Frederick Stock and the Theodore Thomas Orchestra (as we were then called) first introduced the music of Gustav Mahler to Chicago audiences on March 22 and 23, 1907, performing the composer’s Fifth Symphony. Reviews were, shall we say, mixed.
As written about here this past October, “Ugly symphony is well played: Thomas Orchestra shows director Mahler of Vienna writes bad music,” proclaimed the headline of Millar Ular’s review in the Examiner. He continued that rather than title the symphony “The Giant,” it might be better titled “The Octopus” due to its ugliness, “The Dachshund” due to its length, or “Chaos” due to its purported lack of form. A writer in the Chicago Journal agreed, calling the symphony a “long and tedious work,” and most of the public agreed, as “before it was done, fully half the audience had fled.”
Undaunted, Stock programmed Mahler’s First in November 1914, the Fourth in March 1916, and three performances of the massive Eighth—with just under one thousand performers onstage at the Auditorium Theatre—in April 1917.
Detail from the cover of one of two first editions of Mahler’s Symphony no. 7 from the Rosenthal Archives collection.
According to Phillip Huscher’s program note, “Stock heard Mahler’s Seventh Symphony for the first time in Amsterdam in 1920. He got a copy of the score in Paris and programmed the work for the penultimate concert of the 1920–21 season in Chicago. Perhaps fearing that the Chicago public would not share his enthusiasm for the Seventh Symphony, Stock announced that he had cut out eleven minutes of music, paring the playing time down to one hour and four minutes.”
For April 15 & 16, 1921, Stock had programmed Smetana’s Overture to Libussa followed by the Mahler (the original program note is here); the second half of the program consisted of a single work, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy with American violinist Amy Neill.
The April 15 performance was the symphony’s first in the U.S., and the Chicago Evening Post reported that “the orchestra played with astonishing virtuosity. There was nothing Mahler could write which they could not play, as they demonstrated to full satisfaction. At the close of the symphony there was a great demonstration for Mr. Stock, in which he had all the players rise and join.”
Headline for Herman Devries’s review in the Sunday, April 17, 1921, Chicago American
And Herman Devries in the American reported: “We were prepared to hear something out of the ordinary, for nothing banal, commonplace, cheap, or artificial could emanate from a brain that produced the marvelous Symphony of a Thousand presented by Mr. Stock at the memorable Spring Festival in the Auditorium [in April 1917]. With the first bars of the orchestral score yesterday, one might have imitated Schubert’s famous phrase and said, ‘Hats off! A genius!’
“The entire symphony, which for due understanding and assimilation of its beauty and richness requires far more than a single hearing, is so evidently a work of supreme and dominating intelligence that it seems presumptuous, importunate, for me to attempt any criticism. Mahler’s name today is being mentioned as a sort of twentieth-century reflection of the Beethoven a century ago.
“His conception is of gigantic orchestral proportions. He knew the orchestra and played upon it as upon a mighty instrument. And this mighty vision, a vision too great, too immense for the mere span of human intellect, seems to crave reflection in his writing. . . . We devoutly hope for many more opportunities to hear this master work, for [it] demands absolute mental concentration, and one performance is simply a foretaste.”
Following that first performance, Frederick Stock, summing it up better than anyone, was reported as saying, “Mahler is one of the coming composers and the musical world is just beginning to understand him.”
Bernard Haitink leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on April 9, 10, 11, and 14, 2015, at Symphony Center.