Works by Charles Ives, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler
Patriotism, irony and sentimentality: Three Places in New England by Charles Ives
It begins with scarcely more than a shimmer, a premonition – emerging sounds, music of the spheres, creeping timidly out of quiet darkness towards the light of the world. A flute melody, muted, as though distant, more fragmentary than formulated; in its tow, no less delicate, a wistfully sighing string line, floating away over gentle musical hillocks. With these diffuse sounds, Charles Ives, the father of modern North American music, depicts the atmosphere in Boston Common, the oldest US park, where in 1897 a bronze monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was erected in memory of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commander of one of the first African-American regiments in the Civil War. It is a sort of milky urban morning mood, which blends with the noises of everyday life during the first piece in Ives’s orchestral triptych Three Places in New England, composed between 1908 and 1914 but not premiered until 1930. More concretely: it blends with varied popular and folksong motifs in the composer’s inimitable manner. One of these borrowings is from Stephen Foster’s parlour song Old Black Joe; another quotes from the patriotic song Battle Cry of Freedom (“The Union Forever”), which surges into a full-blooded march parody: hearty, wiry, sweeping – anything but sleek and smooth. Poetry lost? Not at all. The morning mood returns to this magical place, and with it the tranquillity in which the flute again sings its lovely, lonely melody into the treetops.
The second movement, Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut, makes for a sharp contrast. A tribute to the Revolutionary War general Israel Putnam, who set up camp near Redding during the winter of 1778-79, its polystylistic structure and other musical inventions look forward to the second half of the 20th century. Ives the visionary winks through this piece, wildly irascible at times, jovially folklike at others as it rings the changes on its musical sources, including parts of Ives’s own Overture and March: “1776”, passages from a work for wind band from 1902-03 and from his Country Band March,as well as the marching song The British Grenadiers, which one of Putnam’s soldiers retexted as Hail America. There is a good deal of patriotism going on here, but it is decked out with typical Ivesian irony, through which, however, there wafts a trace of the sentimentality that aerates all the works of this benevolently philosophical composer.
This becomes especially clear in the third movement. The Housatonic at Stockbridge, basedon a poem by Robert Underwood Johnson, is a scène élégiaque with a plaintively beautiful, almost impressionistic, melody accompanying two strollers on their Sunday morning walk – Charles Ives and his wife Harmony: “We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember.” Ives formed this impression into an arrestingly multi-coloured, glinting chorale prelude, which underscores the image of hymn-singing in a closely knit fabric of orchestral sound.
Music of existential powerlessness: Three Fragments from Alban Berg’s Wozzeck
From three sites out of American history to three “fragments” from a key work of music theatre. Sculpted by Alban Berg himself from his Wozzeck, whose premiere on 14 December 1925 at Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden has long been legendary. But the composer’s objective was not to dismember his great work but purely to make passages of the opera accessible to audiences, and by winning them over to give his creation at least a fair chance of success. He was abetted in this pursuit by Hermann Scherchen. After Berg had sent him the opera’s vocal score, Scherchen conducted selections on 11 June 1924 at the International Music Festival in Frankfurt, with the soprano Beatrice Sutter-Kottlar as Marie. The three fragments are focused on this character. First is the orchestral interlude that follows Act I, scene 2. It is night and the sound of military fanfares means that the two soldiers Wozzeck and Andres have to return to their barracks. As the men leave, the Drum Major appears. At the head of the band, he marches past Marie’s house and arouses in her the desires that will lead directly to the catastrophe but are not yet visible or audible. Marie sings her – and Wozzeck’s – child to sleep.
The second movement of the suite comprises all of Act III, scene 1 – a theme with seven variations and a double fugue – including the orchestral postlude. Again Marie is in the spotlight. Tormented by her own infidelity, she reads the passage from the Gospel of John about Jesus pardoning the woman taken in adultery. The third fragment begins with the music describing Wozzeck’s suicide, followed by the devastating, tragically charged D minor intermezzo that forms the expressive climax of the entire opera. It leads to the final scene, which is so profoundly shattering precisely because of its apparent innocence: the son of Marie and Wozzeck learns of his mother’s death from another child while playing in the street. Not even the music can help any longer. Gradually it fades, then simply breaks off. Like Wozzeck’s life – like Marie’s life. No hope – anywhere. The world – Waste Land.
“Truth and poetry in music”: Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony
There is no symphony by Mahler in which this claim cannot be put forward, yet his worlds represent more than that, simultaneously conceiving and describing their own multi-membranous complexity. This is already true of Mahler’s symphonic first-born of 1888, which he originally surrounded with a poetic programme – derived from the writer Jean Paul in order to explain this “world” to the listener – and later revised. Its enormous richness of colours and ideas is astonishing, even more so the composer’s architectonic prowess (admittedly necessary to build the equivalent of a whole world) and the magnitude of his achievement.
The aspirations are high: creating an opus that treats no less than “my entire life” (Mahler), expressing “experience and suffering” as “truth and poetry in music”. At the same time, Mahler does not want this confrontation of reality and musical realism to be understood as programme music – even though he is still apostrophizing it as a “symphonic poem in two parts” at the premiere in Budapest in 1889. Whatever associations one may accrue during a listening, the work’s power of attraction is already substantial in the first movement, which begins with spherical string harmonics. The composer skilfully ties the divergent themes together to create a kaleidoscopically vibrant impression – not only in the opening movement (Slow. Dragging – Always very easy-going), but also in the following tripartite scherzo with integrated F major Trio; in the slow movement (Solemn and measured), which quotes the last strophe of the fourth Wayfarer song in its spellbound G major middle section; and in the finale, understandably headed “With violent movement”. This last movement is unleashed with the semblance of a “Dies irae” (the knives piercing the score are that sharp) but, after some metamorphoses, it finally reaches an apotheosis in the coda.