Mahler in New York

By Peter Laki

Mahler spent a total of about a year and a half in New York, in the course of four extended sojourns between 1907 and 1911. He conducted at the Met and gave numerous concerts with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall; he also visited a dozen American cities on tour. He conducted a wide range of operatic and symphonic repertoire that also included three of his own symphonies as well as the song cycle Kindertotenlieder. His tenure was far from uncontroversial, but even his detractors had to admit that he was an exceptional musical phenomenon. Our concert revisits a historic encounter between two cultures, with three works from Mahler’s New York concert programs, as well as his final completed composition, written between two trips to the New World.


George Whitefield Chadwick
Born November 13, 1854, Lowell, Massachusetts
Died April 4, 1931, Boston, Massachusetts

Melpomene Overture
Composed in 1887
Premiered on December 23, 1887 at the Boston Music Hall in Boston, Massachusetts conducted by Wilhelm Gericke
Performance Time: Approximately 12 minutes

If Brahms wrote a pair of concert overtures of which “one laughed and the other wept” (as he himself said of his Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures), his younger American contemporary George Chadwick followed suit with two short orchestral works honoring Thalia and Melpomene, the muses of comedy and tragedy, respectively. (He later added a third overture celebrating another of Zeus’ daughters, this time Euterpe, the muse of music). The Melpomene overture used to enjoy great success and frequent performances, and even though it subsequently fell into neglect for many years, it is undoubtedly one of the finest products of European-influenced American romanticism. George Chadwick was one of the figureheads of the Boston school of composers, which raised musical professionalism in America to new heights in the late 19th century. Trained in Germany, Chadwick played a major role in the musical life of Boston and served for many years as the director of the New England Conservatory. Melpomene is written in the key of D minor, which is traditionally associated with tragedy. After a brooding slow introduction, the Allegro section erupts with a series of powerful chords, ushering in the main theme, which turns out to be a variant of the melody heard in the introduction. The development, set mostly in another tragic key (F minor), involves a great deal of imitative counterpoint, which is more than an academic exercise and serves to increase the dramatic tension. The recapitulation culminates in a coda in which the earlier thematic contrasts intensify to a degree not seen before. At the end, the material of the slow introduction unexpectedly returns, and brings about a calm and introspective ending, a kind of catharsis at the end of a tragedy.


Henry Kimball Hadley
Born December 20, 1871, Somerville, Massachusetts
Died September 6, 1937, New York, New York

The Culprit Fay, Op. 62
Composed in 1908
Premiered in May 1909 with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra at Grand Rapids, Michigan
Performance Time: Approximately 14 minutes

Henry Kimball Hadley (an erstwhile student of Chadwick’s) was one of the most highly-regarded American composers and conductors in the early decades of the 20th century. His opera Cleopatra’s Night was premiered at the Met in 1920. He had productive tenures with orchestras in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York, where he served as the Philharmonic’s first American-born associate conductor. Also widely recognized in Europe, he left a lasting legacy in the Tanglewood Music Center, whose predecessor, the Berkshire Symphonic Music Festival, he helped establish.

By training and inclination, Hadley was a Romantic composer, but he kept up with the innovations of Strauss and Mahler. In his orchestral rhapsody The Culprit Fay, he revisited the Romantic fairy-world that had been so dear to Mendelssohn, but infused that world with the dramatic power of Strauss’s recent tone poems. The work won a $1,000 prize from the National Federation of Music Clubs, and the premiere was given by the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, at the convention of the Federation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on May 28, 1909.

Hadley was inspired by the narrative poem The Culprit Fay (1819) by the American poet Joseph Rodman Drake (1795-1820), in which a male fairy is censured by the Fairy King for falling in love with a mortal maiden, and has to perform two dangerous tasks as his punishment. The Fay had first to catch a drop from a sturgeon as he leaps out of the water, and then to rekindle the fairy lamp by the light of a falling star. The story is somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Moore’s “Paradise and the Peri” (from Lalla Rookh, 1817), which inspired Schumann’s oratorio of the same name (1843). Moore’s Peri also had to atone for a transgression by accomplishing some extremely arduous feats.

Drake’s tale, filled with fantastic adventures and told in a language rich in fantastic imagery, provided Hadley with abundant opportunities for both drama and lyricism. There are many changes of tempo and mood as we follow the Fay’s arduous journey from the fairies’ enchanted forest to the realm of the water-sprites and from there all the way to the stars and back again. The rhapsody begins, misterioso, with a chromatic passage for divided strings, setting the stage for scenes in turn playful, introspective, and heroic. At the end, the cock crows (an effect imaginatively rendered by the downward glissando of the oboes), and the fairies quickly disappear into the forest.


Alphons Diepenbrock
Born September 9, 1862, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Died April 5, 1921, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Hymne an die Nacht II
Composed in 1899, rev. 1900, 1902
Premiered on December 6, 1900 at The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam by the Pauline de Haan-Manifarges & Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Alphons Diepenbrock
Performance Time: Approximately 16 minutes

During his first trip to Holland in 1903, Mahler met a 41-year-old Dutch composer named Alphons Diepenbrock, two years his junior, with whom he soon formed a mutual admiration society. Their friendship intensified during Mahler’s three subsequent visits to Amsterdam. Diepenbrock had even appeared as a Mahler conductor, performing his friend’s Fourth Symphony. Mahler returned the favor by programming a work by Diepenbrock during one of his New York concerts.

A scholar of Greek and Latin by training, Diepenbrock was largely self-taught as a musician. In his voluminous compositional oeuvre, in which vocal music predominates, he is revealed as a sensitive interpreter of Dutch, German and French poetry. He turned to the work of Novalis (1773-1801), the visionary German romantic poet, on no fewer than six occasions. The hymn “Muss immer der Morgen wiederkommen?” (“Must morning always return?”) occupies a special place among Diepenbrock’s works, since this was his only song for voice and orchestra to be published during his lifetime.

The hymn’s opening line makes one think of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—one of Mahler’s favorite operas, which he chose for his Met debut in 1907. In fact, the contrast between blissful night and odious day, so central to Wagner’s opera, was first articulated in Novalis’s night hymns. It should come as no surprise, then, that Diepenbrock’s music is stylistically rather close to Wagner, in his lush orchestral textures and voluptuous harmonies.

Diepenbrock is recognized as one of the most important Dutch composers of his time. The 100th anniversary of his death this year was commemorated by numerous performances of his works by the major orchestras of the Netherlands.


Gustav Mahler
Born July 7, 1860, Kaliště, Czechia
Died May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria

Adagio from Symphony No. 10
Composed in 1910
Premiered on December 10, 1924 at the Vienna State Opera conducted by Franz Schalk
Performance Time: Approximately 25 minutes

At the end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the instructions morendo or ersterbend (both meaning “dying”) are repeated several times. Ever since its posthumous premiere in 1912, the Symphony has been viewed by most as a farewell to life.

What could possibly be said after such a final word?

As far as we know, Mahler did not discuss his projected Tenth Symphony with anyone. He did not even share his thoughts with his wife Alma, who had so often been the first to hear about them. But then, the Mahlers’ marriage was in a serious crisis during the summer of 1910. Alma, who felt that her life was utterly unfulfilled, was driven to a nervous breakdown by Mahler’s intense and demanding personality. At the spa of Tobelbad, where she went alone to recover, she met Walter Gropius, and they fell in love (Gropius, later one of the greatest architects of his time, eventually became Alma’s second husband). Mahler found out about the affair when Gropius mistakenly addressed a letter, urging Alma to leave her husband, to Mahler himself (it seems he unconsciously wanted him to know). Some intense soul-searching ensued; Mahler even consulted Sigmund Freud during the latter’s holiday in Leiden, Holland on August 26, 1910. The visit led to reconciliation and a renewed commitment.

In addition to the marital difficulties, Mahler was preoccupied with the premiere of the Eighth Symphony, scheduled for September 12. Therefore, it seems that work on the Tenth was intermittent and never reached Mahler’s usual level of intensity. Alma wrote that “he had a superstitious fear of working on it.” Still, Mahler, who had already been diagnosed with the serious heart disease that would soon claim his life, worked fast, producing 93 pages of score during the summer of 1910. After September, he sailed for New York, and apparently never returned to work on the Tenth before his death in May 1911.

It has become commonplace to say that Mahler’s works are always “autobiographical.” They were surely never more so than in the Tenth, the manuscript of which is filled with marginal remarks such as “Mercy!” “O God! O God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” “To live for you! To die for you!” and finally, “Almschi!” (Mahler’s pet-name for his wife). It seems that in his Tenth, Mahler wanted to project his personal trauma on the cosmic scale of his earlier symphonies. Is it surprising if the work raised problems of a totally unprecedented kind for Mahler?

Although Mahler left his Tenth unfinished, the five-movement work is actually written out to the end in the form of a “continuity draft,” which means that the music was set down in an outline even if it wasn’t worked out in detail. The opening Adagio is complete; the others are present in varying amounts of harmonic and instrumental detail. (There are several completions of the remaining movements: the best-known is by Deryck Cooke, first performed in 1964).

The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth opens with the violas playing a mysterious unaccompanied melody hovering over several tonalities without quite settling on any particular key. This viola solo (whose tempo marking is Andante) is only an introduction to the real Adagio, whose warm violin melody begins in a clearly defined F-sharp major but soon branches out in distant chromatic modulations. The emotional power of this melody, which projects deep sadness, is enhanced by the many wide leaps of an octave and more. Although the tempo remains slow throughout, the music brightens up somewhat in the course of that development, especially in the passages where the texture is enlivened by woodwind trills and string pizzicatos. Yet the tragic mood of the beginning eventually returns. An unexpected tutti attack leads to the movement’s climax, a horrifyingly dissonant nine-note chord that speaks of almost unbearable pain. In the ensuing coda, the themes gradually disintegrate into isolated fragments, as the first violins climb to their highest register at the very end of the fingerboard.

Written for

Mahler in New York