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R: ARCHIVE, S: MUSIC, D: 09/28/2000, B: Jeffrey Gantz,

Visions of Johanna

Gustav Mahler's Blumine: A love story

by Jeffrey Gantz

It's the stuff of Hollywood romance: a famous composer, a blue-eyed blonde soprano, a love-letter symphony with a mysterious lost movement, and an unhappy ending. It's a detective story, too, since we can trace the aftermath of the relationship in the composer's subsequent symphonies. And it's a timely story, since two fine new recordings of the symphony have just appeared: Yoel Levi with the Atlanta Symphony (Telarc) and Ole Kristian Ruud with the Norrköping Symphony (Simax). Maybe Hollywood will take note?

Gustav Mahler began his First Symphony in 1884. At the time, he was second conductor at the Royal and Imperial Theater in Cassel (in the middle of Germany), and he was in love with one of his singers, Johanna Richter. Newspaper accounts praise her beauty (if not her singing), and it can scarcely have escaped the romantic 24-year-old conductor that his favorite girl had the same name as his favorite writer, the early-19th-century novelist Jean Paul (who was christened Johann Paul Richter). There appears to be no photo of Johanna, but in the break-up quartet of songs that he completed in 1884, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer"), Gustav describes seeing her blue eyes when he looks up to Heaven and her blond hair blowing in the wind when he walks through the yellow fields. He wrote her love poems; he agonized over her, calling her "enigmatic as always." A letter to his friend Fritz Löhr describes a New Year's Eve spent at her house in teary silence as they waited for 1885 to arrive. That year, Mahler left Cassel for Prague. He never saw Johanna again.

And his First Symphony? Mahler completed it in 1888, calling it a " `Symphonic Poem' in two parts," with three movements in the first part and two in the second. The following year it had a disastrous premiere in Budapest, where neither audience nor critics were prepared for the fourth movement's parody funeral march and klezmer irruptions. Undaunted, Mahler reworked the piece, presenting it in Hamburg in 1893 as "Titan, a tone poem in symphonic form." Titan was the name of his favorite Jean Paul novel; some individual sections also had Jean Paul-derived titles, like Blumen-, Frucht- und Dornenstücke ("Flower-, Fruit-, and Thornpieces," from the novel Siebenkäs) and Blumine ("Flowers," from the essay collection Herbst-Blumine). The idea was to make the work more accessible to audiences, but by 1893 Jean Paul was out of fashion and not even the Titan allusion was recognized. For the 1896 Berlin performance, Gustav dropped the titles and also the Blumine second movement, creating the four-movement First Symphony that conductors like Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein made famous.

But it's that discarded second movement that's the key to our detective story -- and our love story. Blumine started out life back in 1884 as a trumpet intermezzo in Der Trompeter von Säkkingen (a suite of incidental music Mahler was obliged to write to accompany Joseph von Scheffel's popular if lowbrow romantic poem) before becoming, temporarily, part of the First Symphony. Since neither the Trompeter music nor the 1889 or 1893 version of Mahler's symphony appeared to have survived, this love serenade -- which Gustav had to have written with Johanna in mind -- was thought to be lost forever. Then in 1959, the 1893 manuscript turned up at Sotheby's (it's now at Yale). Although Blumine got included in a few LP recordings (Frank Brieff, Eugene Ormandy, Wyn Morris, Iván Fischer, and, yes, Seiji Ozawa with the BSO!), it was never accepted by mainstream Mahler conductors like Walter, Bernstein, Rafael Kubelik, Georg Solti, and Bernard Haitink, and it hasn't found favor with either of the two beacons of contemporary Mahler scholarship, Henry-Louis de La Grange ("pretty, charming, lightweight, urbane, and repetitious") or Donald Mitchell ("A great deal -- perhaps a great deal too much -- has already been said and written about this slender movement").

La Grange and Mitchell left out "sentimental" (so is Jean Paul), but otherwise they're right: Blumine is a mash note in the middle of a musical masterpiece. But does it really not belong? And did Gustav really forget Johanna so easily?

The magnifying glass tells a different story: Blumine has left fingerprints all over Mahler's First Symphony. Exhibit A is the five-note beginning of the serenade's theme, Exhibit B the seven-note conclusion. (See examples above.) Blumine A infiltrates the second Gesellen song, "Ging heut' morgen übers Feld" ("I Walked Out This Morning Across the Fields"), at bars 24 (first violins), 51 (voice and violins), 62 (clarinets), and 64 (violas) before blossoming at the words "Blum' und Vogel Groß und Klein" ("flower and bird, large and small") at bar 81. In the Symphony's first movement (which is based on the song), Blumine A pops up in the first violins at bar 80 and goes on to play a prominent role in the movement's development at bars 268-275 (flutes, oboes, clarinets), with the French horns getting into it at bar 279, the cellos at 281, and the first violins at 288 before the trumpets seal it at 366-367.

Gustav didn't stop there. Blumine A enters the scherzo in the dialogue between cellos/bassoons and violins/horns at bar 18, repeats at bar 38, and recurs at bars 68 (flutes, oboes, violins), 104 (violins, oboes, flutes, and spreading to the rest of the orchestra through bar 136), and 150-153 (French horns and cellos, then oboes, clarinets, and trumpet). The Trio is built on the first four notes of Blumine A turned upside down, and at bars 206-207 the first violins quote Blumine B. In the finale, a cousin to Blumine B starts off the lyrical second subject at bar 175 (first violins) before the original reappears at bars 206-209 (first violins, cellos). The French horns take up Blumine B in the development (bars 266-269), followed by the trumpets (270-273); then a truncated Blumine B in the trumpets (282-289) initiates the first statement of the triumphal march, with help from Blumine A in the winds and horns (290-293) and strings (302-304). In the second-subject reprise the cellos have the Blumine B cousin at bars 458-460, the oboes the original at 480-482; and at bars 490-495 (flutes, oboe, violins) there's a final anguished outburst of Blumine B before the symphony triumphantly marches home. Even then the violins can be caught looking back to Blumine A in bars 555-563.

There's circumstantial evidence too: the six-note rising trumpet figure that follows Blumine A in the movement itself (bars 9-10) sounds suspiciously like the rising trumpet figure of the triumphal march in the finale (300-302), and the six-note rising/falling figure in bar 17 of Blumine seems to anticipate the same passage in "Ging heut' morgen" (bars 4-5) and the symphony's first movement (bars 64-65 in the cellos). In short, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out -- even Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade could see that, far from being an orphaned work that Mahler tried to adopt into his First Symphony, Blumine is one of the progenitors of that symphony, the passion from which it grew.

But did Gustav forget about Johanna after the First Symphony? Not exactly. The first four notes of Blumine A -- which, it turns out, are the first four notes of the plainchant Dies Irae -- dominate his Second Symphony, the Resurrection. Both the opening phrase of the Fourth Symphony (bars 6-7 in the first violins) and the second subject (bars 40-41 in the cellos) finish with Blumine A; and in the Fifth Symphony, the joyful reprise of the Adagietto theme in the finale also rounds off (bars 196-197 in the first violins) with Blumine A. The trio in the scherzo of the Seventh Symphony finds the French horns and the cellos joining in an affectionate Blumine A parody at bar 246 (it turns dark and brutal when repeated by the trombones and tubas at bar 416). In the opening movement of Mahler's great Ninth Symphony, Blumine B precipitates the catastrophic collapses of the exposition (bars 92-94 in the first violins) and the development (196-198 in the oboes, clarinets, horns, first violins, and violas); 295-297 in the A clarinets and trumpet; 308-310 in the winds, trumpets, violins, and violas). And in the first scherzo of his unfinished Tenth Symphony, at bar 420, the trumpets look back to the First Symphony's Blumine B cousin. Gustav's visions of Johanna haunted him to the end.

More than 100 years later, it's hard to see what flummoxed audiences about Mahler's First Symphony. Program or no program, the story is easy to follow. Our hero wakes to nature, the buzz of cicadas (that pedal point in A), the chirping of birds, the soft blare of distant trumpets (Gustav grew up near a barracks). He's enchanted by it all, the fields, the flowers, notwithstanding a lonely spell in the forest. Blumine finds him in love; the scherzo finds our couple dancing, first a stomping ländler, then its city cousin, the waltz. For all that the fourth movement is a parody funeral march (based on a well-known folk image where the animals lead "The Hunter's Funeral Procession"), it's clear that our hero has suffered a fate worse than death: he's been ditched. The trio is based on the final Gesellen song, "Die zwei blauen Augen," where his love's blue eyes send him away. In the last movement he rants, looks back wistfully, rants and marches forward, looks back again, then tears himself away and strides forth, a champion, to meet the world. Like Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, this is a break-up/revenge symphony.

Now, some 100 years later, audiences have at last figured out what Gustav was trying to say -- more than 100 recordings of Mahler's First have been made (this critic confesses to owning "only" about 50). But these two latest are not redundant. Yoel Levi's Atlanta Mahler series (1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 so far) has been criticized as bland, and indeed the soft-edged attack is offputting at first; but here, at least, he's intensely dramatic and poetic without obscuring the structure. His winds and brass have a seductive bloom; his strings are limpid; and Telarc has given him a superbly three-dimensional ambiance. He treats the introduction to the opening movement (and later the beginning of the development) with unusual freedom; the orchestra actually wakes up, as opposed to just going through the motions, and the distant trumpets (bar 22; 1:40) shimmer in the breaking dawn -- yet there's no want of energy in the sprint to the finish. Christopher Martin's Blumine trumpet solo has a creamy, lapsang souchong edge, and Levi supports him with wistful phrasing: the big bassoon-and-cello sigh at bar 61 (3:03), the rising viola-and-cello line at bar 107 (5:10), the nostalgia of the strings at bar 119 (5:50).

The scherzo's ländler could be more heavy-footed; the funeral march short-shrifts the "Mit Parodie" section (bar 45; 2:52) and the oom-pah tuba (bar 132; 8:01), and the "Blauen Augen" trio, not slower as it should be, finds the strings straitjacketed by the harp. But from bar 145 (8:41), when the plaintive oboe enters, to the end 90 seconds later, the mood turns sober, reflective, and distinctive. And Levi's finale offers lucid strings beneath the hellfire-and-brimstone plus an impassioned, painful-memory second subject that wears its heart proudly, without self-pity, on its sleeve. The triumphal march remains broad throughout, as Mahler asks, and the strings underpinning the coda are reasonably audible. This performance doesn't have the intellectual rigor of Pierre Boulez's recent First, but Levi's poetry and the inclusion of Blumine would make it my choice among contemporary versions, in a class with Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, and Rafael Kubelik.

Norwegian conductor Ole Kristian Ruud and the Norrköping Symphony (from Sweden) offer just the third recording ever of the 1893 "Tondichtung," and the only one that's currently available. (Wyn Morris's affecting 1970 performance, on a Pye Virtuoso LP, has yet to appear on CD; and I've never seen Hiroshi Wakasugi's 1992 Fontec CD.) Among the differences from the standard 1906 version: the opening fanfare is here played by the horns rather than the clarinets, and there's no first-movement repeat; the opening of the scherzo has timpani accompaniment, and again there's no repeat; the opening double-bass solo in the funeral march is here shared by the cellos; and in the finale, where there's yet more timpani, the concluding drum roll is twice as long and the concluding tutti snap twice as short.

Ruud's opening movement is spring to Levi's summer, dragonfly light and gentle and skipping, less introspective but with the same edifying balance and clarity. James M. Benitez's Blumine trumpet is a little pinched and stiff next to Christopher Martin's, but Ruud phrases sensitively and gives full weight to the big climax at bar 107 (5:10), and the strings become sinuous and yearning in the final measures. The scherzo has a nicely flowing slow waltz; the funeral march, like Levi's, is a shade undercharacterized, and here too the "Blauen Augen" trio is taken in time when it should be freer and slower. But if the Blumine-like sections of the finale are more restrained and less natural than Levi's, they're still played with feeling and without apology. There are many worse four-movement recordings by big-name conductors and orchestras, and in any case this is the only 1893 version that's out right now. It's also the only one that has the right to call itself Titan, since the other five-movement releases all drop the 1893 Blumine into Mahler's 1906 revised version. So Levi's First (like those of Simon Rattle, Leif Segerstam, Neeme Järvi, Jacek Kaspszyk, James Judd, and the rest) is an anachronism, but I'd argue it represents Gustav's romantic debut symphony at its best, as the record of his love for Johanna Richter, a love that never quite died.


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