls of Mexico City that had left a special sonorous imprint in my memory. Those cabarets or dance halls that represent the nostalgia for rumberas and live dance orchestras, such as "El Bombay," where it is said that "Che” Guevara used to make his moves; or the "Salón Colonia," which seems to have come out of dreams rescued from one of the movies of the golden age of Mexican cinema. Who doesn't remember the fun ballroom "Los Infiernos"? - a perfect place for workers who had left their cubicles after a long day to go dancing, drink and listen to music. Finally, the bar "Tutti Frutti," where I discovered the punk couple who owned the place, where you could listen to experimental music from the 1980's.

Antrópolis is thus the reflection in sound of an urban area through its antros, with all the experiences that go with them – places that form an essential part of our history in the very complex but fascinating place that is Mexico City.

Camille Saint-Saëns - Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

About the Concert

Mahler's towering and melodic First Symphony is a love letter to nature, life, and love itself -- the perfect way to round out this season's return to the stage! Our concert starts with Gabriela Ortiz' music inspired by the spirit of Mexican dance halls, before the young virtuosos of our Young Artist Competition dazzle you with their age-defying abilities.

Click to read our concert program.

COVID-19 NOTICE: The Columbia Orchestra prioritizes the health and safety of our musicians, audience, staff, and volunteers. The Orchestra will follow national, state, local, and venue policies regarding health and safety. As of April 8, 2022, masks are no longer required, but are strongly encouraged for Columbia Orchestra concerts. Proof of vaccination will not be required. These policies are subject to change.

Support the Columbia Orchestra

Help support Your Community's Music by making an online donation now.