Inside the Music: Love Letters

Discover more about classical music with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

Death, love, and a celebration of the clarinet’s capabilities

Technical virtuosity will be clearly in evidence during this concert – and not just from our brilliant German clarinettist, who’ll be wowing the audience with his stunning technical brilliance. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra will also be put through their paces by the brilliant young Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni as they work their way through the entire gamut of emotions in Gustav Mahler’s best-loved symphony. Over the course of an hour, Mahler takes his audience on a hair-raising journey from desperation and resignation, through to the deepest love and on towards ultimate joy.

10 things you didn’t know about… Mahler

  • Mahler was better known for orchestral conducting during his lifetime than as a composer. In fact, his music wasn’t widely performed until around 50 years after his death.
  • And despite having a mighty presence on the podium, Mahler was just five foot, four inches tall.
  • In 1897, Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism – he believed it would improve his chances of being appointed director of the Vienna Court Opera.
  • Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is the longest of any major composer, coming in at around 95 minutes.
  • And his Symphony No. 8, the ‘Symphony of a thousand’ calls for a huge orchestra augmented by 20 brass players, two piccolos, five flutes, several mandolins, harmonium, glockenspiel, two large choirs, a children’s choir and eight voice soloists.
  • Mahler’s believed in the ‘curse of the Ninth’ – Beethoven and Bruckner had both died after writing their Symphony No. 9. Mahler composed a ‘Tenth’, calling it ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (The Song of the Earth).
  • He once declared to his fellow composer Sibelius that symphonies must ‘contain the world’. Sibelius preferred their ‘profound logic and inner connection’.
  • While living in Vienna, Mahler befriended and actively encouraged the three major composers of what is known as the Second Viennese School: Berg, Schoenberg and Webern.
  • At the beginning of the 20th century, Mahler moved to America to become the director of both the New York Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.
  • In February 1911, Mahler conducted his very last concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. He died in Vienna just three months later.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy  on Mahler’s symphonic landscapes

VIDEO: Jonathan James on Mahler 5

Listen out for… 5 key moments

  1. Weber: Clarinet Concerto No. 1, second movement, Adagio non troppoListen to how long and melismatic the clarinet melody is – it’s as if it were written for a soprano voice. And yet it’s perfectly crafted for the velvety, smooth tones of a clarinet.

    Weber: Clarinet Concerto No. 1, final movement, Rondo

    In the final 30 seconds of the concerto, the clarinet is let off the leash in a spectacular, breathtaking and very witty show of virtuosity.

    Mahler: Symphony No. 5, second movement, Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz

    Mahler is still in his anguished world, in Part I of his great symphony, but two minutes into the movement, a chink of light in the form of a gorgeous string melody appears at the end of the tunnel – perhaps Mahler’s faith in the ultimate victory of good over evil.

    Mahler: Symphony No. 5, fourth movement, Adagietto

    At the reprise of the main theme, at just over six minutes into the movement, Mahler instructs the orchestra to play slower, teasing out every last bit of emotion from the movement. Listen to how Mahler creates a sense of eternity in the last few minutes of the Adagietto.

    Mahler: Symphony No. 5, fifth movement, Rondo-Finale

    The final minute and a half passes in a blaze of glory – Mahler takes a chorale and for the briefest moment, makes it soar above the orchestra, before the music collapses into an exhausted ­– and well-deserved – heap.

Mahler’s death-defying love

That Mahler’s great Symphony No. 5 has within it so many contrasts of mood is no big surprise, given the circumstances in which it was written. In 1901, Mahler suffered a massive intestinal hemorrhage – his doctor had told him afterwards that he had come within an hour of death. But it was also the year in which he met the love of his life, Alma Schindler, referring to his passion for her as ‘superhuman’. By the time they married the following year, she was already expecting their first child.

The turbulent opening of Symphony No. 5 is perhaps a premonition of death, the haunted, martial trumpet solo defiantly intoning Mahler’s struggle against the inevitable. The funeral theme that follows would seem to seal the symphony’s fate and plunge it ever more into the abyss. The second movement is no less anguished – Mahler instructs the music to be played ‘…stormily, with the greatest vehemence’; but just two minutes in, Mahler gives the briefest clues to the love that will eventually nudge this titanic work out of the shadows. the Scherzo that follows moves us firmly into ‘Part II’ territory – Mahler listing the music ever higher out of despondency with hunting calls, rustic dances and twisted waltzes: the storm before the calm, as it were.

The glorious Adagio then kicks off Part III where Mahler’s adoration of Alma is given free rein in one of the most touching love letters in all music. ‘There is no need for words,’ Mahler later wrote about the music. ‘Everything is purely musically expressed.’ It may be the symphony’s shortest movement at just ten minutes, but within it lies a universe of unbounded feeling, the work’s heart and soul.

But if the Adagio is where Mahler’s heart lies, it’s in the fifth movement Rondo-Finale where his spirit soars with music of increasing vitality and urgency; the final few minutes show just how much Mahler loved the music of Baroque composer JS Bach, with a chorale melody that rises triumphantly above the orchestra. The Fifth may be the first symphony for which the composer gave no detailed programme notes, but there’s no doubt about the direction and intensity of Mahler’s spiritual journey towards enlightenment.

Carl Maria von Weber was a surprisingly gifted individual, chalking up child prodigy, opera director, estate manager, novelist, critic, businessman and, yes, composer among his life skills. It was as the latter that he excelled the most, however, and he was a major force during his lifetime as a writer of several accomplished operas, including Die Freischütz, a huge influence on the future direction of German Romantic opera. He was also fond of the clarinet, thanks to a deep friendship with one of the finest players of the day, Heinrich Bärmann, principal of the Munich court orchestra – Weber wrote both of his clarinet concertos for him. As you might expect from an opera composer, they’re theatrical and virtuosic, with the middle movements displaying a love of soaring vocal lines. The final movement of the Clarinet Concerto No. 1 is the perfect marriage of melody, wit and technical display. A delight from start to finish.

Further listening

Mahler – Symphony No. 6

Continue the Mahlerian journey in Mahler’s life – the Sixth is a tragic, bleak work, full of drama. Just a year later, Mahler was diagnosed with a heart condition, and he tragically lost  his young daughter. Mahler considered nicknaming it the ‘Tragic’.

Recommended recording: Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer (Channel Classics CCSSA22905)

Weber – Grand duo concertant

Among the most important works for the clarinet, Weber pushes the technique of the player to its limits in a delightful dialogue with the accompanying piano.

Recommended recording: Michael Collins (clarinet), Piers Lane (piano) (Chandos CHAN10615)

Words by Oliver Condy