Looking Back: Reconstructing Mahler's First


F.1 NEC Mahler Unleashed Logo

source: necmusic.edu

It was at about this time 6 years ago that I participated in a project that would have a profound impact on the development of my musical philosophy and worldview. I want to take a moment and share the story with you.

2011 marked the centennial of Mahler's death, and in July that year I was hard-at-work reconstructing the original version of Mahler's First Symphony. New England Conservatory, where I was studying at the time, was planning to commemorate his centennial by means of a semester-long, school-wide festival dubbed "Mahler Unleashed!" My project, in collaboration with conductor Hugh Wolff and musicologist Katarina Markovic (both professors at NEC), was the centerpiece. 

You may be wondering just what is the "original" version of the Mahler First and how different could it be from what is played today? Here's the full story.


Mahler conducted the work's premiere in 1889 in Budapest under the title Symphonic Poem in Two Parts. It was received poorly - The audience hated it. The critics loathed it as 'noise' music and made insulting caricatures (see F.2). Even the orchestra musicians were rumored to have sabotaged the performance... Mahler was ostracized from his social circles for weeks. He immediately withdrew the work, locked it in his desk, and began a period of extensive revision. Four years later (1893), he conducted a concert in Hamburg and presented a new piece titled Titan; A Tone Poem in Two Parts. Alas, this 're-premiere' was also a failure. Mahler revised it again multiple times (re-premiering the work 5 times in total, all to poor reception) and the final version, titled Symphony in D major, came out in 1906 (15 years after the original premiere date).

F.2 Caricature of the premiere of Mahler's Symphonic Poem in Two Parts (1889). Source: Bolond Istok 24-11-1889

The First Symphony was - in Mahler’s words - “the most spontaneous and daringly composed of all” and he called it his “child of sorrow.” Considering that Mahler saw each of his works at every stage of their existence as, on the one hand, “entirely free of error” and on the other, in need of eternal revising, there is no hierarchy between the different versions of this work. Imagine that in letters to family members prior to the 1889 premiere, Mahler suggested that the piece would make him famous and that among other things, he would not need to worry about financial matters anymore. Had he lived twenty more years, who knows what the “final” version of this composition would sound like!

F.3 Portrait of Arnold Rosé

Mahler's manuscript of the 1889 version ended up in the hands of his brother-in-law, Arnold Rosé, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and first violin of the famed Rosé Quartet. During the Nazi occupation of Austria, Arnold left Vienna for England and brought all of his belongings with him. In 1946, his son, Alfred, a performing musician and Mahler's nephew, traveled to the Western Conservatory of Music, London, Ontario to direct a summer workshop in opera and in 1948 he moved there to teach at the University of Western Ontario. Arnold had died in 1946, so Alfred brought the collection of his father's materials with him to Canada. Upon his own death in 1975, Alfred willed the collection to the university's library.

In the mid-1980's, musicologist Stephen McClatchie came across the 1889 manuscript among these documents. When McClatchie discovered what this manuscript represented, namely the score to the 1889 premiere of the First Symphony, it was missing two movements, but one can only imagine the excitement in finding a version of a masterpiece that was thought to be lost for almost a century. Until 2011, however, the 1889 manuscript did not receive a great deal of attention, due mostly to its condition - since it was never published, Mahler treated it more like a notebook and it contains extensive markings/corrections/etc. in Mahler's hand (dating between c. 1885-93) over the base layer of music; many sections are also either erased or scratched/blacked out and thus difficult to decipher. 

In late spring 2011, Dr. Katarina Markovic invited me to meet and discuss the impending fall Mahler festival, and we came up with our Mahler 1889 project as the manuscript had been a focus of her doctoral dissertation. At first, we decided that we would prepare a pre-concert presentation on the 1889 manuscript followed by a performance of the final version with Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia, but over the course of the summer the project evolved into a full-blown reconstruction of a performing version of Mahler's "Symphonic Poem in Two Parts." I can't begin to tell you how excited I was to have the privilege to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime kind of project and to get to share it with the music community-at-large. As Hugh Wolff quipped at the completion of our work, "we were just crazy enough to do this..." The NEC team took this on wholeheartedly. Our goal was to recreate the sound-world of the Budapest premiere, and we were able to realize - as closely as possible - the US premiere of Mahler’s “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts." While it was not well-received during its 1889 premiere, we were excited to experience how this work would be received by 21st century ears in its original conception. It was time to give Mahler's First the premiere it deserved! 


The Symphonic Poem in Two Parts features a smaller, less characteristically "Mahlerian" orchestra than in its later incarnations and gives insight into the compositional process that transformed this piece into the work that we know today. It bears the same skeleton, but with different flesh on top (and includes the original Bluminé second movement). It is scored for double winds, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, cymbals + bass drum, and strings. Compare that to the final version which includes 4 flutes and 2 piccolos; 4 oboes and English horn; 3 clarinets, Eb clarinet and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 7 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, tam-tam, harp, and strings.


F.4 NEC Philharmonia and Hugh Wolff rehearsing the "Symphonic Poem in Two Parts"




F.5 Christoph Eschenbach performing the "final version" of Mahler's First Symphony

The major revisions between the "original" and "final" versions focused mainly on the outer movements as Mahler was always striving for a more perfect beginning and ending. He achieved this by experimenting with instrumentation and structure, obtaining in the final version a less literal thematic/harmonic recapitulation than he had originally conceived. There are also dramatic differences in orchestration all throughout, as melodies you would be used to hearing in the harp or in the horn are suddenly in the flute or the cello. If you were to take a look just at the opening, you would notice striking differences; for example, there are no harmonics in the strings and the athletic 'hunting' motive, that in the final version is scored in the clarinets, is scored for muted horns in the original version. The most dramatic change is in the last movement, where the development section includes deleted music that leads to a literal recapitulation of the movement's opening material, rather than the famous "Ba-de-de!" fughetto in the strings that you would hear in the final version.


F.6 First page of 1889 transcription

Early on in summer 2011, we received permission and blessings from the University of Western Ontario and Mahler's granddaughter, Marina Mahler, to move forward with the project. Using a microfilm scan of the original 1889 manuscript and copy of the 1893 revision, I unearthed the base layer of music, hidden beneath Mahler's markings and corrections; countless decisions had to be made about what to keep/what not to keep, what is practical/impractical in addition to adding dynamics, articulations, etc. During this time, it felt like I was working alongside the master himself when he was my age - in the same kind of state that I’m in right now - asking the big questions, like that peer you have in class that you really look up to. With the performing version complete, I then prepared a new conductor's score and a set of orchestral parts. Hugh Wolff, in his meticulous, all-knowing wisdom proofread and edited the score, adding many performance markings and bowings, and his students proofread all the parts. The NEC librarian at the time, Melissa Steinberg, then printed and bound everything. For the missing movements (movements 2 & 4), we received permission to outfit the related movements from the 1893 version for this performance. We were done!

Fall had just arrived and on September 26th, 2011 the NEC Philharmonia gave the reconstruction of Mahler's Symphonic Poem in Two Parts its American premiere, 122 years after it was last heard, to a roaring and totally packed Jordan Hall audience (hundreds had to literally be turned away from the performance). Finally, Mahler's first symphonic work got the reception it deserved. Below is the video from that night.


F.6 Gustav Mahler

Throughout this project, I learned a great deal about myself as an artist and as a person. I explored the very depths of orchestration, form, and musical expression with the master himself. The journey of how Mahler's First Symphony came to be presents a powerful metaphor for how he dealt with his own spiritual and life struggles - always refining, always reaching for a higher summit in the face of constant criticism and rejection. In striving for an ever more perfect musical form, Mahler represents for us the struggle that we face every day...to perfect the "form" around the chaos and struggles of our own lives, of how we shape our life paths in the face of our experiences, positive or negative in nature. To hammer that idea further, in one of his letters, Mahler said that "the spirit can assert itself only through the medium of clear form."  Well, this project gave me a clear vision for how I could lead the rest of my own life and career, which is to say - in another Mahler quote - "The point is not to take the world's opinion as a guiding star but to go one's way in life working unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause."

- Kristo Kondakçi (updated on 7/15/2017)


Check out Dr. Katarina Markovic's pre-concert lecture:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDb80aT-rCg