Ugly Symphony Headline

The Theodore Thomas Orchestra (as we were then called) under the baton of music director Frederick Stock first performed Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 on March 22 and 23, 1907 (the program page and notes are here). Critical reception was, shall we say, mixed.

“Ugly symphony is well played . . . Mahler of Vienna writes bad music,” proclaimed reviewer Millar Ular of the Examiner the morning after the first performance. He goes on to write 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. As the Chicago Journal dramatically stated in a separate review, Mahler’s Fifth is “A long and tedious work” and “Mahler is a musical allopath, and those who remained to hear him out suffered from an overdose.” And even the public expressed their opinion, as “before it was done, fully half the audience had fled.” (Both of the reviews are here.)

Long and Tedious Work Headline

In the words of Frederick Stock, “I do not believe that this symphony is the kind of music that will live,” with the reviewer concluding, “It is a symphony which, it is devoutly hoped, will never again be heard in Chicago . . . a verdict that is both cruel and true.” How wrong they both were, although it did take another generation for the music of Gustav Mahler to gain traction in the CSO’s programming. The symphony was not performed in full again until December 1950 under the baton of Rafael Kubelík during his first season as music director. (It does appear that Stock had a small change of heart; thirty years after the Chicago premiere of the full symphony, he conducted the Adagietto movement for strings and harp in December 1937.)

Mahler, well known for extensive stylistic direction in his compositions, received criticism from the Chicago Journal: “He is not so particular about what he says so long as he says it well.” Take this opinion from 1907 and consider the composer’s indications concerning the opening trumpet fanfare. At the bottom of the first trumpet part, Mahler designates Die Auftakt-Triolen dieses Themas müssen stets etwas flüchtig—quasi acc., nach Art der Militärfanfaren vorgetragen werden! (The pick-up triplets from this theme must be performed in a somewhat brief or fleeting manner in the style of a military fanfare!). Such a command is not unusual in Mahler’s music; however Ular in the Examiner remains critical, “Of originality, he has not the slightest trace. His themes are trivial, sometimes vulgar, always uninteresting and lacking utterly beauty of melodic curve.”

The opening bars of the first trumpet part of Mahler's Fifth

The opening bars of the first trumpet part of Mahler’s Fifth

The command indicated in the trumpet part has led to a long tradition of trumpeters to play these triplets slightly rushed; the particular manner of this affectation is a constantly discussed topic in the brass community. How was a Germanic military fanfare at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century played? It is possible the CSO’s principal trumpet at these concerts, German-born Paul Handke (principal trumpet 1903–1912) may have known firsthand the specific tradition intended.

In this case, we can determine precisely what affectation the composer commanded. In 1904 Mahler made multiple piano rolls of his own music for the Welte-Mignon piano company. Contemporary recordings of these rolls provide not only the reproduction the notes but also the dynamics of the original, giving us a close look into the composer’s interpretation of his own music. In Mahler’s recording of the first movement of his Fifth Symphony, the opening triplets are indeed rushed in a German militaristic manner, which is how you will often hear modern trumpeters perform these first notes.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: originally considered “trivial, sometimes vulgar, always uninteresting.” But just like, as Phillip Huscher describes in his program note, the symphony’s “struggle to rise from C-sharp to D, and from minor to major, underlines the music’s quest to rise from tragedy to victory,” so has risen appreciation for this now pillar of the repertoire.

Guest blogger Charles Russell Roberts is a trumpet player and an intern in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Rosenthal Archives.

This week, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Donald Runnicles conducts.

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