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The score for Mahler's Symphony no. 7 used by Frederick Stock for the U.S. premiere

The score for Mahler’s Symphony no. 7 used by Frederick Stock for the U.S. premiere

Frederick Stock and the Orchestra 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.

“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 Chicago 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.”

April 15 and 16, 1921

April 15 and 16, 1921

Undaunted, Stock programmed Mahler’s First in November 1914, the Fourth in March 1916, and three performances of the massive Eighth—with just under a thousand performers onstage at the Auditorium Theatre—in April 1917.

According to Phillip Huscher, “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.”

Regarding the performance on April 15, 1921—the first performance of the symphony in the U.S.—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.”

This article also appears here and portions previously appeared here.

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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.

Cover of one of two first edition Symphony no. 7 scores in the Rosenthal Archives collection

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 review in the Sunday, April 17, 1921, Chicago American

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.

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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