Program Notes--Julian Killough-Miller
Jump to Notes on the Individual Pieces:
Exsultate Jubilate (K. 165) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1773)
Just as in the 20th century, where the soulful sounds of gospel music were incorporated (some might say appropriated) into all sorts of popular music from Elvis to Boyz 2 Men, 18th-century composers imported the sounds of secular opera into religious music. Though it is by the nature of its text a religious work, Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate has plenty in common with his early opera arias. Composed when he was a teenager, the Exsultate is one of his earliest enduring works.
The religious motet, as it is often categorized, was written for the renowned castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, a Milanese celebrity who had worked with the composer before. Since castrati aren’t readily available for performances nowadays (for good reason!), even the most zealous practitioners of the historically informed performance movement don’t tend to achieve perfect period practice for this piece. The solo part is sung most often by a soprano today.
The first movement allows the soprano to flex her vocal prowess as she cascades through roulades with bravado. The splendor of the cadenza certainly matches the musical dialogue of religious ecstasy described in the text between the blessed souls of heaven and the singer herself.
The Andante evokes a more subdued expression of religious ecstasy. Introduced by a brief recitative, this slow movement is an act of supplication, a prayer for peace and consolation from the Virgin Mary. The orchestra draws a halo around the sublime soprano line. All is peace, though flashing tremors of darkness enrich the texture in the form of dissonant suspensions.
The Alleluia finale is the most popular section of the work and it is often played as a stand-alone showpiece, detached from its liturgical context. It remains something of a ‘hit single’ for the composer. After an exultant embellishment from the soprano brings the slow movement to a close, a breathtaking key change prepares the threshold for the joyous finale. The pyrotechnics from the first movement return with an extra dose of caffeine. The exclamation of joy is charming and relatively brief, lasting just over two minutes. For such a short piece, the Exsultate is brimming with life, and it paved the way for the many show-stopping arias Mozart would compose in his fruitful opera career.
Symphony No. 5 Gustav Mahler (1901-2)
You could say that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is having a bit of a moment now, thanks to its role as an anthem of tragic greatness in Todd Field’s Oscar-nominated Tár. Not only does the piece serve as an engine for Cate Blanchett’s performance as a celebrated conductor at the peak of her powers, its musical portrait of love and death, fate and glory, and above all, cataclysmic grandeur inhabit nearly every beat of the film as we bear witness to the title character’s Icarian descent. Mahler’s music didn’t just accompany the film; in many ways Tár flowed like a cinematic rendition of the symphony itself, but in reverse chronology. The somber military call of the trumpet that opens the symphony is the last that we hear of the piece in the film, and for good reason.
The producers were so committed to the realism of Blanchett’s character that Deutsche Grammophon released the soundtrack with a cover meant to look like Claudio Abbado’s recording of Mahler 5, where the conductor’s writing hand is buried in the score, marking some evident token of genius into Mahler’s text.
In contrast to his first four symphonies, Mahler’s Fifth was the first to break from the folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn as its inspiration. It was the first of his three middle-period instrumental symphonies, all of which embraced a slightly more traditional (well, for Mahler) approach to symphonic form. Or perhaps put another way, without relying on a text to inform the emotional landscape of the works, Mahler focused even more on the expressive resources of the orchestra and big-picture formal trajectories to frame his epic symphonic canvases.
Mahler began work on the Fifth Symphony in his Maiernigg summer cottage in 1901, following a health scare in February of the same year in which he suffered a hemorrhage. Death was never far from Mahler’s consciousness; eight of his siblings died in childhood and another brother died by suicide when Mahler was in his 30s.
All of Mahler’s symphonies contain a striking emotional range, but nowhere in his output is the tone more discontinuous between sections than in his fifth symphony. The first two movements that comprise Part 1 veer between abject depression, frenzied outbursts of sheer terror, and surges of hope that inevitably collapse in on themselves. Part 2, the symphony’s centerpiece, takes on an entirely new tone. A world unto itself, the third movement scherzo prances about with an almost nihilistic embrace of movement for movement’s sake. Part 3 counterbalances the tragic disposition of Part 1 with the openly sentimental love poem of the Adagietto fourth movement paired with the celebratory montage of the finale.
Unlike his Second, where the morbidity of the first movement is redeemed by the Christianity of the finale, the three parts of the Fifth almost come across as non sequiturs, as though they are three simultaneously available versions of seeing the world. Despite the climactic return of the chorale from the second movement in the finale, we’re not necessarily left with the sense that the very real demons of the opening chapter have been exorcized, defeated, or even properly addressed. They have merely been recast by a different frame of mind.
The recasting of similar material through different lenses isn’t only limited to the breakthrough chorale shared between the 2nd and 5th movements, it also operates internally between the two movements that make up both Part 1 and Part 2. In Part 1, the restrained lament of the first movement’s second trio is recast as the bitterly elegiac second theme of the sonata allegro second movement. Likewise, the tenderly aspiring theme of the Adagietto (which yearns with a pseudo-spiritual eroticism borrowed from Wagner’s Tristan) returns as Vaudeville shtick in the carnivalesque finale.
There’s no good or evil, tragedy or triumph, life or death, Mahler seems to imply; it’s all in how you look at it.
Of course, the frenetic jubilation of the finale gets the last word, but even that swelling balloon is popped by the goofy bathos of the surprise harmony, inserted abruptly like a sneeze amidst a kiss.
Its ambiguity, alongside its relentless demands for the strings and brass, make it one of Mahler’s most challenging symphonies to pull off. As music critic Dave Hurwitz points out, out of all the symphonies, the Fifth “is the one even dedicated Mahlerians screw up.” There’s a reason in Tár that it’s the final symphony the anti-heroine has yet to record.
The Fifth eschews any easily graspable narrative. Mahler gives us so much to process in each symphony (“a world,” as he once postulated to Sibelius) that it’s a testament to his skill as a symphonist that they all tend to hang together. The Fifth, though, doesn’t all quite hang together. It’s the only symphony in which he relied on formal divisions containing multiple movements, and its progressive tonality (beginning in C# minor, ending in D major) further strains its coherence. There’s no obvious narrative trajectory here, only a collection of possible realities: a symphonic multiverse, perhaps. All facets are true, and yet none tell the full truth on their own.
The first movement serves as an extended sort of preamble to the symphony. Rather than opening the work with the developmental discourse of a customary sonata allegro, Mahler places that second and opens instead with a mood-setting funeral march. In the opening bars, a solo trumpet rouses all mourners to come join the grim tread. The obvious extremity of the grief is somewhat tamed by the stately protocol of the communal march. The rigidity of the pulse is at once confining and comforting–walking away the pain together can provide some relief. And yet, after a hushed repetition of the trumpet call, the bottled-up anguish suddenly explodes. This turbulent trio is the closest Mahler got to depicting a panic attack in music, an affliction to which he was no stranger. Surging strings scream amidst pounding timpani and snarling brass. The chaos builds to a climax, and then winds back down to the tragic splendor of the fully orchestrated introduction. The weight of agony is at once intimate and cosmic; so it was with Mahler.
Although the music relies on the genre associations of the funeral march, the mourning seems to extend beyond the pain of losing a loved one; the pain here is existential. Following another round of the march, the second trio serves as an emotional counterweight to the first. Whereas the first trio shrieked unmistakably, the second portrays an interior rage, more controlled and yet with more destructive potential than the first. Beginning with the cool lamentations of the sober violins, the anguish builds momentum until it smolders with the white-hot pain of a fire iron. Mahler’s music is often overwhelming, but this movement contains some of his most direct and unambiguous portrayals of pain. As the funereal trumpet returns, he seems distant now, perhaps implying that although this intense state of grief cannot easily be conquered, it can, with time, grow distant. A thud-like pizzicato in the strings that concludes the movement reminds us with its echoes that the trauma will persist.
The second movement picks up with the turbulence of the first movement trios. Barking basses launch into a war with piercing brass assaults from above. The turbulence seems more symphonic and less personal here than in the first movement. The elegiac second theme pairs the second trio from the first movement with a persistent barrage of Beethoven Fifth rhythms, one of the most famous motives in all symphonic music. The development section starts off with the tempestuousness of the beginning, but the storm quickly fizzles out, leaving the hushed tension of the timpani’s rumble. Amidst the rubble, Mahler entrusts a gorgeously grasping melody to the cello section. The tune is fragmentary at first, meandering around painful sighs until it coalesces into a full-blown lament, accompanied by a somber bed of dour string harmonies. At the heart of this bombastic second movement, Mahler gives us a moment of true tenderness, of repose: a chance to nurse our wounds and process the relentless attacks that Part 1 has doled out unsparingly. This tenderness from the strings points towards their passionate romance in the fourth movement. After a return to the aggrieved antics of the movement’s primary material, the development will bring yet another glimpse into a brighter world.
Seemingly out of nowhere, an untrammeled vehicle of major key positivity emerges into the black heart of the movement. Disorienting at first, these stirrings lead to a breakthrough of a triumphant chorale off in the distance. At first, the chorale seems to be an errant portal into another symphony entirely: Brahms One or Bruckner Five, perhaps. However, it’s too soon to celebrate yet, Mahler seems to say; the victory was only a mirage since it hasn’t yet been earned. The brightness collapses on the turn of a dime, and we fall headlong into the depressive abyss. The coda trails off, like a fairy tale version of what has transpired with flutes, harp, and woodland tubas. The tempest may have taken place in a teapot after all. With a mixture of resignation and cold objectivity, Part 1 ends with a whisper.
The scherzo is chiefly responsible for the Fifth’s distinction as Mahler’s longest symphony in terms of measure count. Placed squarely as the centerpiece of the symphony, it is the work’s longest movement in terms of duration as well, as Mahler whisks us away on a seemingly endless whirligig of life (or is it a dance with death?). Whereas the two movements of Part 1 were unambiguously tragic, the scherzo contains dazzling displays of moods, ranging from exuberance, joie de vivre, dejection, and awe. The primary dance is a stately ländler, an Austrian precursor to the waltz. A solo horn comments on the proceedings while they happen, almost as if they are narrating the event as it happens. The solo writing for horn is difficult, providing counterpoint almost constantly throughout the eighteen-minute movement.
Some listeners struggle with the length and the tonal shift of this movement from the intensity of the first two. It’s certainly a unique unit within the context of Mahler’s output. He designed it such that you can get lost in the swirl–everything can change in an instant, he seems to suggest. The unbridled power of every individual horn echoing each other at one awesome moment summons the power of mountains; the frailty of the trembling violin plucking out a desolate dirge evokes the bleakest isolation of the loneliest busker. The movement ends with a tribal thundering of the drums undergirding the brass as the obligato horn calls us in for a final landing. You can certainly enjoy the other four movements and their more easily legible emotional worlds without grokking this movement’s eclecticism. But there are wonderfully rich moments for those who hang on for the ride.
The Adagietto is perhaps Mahler’s most widely-known movement in all of his output. It has played a role in famous movies (Death in Venice, for one) and solemn ceremonies (RFK’s funeral and 9/11 memorials). The piece is often used in contexts of grieving perhaps because of its easily accessed emotional appeal. But in the context of the symphony, it serves as more of a love poem to Alma than an expression of tragedy. Much depends on the tempo that the conductor chooses–a livelier rendition will emphasize the romance whereas a slower performance can impart a sense of world-weariness and regret. Either way, the yearning melody of the strings and the tender caress of the harp provides a refuge from the tumult of the other four movements, presaged by the cello interlude in the second movement. Melodic lines rise and fall, often without ever quite reaching their goal. The most excruciating of these suspensions is the stepwise descent of the final bars, where resolution is only achieved after Mahler dwells interminably on the fourth of the scale, pointing towards an infinity of desire favored by Wagner in his Schopenhaurian Tristan phase. Especially since half the orchestra sits this intimate movement out, it’s perhaps best enjoyed (at least for a moment or two) with eyes closed and heart open.
From the neutrality of open fifths and the quirky strands of woodwind dialogue, the finale announces its light mood and heavy contrapuntal texture. Any ghosts of Part 1’s tragic turbulence are banished in this decidedly unemotional atmosphere. The tonality is major, but it doesn’t dwell enough in one place to be truly celebratory, at least until the closing passage. So much is going on at once without incident that it matches the hectic pace of modern life. This emphasis on counterpoint (having two or more independent voices operating independently) was deeply influenced by his deep study of Bach’s compositions during this period. The melodies are few and far-between; the hurly burly of busy instrumental activity takes center stage. The one melody that does emerge, however, is lifted directly from the fourth movement. Stripped of its intimate, romantic context, it becomes just another strand of yarn woven into the byzantine tapestry.
The final payoff comes at the end of the exercise when a full-blown exaltation of the brass chorale from the second movement breaks through for one last hurrah. This time, however, we realize that the frenzy of the movement has been building up to this one great moment all along, unlike in the second movement where it arrived only as a glimpse of what could be. The glory of brass is certainly delightful. But is it convincing?
Since its first performance, audiences and critics have been mixed in their reception to the finale, and as a result, to the symphony’s coherence. Commentator Deryck Cooke describes the chorale’s reemergence in the finale as “...the main crossbeam holding together the dangerously disparate elements of total darkness and total light at either end of the symphony.” Indeed, there may be something disingenuous about the triumph of the finale; it fails to improperly address the absolute crisis. Mahler’s tendency towards irony makes such fanfares seem suspect; this is no Bruckner’s Fifth. Or as German philosopher Theodor Adorno put it tersely, “Mahler was a poor yea-sayer.” Mahler himself casts doubt on the transcendence of his breakthrough, since he quickly breaks the mood by blowing a raspberry and winking while announcing, “That’s all folks!” only to scurry offstage as the curtain falls from above.