I first “met” Brian Long when we were classmates in two MOOCs offered by the Curtis Institute of Music, Jonathan Biss, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, and From the Repertoire: Western Music History Through Performance. I remember fondly, among other things, our many lively discussions about Arnold Schoenberg in the latter course.
On the heels of the Biss/Beethoven course, Brian created, for anyone who would like to join, a wonderful platform for continuing discussions and listening: the Great Composers Appreciation Society. Each month, we select music to listen to and discuss. Along the way, we share our concert experiences and discuss all manner of things.
I’m pleased to report that the Society has just celebrated its first year anniversary, with congratulations and grateful thanks to Brian Long for making this all happen. In one of the Society’s concert diary entries, Brian wrote about a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. I’m pleased and proud to present Brian’s reflections on that performance, Mahler, and World War One on Prufrock’s Dilemma.
Brian Long Reflects on Mahler’s First Symphony and World War One
I recently heard the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra play Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Andrew Davis conducted. I have heard this music many times, but as with all great music, it has particular resonances each time you hear it, and this time was no exception. The first movement felt like a postcard from a long lost world. This year there have been many commemorations of events 100 years ago which led to World War One. Gustav Mahler’s Austria-Hungary and Vienna were at the heart of those momentous events. I have been reading newspapers from the time and have been repeatedly struck by the way in which the nations of Europe, in particular Austria-Hungary, stumbled into that terrible war. A combination of arrogance and naïveté seems to characterise the thinking of Europe’s leaders at the time. Sleepwalkers is what Christopher Clark calls them in his bestselling book.
The symphony features a famous opening that conjures up the rural world that Mahler knew from his childhood. He was in his late 20s when he wrote this music and had spent his formative years in a non-descript country town in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The town was also home to a small army garrison and the march music and bugle calls that Mahler associated with it became a prominent feature of his music. The opening of this symphony is a good example. For me this music was especially poignant at this performance as I imagined these small rural garrison towns a century ago as they moved from the last few days of untroubled summer tranquillity into the coming military catastrophe. Could the collision of the 19th century and the 20th with all its modernity ever have been more palpable then in these small rural towns in the Austro-Hungarian provinces? In that sense, the music conjures the last years of a lost world.
I have also been reading a book about emigration from Galicia to the United States in the last half of the 19th century (Kaiser of America by Martin Pollack). Galicia was another province of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It straddled what is now eastern Poland and western Ukraine. It was one of the poorest parts of Europe and witnessed an emigration wave of peasants seeking a better life in the USA. The book movingly conveys the poverty and desperation these people felt. Mahler’s upbringing was considerably more comfortable, but he would have also known some aspects of life in such areas. So, again as I listened to his symphony, I thought of those impoverished areas in the outer reaches of the European world that 100 years ago were set to become the first battlefields of a war that changed our world for ever.
As I listened to the performance I felt that the most innovative element in Mahler’s first symphony was actually the third movement. This is famous for quoting the nursery rhyme known to most English speakers as Brother John or Frere Jacques. Mahler changes the melody into the minor key and creates out of it a ghostly funeral march. This was the first time I had heard this symphony played outside Vienna. So maybe that helps clarify why I was suddenly aware of how radical and indeed strange this music must have seemed to Vienna’s concert-going public of the time. Mahler was an outsider in Vienna. He was a Jew from a poor background in a provincial town. Even though he rose to the top of the musical establishment, he remained at heart and at home tied to his roots in a simple lifestyle. He may have played for and rubbed shoulders with the wealthy and well to do in turn-of-the-century Vienna, but in his being, and therefore his music, he remained an outsider. His Vienna was a city steeped in the music of Beethoven and more recently Brahms and along he came with a ghostly rendering of a children’s song played initially by a solo double bass. No wonder his music was criticised for being “banal”. How the audiences of his day must have felt that this composer was a provincial up-start pulling their collective leg!
None of these insights are particularly new. But the confluence of the 1914 commemorations, my own reading and this particular performance brought out these many fascinating aspects for me. Such can be the power of great music!
About Brian Long: Brian Long studied music in Melbourne and Vienna, where he lived from 1991 to 2001. He teaches in the Arts and Cultural Management program at the University of Melbourne and is currently researching the efficacy of self-management in orchestras.
Brian chose three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, listed below in order of preference. As two are no longer available on YouTube, I have added the Abbado/Lucerne here:
Brian’s three choices:
Daniel Harding & Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (no longer available on YouTube
Bernard Haitink & Berlin Philharmonic (no longer available on YouTube)
Bonus Tracks: In the course of our discussion here about Mahler’s First, which contains “false” or “augmented” cuckoo calls, commenters have identified other works that contain cuckoo calls. A Spotify playlist of the works identified may be found here.
Credits: The photographs at the head and foot of the post may be found here (Zygmunt Ajdukiewicz, Krakow and Goral folk costumes in Lesser Poland (1898)) and here (Unknown photographer, Jewish musicians of Rohatyn (west Ukraine) (1912)).