Premieres with problems

This week we take a look at four works that were all premiered on 20 November, the same date as the posting of this blog, respectively in 1889, 1911, 1945 and 1964. Usually an occasion of great positivity, the first performances of these particular compositions all carried some heavy baggage. I refer to Mahler’s First Symphony and his ‘song-symphony’ Das Lied von der Erde; and Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony and his Ninth String Quartet.

The great Viennese symphonic tradition found worthy successors in two composers with very different temperaments and backgrounds, Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). The latter extended the form in an extraordinary way that has had a far-reaching effect on the course of Western music.

Gustav Mahler
© HNH International

It was as a conductor that Mahler made his career, at first at a series of provincial opera-houses, and later in the position of the highest distinction of all when, in 1897, he became Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera (now State Opera), two months after his baptism as a Catholic, a necessary preliminary for the appointment.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major was completed, in its first version, in 1888, incredibly five years before Dvořák’s Symphony ‘From the New World’ and only five years after Brahms’ last symphony. It was first performed on 20 November the following year in Budapest, where Mahler had been appointed director of the Hungarian Opera, before an audience that became increasingly restive as the work proceeded. Mahler himself was on the podium.

The symphony was originally presented as a symphonic poem, although without a title. The audience expected a supporting set of notes to guide them through the ‘narrative’ of the music, but they were to be disappointed. Hence the cool reception for the work. Mahler subsequently provided a helping hand, although he strongly believed that, whatever literary programme might lie behind a composition, the music should be able to stand on its own, without verbal explanation. Nonetheless, here is what was teased out of him:

Part I: From the days of youth — Flower, Fruit and Thorn-pieces (Blumen, Früchte und Dornenstücke)

  1. Spring and no end to it. The introduction describes the awakening of nature and earliest dawn.
  2. Bluminenkapitel (Andante)
  3. In full sail (Scherzo)

Part II Commedia umana

  1. Shipwrecked. A dead march in the manner of Callot.
  2. Dall’inferno al Paradiso (Allegro furioso), the sudden expression of the feelings of a deeply wounded heart.

In its final form the Symphony has four movements. Mahler discarded the original second movement Bluminenkapitel after the first three performances, together with the descriptive references for each movement.

The last movement is one of great dramatic intensity. Anyone unfamiliar with the work might well be warned by the example of the first performance in Budapest, when a woman jumped out of her seat in alarm as the movement began, an incident that caused the composer some amusement. A march leads to a more lyrical melody, before a renewed storm of sound, in music that is, as Mahler was to claim, a world in itself. The movement lasts as long as an entire Haydn symphony, so we’ll listen to the opening and closing sections.

Sturmisch bewegt (opening) (8.572207)


Sturmisch bewegt (conclusion) (8.572207)


Mahler’s wife and daughters
Source: photographer unknown (carte de visite, circa 1905–1906) / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I mentioned earlier Mahler’s appointment as music director of the Vienna State Opera in 1897. He made enough enemies there, particularly in the anti-semitic press, to lead to his resignation in 1907. The same year brought Mahler even greater problems. During the summer, the elder of his two daughters caught scarlet fever and died. The mother of his wife Alma, who was visiting the family, had a heart attack and the doctor called in to treat her also found weaknesses in Almaʼs heart and advised rest. Almost in jest, Mahler suggested that the doctor should test his heart. The result was the diagnosis of a dangerous weakness of the heart and the immediate advice to restrict all physical activity.

Bruno Walter

Fearing this uncertain future, Mahler embarked on three large-scale works that were to mark his farewell to the world. One was Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a song cycle for two solo voices and orchestra. He completed it in 1908, but it wasn’t performed until after Mahler’s death, on 20 November 1911, when Bruno Walter directed it in Munich.

The second song, Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn), opens gently with an accompaniment figure played by muted first violins, above which the oboe enters. The contralto enters with the descending melodic line of Herbstnebel wallen bläulich überm See (Autumn mist hangs blue over the lake). The solitary voice of the singer laments the changes of autumn, the fading of the flowers, weariness with life and loneliness, finally seeking the sun of love to dry her tears. Here’s the opening of that movement.

Autumn mist hangs blue over the lake (8.572498)


At the time of the premiere of that work, the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich was 5 years old, two world wars were waiting in the wings, and Joseph Stalin was stepping into centre-stage limelight in the Soviet Union as the country’s premier and general secretary of its Communist Party, ruling until his death in 1953.

Dmitry Shostakovich
© HNH International

The strictures Stalin imposed on the Soviet Union are well documented and need no stoking in peoples’ minds here. Shostakovich was compromised by these difficulties to varying degrees for much of his composing life. When he began what he intended to be his Ninth Symphony in January 1945, he had in mind a work comparable to its predecessors in scale and impact: a ‘victory symphony’ honouring the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany as surely as it recognised the historical implication of the number Nine, with its spooky implications for being any composer’s final symphony preceding death (it certainly spooked Mahler). The six-minute opening fragment, discovered at the Shostakovich Archive in Moscow as recently as December 2003 bears witness to his intentions.

Symphonic Fragment [1st version of Symphony No. 9] (8.572138)


Yevgeni Mravinsky

Despite the acclaim of colleagues, the composer abandoned it in June; he resumed work on it late the following month to produce a symphony that, completed at the end of August, gave a very different interpretation of ‘The Ninth’. The premiere took place in Leningrad on 3 November 1945, with Yevgeni Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic; the Moscow premiere, with Mravinsky directing the Moscow Philharmonic, followed seventeen days later, on 20 November.

Escaping censure at the Union of Soviet Composers in Moscow that December, the work was turned down for a Stalin Prize in 1946, and in February 1948 it was placed on a list of proscribed pieces that included the Sixth and the Eighth Symphonies along with other of Shostakovich’s major works. Only in 1955, some two years after Stalin’s death, was the Ninth Symphony rehabilitated.

Compare the Haydnesque clarity and lightness of touch of the symphony’s first movement with the fragment heard earlier that it replaced, its seismic shift in character reflecting the seismic uncertainty of artistic life in the Soviet Union at the time.

Symphony No. 9 (8.572167)


Irina and Dmitry Shostakovich
Source: Enlace Judio

Some twenty years later, in 1964, Shostakovich completed his Ninth String Quartet — more accurately, the second version of the work; he destroyed the first version, which he wrote in 1961. Shostakovich dedicated the revised quartet to his third wife, Irina, the daughter of a dissident who had died in the Stalinist purges and was some thirty years his junior. The marriage brought some measure of order to the composer’s household, putting behind him his unsatisfactory second marriage that had ended in divorce. Notwithstanding this, there is little by way of sunshine in the 5-movement work, which was premiered in Moscow on 20 November 1964 by the Beethoven Quartet. We’ll play out with the frenetic last movement and its asymmetries of rhythm and tensions, its cello ‘cadenza’, glissandi, and oblique references to the DSCH cryptogram — the notes D, E flat, C, B natural in German notation — that literally spelled out in music the first letters of the alternative spelling of the composer’s name, D(mitry) Sch(ostakovich).

String Quartet No. 9 (8.550973)


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