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Inside The Music: Titans

Editor of BBC Music Magazine Oliver Condy sheds some light on the circumstances surrounding the great works that feature in the Bristol International Classical Season 2015-16 at Colston Hall. These bite-sized programme notes and accompanying videos cut to the heart of the music, allowing you to get that little bit more from your classical experience.

Mahler Symphony No. 1 ‘Titan’

In a letter to the conductor Franz Schalk, composer Gustav Mahler described the first few bars of his astonishing First Symphony: “The introduction to the first movement – sounds of nature, not music!” Mahler’s symphonic debut puzzled the audiences of Vienna in 1900 – here was a work that was clearly in five movements (reduced later, by Mahler himself, to four) and yet within it, the composer was evoking life itself – a philosophical, as much as a musical, experience. For the Viennese, Mahler was the next in a long line of
great symphonists stretching back to Haydn, through Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. But at the same time, Mahler seemed very different: his symphonies weren’t abstract like his predecessors’, but contained, in Mahler’s own words, “the world.” No one had composed works quite like these before. I

t might be helpful to suggest that Mahler’s Symphonies are a little like vast novels charting the life of a great hero. Symphony No. 1 begins with the bleakness of a winter landscape, a long held, ominous, expectant single ‘A’ in the strings. Mahler was, he later wrote, imagining “a shimmering and glimmering of the air.” As cuckoo calls and distant fanfares start to punctuate the frozen scene, so the land gradually thaws to reveal the glories of Spring and, four minutes in, our protagonist appears as a child, wandering the landscape, rejoicing in and marvelling at its natural beauty. Mahler signals his hero’s appearance by using, as his first main theme, the beautiful, optimistic melody from one of his early Songs of a Wayfarer. The movement blossoms and grows with Mahler’s increasingly thrilling, exciting orchestral writing, as the brass, woodwind and strings scamper and scurry here and there, collapsing into an exhausted heap at the end.

The sunny, exuberant second movement Scherzo, which Mahler originally called ‘in full sail’, sees the hero in adulthood: mature, strong, confident. Listen out for the birdsong that Mahler weaves into the texture, and for the moments of dissonance where he prewarns of tragedies to come…

Mahler’s third movement is one of his strangest, the one his Viennese audience grappled with the most. In depicting a funeral procession moving slowly past the hero, Mahler applies his fondness for mixing incongruent musical styles, setting a funeral march
on the old folk tune ‘Frère Jacques’ (in a minor key) side-by-side upbeat music from his own Jewish Klezmer tradition. The third part of the movement is given over to the tender melody from another of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, before the funeral march and
Klezmer music return to haunt us all over again. But why this bizarre blend of different musical styles? The movement serves, Mahler said, to remind the hero of “the misery, the whole distress of the world, with its cutting contrasts and horrible irony.”

But it’s against all this sorrow and distress that the hero battles – and triumphs – in the final movement, one of the most gripping in all Mahler’s symphonic output. A giant adventure of a movement lasting over 20 minutes, it steadily gathers strength before
culminating in a jubilant hymn played on the horns, whom Mahler instructs in the score to stand up. It’s a breathtaking climax to a true orchestral epic.

Brahms Violin Concerto

Written just nine years earlier, Brahms’s stunning Romantic, virtuosic Violin Concerto seems from another world. Its musical languageis a good deal more conservative than Mahler’s – Brahms was a well-known opponent of the progressive ‘New German School’ that included Wagner and Liszt – but it’s no less profound, and is one of music’s most magnificent, beautifully wrought violin concertos. Brahms wrote it in 1878 for a friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, a man who did a great deal for him, introducing him early in his life to Robert Schumann who in turn encouraged his composing, promoting his work and hailing him as a genius. And it was to Joachim that Brahms turned for help with the technical aspects of the violin part: “Correct it,” he asked him, “not sparing the quality of the composition and that if you thought it not worth scoring, that you should say so. I shall be satisfied if you will mark those parts which are difficult, awkward, or impossible to play.” Joachum wrote back, saying that he thought the concerto contained “a lot of really good violin music…”. Faint praise indeed!

Brahms’s concerto is symphonic in scale and ambition (theorchestral introduction to the first movement lasts almost three minutes) with the orchestra and soloist given equal billing throughout – this is no technical glory ride for the violinist, despite the considerable technical challenges. In the first movement, Brahms balances drama and elegy, Brahms requesting the soloist to improvise one on the spot (a challenge violinists balk at today) which culminates in one of his most intimate and heartfelt slow movements. The only problem with that, however, is that it’s the oboe that gets the melodic glory here. Violinist Pablo de Sarasate was so put out by the idea of being upstaged by the member of the orchestra, that he refused the perform the work. What Sarasate didn’t realise, however, is that the oboe is the perfect foil for the violin’s subsequent decorated, radiant version of this magnificent tune. In the final movement, the composer pays homage to his native Hungary’s gypsy traditions with plenty of
complex double-stopping to challenge even the finest soloists.

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