Music Director's Message:
Classics 6, April 29, 2017
Richard Strauss knew in 1949 that he was writing his final work. He was 85, his health was failing, his spirit had been crushed by the horrors of the Second World War. As a kind of musical Last Will and Testament, Strauss wrote four songs for soprano and orchestra, using poems about dying. The last poem, Im Abendrot (At Sunset) ends with the words, “How tired we are of traveling – / Is this perhaps death?” Strauss answers the poet with music, quoting his own “Transfiguration” theme from his tone poem Death and Transfiguration, written 60 years earlier. Where words fail, music steps in, symbolizing through orchestral sound the fulfillment of the soul after death. This is music of unsurpassed beauty and depth, tapping the very essence of a man who is probably history’s longest-lived and most productive composer. The work’s valedictory title —Four Last Songs — came from the composer himself.
Gustav Mahler was four years older than Strauss, and the two men were close friends until Mahler’s death in 1911. “Mahler’s First” — the Symphony No. 1 in D major written in 1888 — was by no means the work of a novice. Mahler was 28 years old, and had composed his first major work, Das klagende Lied, ten years earlier. It was, however, his first attempt at writing a symphony, and it was breathtakingly ambitious. No other work caused him so much trouble. Its 1889 premiere was a flop; he made major revisions before the second performance in 1893, excising an entire movement, and made more changes before it was finally published in 1898. It never achieved critical success in Mahler’s lifetime. Meanwhile, the success of Strauss’ early tone poems was making him famous and wealthy.
Mahler didn’t know it at the time, but he was redefining the symphony, a genre believed by many (including Strauss) to be obsolete. More than fifty years would go by after his death before the world rediscovered this and his other symphonies, embracing them as standard repertoire for orchestras everywhere. They are apex works, the ultimate showcase of the excellence of individual musicians, the collective orchestra, and the conductor. We hope we are worthy of Mahler’s challenge to us.
And why include Sinfonia india by Carlos Chávez, which was neither his first nor last symphony? Because the invigorating sounds of Chávez’ folk-music-based symphony are as far from Mahler and Strauss as Mexico City is distant from Vienna!