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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.

Program book for the August 22, 1942, performance at the Ravinia Festival

Program book cover for the August 22, 1942, performance at the Ravinia Festival

As Phillip Huscher includes in his program note, “Shostakovich composed most of his seventh symphony in Leningrad, his birthplace, during the siege of the city that ultimately took nearly a million lives—roughly one-third of its inhabitants—as a result of hunger, cold, and air raids.”

Less than a year later at the height of one of the worst periods of World War II, the symphony was given its world premiere in Kuibyshev (now Samara) on March 5, 1942, with Samuil Samosud conducting the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. Later that month on March 29, it was performed in Moscow with members of the Bolshoi orchestra and the All-Union Radio Orchestra. The now legendary premiere in Leningrad took place on August 9 under the baton of Karl Eliasberg.

In the United Kingdom, Sir Henry Wood led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a broadcast performance on June 22 followed by a concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall on June 29. The United States broadcast premiere was given on July 19 in New York, with Arturo Toscanini leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra (the now-famous Time magazine cover story anticipated the broadcast). Serge Koussevitzky conducted the student orchestra of the Berkshire Music Centre in the first U.S. concert performance on August 14.

Dmitri Shostakovich's program book biography

Shostakovich’s August 22 program book biography

And on August 22, 1942, less than six months after the world premiere, Frederick Stock led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony—“which has aroused more interest than any other symphonic work in decades”—in a special concert for the benefit of Russian war relief at the Ravinia Festival. A complete copy of the program book is here.

According to Edward Barry’s account in the Chicago Tribune, “All that we had heard in advance about the new work, even in the broadcast of July 19, failed to prepare us adequately for the full impact of it. Its scale is huge, and this does refer to its length (over an hour and a quarter) alone. It calls for a mammoth orchestra (99 players crowded the Ravinia stage last night). . . . These huge forces Shostakovich deploys with a boldness and a vigor and a boiling passion that are often electrifying. . . . To our generation the symphony’s faults are comparatively unimportant because of the smoking passion with which it treats of the events which are so strongly affecting our lives and enlisting our emotions. ‘My music is a weapon,’ says Shostakovich boldly, thus confounding those who would criticize the work because of a too close connection with immediate political and military events.”

Barry concludes, “Last night’s performance was an extraordinarily fine one, especially when one realizes that Dr. Stock had to master the bewildering score on short notice and communicate his findings to the orchestra in two rehearsals [for the New York premiere, Toscanini had six rehearsals].” The complete review is here.

Frederick Stock's program book biography for the August 22, 1942, concert

Stock’s August 22 program book biography

Stock was determined to perform the work again—and soon—so he added it to the programming for the upcoming season at Orchestra Hall on October 27, 29, and 30. According to Cecil Smith, “No symphony in modern times—and perhaps no symphony in musical history—has ever been prepared for by such a barrage of publicity.”

Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened the fifty-second season with subscription concerts on October 15 and 16 and a Popular concert on October 17, 1942. On Monday October 19 it was business as usual and Stock was in Orchestra Hall’s offices, “talking over plans for the season with Henry E. Voegeli, business manager of the orchestra and his coworker for forty-three seasons.” But tragically, Stock died of a heart attack the following day and, according to Claudia Cassidy, “The bottom dropped out of Chicago’s music life . . .”

Associate conductor Hans Lange immediately assumed conducting duties, leading the majority of concerts for the remainder of the 1942-43 season, including the three performances of Shostakovich’s Seventh in Chicago and one in Milwaukee. The program was as follows (and the program note for the Leningrad Symphony is here):

October 27, 29 & 30, 1942 (Orchestra Hall)
November 15, 1942 (Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee)
SMITH/Stock The Star-Spangled Banner
BRAHMS Tragic Overture, Op. 81
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 7

(On October 27, Stock’s orchestration for strings of the Andante from Bach’s Sonata for Violin no. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 was performed in memory of the Orchestra’s second music director, following The Star-Spangled Banner, also in his arrangement.)

After the October 27 concert, Cassidy wrote, “That Hans Lange and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave a calm and competent performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony at Orchestra Hall yesterday is undeniably, almost immeasurably, to their credit. Mr. Lange had less than a week—and a tragic week—to prepare the huge and sprawling score. . . . What counts in the score, and what should count in performance, is its blazing expression of the sound and fury of our own times, when invasion, death, defiance, and ultimate triumph are facts we understand and, a least vicariously, share.” The complete review is here.

And following the performance on October 29, Smith commented, “Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, perhaps the most successful musical best seller since Ravel’s Boléro, was repeated in magnificent style last evening. . . . [the composer] is very good at beginning musical ideas, extremely clumsy at continuing them, and virtually unable to stop them.”

Smith ended his review with, “Well, the symphony goes on the shelf for a while, after this afternoon’s repetition and a performance in Milwaukee on Nov. 15. I wonder what it will sound like after the war?”

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On February 2, 1989, Sir Georg Solti led the world premiere of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich‘s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra, which had been commissoned for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal trombone, Jay Friedman.

Friedman, Zwilich, and Solti following the world premiere

Zwilich—the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for music— contributed the program note:

“When I was approached by the Chicago Symphony in 1986 with the novel idea of commissioning a work for tenor trombone and a second work for bass trombone and orchestra, I was thrilled because I have long wanted to write something substantial for the trombone. Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra (1988) for Jay Friedman, is the first of two projects, to be followed by a bass trombone work for Charles Vernon. [Zwilich’s Concerto for Bass Trombone, Strings, Timpani, and Cymbals received its world premiere on April 30, 1991, with Vernon as soloist and Daniel Barenboim conducting.]

“Although it has been neglected as such, I think the trombone is a wonderful solo instrument. In addition to sharing the same range, the tenor trombone possesses all the color and drama of the entire spectrum of male voices, from counter-tenor to bass-baritone. Continuing the vocal analogy, the trombone can be both lyric and dramatic. Add to these noble singing qualities the great instrumental flexibility and agility of our modern artist-performers and you have an instrument which commands the stage as a soloist. Thus, one of my aims in the Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra was to cast the trombone as protagonist in a role that ranges from the dramatic and lyrical to bold virtuosic display. . . .

“Throughout the [concerto], the relationship of the solo trombone to the orchestra is one of equal partnership and mutual exploration. The work is dedicated to Sir Georg Solti, Jay Friedman, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.”

Press reviews (concentrating also on Solti’s account of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony) are here.

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Soloist, composer, and conductor following the world premiere performance on October 13, 1988 (photograph signed by Solti)

On October 13, 1988, Sir Georg Solti led the world premiere of Gunther Schuller‘s Flute Concerto, which had been commissoned for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s flute and piccolo, Walfrid Kujala.

According to Phillip Huscher’s program note, the composer “was approached about writing a concerto for Walfrid Kujala nearly four years ago, by a small group of Kujala’s students, who realized that, in this way, they could honor their teacher and, at the same time, add an important score to the relatively scant repertoire of major concertos for flute and piccolo. By the time the details had been nailed down, 150 students, colleagues, and admirers of Walfrid Kujala from around the country, as well as Mexico, Canada, and Europe, had agreed to support the commission. Additional funding was provided by the band and orchestral division of Yamaha Corporation of America. The work was composed in 1987 and early 1988, and is ‘dedicated in greatest admiration to Walfrid Kujala.'”

Prior to the performance, a profile of Kujala appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Press reviews are here.

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Speaking of Karel Husa‘s Trumpet Concerto . . . .

On February 11, 1988, Sir Georg Solti led the world premiere of Husa’s Trumpet Concerto. Adolph “Bud” Herseth—celebrating his fortieth season as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal trumpet—was the soloist. The work was commissioned for the CSO, Herseth, and Solti, as part of a then-ongoing series of major compositions made possible by the Edward F. Schmidt Family Foundation Endowment Fund.

According to Phillip Huscher‘s program note: “Characteristically, Husa works within the framework of tradition. His orchestra in this concerto is virtually the classical symphony orchestra—pairs of winds, trumpets, and horns, with strings, timpani, harp, and an expanded percussion section. Significant is both the absence of the lower brass and the presence, in a trumpet concerto, of the two orchestral trumpets as well—and Husa makes magical use of them near then end.”

The composer was interviewed for feature articles in the CSO’s program book and the Chicago Tribune, in which he described his goal: “The main idea was to write a piece in which the solo trumpet would sound both virtuosic and, in the slow movement, sensitive and lyrical. I tried to explore all facets of trumpet playing, including a fiendish cadenza at the end. Mr. Herseth made several suggestions while I was writing the piece, advice I was pleased to accept from a musician as experienced as he.” Herseth was also the subject of a feature article in the Tribune. 

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Robert Marsh raved: “[Husa’s] concerto is fresh, completely ingenious, and precisely the sort of piece to present Herseth, Solti, and the CSO at the top of their form. It was written to be accessible and enjoyable, and there is no question that it meets these requirements fully without being anything less than a serious exploration of the instrument.”

And in the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein wrote: “one must respect Husa’s canny craftsmanship, expertly judged scoring, and idiomatic writing for the soloist. The concerto is a worthwhile addition to the slim literature of 20th-century trumpet concertos; many a trumpet player will wish to add to his repertory. Few, however, are likely to play it more vividly or with more golden tone than Herseth. He was remarkable.” The complete reviews are here and here.

Composer, soloist, and conductor backstage, following the premiere.

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