La Valse began life as a ballet score for the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, who approached Ravel in 1919 about a new work. Seven years previously, Ravel had collaborated quite successfully with Diaghilev on Daphnis et Chloé, which is often called his greatest composition. This time, the composer had greater latitude in his choice of subject, and took advantage of the opportunity to return to an idea that had captured his fancy as early as 1906. That year he had written to his friend, critic Jean Marnold:
It is not subtle -- what I am undertaking at the moment. It is a Grande Valse, a sort of hommage to the memory of the Great Strauss, not Richard, the other -- Johann. You know my intense sympathy for this admirable rhythm and that I hold la joie de vivre as expressed by the dance in far higher esteem than as by the Franckist puritanism.
He called the new work Wien [Vienna], and never progressed beyond sketches. The project lay dormant until it was rejuvenated by Diaghilev's formal commission in 1920.
Ironically, Diaghilev rejected the score when he received Ravel's manuscript, citing prohibitive production expense. The incident caused a rift between the two men that was never mended; they only met again once before Diaghilev's death in 1929. Ravel was able to secure an orchestral premiere in December 1920, and the work has enjoyed great popularity since as an instrumental piece.
Several of Ravel's earlier compositions reflect his fascination with waltzes. Among the more intriguing ones are a piano piece from 1913 entitled "A la manière de Borodin" that mixes Russian style with the Viennese dance, and the ever popular, more Schubertian Valses nobles et sentimentales (1912; versions for piano solo and for orchestra).
Subtitled "choreographic poem," La Valse consists of 12 minutes of whirling rhythms and dynamics viewed through a kaleidoscope of orchestral colors. A note in the score describes the scenario:
Clouds whirl about. Occasionally they part to allow a glimpse of waltzing couples. As they gradually lift, one can discern a gigantic hall, filled by a crowd of dancers in motion. The stage gradually brightens. The glow of the chandeliers breaks out fortissimo.
Essentially an elongated giant crescendo, La Valse is dynamically related to Boléro, though its tension builds in an altogether different fashion. Ravel thought of it as a "fatefully inescapable whirlpool," an essentially tragic work whose frenetic mania is cut off by death.
He scored La Valse for a large orchestra comprising three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, Basque tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, castanets, tam-tam, tambourine, crotales, two harps and strings.
Thomas Adès had a meteoric rise in the world of new music before he turned 30, by which time he had four commercial recordings devoted entirely to his music, a statistic that many an older and more established composer might envy. A pianist and organist as well as a composer, Adès veered toward composition during his studies at King’s College, Cambridge. His breakthrough work was Powder Her Face, a chamber opera commissioned by Almedia Opera for the 1995 Cheltenham Festival. A dozen subsequent productions and a recording have made the opera a modern classic.
Adès has fulfilled the promise that others identified in him a quarter century ago. He has been showered with prizes, and juggles a dizzying schedule as guest conductor, piano soloist, and chamber music coach. From 1999 to 2008 he was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival. In 2000 he won the Grawemeyer Award – the largest purse in classical music – for his large-scale orchestral Asyla.
The Berlin Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall Corporation commissioned Tevot; Sir Simon Rattle led the Berlin Philharmonic in the premiere in February 2007. Adès’ title has multiple meanings in Hebrew. It means vessel and it can refer to bars of music. According to a note in the score, it also connotes the ark of Noah, and the cradle in which the baby Moses is carried on the river. “I found the concept irresistible,” Adès has said. He describes the work as a one-movement symphony about voyaging and getting somewhere safe, a concept that has recurred in subsequent works. “The idea in Tevot was of a flood, in which you could almost see individuals waving for help.”
“Watching the orchestra play Tevot feels a bit like watching people on a boat,” he told The Guardian. “The music is being thrown from one side of the orchestra and smashing into the other side, almost as if it’s going to capsize – but I don’t think it does.” To deliver this concept – the idea of the ship of the world – Adès expanded his orchestra to quintuple woodwind. Listeners will hear agitation and the undulation of rough seas. Ultimately, tender strains mitigate the chaos, leading to the transcendent beauty of Adès’ close.
The score calls for five flutes (third doubling piccolo and bass flute; fourth and fifth doubling piccolo); four oboes (fourth doubling English horn) bass oboe; four clarinets (second doubling E-flat clarinet; fourth doubling E-flat clarinet, A clarinet, and optional basset horn), bass clarinet; four bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, five trumpets (one doubling piccolo trumpet), three trombones, two tubas, two sets of timpani, percussion requiring six players [glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, crotales, tuned anvils; tuned tins, pans or cans; four large handbells, bells or bell plates, three further bells or bells ad lib., seven tuned gongs, cymbals, side drum, tenor drum (with snares), log drum, large gong, tam-tam, bass drum, harp, piano (doubling celesta), and strings.
Bruckner and Mahler are so often mentioned in the same breath that music-lovers who probe a little deeper are startled to discover how remarkably different they really were. One similarity holds, however: both composers revised their symphonies, frequently and extensively. The stories and reasons vary, of course, for each man and each of his works. Only rarely was Bruckner or Mahler satisfied with a first effort.
Mahler established that pattern even before composing his First Symphony. His early song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [Songs of a Wayfarer], occupied him on and off for almost 13 years, from 1883 to 1896. The First Symphony took even longer to bring to final form. His first sketches date from 1884, about a year after completing his initial draft of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, one of whose songs ("Ging heut' morgen übers Feld") figures as the principal theme of the symphony's opening movement. Mahler had completed the first version by spring 1888. After it received a chilly reception at the Budapest premiere in November 1889, he shelved it. Between 1893 and 1896 the symphony underwent extensive revision, and Mahler chose not to publish it until 1899.
In Mahler's original conception, the work was a symphonic poem in two parts and five movements. Mahler discarded his original second movement, known as Blumine ["A Chaplet of Flowers"] in the early score, in 1898, shortly before the symphony was published. Blumine was an Andante in C-major that appears to have been adapted from incidental music Mahler composed in 1883 for Joseph Viktor Scheffel's poem, Der Trompeter von Säkkingen. The symphony's autograph manuscript was missing for many years. It turned up in 1967, revealing significant differences in orchestration from the published score. The previously unknown Blumine movement also explained the origin of one of the themes used in the section of the finale that quotes from the preceding movements.
Jean-Paul Richter's novel "Titan," a personal favorite of Mahler's, was the source of the symphony's subtitle. In this context, it was intended to connote a "vigorous, heroic man." Later in life, Mahler abjured the subtitle altogether. In 1896, he told a friend that his First Symphony had been inspired by "a passionate love." Most scholars believe he drafted the work while embroiled in an affair with Marion von Weber, wife of Carl Maria von Weber's grandson, but at least two other women -- Johanna Meier and Josephine Moisl -- are associated with the two Gesellen songs he quotes in the symphony. With Mahler, a simple explanation rarely suffices, and there is always more than initially meets the eye or ear. His love interest at the time is only one aspect of the autobiographical aural canvas this symphony paints. Mahler once wrote of his first two symphonies, "My whole life is contained in them."
Mahler's First overflows with the excitement and anticipation of youth. In spite of its sardonic slow movement, it is resolutely optimistic and triumphant. Cosmic in nature, it addresses weighty topics such as love and life itself.
A pregnant slow introduction to the first movement pulsates with the pastoral sounds of a glorious alpine summer morning. Mahler wants us to feel light breezes ruffling our hair and to hear the chirp of birds, the call of shepherds. All these sensations are part of everyday experience in the rural setting that remained dear to Mahler his entire life. Their decisive placement as the opening gesture of this highly gestural symphony reveals much: Mahler put a lot of his cards on the table with this first symphonic hand, and he continued to play them out during his entire career. Equally important from a motivic standpoint is the method of delivery: an insistent falling fourth that develops into a significant building block of the musical structure.
The famous D-major theme of the first movement [Immer sehr gemächlich, or "always comfortable, unrushed"] is identical to that of the second song in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. In that earlier context, a dejected lover is impervious to the delicious appeal of nature's charm in the early morning hours. No such lovelorn blindness blocks the listener's appreciation of this symphonic movement, which seems to dance with anticipation and untrammeled joy.
The festive atmosphere continues in the second movement, Kräftig bewegt [With vigorous movement], which functions as a scherzo. Mahler borrows both from elegant Viennese ballrooms and country villages; their shared quality is the sheer joy of the dance. Ultimately, the Austrian peasant Ländler prevails over the waltz in this compound gesture of homage to Haydn, Schubert and Bruckner. This movement is the most traditional in the symphony, and thus it is fitting that Mahler should pay his respects to his distinguished symphonic predecessors. In the trio section in F-major, the music calms down considerably, permitting the dancers to catch their breath. One cannot help but wonder whether Strauss had the strains of this distinctly more waltz-like passage in mind two decades later, when he penned the score to Rosenkavalier.
The third movement, which opens with what is arguably the best-known string bass solo in the orchestral repertoire, is vintage Mahler. Accompanied by timpani, the bass solo becomes a funeral march crossed with a nursery song, followed by a Jewish street tune and a fleeting reference (in the G-major trio section) to another of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Die zwei blauen Augen. . ."). With searing irony and bitter humor, Mahler casts a spell, drawing the listener into a hypnotic, singsong parody by means of a mocking oboe. In the process, he makes the ridiculous sublime: Frère Jacques consorting with a vulgar street fiddler in a bizarre contrapuntal duet.
The finale is monumental, nearly as long as the three prior movements combined. Mahler likened its opening to the cry of a wounded heart. He makes the listener suffer -- as he presumably did -- before he yields to the victorious strains of D-major in which the symphony resolves. There are parallels with Beethoven's Fifth (in triumph emerging from struggle) and Ninth symphonies (quotations from each of the preceding movements establishing cyclic unity). All the quotations are prelude to the jubilation of a spectacular climax.
From the standpoint of orchestral size, both in terms of number of players and variety of instruments, Mahler's First Symphony was a landmark work. Other factors make this symphony historically important. Mahler consolidated trends that developed during the second half of the nineteenth century, such as the cross-pollination of themes among various movements (a technique that is particularly evident when the discarded Blumine movement is considered as a part of the whole).
Also, the emphasis on the last movement, rather than the first, completely altered the emotional impact and psychological weight of the symphony. While Mahler was not the first to expand a finale to this extent, he carried it further than anyone had beforehand. More than any of the other movements, this is the one in which we hear most clearly the passionate and personal voice that was to ripen into the rich harvest of the symphonies that lay ahead.
Mahler scored his First Symphony for four flutes (two alternating on piccolo), four oboes (one alternating on English horn), four clarinets (one alternating on bass clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling on contrabassoon), seven horns, five trumpets, three trombones, tuba, four timpani (requiring two players), cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, bass drum, harp and strings.
© Laurie Shulman, 2019