August 4 2024 : Mahler 4 & Ravel’s Shéhérazade

May 8, 2024

Peter Oundjian, conductor
Karina Gauvin, soprano
Johann Strauss, Overture to Die Fledermaus
Maurice Ravel, Shéhérazade

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 4

Johann Strauss, Overture to Die Fledermaus

Vienna was still reeling from the “Black Friday” stock market crash of 1873 when Johann Strauss II introduced what would become his most famous operetta, Die Fledermaus (The Bat) at the Theatre an der Wien on April 5, 1874. The financial meltdown had triggered a global depression along with a decline in the city’s costume balls and other lavish shindigs; Fledermaus was a reminder of the carefree life from before.  

Strauss himself was cushioned from the crash’s effects, having just come off a lucrative run of his now-forgotten operetta Karneval in Rom (Carnaval in Rome). Though he was hardly new to the operetta stage, his fame rest mainly in short-form dance music, earning him the nickname the “Waltz King.” He had a pop-star persona to match, with a mane of black hair and a stormy, much-chronicled love life. 

Die Fledermaus was based on the French farce Le Reveillon, whose title means a Christmas or New Year’s Eve party, written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (they also wrote librettos for Bizet and Offenbach). After a minor aristocrat named Eisenstein is sentenced to eight days in prison for insulting a government official, he desperately searches for a way to postpone his sentence so that he can enjoy an elaborate dinner party (where a friend dresses in a bat costume). There are extramarital flirtations, mistaken identities, and practical jokes, wrapped in a tuneful, accessible score.  

The initial reception to Die Fledermaus was lukewarm. But within a few seasons, it played in some 200 theaters, ensuring that Strauss would continue to churn out operettas over the next 25 years. The overture previews the operetta’s main themes, notably with a duple-time dance number and a delightfully intoxicating waltz. 

Maurice Ravel, Shéhérazade

The fantastic yarns of The Thousand and One Nights count among our most universal stories, first spun by poets, beggars and professional storytellers in the marketplaces of the Middle East and India. No one knows precisely when — or by whom — they were written, but as the tales of Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali Baba traveled the globe, they inspired artists as diverse as Marcel Proust and Salman Rushdie, Pablo Picasso and René Magritte, Rimsky-Korsakov and John Adams. 

With his longstanding penchant for the exotic, Maurice Ravel made two efforts at adapting the centuries-old Nights, beginning with plans for an opera about the heroine narrator Scheherazade. Only an overture was completed and performed in Paris in 1899. Scheherazade again beckoned Ravel in 1903, when he was 28 and part of a circle of avant-garde artists dubbed Les Apaches. One member of the group, the writer and painter Arthur Leclère — a.k.a. Tristan Klingsor — published a book that year of Eastern-focused poems titled Shéhérazade. Ravel set three of them for this brief but marvelously rich orchestral song cycle. 

Leclère’s texts are less about The Thousand and One Nights than a generalized sense of wanderlust and longing, as announced in the hushed opening line of the first movement: “Asia, Asia, Asia, Ancient wonderland of fairy tales, Where fantasy sleeps like an empress in her mystery-filled forest.” References to Damascus and Persia bring fluttering strings while a line about “portly mandarins” is underscored with pentatonic scales. In The Magic Flute, a flute hypnotically decorates the singer’s enraptured chant, while in the Indifferent One, a tone of mysterious, wistful desire is underscored with a kaleidoscope of timbres. 

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 4 

Anyone who has ever felt that a composition would benefit from a good editor can be thankful for Gustav Mahler. Even the master of the gargantuan symphonic statement knew his limits, dropping a planned seventh movement for his enormous Third Symphony and repurposing it for the finale of his Fourth Symphony. The Fourth, in turn, would be his most economical symphony, scored for an almost Haydn-esque orchestra, lacking trombones or tuba. When Mahler introduced it in Munich in 1901, there were sighs of relief at its modest dimensions, and it became his most popular symphony throughout his lifetime.  

The song that comprises the finale — and which serves as the kernel for the whole symphony — is “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”), which Mahler wrote in 1892 as an independent composition, based on German folk poetry. Sung by a soprano, it depicts a child’s sweetly naïve vision of heaven, with singing, dancing, and a lavish feast being prepared for all the saints. The previous three movements build to this finale by becoming progressively simpler and more direct in tone.

The first movement has an elegant Neo-classicism with a chirping refrain of flutes and sleigh bells leading into a Mozartean melody that is passed from the violins to horns, woodwinds, and lower strings. For all its surface innocence, the theme is developed with considerable sophistication and subtlety.  

The Scherzo is a sinister, nocturnal dance, in which the concertmaster plays a solo violin retuned a step higher to suggest a street fiddler. According to Mahler, it evokes a skeletal figure intoning “the gruesome dance of death.” The slow third movement is a set of variations on two themes which conveys both an easy calm and a darker intensity. After a final outburst, the movement ends with a suggestion of eternity, masterfully anticipating the finale. 

The fourth movement consists of eight stanzas of pastoral imagery, interspersed with a sleigh bell refrain that recalls the first movement. There are also sinister undercurrents, suggesting a forest with “mysteries and horrors,” according to Mahler. Yet the overriding impression is that of radiant simplicity, as the soprano sings of a “cloudless blue sky,” angels baking bread, and St. Martha cooking in the kitchen, before the music fades on a consoling E Major chord. 

— Brian Wise 

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