Gustav Mahler intended his symphonies to “contain the entire world” and Symphony No. 1 is no poor start.
Mahler wanted to forge his way into the “titans” of history with a gigantic first symphony where Frère Jacques, ländler and klezmer were just a few of the previously unheard ingredients in classical composition. And he succeded. Like Mahler, this evening’s conductor, Joshua Weilerstein, is Jewish, and in Golijov’s Night of the Flying Horses we sense the presence of strong roots when a Yiddish lullabye sounds in the orchestra. But this evening is also about Alban Berg — a sensitive modernist who made formulaic music formidable in his gripping Violin Concerto, written in memory of an angel in 1935.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) removed the subtitle “Titan” from his Symphony No. 1 (1889, revised 1896) after only a few performances, but its nametag remains. After an atmospheric opening, the surprises line up, and the episodes of folkesy ländler, the tones of Frère Jacques as a funeral march as well as Jewish klezmer music must have taken the audiences at the end of the 19th century by surprise. The great shock arrives in the finale when the existential scream of the opening transforms from pain to triumph, only at the very end. Mahler intended his symphonies to “contain the entire world” and Symphony No. 1 is no poor start as it oscillates between the cosmic and the microscopic, life and death, and heaven and hell.
Mahler knew nothing of that the memory of his wife’s daughter, Manon Gropius, was to be immortalised in Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) Violin Concerto (1935). Manon was like a daughter for Berg, and when she died young he dedicated the work to her with the title “In Memory of an Angel”, before dying himself in the same year. Like Mahler, Berg builds in the concerto a bridge from Romanticism to Modernism as a strict twelve-tone technique blends with traditional tonality and is filled with rich expression and romantic longing. Finally, the mixture of old and new attains perfect balance when J.S. Bach’s timeless 18th century chorale “Es is Genug” blends seamlessly with Berg’s lyrical, open and modern sound universe.
Towards the end of his life, Berg encountered a strong variety of anti-Semitism similar to what Mahler had endured in Vienna some decades earlier, simply because Berg’s teacher was the Jewish Arnold Schönberg. The importance of Judaism in music history has fortunately long been acknowledged, and tonight Jewish impulses have been coloured by a work which falls completely outside the classical mainstream — the Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov’s Night of the Flying Horses (music from the film The Man who Cried, from the year 2000), where a Yiddish lullabye meets Gypsy tones and a Romanian folk song.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation (from Norwegian): Sarah Osa; In photo: Joshua Weilerstein; Photo: Felix Broede)
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