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Mahler, Coolidge, Lehár, Strauss & Kálmán

Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Gustav Mahler
b. Kalischt, Bohemia / July 7, 1860
d. Vienna, Austria / May 18, 1911

After creating colossal canvases that addressed profound philosophical issues in his previous two symphonies, Mahler decided to shift direction in the Fourth. The result was a shorter, gentler composition, scored for a smaller orchestra. Its origins lay several years in the past. In 1892, he composed a setting for soprano and orchestra of The Heavenly Life, a poem from The Youth’s Magic Horn, a collection of German folklore. Intending to use it as the seventh and final movement of his Third Symphony, instead he put it aside because this would have made the piece nearly two hours long.

When he began his Fourth in 1899, he settled on using the discarded movement as the finale, then composed the first three sections. He completed the symphony during the summer of 1900, although he continued to make minor revisions until shortly before the premiere, which he conducted himself in Munich on November 25, 1901. Few listeners cared for it initially. Its lightness and grace confounded many who had come to appreciate his massive, soul-stirring creations.

His numerous detractors fell upon it like wolves, condemning it as a sick joke, a circus act, or even a “Black Mass,” to quote one reviewer. They also criticized him for concluding so serious a work as a symphony with a folk-like song. During the remaining decade of his life, as audiences came to understand what to expect of it, it won its due share of esteem.

The naïveté which may appear so pervasive an ingredient on first hearing proves entirely superficial on closer acquaintance. A sophisticated creative mind and a total mastery of the orchestra are at work in every bar. Mahler’s previously demonstrated insight into life, and his deep faith in humanity, here strike no less moving a chord for his clothing them in such intimate, literally angelic radiance.

The first movement opens with the most innocent sounds imaginable: silvery flutes and jingling sleigh bells. The movement presents a wide array of concise, warm-hearted themes. The art that underlies their evolution – materials blend into each other and back out again – is altogether extraordinary. Midway through, trumpets sound a clear reference to the opening theme of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which he began to compose during the summer of 1901.

The scherzo-like second movement evokes the fairy-tale world of the Brothers Grimm. It has the character of the ländler, a lilting Austrian peasant dance which prefigured the waltz. Early on in the symphony’s composition, Mahler wrote that in this section “Friend Death strikes up the dance for us.” He instructs the orchestra’s concertmaster to tune his or her violin a whole tone higher than normal to give an eerie effect in solo passages, although the music is too genteel ever to venture anywhere near the truly macabre.

The slow third movement, like the corresponding section of Beethoven’s Ninth, presents expansive variations on two themes. The first is serene; the second, unsettling. After a series of compelling passages, the gates of heaven burst open gloriously at the climax. In the finale, the sleigh bell theme of the opening movement returns as a joyous refrain, as a young angel praises the manifold delights of her domain. Mahler asked the soloist to “adopt a joyous, child-like tone, without the slightest hint of parody.” At first, the subject of her song is largely food. In the final verse, it shifts to music, surely the art through which one draws closest to the deity.

The Blue Planet

Peggy Stuart Coolidge
b. Swampscott, Mass. / July 19, 1913
d. Cushing, Maine / May 7, 1981

Peggy Stuart undertook private lessons in piano with Heinrich Gebhard, and in composition with Quincy Porter. One of her first tastes of success came when the Boston Pops Orchestra began playing her orchestral works in the late 1930s. In 1952, she married Joseph Coolidge, an author and editor. At the invitation of Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, a concert consisting solely of her music was presented by the USSR Union of Composers in Moscow in 1970. She was the first American to receive this honor. Her music is skillfully orchestrated and accessible, with an often folk-flavored style reminiscent of Copland.

In 1971, the Coolidges attended the tenth-anniversary convention of the World Wildlife Fund, in Morges, Switzerland. She received a commission for a musical theme to represent the group. She later used it as the basis for this concert work, The Blue Planet. Quietly yet eloquently, it puts forward the case for conservation and respect for the natural world.

“Vilja Lied” from The Merry Widow

Franz Lehár
b. Komaron, Hungary / April 30, 1870
d. Bad Ischl, Austria / October 24, 1948

The popularity of nineteenth-century Viennese operetta continued well into the twentieth, with only the tiniest notice taken of advances in musical style. Lehár and Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán loomed large over this so-called silver age. Lehár’s masterpiece, Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow, 1905), is second in popularity among operettas only to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. The plot is typically complicated, but as usual it is little more than a coat-hanger for the music. Set in Paris, it concerns the courtship between Hanna, a wealthy widow, and the pleasure-seeking Count Danilowitsch. In this lovely aria, Hanna recounts the legend of the love between a hunter and a beautiful wood-nymph, or vilja.

Emperor Waltz, Op. 437

Johann Strauss, Jr.
b. Vienna, Austria / October 25, 1825
d. Vienna / June 3, 1899

December 2, 1888 marked the fortieth anniversary of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph’s assumption to the throne. Strauss composed Imperial Jubilee, Waltz of Rejoicing to celebrate the occasion. The acts of homage continued through the following year. In the autumn of 1889, Strauss was scheduled to conduct five concerts in Berlin. Before he left Vienna, the city’s press reported that he had sent his Berlin publisher a new waltz called Hand in Hand. The title referred to a toast made in August by Emperor Franz Joseph during a visit to Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany. In it, Austria had extended “the hand of friendship” to Germany. The publisher diplomatically suggested that Emperor Waltz might be a more appropriate name, whose ambiguity would satisfy the vanity of both monarchs.

It is one of Strauss’ most elaborate and majestic creations. The central sequence of waltz themes is flanked by a jovial, march-like introduction, and a poetic, nostalgic conclusion. French author Guillaume Ritter called the Emperor Waltz “the most beautiful flower that the fantastic tree of Strauss music has borne in 75 years.”

“Heia den Bergen” from The Gypsy Princess

Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán
b. Siófok, Hungary / October 24, 1882
d. Paris, France / October 30, 1953

What gives Kálmán’s operettas their unique appeal is their major element of Hungarian spice. He won one of his greatest successes with The Gypsy Princess (1915). Sylva, the central character, is a cabaret performer from Budapest. In this fiery aria (My Home is in the Mountains), she describes her credo for love: “Once you’re mine you must remain mine, you must sign away your soul to me if I’m to be heaven and hell for you!”

© 2012 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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