In 2011, I travelled to Mexico City and became fascinated by some eighteenth century “mestizo” portraits that I found in a neglected museum corner. These were part of a large set of paintings designed to demonstrate the various racial possibilities of the ethnically diverse population of New Spain. Although the word “mestizo” was later to develop unpleasant overtones (and some of the paintings were hilariously unflattering…) the term originally simply meant “mixed”. This got me thinking about the “mixed” nature of contemporary Australian society – one with both indigenous and a wide variety of introduced cultures.
The first movement –“Prelude” contains both the native and introduced bird species I hear at my home in Erskineville. The second melody is a transcription of an anonymous aboriginal tune (labelled “Musique des Naturels”) that was collected by the French Baudin expedition to Australia in 1802. To my knowledge it is the first time that an Australian indigenous melody was written down using western notation. It speaks to me of a European culture trying to understand another culture that is alien to it in so many ways.
The second movement –Damocles –we all have sword of Damocles hanging over our heads –a secret –or just the stress of 21st century lives? The screw tightens – the heart beats faster -the sword falls again and again. As usual, our fears of the falling sword are much worse than the reality could ever be…
The third movement – the lullaby. I like to think that melody is a little quirky – like me. The second half brings back the “Musique des Naturels” melody –this time in a form that those French explorers would recognise –it’s now much more romantic and lush. It’s an attempt to blend the languages of the two –about how cultures assimilate and borrow from each other, for better or for worse.
The fourth movement – the dance. During my studies of New Spain I discovered that most of their indigenous music is lost. I tried to bring some of it back to life by using a common Aztec dance time of 6-5-4, combining its syncopated rhythms with European forms such as the fugue to create a new sound world. To me, this is symbolic of the meaning of Mestizo in 21st century Australia.
©Nigel Ubrihien 2016
Mahler completed composing this symphony in 1889, however it had been a work of many years prior to this. Whilst he composed much of the symphony in early 1888 in what would be its final form, much of the music that he incorporated into the symphony had been sketched previously. The orchestration calls for a very large orchestra, particularly the wind and brass sections, that consists of four flutes (three doubling piccolo), four oboes (one doubling english horn), four clarinets (two doubling e-flat and one bass clarinet), three bassoons and contrabassoon, seven horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba. The symphony is an epic journey in all aspects, and the duration of a regular performance is 57 minutes.
In order to provide the audience with some guidance into what he intended to portray with this symphony, Mahler came up with the title, ‘Titan – Tone poem in Symphonic form’. When he came to conduct it himself in Berlin almost five years after its Budapest premiere in 1889, he had simplified the symphony’s title, dropping a movement and the title ‘Titan’, and instead labelled it ‘Symphony in D Major, for large orchestra’. Early performances were not received well, and at a performance in 1899 in Vienna, the audience was so unappreciative that they hissed at Mahler. Any programmatic description that Mahler had previously placed in a title was removed, and the work was simply named Symphony No. 1 in D Major.
A magical, surreal seven octave span of A’s played pianissimo by the entire string section opens the work, until this primordial ooze evolves into a developing woodwind theme, with a change heralded by off-stage trumpets. A forest appears, with the clarinet cuckoo-ing in the trees, accompanied by a one of Mahler’s earlier themes from Songs of a Wayfarer. The remainder of the opening movement depicts the Wayfarer’s walk through the countryside, and by the end of the movement, his joy is clearly evident, and heralding horns pronounce the conclusion of his journey. The second movement is in the form of a minuet and trio, as Mahler has reversed the traditional forms of second and third movements. There are still distinct echoes of the woodland, and our Wayfarer continues on his journey.
Initially puzzling to audiences, the third movement is somewhat of an enigma. We are presented with a mish-mash of ideas; the famous song Frere Jacques, a funeral march, raucous dance band music, and the final moments of the Wayfarer songs. The finale begins with a brass fanfare announcing the ‘cry of a wounded heart’, building in drama and intensity to reach a dramatic climax, when all seven horns are asked to play ‘even over the trumpets’.
©Andrew Doyle 2016