Shostakovich’s Big Break: A Guide to His Symphony No. 1

Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony may be the greatest graduation project of all time. Composed at the age of 18, Shostakovich’s First Symphony was written to fulfill the graduation requirements of the Leningrad Conservatory (earning him the equivalent of a college music degree), and would take the international music world by storm the following year. But even more impressive were the enormous obstacles the young composer had to face in the years leading up to this momentous debut.

Shostakovich with a cat, photographed 28th June, 1925, while he was in the midst of putting the finishing touches on his First Symphony.

Shostakovich with a cat, photographed 28th June, 1925.

Shostakovich had been only 10 years old when the February Revolution ended over 400 years of Romanov rule. As a native of St. Petersburg, he witnessed firsthand the transformation of his country from a Tsarist autocracy to a Communist dictatorship between February and October 1917. These earth-shaking events would have powerful ramifications on his work as a composer, but at the time he was just a musically gifted boy eager to develop his talent—and to survive.

He entered the Petrograd Conservatory at age 13 (St. Petersburg became Petrograd in 1914 with the outbreak of WWI—the name “St. Petersburg” was perceived as too German), but was put into a class with much older students on account of his precocious musical abilities. He not only was a gifted pianist, but also possessed a Mozart-like musical mind (he would compose many of his pieces in his head before writing them down).

Life was difficult for the conservatory students, especially as Russia descended into an abyss of famine and civil war. Fuel rationing left the conservatory unheated during the cold Petrograd winters, and one food shortage left Shostakovich with a ration of only two spoons of sugar and half a pound of pork every fortnight, hardly enough for a single meal. In 1921, the director of the conservatory, the composer Alexander Glazunov, submitted a successful petition to the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment for increased rations for this promising pupil, even though Shostakovich’s music was not to his taste. Shostakovich never forgot the older composer’s kindness.

"Lenin at a Rally of Workers," by Isaak Brodsky (1929).

“Lenin at a Rally of Workers,” by Isaak Brodsky (1929).

Then, in 1922, Shostakovich’s father, a bureaucrat in the department of Weights and Measures, perished from pneumonia. His mother had to work to support Shostakovich and his two sisters, and Shostakovich brought in extra money by capitalizing on his remarkable skill as an improviser, working as an accompanist at silent movie theaters (a task he would come to hate—he felt he was made into “a musical machine able to portray at the drop of a hat ‘happy meetings of two loving hearts’”—trite escapist fare that bore little resemblance to the realities of life in Soviet Russia).

Thus, by the time Shostakovich began work on his watershed First Symphony in the autumn of 1924, the composer had been through more than usual for a young man who had just turned 18. Despite the conservatism of his professors at the Petrograd Conservatory (his main teacher was Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law, who seemed determined that music history would not progress beyond about 1905), Shostakovich had already absorbed many of the young century’s musical developments. Meeting with other young musicians who had imported scores from abroad, Shostakovich quickly assimilated the new musical language being developed by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and other composers. While his First Symphony does bear traces of these influences, Shostakovich wielded them into what we today recognize as his unmistakable personal voice. Shostakovich’s style would continue to develop and mature over the course of his long career, but even in this early work his characteristic sense of humor and intensity of expression are already apparent.

The symphony opens with a mischievous duet for trumpet and bassoon, the opposite of the grand, portentous opening that Shostakovich’s teachers might have expected:

The introduction that follows is full of humorous starts and stops, as melodic fragments furtively appear in one set of instruments then another, like a forbidden note passed around a classroom.

A solo clarinet then abruptly begins the first proper theme. While its square, four-bar phrases and simple, pulsing accompaniment seem conventional, its angular shape and strange “wrong-note” harmonies give it an ironic twist. Shostakovich later complained that “At the conservatory, they taught me ‘scheme,’ not ‘form.’…Not a word was uttered about the expressive character of the musical line.” Perhaps the young Shostakovich is having a joke at his teachers’ expense, giving them a theme that technically “follows the rules” but has an expressive character would leave them shaking their heads.

Charlie Chaplin in "The Gold Rush," which came out in 1925, the same year Shostakovich completed his First Symphony. Despite his distaste for accompanying films, Shostakovich always enjoyed Charlie Chaplin's movies.

Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold Rush,” which came out in 1925, the same year Shostakovich completed his First Symphony. Despite his distaste for accompanying films, Shostakovich always enjoyed Charlie Chaplin’s movies.

The theme is then developed, at times following textbook procedures and at others taking unexpected turns. These developments are suddenly abandoned, and right according to schedule, a second contrasting theme appears as dictated by academic models. Introduced by a soft, pizzicato string accompaniment, a solo flute plays this second theme, which has a gentle, waltzing lilt and perhaps more sincerity than the musical jokes we have heard thus far. Hints of Tchaikovskian ballet music are even detectable amid Shostakovich’s unconventional harmonies and metrical games. The theme fades away to a long, low note in the basses, and a solo violin announces the beginning of a more developmental section with material from the introduction.

After several boisterous passages, the first theme seems to reappear, but is abruptly cut short as it is in the wrong key (such false returns had been a classic gag since Haydn). Instead, we hear the themes return backwards: first the graceful waltz, then the cheeky first theme, and last the introduction.

The second movement is a madcap scherzo that intensifies Shostakovich’s ironic comedy. A number of commentators have noted its cartoonish character; with its prominent piano solos, this movement might easily have been inspired by Shostakovich’s work as a film accompanist. Its fleeting melodies fly by at lightning speed, until we reach a quieter, slower, and more ominous middle section. The fast opening music returns gradually, accelerating back to the original tempo with great suspense. The theme from the middle section then returns triple forte in the brass, transformed by the musical whirlwind. The darkly comic attempts of the piano to end the movement form one of Shostakovich’s most witty (and haunting) musical jokes.

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde ends with the deaths of the adulterous lovers.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde had become a symbol of doomed love.

In the slow third movement, it quickly becomes apparent that the fun and games are over. The movement begins with an extended solo for the oboe, which plays a long, heartfelt melody. The oboe is then answered by an expressive cello solo that strongly recalls the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Could Shostakovich be invoking the age-old trope of using a high solo instrument to represent a woman and a low one to represent a man? Such an interpretation, combined with the references to Wagner’s love story, would give an amorous coloring to this music.

Once the cello solo subsides, menacing, militaristic trumpet fanfares appear softly in the background as the violins take up the oboe melody. The mood darkens, and the solo oboe takes up a new melody whose dotted rhythms recall the style of a march (possibly a funeral march?). After some development, the opening oboe melody returns as a high violin solo. The cello melody does not return; instead, the march reappears in its place, played by a muted solo trumpet. The opening melody plays simultaneously in the low strings, revealing that it and the march are in fact two sides of the same coin (perhaps a reference to the idea of “Liebestod”—”‘love-death”—that dominates Tristan and Isolde). As the movement ends, we hear just a hint of a cello solo as the music fades away amid the soft, ghostly fanfare rhythms, now played by the strings.

Maintaining the dramatic tension, the third movement goes straight into the finale with a snare drum roll that begins imperceptibly, but grows in volume and intensity until the orchestra explodes. The finale then begins with an introduction that has the character of an operatic scene: woodwinds ‘sing’ arioso lines above tense, tremolo strings. The cellos play a yearning motif reminiscent of the previous movement’s Wagnerian theme. After a crescendo, the music catches fire with a fast, incendiary clarinet solo. After some frighteningly intense passages, the music slows for a more lyrical violin solo, but the fiery music soon returns. It builds to a sustained fortissimo climax for full orchestra, which suddenly breaks off. A doom-laden timpani solo based on the fanfare motif from the third movement follows, leading to the return of the lyrical solo violin melody, but this time played by the solo cello. The melodic line grows in intensity, transferred first to the trumpet, then the strings above a pulsing, Tchaikovskian accompaniment, which is cut off at its height by violent fanfares that bring the symphony to its tragic conclusion.

Leopold Stokowski in 1926.

Leopold Stokowski in 1926.

Shostakovich completed the short score of the symphony by May of 1925, just in time to present it to his professors. Despite the symphony’s unconventional elements, the faculty was so impressed that they recommended it for public performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic (Petrograd had become Leningrad the year before). Overjoyed by this exceptional honor, Shostakovich finished the orchestration in the following months. The symphony was given a performance at the conservatory that summer, but had to wait until the following May for the public premiere. This new work caused a sensation, and the image of the 19-year-old, bespectacled composer nervously taking his bows would become a famous in Shostakovich lore.

Somehow, this symphony that began with schoolboy pranks and ended with tragic love destroyed by violence spoke to the Leningrad audience, which had been through so much in the past decade. Within a year, it would be performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Bruno Walter and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski (who would later become the Houston Symphony’s Music Director in the 1950s). Nearly overnight, the teenage Shostakovich had achieved international fame, a fame that would protect him throughout his many dangerous confrontations with the Soviet state in the years to come. The symphony remains one of his most popular works.

Don’t miss Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall September 28, 30 & October 1. Get tickets and more info here.

Posted in 2017-18 Season, Classical | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dear Houston Symphony Family Member,

 On behalf of everyone at the Houston Symphony, thank you and congratulations to our outstanding orchestra, Chorus, music director and vocal soloists who together performed a magnificent and inspiring season opening concert last night at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall.  It was incredibly meaningful to have our talented Houston Symphony and Chorus back, sharing the joy of music and helping our community heal from recent events.  Our deep gratitude also goes out to Bob Yekovich and the Shepherd School of Music for opening their home to us, our amazing staff who has been working tirelessly and creatively behind the scenes to secure performance venues and concerts, and the entire Houston Symphony community for the patience, flexibility and support extended to all of us as we launch our 2017–18 Season.

I am also writing with an update on the condition of Jones Hall and a summary of changes to concerts through the end of September.  Houston First is working on adding a page to their website to update the public on the status of theater district buildings; we will provide that link when it becomes available.  We appreciate Houston First’s diligent efforts to help us return to Jones Hall as soon as possible. Work is underway to repair wheelchair-accessible restrooms, the courtyard level entrance hallway, the offices and the rehearsal room.  Houston Symphony performances at Jones Hall have been cancelled or relocated elsewhere through at least the end of September. Here is a summary of updated concert information for performances through October 1:

Mahler & Dvořák
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Thursday, Sept. 14 (8 p.m.)
Friday, Sept. 15 (8 p.m.)
Sunday, Sept. 17 (2:30 p.m.)
Location: Stude Concert Hall at Rice University

  • The performance originally scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 16 will now take place on Friday, Sept. 15.
  • These concerts are being offered for free to the community; original ticket holders for the weekend have priority access.
  • Reserved tickets to these performances are fully committed; however, all are welcome to attend on a stand-by basis as unoccupied seats will be released a few moments before the start of the concert.

Beethoven and Piazzolla
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Friday, Sept. 22 (8 p.m.)
Saturday, Sept. 23 (8 p.m.)
Location: Stude Concert Hall at Rice University

  • The concert program originally scheduled for Sept. 22, 23 and 24, Andrés Conducts Schumann, has been cancelled.
  • This new concert program is being offered for free to the community; original ticket holders for the weekend have priority access.
  • There will be no Sunday concert.
  • Reserved tickets to these performances are fully committed; however, all are welcome to attend on a stand-by basis as unoccupied seats will be released a few moments before the start of the concert.

Russian Masters
Vassily Sinaisky, conductor
Thursday, Sept. 28 (8 p.m.)
Saturday, Sept.30 (8 p.m.)
Sunday, Oct. 1 (7:30 p.m.)
Location: Stude Concert Hall at Rice University

  • The performance originally scheduled on Sunday, Oct. 1 at 2:30 pm will now take place at 7:30 pm.
  • All other concert details remain unchanged.

Garrison Keillor
Monday, Sept. 25 (7:30 p.m.)
Location: Cullen Performance Hall at the University of Houston
(The Houston Symphony does not perform on this program)

  • Patrons will be provided with additional details regarding parking and directions closer to the concert date. Since the performance location has changed, patrons will receive new tickets with revised seating assignments.

Thank you for your continued support of the Houston Symphony and our community at large.  You can make an invaluable contribution to our recovery and to that of our affected orchestra and staff members with a gift to the Houston Symphony Annual Fund or Employee Relief Fund here:

Thank you for all that you do in support of the Houston Symphony and #HouRecovers. Together, we are #HouStrong.

All the best,

Janet F. Clark


Houston Symphony Society Board

Posted in 2014-2015 Season | Leave a comment

Houston Symphony Update and How You Can Help

Dear Houston Symphony family member,

On behalf of the Board, musicians and staff of the Houston Symphony, please know that we are thinking of you all during the process of recovering and rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey. The last two weeks have brought unprecedented challenges to Houston, but they have also seen our incredible community rally to help and support those impacted by the storm. I am very proud that many musicians of the Houston Symphony have visited the George R. Brown Convention Center and other temporary shelters elsewhere in the city, to provide the respite and comfort of music.

A dozen of our colleagues, both musicians and staff, have suffered damage to their homes. The Houston Symphony is nothing without these musicians and team members, who make great music possible for a great city. We invite you to help them by donating to the Houston Symphony Employee Assistance Fund, established by the Executive Committee of the Houston Symphony Society Board. Your contribution directly supports Symphony employees who are facing substantial home recovery costs directly related to Hurricane Harvey. And, because the Houston Symphony is an established nonprofit organization, your donation is tax-deductible. You can support these treasured Symphony colleagues through this link, and select “Employee Assistance Fund” in the dropdown menu.

Regarding our performance home, thanks to the hard work of Houston First, Jones Hall will re-open in the near future; we will share that date when available. We are pleased to announce that the Houston Symphony will open its 2017-18 Season at Stude Concert Hall at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, with our first Classical Series concert weekend. These concerts, on Thursday, September 14, Friday, September 15, and Sunday, September 17, will feature the orchestra and chorus under the leadership of Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

To help serve our community at this difficult time, we invite the public to attend all three of these performances for free. We are grateful to Rice University’s generosity in making Stude Hall available for these concerts. On Monday, our Patron Services Center will contact current ticketholders with reserved tickets to these concerts, and will share information with the public about how to secure free tickets for these performances.

We will also invite first responders to attend the second Classical Series weekend—Andrés Conducts Schumann on September 22-24—free of charge. The location of these concerts will be confirmed soon.

After Harvey, it’s more true than ever that we rely on the generosity of donors, so if you are able to consider a gift to the Houston Symphony’s Annual Fund here, you can make an invaluable contribution to our recovery.

We are, more than ever, proud to be Houston’s Symphony, and very eager to be back on stage to inspire a city that has been through so much. Thank you for all you do for the Houston Symphony. We look forward to seeing you soon.

#HouStrong #HouRecovers

Kind regards,





Houston Symphony Society Board

For more information about contributing to the Houston Symphony, please contact Michael Arlen, Associate Director, Individual Giving and Major Gifts at or (713) 337-8529.

Posted in 2014-2015 Season | Leave a comment

A Guide to Mahler’s Symphony No. 4

For three years, Mahler had composed almost nothing. His first three gargantuan symphonies had only met with sporadic success, if they were performed at all, and he was consumed with the Herculean task of his new job: running Vienna’s Imperial Opera. Mahler was determined to transform the declining institution into a musical and theatrical experience unlike any the world had ever seen. He would drag everyone else—kicking and screaming if necessary—to new heights of musical precision and expression, changing opera and the art of conducting forever.

Gustav Mahler in 1898.

Gustav Mahler in 1898.

His daily life, however, was a never ending battle with musicians, set designers, administrators…and especially singers. When recalcitrant artists felt bullied by his demands, they often aired their griefs to the anti-Semitic press, which was only too happy to publish exaggerated, ugly stories about the opera’s new director (sometimes even fabricating them outright). Born into a Moravian Jewish family, Mahler had publically converted to Catholicism in order to be considered for the post. While this satisfied Kaiser Franz Joseph, it failed to placate Vienna’s increasingly virulent anti-Semites.

Bit by bit, however, his reforms took hold. At least for his first two years as director, Vienna’s critics were unanimous in their praise of his work. Even the anti-Semitic papers struggled to find something to critique with regard to his performances.

The price for artistic perfection, however, was not only incessant struggle, but also lost time. Mahler had to force himself to ignore musical ideas that came to him during the opera season because he had no time for composition. His summer vacations, normally prime composing time, became strangely unproductive, and he only managed to write a few short, albeit masterful, songs. Mahler began to fear that his inspiration was drying up and his days of writing major works were at an end.

Caricatures of Mahler conducting published in Vienna in 1901.

Caricatures of Mahler conducting published in Vienna in 1901.

The summer of 1899 had been as fallow as the two previous summers—worse, in fact, because he was staying in a town where a band would play “serenades, funeral marches and wedding marches every day from eleven o’clock and on Sunday from eight in the morning,” driving Mahler to distraction. Then, with only a few weeks of vacation left, the dam burst. Mahler had been suffering from constipation, and had taken a laxative. After spending several hours in the smallest room of the house, he emerged with a newly composed song: “Revelge,” now regarded as one of his greatest masterpieces. Mahler himself never tired of recounting the unusual circumstances of its creation.

The composing hut where Mahler completed his Symphony No. 4. Photo Credit: Johann Jaritz.

The composing hut where Mahler completed his Symphony No. 4. Photo Credit: Johann Jaritz.

With one work finished, another soon began to take shape in his mind: a symphony. Mahler raced to write down as much as he could, fearing that he would have to return to the dreaded grind of the opera before he could finish it. In just ten days, he managed to sketch what would become his Fourth Symphony, but it was far from finished. Mahler left the rest of it for the following summer, anguished by the thought that he might not be able to remember how it went after the intervening months.

Determined that he would have no distractions the next summer, Mahler purchased some land in a quieter alpine village and had a house constructed there. In addition to the main building, there was also a small composing hut some distance away, surrounded by trees. It took him a few weeks to settle in, but to his great relief he soon found the music coming back to him. Working all day, Mahler composed a new and unusual work that would explore themes of childhood, innocence and spirituality, completing it just a few weeks after his fortieth birthday.

A New Direction

It was Mahler’s most sophisticated score yet, but for all its refinements, the music also possessed a childlike simplicity. In a conversation with his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, he compared his new symphony to the “uniform blue of the sky.”

In a conversation with his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, he compared his new symphony to the “uniform blue of the sky.”

In a conversation with his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, he compared his new symphony to the “uniform blue of the sky.”

It was unlike any of the symphonies he had written before. With their heaven-storming passages, gigantic orchestras and vast dimensions, Mahler’s first three symphonies had won him a reputation as a great noisemaker and musical modernist. Aware of this, Mahler cheekily noted that his new symphony didn’t include any trombones (some of the loudest instruments in the orchestra), and it also clocked in at under an hour (compact by Mahlerian standards). While he still employed a large orchestra, he used the instruments for color rather than volume, and almost never all at once. Although he confessed that he had thought of some beautiful ones, he refused to publish programmatic movement titles as he had done with his first three symphonies, “so as to avoid giving rise to further absurd misunderstandings.” Between his sketches, remarks made to friends and the music itself, however, it is possible to form a conjecture as to what Mahler had in mind.

A Song of Innocence and Experience

The symphony’s opening is one of the most enchanting in the literature: Mahler begins with the chilly sound of sleigh bells before taking us inside to a crackling fire:

A note about this recording: it features a performance conducted by Willem Mengelberg, who consulted Mahler himself with regard to the symphony’s interpretation. It is thus the closest we will ever come to knowing how Mahler might have conducted it. Listeners accustomed to modern interpretations will notice a much greater degree of flexibility of tempo than usual.

Schubert plays the piano for a gathering of friends, as drawn from memory by Schuberts friend Moritz von Schwind in 1868, many years after Schuberts death.

Schubert plays the piano for a gathering of friends, as drawn from memory by his friend Moritz von Schwind in 1868, many years after Schubert’s death.

Mahler said that the first three notes of the melody in the violins should be savored “in the same way as we begin a ‘Viennese waltz’ in Vienna.” This music is the epitome of gemutlichkeit, an untranslatable German word that encompasses both “coziness” and “belonging.” It has a delightfully domestic, nostalgic character, in part created by a melodic style that strongly recalls Schubert’s music. Mahler had been familiar with Schubert’s piano sonatas since his student days, and during the second summer Mahler spent working on this symphony he read through all of Schubert’s chamber music and songs (over 600 works in total) when taking breaks from working on his own symphony (proof that you can take the workaholic out of the office, but you can’t take the office out of the workaholic). Some scholars have even suggested that specific passages by Schubert may have served as models for melodies in this symphony.

Mahler was likely attracted not only by Schubert’s pretty tunes, but also by his musical structure. Schubert’s works are famous for their “heavenly lengths”; he was able to expand traditional musical forms by constructing them with a seemingly endless stream of melody. For a composer like Mahler who wanted to expand the symphony both in time and emotional scope, Schubert likely served as a helpful model.

A typical Biedermeier interior.

A typical Biedermeier interior.

Mahler had more than purely musical reasons for referencing Schubert, however; by 1900, Schubert’s music was associated with the Biedermeier era, a period following the Napoleonic Wars that was remembered as a time of peace, stability, prosperity, and political reaction. Eager to prevent any trace of revolutionary activity, Austria’s political elites instituted a strict censorship regime following Napoleon’s defeat. Artists thus tended to shy away from political topics, focusing instead on sentimental depictions of family life—gemutlichkeit. It was an era of waltzes, frilly interior design, and art that aimed to please rather than ask probing questions. Schubert’s music can be read as internal critique of the era, given its combination of Biedermeier style and intense emotional depth. Additionally, Schubert’s own unconventional lifestyle didn’t exactly match up to the idealized depictions of family life popular in Biedermeier fiction—he had died penniless at the age of 31, most likely as a result of syphilis.

Mahler compared the melodies of the first movement to "a dewdrop on a flower that suddenly illuminated by the sun, bursts into a thousand lights and colors.”

Mahler compared the melodies of the first movement to “a dewdrop on a flower that suddenly illuminated by the sun, bursts into a thousand lights and colors.”

It would seem that Mahler chose this era as a kind of “setting” for his Fourth Symphony, one that particularly resonated with the themes of childhood and innocence that he found himself exploring. In the first movement, one lovely Schubertian melody follows another in what Mahler likened to “a dewdrop on a flower that suddenly illuminated by the sun, bursts into a thousand lights and colors.” After introducing this wealth of ideas, the sleigh bells return. We then hear a solo from a violin, an instrument that will have a prominent role throughout this symphony. This time, the solo violin takes a turn to darker, stranger tonalities. A number of commentators have noted the bird call-like figures in the woodwinds that follow. Perhaps we have snuck away into the woods, straying farther and farther from the innocence of the family hearth.

“But sometimes the atmosphere darkens and grows strangely terrifying,” Mahler said. “Not that the sky itself clouds over: it goes on shining with its everlasting blue. But we suddenly become afraid of it, just as on a beautiful day in the sun-dappled forest one is often overcome by a panic terror.” The music builds to a thunderous climax, followed by a soft but menacing figure in the trumpet.

Mahler referred to this trumpet figure as “the little summons,” comparing it to a commander marshalling his troops. Perhaps even more revealing is that Mahler used it as the basis of the funeral march that begins his Fifth Symphony. Soon after, the melodies from the first part of the movement return, beginning in mid-phrase, as if they had been going on all along while we were away on our adventure. They are not quite the same, however. Mahler refused to ever write a literal repetition of any musical idea. He wanted his musical narrative to reflect the irreversibility of the passage of time—just as one cannot go back and relive a portion of one’s life, musical ideas cannot return exactly as they were before. As the movement draws to a close, the music slows and fades into a lullaby-like atmosphere, the set up for a final burst of childish glee.

“Playing us up to heaven”

In his 1872 self portrait, the German artist Arnold Böcklin depicted Freund Hein playing a fiddle over his shoulder.

In his 1872 self portrait, the German artist Arnold Böcklin depicted Freund Hein playing a fiddle over his shoulder.

In the second movement, the solo violin returns in a new guise. Mahler originally gave it the following subtitle: “Freund Hein strikes up the dance for us; he strokes the fiddle most strangely and plays us up to heaven.” Freund Hein was an allegorical figure from German folklore who represented death. Mahler gives the violin Freund Hein’s skeletal grin by asking the soloist to tune his instrument a whole tone higher than usual, creating a shrill, rough sound like that of a country fiddle. In between the appearances of Freund Hein, Mahler wrote contrasting episodes of strange and enchanting music, which he likened to musical “spider’s webs.” Some of the melodies are even sweetly sentimental, but in the end Freund Hein always returns with his eerie fiddle.

The slow third movement is the real heart of the symphony; Mahler said that it reminded him of his mother’s smile. Although it has a few idiosyncrasies, it is a double theme and variations: two main melodies alternate and are varied with each reappearance. The first, which begins the movement, is a tender melody that first appears in the cello; the second, a more plaintive, melancholy line in the oboe. The two alternate, building to a heart-wrenching climax before dying away. During the denouement, a fast, carnivalesque passage threatens to overwhelm the meditative mood, only to be reined in by the horns. Then, everything comes to a halt, and the orchestra explodes into a coruscating wall of sound representing the gates of heaven. At this moment, Mahler was sorely tempted to include trombones for a few measures, but in the end he managed to open the gates of heaven without them. Now, he said, “everything will be unraveled, and you will understand that no harm was meant after all.”

The title page of the 1806 edition of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

The title page of the 1806 edition of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Having passed through the gates, the final movement brings us into heaven itself. Unconventionally, Mahler chose to end his symphony with a song for solo voice and orchestra, something no composer had ever done before. The text of the song was taken from one of Mahler’s perennial sources of inspiration, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, “The Youth’s Magic Horn,” a collection of anonymous German folk poetry. Mahler was attracted to the simplicity and naïveté of folk poetry, which he felt was closer to nature than more literary verses.

This poem presents a child’s vision of heaven. It is usually sung by an adult female soprano, preferably with a light, bright, childlike voice, although Mahler indicated that it could also be sung by a boy soprano. Mahler actually wrote this movement eight years earlier as an independent song called “Das himmlische Leben,” or “The Heavenly Life.” He had originally intended to use this song as the final movement of his Third Symphony, but decided to save it for another time when he realized how long his Third was going to be even without it. He made a few minor changes, but left it mostly the way it had been.

From the beginning, this movement had been the destination and source of the entire work. Most of the preceding melodic ideas were derived from small motifs in the song, creating a sense of arrival and fulfillment. For a depiction of heaven, the music is remarkably earthy, reflecting the folk origins of the poem. The child pictures what life in heaven must be like, amusingly noting that “We lead angelic lives, yet have a merry time of it besides.”

Angels playing music. Perhaps Mahler? Detail of El Greco's The Annunciation from the Museo Nacional del Prado.

Angels playing music. Perhaps a chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth? Detail of El Greco’s The Annunciation from the Museo Nacional del Prado.

The child then imagines a great heavenly feast. The sleigh bells return, now with a fierce winter wind behind them, as St. John leads a little lamb to the slaughter for the banquet. The child’s imagination proves all too bound to earthly life: it seems there is death even in heaven itself. This troubling scene soon passes, however, and the symphony concludes with the child listening to the music of the angels:

There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Cecilia and all her relations
make excellent court musicians.
The angelic voices
gladden our senses,
so that all awaken for joy.

Perhaps there is no music on earth that can compare, but in the serenity of this symphony’s final moments, Mahler surely comes close.

There’s Always a Critic

At the 1901 premiere in Munich, the symphony met with near universal incomprehension. One young musician by the name of William Ritter recalled, “Something was up…We all felt it at once…This symphony obviously spelt danger.”

Listeners who had appreciated Mahler’s monumental Second Symphony were puzzled by the quiet intimacy of this new work; his rich allusions to Schubert and folk music were interpreted as a lack of originality; many were disturbed by the juxtaposition of “high” and “low” musical styles, which sounded vulgar to them; the sensual beauty of some passages was deemed overly sexual and illicit, while more dissonant passages were derided as “ear torturing effects.” While some praised the complexity of his orchestration and technique, many felt that this sophistication made the music’s childlike naïveté sound insincere; others complained that Mahler had clearly written program music, but had provided no program, without which the score was incomprehensible; and others could not see past their own anti-Semitic prejudice, believing that anything written by a Jewish composer must be a threat.

One representative review argued that the symphony was nothing but “technique, calculation, vanity, a morbid and insipid supermusic, a shapeless stylistic monstrosity that collapses under a surfeit of witty details.” Another believed that Mahler, having “finally discovered that he lacked the essential faculties for composing” had intended his symphony as a monstrous joke to “see how much the public can be made to swallow without perceiving that it’s being ridiculed.” Tragically, Mahler, the most sincere of composers, had been completely misunderstood.

But there were a few who realized what Mahler had meant. One especially insightful critic, Arthur Seidl, wrote that “Mahler is a real ‘God Seeker.’ His most secret inner being contemplates the immensity of nature with a really religious fervor; he is inexorably drawn toward the enigma of existence…it is the critics who consider him with an ironic eye and find only affectation in his music; it is they who are stubborn and who cannot find the key to his naïve and childlike world!”

It would be many, many years before Mahler’s Symphony would finally be more widely appreciated. Even today, this complex work raises more questions than it answers. Its last notes leave listeners wondering, “What next?” That, however, is a story for another symphony: Mahler’s Fifth.

Don’t miss Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 at Jones Hall September 14, 16 & 17. Get tickets and more info at

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Dvořák’s Te Deum

Jeannette Thurber was an important philanthropist and music patron in the late nineteenth century.

Jeannette Thurber was an important philanthropist and music patron in the late nineteenth century.

In 1891, Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, an energetic American philanthropist and music lover, had a great triumph: she convinced the world-renowned Czech composer Antonin Dvořák to be the new director of her National Conservatory of Music in New York City. For his arrival the following year, she commissioned him to write a piece for the 400th anniversary of Columbus Day: a grand cantata for chorus, orchestra and soloists. She would provide a text, but in case it did not arrive on time, “the proposition is that Dr. Dvořák choose some Latin Hymn such as ‘Te Deum laudamus’ or ‘Jubilate Deo’ or any other which would be suitable for the occasion.”

Ultimately she settled on a poem called The American Flag, but by the time Dvořák received it he had already written his Te Deum. The Te Deum (We Praise Thee, O God) is a traditional Latin hymn that had been set to music by many composers over the centuries. By 1891, Dvořák had already written several major sacred works, including his Requiem and Stabat Mater.

Antonín Dvořák, composer

Antonín Dvořák, composer

Faith was important to Dvořák, a devout Catholic, but at the same time he was also quite tolerant of others’ beliefs; he wrote his violin concerto for the great Jewish violinist Joseph Joachim, and was a longtime friend of the composer Johannes Brahms, a Lutheran-turned-agnostic. Of Brahms’ lack of faith he once famously wrote, “Such a man, such a fine soul—and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!”

Perhaps more important for understanding the Te Deum is a story from Dvořák’s youth. Once during family prayers he memorably exclaimed, “I pray best over there at the window, looking out at the greenery and the sky!” Dvořák’s faith was colored by his love of nature, and the music he wrote for his Te Deum has an earthiness not usually found in the ethereal world of sacred music.

In the opening chorus, pounding timpani, cymbals, triangle and bass drum make a tremendous noise:

Trilling woodwinds evoke twittering birds as the violins joyfully play melodies and rhythms inspired by Czech folk music. The harmonies are extremely simple, as one would expect from a band of improvising peasant musicians: the first 20 measures, about a minute of music, are essentially one long G major chord. The music conjures images of a great outdoor festival with just a whiff of the Slavic, pre-Christian past.

Between 1910 and 1928, the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha created his 'Slav Epic,' a monumental series of paintings depicting famous episodes from the history of Slavic peoples. The third painting in the series ("Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy in Great Moravia" pictured above) depicts the introduction of Christianity to Moravia in the 8th century. The painting evokes a festive atmosphere similar to that of Dvořák's Te Deum.

Between 1910 and 1928, the Czech artist Alfons Mucha created ‘The Slav Epic,’ a monumental series of paintings depicting famous episodes from the history of Slavic peoples. The third painting in the series (“Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy in Great Moravia” pictured above) depicts the introduction of Christianity to Moravia in the 8th century. The painting evokes a festive atmosphere similar to that of Dvořák’s Te Deum.

The other major influence on the Te Deum is operatic. Like Verdi’s Requiem of 1874, the music has a theatricality and drama more common in the opera house than the choir stalls. It also calls for two outstanding operatic soloists, a soprano and bass (the same solo voice types Brahms used in his German Requiem). The soloists also help clarify the structure of the twenty-minute work, making its sections easy to follow.

After the opening chorus, the music slows for an expressive solo passage in which the soprano sings of the apostles, prophets and martyrs all praising the divine. Woodwinds echo motifs from the opening, and in hushed tones the chorus sings “Holy Lord God of hosts” as a refrain.

The jubilant opening music then returns, leading to a solo for the bass. Announced by a brass fanfare, the bass sternly proclaims, “Thou art the King of Glory,” continuing praise for God the father and son. Accompanied by sweet violins, the chorus responds by singing “We therefore pray thee, help thy servants.”

In the following chorus, the music becomes more dramatic as the chorus sings with new urgency. The soprano then begins a confessional, operatic solo, pleading “O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.” The chorus comments with “O Lord, have mercy upon us,” a phrase that is high and delicate when sung by the women and low and mysterious when sung by the men.

The soprano and bass then join together for a final blessing, beginning a gradual crescendo that leads to one of Dvořák’s most electrifying endings. The sound of the soprano soaring over the interweaving bass, chorus and orchestra during the final Alleluias is truly ecstatic. —Calvin Dotsey

Don’t miss Dvořák’s Te Deum at Mahler & Dvořák, September 14, 16 & 17. Get tickets and more info at

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