Program Notes for Classics 6: Strauss' Last, Mahler's First1617-strauss-mahler-rec

Symphony No. 2 (Sinfonia India)


Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez was born in Mexico City on June 13, 1899, and died there on August 2, 1978. He composed his Symphony No. 2 in 1935-36.  The score calls for four flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolo), three oboes, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani and four percussionists (maracas, suspended cymbals, tenor drum, claves, xylophone, snare drum, Indian drum, metal rattle, rattling string, rasping stick), harp, and strings. The score contains instructions for the use of primitive Indian instruments, if available, in place of some percussion instruments.  Duration is about 12 minutes.

Chávez was raised by his widowed mother, the director of a girls’ school, and received his first piano lessons from his older brother, starting when he was about nine. When he was 11, he began studying with Manuel Ponce, the leading Mexican composer of the day and began composing very actively. On his own he absorbed a leading treatise on orchestration by the French composer Albert Guiraud (best known for having composed the recitatives to Bizet’s Carmen when that work was being converted from an opera-comique—with spoken dialogue— into an all-sung opera after Bizet’s death). Through this work he was able to study the scores of the principal composers of the day and to become largely self-taught as a composer himself. (He did complete a course of studies in composition at the National Conservatory, but he never became a disciple of any of his teachers.)

He began to compose and receive performances through the 1920s, often drawing upon his memory of Aztec themes that he had heard in his childhood. A penchant for recalling ancient Mexico was a strong feature of his music for nearly two decades. In 1922, with his new wife, the pianist Otilia Ortiz, he toured Europe and began to make a name for himself. In Paris, he befriended Paul Dukas, who urged him to draw upon his Mexican heritage.

But at first Chávez’s music was only tepidly received in his native country, so he went to New York and became a close friend of both Aaron Copland and Edgard Varèse, who helped bring his compositions to performance in venues where they were favorably received. (The friendship with Copland was one of the reasons for the American composer’s visit to Mexico City in the early 1930s, where he was inspired to write one of his first “popularist” works, El Salón México.)

In 1928, Chávez accepted the directorship of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, a position he retained for 21 years. He also became director of his alma mater, the National Conservatory, where he inspired a whole new generation of Mexican composers, including Revueltas, Galindo, and Moncayo. Meanwhile he turned out a large number of substantial pieces through the 1930s, including his best-known work, the Sinfonía india (1935), evoking the ancient world of the Aztecs.

About the Music

Throughout much of his career, Chavez investigated the music of pre-Columbian Mexico in stage works (ballets) and concert pieces. These mostly suggest the spirit of the prehistoric world, but in the Sinfonia india, he quotes actual Indian themes. At the same time the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies achieve a remarkable fusion of modern and primitive musical ideas. It is in a single movement, essentially in sonata form, though treated freely in its central development.

The work is marked by fluid, active rhythms, with many changes of meter, to suggest a world, or a culture, being given birth out of nothingness. The main themes rederived from native melodies. The first theme comes from the Huichol Indians of the state of Nayarit (introduced in first violins and oboes), while the second violins and violas maintain the eighth-note movement of the introduction in a 3/2 time. The remaining themes employ melodies from the state of Sonora, leading finally to a powerful ostinato growing to an explosion of great force, described by one Mexican critic as “the voice of a whole people.”


Four Last Songs


Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on September 8, 1949. These songs were written in 1948 in the following order: Im Abendrot (May 6), Frühling (July 18), Beim Schlafengehen (August 4), and September (September 20). Kirsten Flagstad sang the first performance on May 22, 1950, at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. The instrumentation varies from song to song; as a whole the  set calls for three flutes (one doubling piccolo) and an additional piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, harp, celesta, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 24 minutes.

Richard Strauss had just turned 80 when World War II finally came to an end, and there seemed to be little for him to do in the musical world as it was constituted. His final opera, the luminous Capriccio, had been produced three years before. He composed a few small orchestral works, including the delicious Duet‑Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with strings and harp, and a handful of tiny works including two easy pieces for violin written for his favorite young exponent of that instrument, his teenage grandson Christian. But the one‑time bad boy of German modernist music, whose orchestral tone poems made extraordinary new demands on the technique of players and whose operas Salome and Elektra brought scandal at every performance, had long since mellowed and become, for many young musicians, not a grand old man, but a backward‑looking one, writing conservative music that, to many, seemed out of place in the middle of the 20th century.

About the Music

Yet Strauss had a final masterpiece in him, and it took the form, appropriately enough, of a set of songs. The appropriateness lies in the fact that his earliest works were songs, and he first achieved renown with the Opus 10 Lieder. He continued writing in that genre for many years especially for his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, for whose voice he had imagined many of his songs and even perhaps operatic roles. They were in the 54th year of a difficult but enduring marriage when Strauss happened upon a poem by Eichendorff, Im Abendrot. Eichendorff was one of the great masters of German lyric poetry, and his work had been set by any number of earlier composers, but Strauss had never composed a song to his words. Im Abendrot seemed too much to the point not to make an immediate impression: it describes an old couple who have endured joy and sorrow, hand in hand, and who now feel a weariness that may portend death.

The composer took Im Abendrot as a personal vision for himself and Pauline, and he set it to music that was clearly to be his farewell to the world. But he also wanted to make a group of songs. While he was vacationing in Switzerland in 1948, an admirer sent him a selection of poems by Hermann Hesse, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature two years earlier. Here Strauss found what he was looking for. He chose three of the poems to complete the group that comprises his musical testament. A year after writing them he died a peaceful death (commenting to his daughter‑in‑law Alice that the experience was very much as he had composed it 60 years earlier in Death and Transfiguration). He did not live to hear the premiere of the Four Last Songs, the title of which (and the performing order) was supplied by Strauss’s publisher and longtime friend Ernst Roth.

For a composer who made his reputation on music of extraordinary complexity and busyness, the Four Last Songs clearly represent a mellowing, a simplification, and a directness that recommends the set even to listeners who find Strauss’s earlier work not much to their taste. The orchestra is luminous throughout, and the soprano (no other voice is thinkable in these songs, written as a final tribute to Pauline) soars and vocalizes in the ecstasy of unconstrained lyricism. Three of the texts deal with evening, nightfall, or autumn—all images connected with our sense of mortality. Strauss composes music of autumnal warmth that echoes the poems; words and music alike draw the listener in. And for the listener who knows Strauss’s earlier music, there is a special poignancy when the singer asks at the end, “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (“Could this perhaps be death?”), and the answer comes in the distant melody on the horn (the instrument played by Strauss’s father and first teacher), sounding a theme composed six decades earlier for Death and Transfiguration.


In dämmrigen Grüften
Träumte ich lang
Von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften
Von deinem Duft und Vogelsang.

Nun liegst du erschlossen
In Gleis und Zier,
Von Licht übergossen
Wie ein Wunder vor mir.

Du kennst mich wieder,
Du lockst mich zart,
Es zittert durch all meine Glieder
Deine selige Gegenwart!

‑‑Hermann Hesse


In twilit vaults
I dreamed long
of your trees and blue skies,
of your fragrance and bird‑song.

Now you lie disclosed,
glittering, adorned,
bathed in light
like a miracle before me.

You know me again,
you beckon me tenderly,
your blissful presence
makes all my limbs tremble!



Der Garten trauert,
Kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
Still seinem Ende entgegen.

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
Nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
In den sterbenden Gartentraum.

Lange noch bei den Rosen
Bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh.
Langsam tut er die [grossen] Müdgeword’nen Augen zu.

‑‑Hermann Hesse


The garden mourns,
the rain falls cool on the flowers.
The summer shudders,
silently facing his end.

Leaf after golden leaf drops
down from the high acacia tree.
Summer smiles, surprised and weak,
at the fading garden‑dream.

Yet long among the roses
he lingers, yearning for rest.
Slowly he closes his [large] tired eyes.


Beim Schlafengehen

Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
Soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
Freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
Wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, lasst von allem Tun,
Stirn virgiss du alles Denken,
Alle meine Sinne nun
Wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele unbewacht,
Will in freien Flügen schweben,
Um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
Tief und tausendfach zu leben.

‑‑Hermann Hesse

Before Sleeping

Now that day has made me weary
let the starry night receive
my ardent longings
as it would a tired child.

Hands, leave off all your toil,
mind, put aside all your thoughts:
all my senses long now
to sink into slumber.

And the soul, unobserved,
wants to hover in free flight
in order to live deeply, a thousandfold,
in night’s magic circle.


Im Abendrot

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
Gegangen Hand in Hand:
Vom Wandern ruhen wir [beide] Nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
Es dunkelt schon die Luft,
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
Nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und lass sie schwirren,
Bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
Dass wir uns nicht verirren
In dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde—
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

‑‑Josef von Eichendorff

In Evening’s Glow

We’ve traveled through pain and joy,
gone hand in hand;
let’s [both] rest from wandering,
now, above the quiet land.

Around us the valleys are waning,
already the sky is darkening,
only two larks still are soaring,
dreamily, into the air.

Step close and let them fly,
it’s nearly time for sleep:
so that we do not go astray
in this solitude.

O broad, silent peace,
so deep in sunset glow!
How travel‑weary we are‑‑
could this, perhaps, be death?

German texts set to music by Richard Strauss copyright Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.,
© 1950, renewed 1977, and reprinted here by permission.
English translations by Steven Ledbetter


Symphony No. 1 in D


Gustav Mahler was born at Kalische (Kalište) near the Moravian border of Bohemia on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. He did most of the work on this symphony in February and March 1888. Mahler himself conducted the first performance of the work, then in five movements and called “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts,” with the Budapest Philharmonic on November 20, 1889. He later eliminated the original second movement (“Blumine”) while revising the score. The symphony is scored for four flutes (three of them doubling piccolo), four oboes (one doubling English horn), four clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet, two doubling high clarinet in E‑flat), three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), seven horns, five trumpets, four trombones, bass tuba, timpani (two players), bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam‑tam, harp, and strings. Duration is about 53 minutes.

Mahler took an unusually long time bringing to final form his first symphony, a genre that he was to dominate and change drastically. He may have begun active composition on the First Symphony as early as 1884; it was premiered in 1889, but still not finished. Much of the concentrated work of shaping the score’s first version took place under the impetus of a troubling involvement with a married woman, Marion Mathilda von Weber, the wife of a German soldier, Captain Carl von Weber, who was the grandson of the composer of Der Freischütz. Mahler had met the Weber family late in 1886, when the Leipzig Opera revived a number of Weber’s works for the centennial of the composer’s birth. He continued in close contact with the Webers, and it was at their house that he conceived and first heard the opening sonority of the First Symphony, the extraordinary sound of the dominant note, A, repeated in seven octaves. Mahler took a place at the Webers’ piano while they sat on either side of him, playing the notes in the octaves his hands were unable to reach. Before he knew it, he found himself in love with Marion, and she with him. They planned to run away together, but in the end, Mahler did not show up at the appointed rendezvous.

About the Music

He poured his emotional energies into completing the work we now call the First Symphony and writing the first movement of what we call the Second Symphony, though Mahler himself was thinking of them as symphonic poems—that is, program music with some kind of story to tell. At the premiere in Budapest in 1889, Mahler listed the work in the program like this:

Mahler. “Symphonic Poem” in two parts.
Part I: 1. Introduction and Allegro comodo. 2. Andante. 3. Scherzo.
Part II: 4. A la pompes funèbres; attacca. 5. Molto appassionato.

Despite the title “symphonic poem,” he gave no hint as to its subject matter, and the music struck listeners as ironic in a way they could not understand. The title of the fourth movement signals that it is some kind of funeral march; but in fact, Mahler produced a parody of a funeral march, with no explanation. One critic recognized Mahler’s “genuine musical gifts,” but found the work to overstep “artistic moderation” and to “lack a unifying underlying note.”

The first version of the work is now lost; for a second version, performed in 1893, Mahler offered more guidance. In fact, he went overboard with programmatic description. Now the work itself had a title (“Titan,” which Mahler derived from the title of a massive four-volume novel by the German romantic author Jean Paul), as did each of the two parts and five movements, while the fourth movement was treated to a virtual essay. Then, when he performed the work in Berlin in 1896, he gave it a form substantially like that in which we know it. No longer is it a tone poem, but a “Symphony in D for large orchestra.” He deleted the division into two parts, removed the original second movement, and deleted the programmatic titles. As he wrote to a friend in 1896, he had learned from unhappy experience how misleading programmatic titles were, as each listener interprets in a different way.

So for all practical purposes we have a traditional symphony that is very untraditional in its content and expressive quality. The introduction takes its cue from Beethoven, growing gradually from almost nothing (“like a sound of nature,” Mahler says of the opening bars, containing that single A spread over seven octaves), followed by fragments of melody—bird calls, fanfares, a horn melody. The “cuckoo call” that appears so frequently is a descending fourth, an interval that forms one of the most constant musical ideas of the symphony. Hints of human intrusion in the form of distant fanfares gradually grow more assertive. Suddenly we are presented with a melody familiar from the Songs of a Wayfarer, “Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld,” which becomes the principal material of the first movement.

The A-major scherzo, a comfortable Austrian Ländler liked at once by even the first audiences, conjures up the vigor of a peasant dance, with reference to Mahler’s own song Hans und Grete, composed in 1880. The Trio, in F, is by contrast far more nostalgic and delicate.

The third movement unsettled most early listeners, who found Mahler’s ironic treatment of death disturbing. Timpani softly play a march beat, reiterating the descending fourths that are so frequent a motif in this symphony; over the rhythmic pattern, a solo double bass eerily intones the melody we have all sung as Frère Jacques—but in the minor key! The hushed stillness, the muffled drums, and the use of a children’s tune in this context all contribute to the uncanny mood of the movement. By contrast a strain of what listeners today may well recognize as “klezmer music” overlays the march with an unexplained mood of parody. A turn to a consoling passage in G major (the closing strains of the Wayfarer songs, representing a gentle acceptance of death) does not last; the opening materials return to emphasize death as a fearsome specter.

Mahler once described the finale as “the cry of a wounded heart,” a description that is particularly suitable for the opening gesture. This finale aims to move from doubt and tragedy to triumph and it does so first of all through a violent struggle to regain the home key of the symphony, D major, not heard since the first movement. Mahler first does so with an extraordinary theatrical stroke: a violent, gear-wrenching shift from C minor directly to D major in the full orchestra, triple-forte. But this “triumph” has been dishonestly won; it is completely unmotivated, harmonically jarring. So this passage ends in a return to the inchoate music of the symphony’s very opening, this time building gradually to the truly jubilant conclusion, for which Mahler requests that all the horns, playing the “chorale resounding over everything,” stand up so that the melody may make its proper effect and, if possible, drown out everything else with the song of joyous triumph.

© Steven Ledbetter (