Mahler’s Titan – March 9, 2024
Aleksandr Arutiunian (1920-2012)
Trumpet Concerto in A-flat Major
Composed in 1950
Along with Aram Khachaturian, Arutiunian is ranked among the most important Armenian composers of their generation. As with Khachaturian, his style is quite approachable, exotically colorful, and features folk-like Armenian traits and catchy melodies.
Arutiunian was appointed Artistic Director of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra in 1954, a post he held until 1990. He managed to avoid falling into disfavor with Soviet cultural bosses in the post-Stalin era, not necessarily an easy task, by composing unadventurous, though well-crafted works like his Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1951) and a symphony (1957). A horn concerto (1962), achieved some popularity.
In 1965, Arutiunian joined the faculty of the Yerevan Conservatory where he taught composition for many years. While there he produced his popular quintet for brass, Armenian Scenes, and his tuba concerto (1992).
Arutiunian composed his Trumpet Concerto in 1949-50. It is his sixth major composition, a virtuoso showpiece, featuring Eastern European lyricism and harmonic textures.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major ‘Titan’ Composed 1884-88, revised 1893-99
What to Listen For:
• Mahler wanted the beginning of the symphony to evoke “the awakening of Nature from the long sleep of winter,” with birdsongs and hunting horns emerging from the stillness of a single note.
• In an echo of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Mahler’s slow movement takes the form of a Funeral March, with a theme based on the nursery rhyme tune Frère Jacques (or Bruder Martin in German).
Gustav Mahler was born into a German-speaking, upwardly mobile Jewish family in what is now the Czech Republic. Although he focused on composition as a student at the Vienna Conservatory, his meteoric rise as a conductor soon crowded out his composing, leaving him only limited time to explore the two genres he was most attracted to in his own music: songs and symphonies.
Mahler’s First Symphony went through a particularly long gestation, beginning in 1884, when he was working in Kassel, Germany. Having become infatuated with a soprano in the choir he led, Mahler wrote her love poems, and he set some to music in the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), including melodies he later folded into the First Symphony.
The piece remained unfinished during Mahler’s brief tenure in Prague, and it progressed as far as a piano score by early 1888, when he resigned from an even more prominent position in Leipzig. The 28-year-old went on to head the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest, and before year’s end he had completed the orchestration of his symphonic debut.
Mahler conducted the first performance of the “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts” (as he initially titled it) in Budapest in 1889. It confounded critics, especially the second part with its mix of grotesque parody and raw power, leading Mahler to shelve the score temporarily. After moving on to yet another conducting job in Hamburg, he brought the symphony back for a second performance in 1893, with an expanded wind section and a new title: Titan, a Tone Poem in Symphony Form. Further revisions added more woodwinds and eliminated the slow Blumine movement, bringing the score to the form in which it was published in 1899 as the Symphony No. 1.
The symphony begins with the mystical resonance of the note “A” spread across the full range of the strings, joined by a slow motive of descending intervals based in D minor. Mahler’s 1893 program described this movement as “the awakening of Nature from the long sleep of winter,” an association supported by pastoral birdcalls and distant fanfares, as if from a hunting party. Besides the naturalistic tone painting, Mahler’s opening pays homage to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which likewise starts with a sustained “A” and motives based on similar descending intervals.
The second movement is a Ländler, an exuberant peasant dance in triple meter—music “with full sails,” as Mahler characterized it in his program note.
An emotionally ambiguous Funeral March follows, building from a minor-key rendition of the round-tune Bruder Martin (also known as Frère Jacques). Mahler described the inspiration as coming from “The Huntsman’s Funeral, from an old children’s book: the animals of the forest accompany the dead huntsman’s bier to the grave; hares escort the little troop, in front of them marches a group of Bohemian musicians, accompanied by playing cats, toads, crows etc. Stags, deer, foxes and other four-legged and feathered animals follow the procession in comic attitudes. In this passage the piece is intended to have now an ironically merry, now a mysteriously brooding mood.”
The finale, in Mahler’s design, is meant to enter “like the suddenly erupting cry of a heart wounded to its depths.” Upon reaching a terrifying climax, the music breaks off into a hushed recollection of the naturalistic scene from the symphony’s opening. When the movement reaches its ultimate peak, seven horns and four trumpets pushed to a fortississimo (fff) dynamic leave no doubt as to this symphony’s redemption, their bright fanfare in D-major cleansing away any doubts planted long ago in the symphony’s D-minor arrival.
© Aaron Grad