Boston Philharmonic’s encampment at Symphony Hall on April 26th at 8:00 will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ensemble with an unusual pairing: Ives’s Third with Mahler’s Fifth.
Lying on a table, when Mahler visited a New York publisher early in 1911, was an unpublished score of a symphony by a composer he had never heard of — Charles Ives. After a quick perusal he slipped it into his briefcase with the intention of studying it on his way back to Europe and performing it the following season. However, Mahler did not return to his post as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. What Mahler must have recognized in that brief encounter with the younger American composer’s Third Symphony was a kindred spirit. He saw a composer who used the humble elements of popular culture — hymn tunes, folk songs — in the hallowed context of the European symphonic form, thereby giving renewed energy to both. An innocent Yankee sensibility resonated with his own penchant for using old Austrian folk songs and dances.
Musicologist Robert Morgan wrote that “the sense of intrusion from a foreign musical realm becomes an essential component and reflects a radically new conception of the nature and limits of serious musical language.” He could have been writing about either composer. Both were reviled for their use of what appeared banal and shopworn material in serious symphonies but, as Morgan notes, they were fashioning “a new type of music based on older and simpler models largely neglected by the main tradition. They thus set about renewing musical prototypes.”
It is intriguing to think what might have happened had Mahler conducted Ives’s Third Symphony at one of his New York Philharmonic concerts, perhaps along with his own Fifth. Both works, composed around 1904, marked a departure from the “old ways”, opening new paths that would lead their composers to inspire the radical revolution in music that was to come a few years later. Unfortunately, Mahler died in May and so Ives had to wait in obscurity till the Third was finally performed in 1946 and it received the Pulitzer Prize a year later. Astonishingly, this masterpiece has received only a single set of performances in Boston’s Symphony Hall since it was composed 115 years ago –36 years ago by the BSO under Michael Tilson Thomas.
The upcoming performance will be, we believe, the first time these two great symphonies have been united in a concert.
Imagine if Mahler had chosen to support Ives the way he supported and championed the young Arnold Schoenberg. Ives’s life would have changed forever and the history of American music along with it.
After the intimacy of the Ives comes the huge, kaleidoscopic Fifth Symphony of Mahler. This work has always been a special favorite of mine Its five movements limn a drama of vast scope and urgency, a kind of tragedy in reverse. It starts in brooding, despair, and death, moves through great anguish, outlandish satire, and the ineffable love-drenched musings of the famous Adagietto, to arrive at a solid, joy-filled, feet-on-the-ground place of optimism and hope. It ends, in fact, with the traditional ending of comedy, a marriage — in this case the marriage of Mahler himself to his beloved Alma. The BPO plays Mahler frequently — one might almost think of him as the house composer, but no matter how often we play these great symphonies, they always take us and the audience to someplace new.