Many factors go into planning a concert program, and tonight’s two works fit together in a number of ways. To begin with, both are written for the same kind of baritone voice. Then, too, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), although a much more radical composer, was a great admirer of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)—who returned the respect. Most important, though, the two works also fit together emotionally, forming an arc that unites the evening from beginning to end.
Songs of a Wayfarer, the earliest of Mahler’s works to join the standard repertoire, was written when he was in his early twenties, between 1883 and 1885 (although the orchestration wasn’t completed until 1893). Musically, it shows remarkable artistic assurance, both in what tonight’s soloist Tim Lefebvre calls its “beautiful melodies” and, more striking, in the skill with which the voice is “supported by orchestral color.” The orchestra here is “not just an accompaniment.” That assurance is coupled with an adventurous musical spirit: even at that early age, Mahler was pushing the boundaries. Songs of a Wayfarer is widely regarded, for instance, as the first example of a true orchestral song cycle. Yes, Berlioz had composed Les Nuits d’été (excerpts of which we presented earlier in this season) in the middle of the 19th century. But Berlioz’s songs were originally conceived for piano and voice and later orchestrated—Mahler intended Songs of a Wayfarer as an orchestral work from the beginning. Then, too, in contrast to Berlioz, who gave us a collection of independent songs, Mahler produced a true cycle with a single narrative. In addition, the Songs of a Wayfarer is dotted with gestures that challenge the norms of the 19th century. Mahler is ready to interrupt rhythmic flow by alternating measures of five and four beats; he’s willing to start a song in one key and end in another; and he’s starting to develop the instrumental colors (especially in the woodwinds) that became a hallmark of his style.
But what’s most important for this evening’s concert is Songs of a Wayfarer’s emotional tone. Like much of Mahler’s music, it is autobiographical in inspiration: the cycle’s portrayal of a young man’s despair when his beloved marries someone else reflects the composer’s own failed relationship with soprano Joanna Richter. And despite the protagonist’s attempts to find solace in the beauties of nature, the overall mood is self-pitying, in places suicidal. The cycle concludes ambiguously, with (at best) a sense of bitter resignation coming from his recognition of his inability to escape. As Tim puts it, “At the end, there’s no more hope, at least in that relationship.” (The young composer was able to exorcise these demons, temporarily at least, in his First Symphony, which incorporates music from the song cycle in a new context leading to triumph. Symphoria will be performing the First next season.)
Although it was written earlier, Brahms’s German Requiem can be heard as a spiritual answer to the desolation of the Mahler. Like Mahler, Brahms had autobiographical stimulus for his work—both the death of Robert Schumann in 1854 and the death of Brahms’s mother more than a decade later. But while Mahler was writing about himself, Brahms was writing more generally; and while Mahler was focusing on his own pain, Brahms was aiming at comfort. As Tim says, for all the typically Brahmsian darkness of its orchestral colors, he finds A German Requiem to be a fundamentally optimistic work that’s “full of hope”—and his interpretation will therefore not be dark in mood. To simplify: if the gloom in Mahler is about the misery of staying alive, the joy is Brahms is about coming to terms with death.
I said above that Brahms offers a “spiritual” answer—and he does. But it’s not quite a “religious” answer, at least in conventional terms. A German Requiem is neither a liturgical work nor a denominational one (Brahms was something of an agnostic). While Brahms used the term “Requiem,” he abandoned the standard Requiem text, choosing instead a number of Biblical texts that had particular resonance for him. The word “German” in the title does not imply any nationalistic quality in the music—it refers only to the language, and Brahms was apt to refer to the piece as his “human” requiem.
In certain senses, the Brahms has a lot in common with the Fauré Requiem that Symphoria performed earlier this year. Like Fauré, Brahms skirts description of the Day of Judgment, which serves as the sonic highpoint in so many traditional Requiems (especially the Berlioz and the Verdi). Then, too, like Fauré, Brahms gives the soprano soloist a role that’s small but emotionally pivotal—and one that gains expressive weight precisely because it stands out so clearly from the rest of the piece. In the Fauré, the soprano evokes peace. In the Brahms, she brings a crucial change in direction. A German Requiem, which as conductor Larry Loh points out has a perfect ebb and flow that takes us naturally from movement to movement, forms a large symmetrical seven-part structure. The first three movements, on the whole, focus on pain; at the center, though, the mood shifts with the famous “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place.” The fifth movement (which was a late addition to the piece), at what conductor Larry Loh calls the “perfect point,” suddenly brings in the illumination of the soprano soloist. As tonight’s soloist Bridget Moriarty puts it, “We’ve just come through the apex of the symmetrical idea, with ‘How Lovely.’ And I come and say that everything’s going to be okay. I’ve toiled, I’ve been in pain, but I’m okay now.” So much has been built up; now we begin the process of healing.
Yet in other ways, the Brahms is radically different from the Fauré—for while the Fauré is an intimate piece, A German Requiem is the longest and most massive piece Brahms ever wrote. And while he avoids the Day of Judgment, he offers something even more imposing. Brahms, says Larry, seeks not clemency for the dead but comfort for the living; indeed, for both him and Bridget, the work charts the stages of grief. So the high point comes not with the dread of judgment, but with the recognition of a triumph over death. The sixth movement reaches the whole work’s ultimate point of arrival on the questions, “Oh death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”—and the question is answered with a magnificent fugue affirming the glories of creation. The seventh movement—in Larry’s words, “upbeat even if it’s not up-tempo”—serves as a peaceful epilogue that gently reaffirms this optimism, ending with a musical recollections of the first movement to remind us how far we’ve come.
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org