This blog is dedicated to the memory of David Weintraub, who took on insidious astroturfers and won.
Monday, August 31, 2015
Love the One You're With
Mahler conducted the premiere of the Eighth Symphony in September 1910, four years after completing the work and just eight months before he died. The performance, Mahler’s last as a conductor in Europe, was to be the greatest triumph he ever experienced as a composer. But the preparation leading up to this event did not go smoothly. Beginning early in 1910, many months before the performance, Mahler exchanged several letters with Emil Gutmann, the impresario who had persuaded Mahler to conduct the premiere for a Mahler festival in Munich. Growing increasingly concerned, Mahler began to insist, sometimes frantically, that the performance be called off. He was particularly certain that the choirs could not learn their parts in time. In a letter to his trusted friend Bruno Walter, Mahler warned that he “shall ruthlessly [Mahler’s emphasis] cancel the whole thing if all artistic conditions are not met to my satisfaction.” A few weeks later, however, Mahler seemed to have resigned himself to a fiasco.
He wrote Walter, “Until today I have been fighting inwardly and outwardly against this catastrophic Barnum-and-Bailey performance of my Eighth in Munich. When [Gutmann] took me unawares in Vienna that time, I didn’t stop to think of all the to-do that goes with such ‘festivals’.” Mahler continues that, even though he is convinced the performance will be “utterly inadequate,” he sees no way to escape from his obligations.
It didn’t help matters when Mahler learned, much to his dissatisfaction, that Gutmann had nicknamed his work “The Symphony of a Thousand.” The tag, of course, is a rather shallow one to apply to a symphony by Mahler. It was not only correct, however, it was an understatement. As the program supervised by Mahler for the 1910 premiere of the Symphony states, the work required 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists. To counter the effect of so many singers, Mahler had to augment the standard orchestra. Thus, he increases it to 84 strings, 6 harps, 22 woodwinds, and 17 brass players. The score also requested that 4 trumpets and 4 trombones be placed apart. To assemble such a body of singers, it was necessary to supplement the Munich chorus (which included 350 children) with large groups from Vienna and Leipzig. The eight soloists came from Munich, Vienna, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, and Wiesbaden. The first performance, then, seemed to match in spirit Mahler’s attitude to the work, which he once called “a gift to the nation.”