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Mahler’s orchestral arrangements

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The interpreter at work

3 April 2019

Gustav Mahler was the climactic and concluding figure of the Austro-German symphonic tradition, to paraphrase Taruskin. With his original compositions, Mahler convincingly claimed a position in the classical canon. In this article, the focus will be on a very different, and lesser-known, part of Mahler’s output: his arrangements of other composers’ works, which span the whole of his career. Even if they are not often discussed, their relevance is at least three-fold: firstly, they are fine examples of a practice that was very common at that time; secondly, they give us insight into Mahler’s relationship with his predecessors’ music; and thirdly, they shed light on Mahler’s views on musical interpretation and music in general.

The arrangements that Mahler wrote, can be divided into three categories according to Hansen (1996):  (1) a completion of an incomplete opera by Weber; (2) adaptations of complete operas for specific performance occasions; and (3) symphonic arrangements of purely instrumental works, mainly as adjustments to new performance practices. The main focus of this article will be on the last category, which includes Mahler’s arrangements of music ranging from Bach to Bruckner.
What is interesting about the first two categories, is that they draw attention to Mahler’s career as an opera conductor, which is overshadowed by his symphonic career. We shall discuss the first category in some detail in the next paragraph, but the second includes varied stage works ranging from Mozart’s ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ to Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’. Often Mahler’s adaptations serve to improve the dramatic quality of the opera, rather than the music itself. For example, in his Figaro, with a German translation by Max Kalbeck, Mahler adds a secco recitativo in Act III to restitute a (politically sensitive) trial scene that Da Ponte had left out of Beaumarchais’ play.

Mahler’s public career as a ‘creating’ musician started with the completion of Weber’s comic opera ‘Die drei Pintos’. He had already composed ‘Das Klagende Lied’ and ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’, in addition to a collection of songs for voice and piano, but he had not published any of them, nor had they been publicly performed. In 1887, while holding the position of assistant conductor Leipzig under Nikisch, Mahler became acquainted with Captain Carl von Weber, grandson of the composer. Mahler received Weber’s sketches for ‘Die drei Pintos’ from him and took the task upon himself to complete the opera.
Although Weber had orchestrated some parts already, most of the sketches contained little more than the vocal lines. As a consequence, Mahler’s version goes far beyond an arrangement. Mahler did however also reorchestrate the part of the opera that Weber had already orchestrated himself – which can of course only have improved the overall musical unity. Warrack (1967) draws a parallel between Weber’s way of using instruments as individuals within a larger whole, and Mahler’s own manner of using the orchestra. One can indeed wonder to what extent this close study of Weber inspired the young composer who was at that time working on his First Symphony.

The category of symphonic arrangements consists mainly of Mahler’s versions of the complete Beethoven and Schumann symphonies, as well as arrangements of selected Mozart, Schubert and Bruckner symphonies, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Schumann’s Manfred Overture. The primary goal of these arrangements was to uncover the hidden potential of these masterworks by adapting them to the expanded possibilities of the modern Wagnerian orchestra. This somewhat patronising view corresponds to the nineteenth-century view of history as a linear progression.
Hansen (1996) quotes a letter by Mahler which perfectly illustrates this view: Mahler describes music history as a progression from primitive ‘chamber music’ with simple emotions (joy, sadness, etc.) and a simple notation relying on performance customs, to a new era starting with Beethoven, where the transition and conflict between different emotions occupy the central positions. For the realisation of these new concepts in music, the new attitude required a more detailed notation, a more nuanced sound palette, and therefore a larger orchestra, culminating in the Wagnerian orchestra. According to the late-nineteenth-century view, using the modern orchestra for older music therefore allows for the discovery of the finest nuances of this music, which would otherwise remain hidden.

The same ambition to unleash music’s full potential can be found in Mahler’s version for string orchestra of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor op. 95, and of Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, however with less than perfect results. Although in terms of compositional alterations, Mahler had barely altered the notes (he only decided where to double the celli with the double basses), his Vienna performance of the Beethoven quartet in 1899 was not at all successful (in the same concert, Mahler also conducted his arrangement of Schumann’s First Symphony, which was better received). Whereas Mahler thought he was strengthening the musical message, Viennese critics attacked him for not understanding Beethoven and ignoring the dialogue between four individuals which is essential to a quartet. Alma Schindler, whom Mahler married later, also writes that “a quartet should be intimate, as it is actually house-music”, while at the same time writing that she missed the wind instruments. A simple size increase from quartet to string ensemble without the introduction of different instruments (except for the double basses) does indeed seem to stand somewhat at odds with Mahler’s own view of a large and varied orchestra as the canvas of choice for “the numerous colours of our [musical] rainbow” (quoted in Hansen, 1996, own translation).

The question which we have ignored until now, is how exactly one should then arrange older works to add the varied colours of Mahler’s metaphorical rainbow, without altering the compositions so much that they are robbed of part of their artistic essence. In 1873, Wagner wrote an influential essay on that matter, entitled ‘Zum Vortrag der neunten Symphonie Beethovens’ (On the Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). In this essay, he proposed ways in which to arrange Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in light of ‘modern’ performance practices. A further motivation for arranging Beethoven’s later music in particular, was that Beethoven’s orchestrations supposedly started suffering from the progression of his deafness.
McCaldin (1980) groups Wagner’s suggestions into different categories: firstly, the addition of notes due to technical improvements in instrument building. With the introduction of valved brass instruments, this is especially relevant for the trumpet and horn parts. No longer limited by the overtone series, these instruments could now take on a more melodic role (which also means that there are fewer characteristic brass pedal points). Secondly, Wagner proposed additional notes and doublings for the wind instruments due to the significant increase of the string section since Beethoven’s time. Thirdly, there are various degrees of actual recomposition, such as small melodic changes, or new figurations.

Mahler was certainly not the only one, nor the first, to arrange Beethoven’s music based on Wagner’s principles. Knittel (2006) suggests that Hans von Bülow may have been the first, and in any case conductors like Strauss, Weingartner (who would become Mahler’s successor at the Wiener Hofoper), Richter, Mengelberg, Toscanini, Furtwängler and Walter followed suit. However, according to McCaldin (1980), Mahler does go further than many of his colleagues, especially “in allowing the importance of musical line to take preference over harmonic detail.”
For example, in various places he frees the bassoons from performing a bass function, and instead gives them melodic material. Similarly, as mentioned above, the horns have fewer pedal points and instead more melodic lines. Although he is almost doubling the wind and brass sections, Mahler also goes far in actually deleting some of Beethoven’s material. It may seem paradoxical at first glance, but both these interventions serve to improve the musical clarity: more winds and brass are added to match the larger string section, and deletions of harmonic ‘filling-up’ material make the melodic lines stand out more.

Like his string orchestra arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 95, Mahler’s arrangements of Beethoven’s symphonies, and of the Ninth in particular, were not well received by the Viennese press. Earlier in Hamburg, he had received great praise for his Beethoven performances, but in Vienna, many critics accused him of neither respecting nor understanding Beethoven. However, it is impossible to maintain that this negative reception was purely based on musical reasons: to start, many other conductors also played arrangements instead of the original version, and they did not receive the same amount of negative criticism. Secondly, many of Mahler’s revisions are subtle, and therefore not so easy to notice immediately, especially given that performances were a relatively rare occurrence at that time, which meant that many listeners probably heard Beethoven’s symphonies for the first time in an adapted version.
Indeed, as quoted in Knittel (2006), Alma Schindler writes: “The experts assert that Mahler made many changes to the scoring. As I only knew the work from playing it on the piano, it didn’t bother me.” In addition, some of the critics writing negative reviews were not trained musicians themselves, and some of the critics only mentioned the revisions after the second performance, which leads Pickett (1994) to the hypothesis that at least part of the criticism was based on leaked information by “disaffected” players.
According to Knittel (2006), one reason for the many attacks on Mahler, can be found in the wide-spread antisemitism in Vienna at that time. Already after Mahler’s first concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1898, the anti-semitic Deutsche Zeitung writes that “in a German city only a German appears qualified to interpret German music, [and this is] a condition that Mahler is just not able to fulfill.” A few months later, the Deutsche Zeitung published a sarcastic but vicious anonymous letter, probably written by orchestra members: “If Herr Mahler wants to make corrections, let him set about Mendelssohn or Rubinstein—that’s something of course the Jews will never put up with—but let him leave our Beethoven in peace.” The criticisms on Mahler’s performances of the Ninth are rarely as overtly anti-semitic, but Knittel (2006) argues that seemingly apolitical comments are still connected to antisemitism. When a critique in the Wiener Abendpost condemns Mahler’s performance for its lack of calm, “because of the nervous, continual sway in the dynamics and tempo of Mahler’s interpretation”, this can be linked with the then reigning stereotype of the Jewish people as being by nature more nervous and superficial.

What attracted less negative criticism in the Viennese press, were Mahler’s arrangements of the Schumann symphonies. One possible reason is of course that Schumann lacked Beethoven’s aura and symbolism, and that he had never lived in Vienna. A second reason is that Schumann is often labelled as a poor orchestrator, a view that Weingartner wrote about extensively as one of the first. In any case, the changes that Mahler makes to Schumann’s scores serve mainly the same goal as for the Beethoven symphonies: greater clarity and the improvement of musical lines.
However, an interesting difference is that Mahler considered his Beethoven arrangements to be for personal use in his Beethoven performances, whereas he expressed the wish to Alma Schindler for the Schumann arrangements to be published, according to Matthews (2008). It is also in his Schumann arrangements that one can arguably find Mahler’s most striking alteration: he transposes down the opening motif of Schumann’s First Symphony by a third. This was actually Schumann’s original intention, and with the advent of the valved horn and trumpet, it could finally be executed properly.

We started this article with discussing Mahler’s first published work, and we end with his last published work: Mahler’s Bach Suite from 1910, made up of two movements from Bach’s orchestral suite in B minor (BWV 1067) and two movements from the orchestral suite in D Major (BWV 1068). As Mitchell (1980) describes in considerable detail, Mahler had a great admiration for Bach’s music, and the more so as he grew older. For example, Mahler only kept scores by Bach in his summer house in Maiernigg. Indeed, he wrote about himself that his “musical thinking was never anything but polyphonic”, and also wrote that “the master of polyphony, and of polyphony alone, is Bach,” perhaps less expectedly followed by “the founder of modern polyphony is Beethoven.”
At a time when Bach’s music did not have a prominent place in the concert repertoire, Mahler’s suite was a progressive endeavour. He also insisted on realising the figured bass of the continuo part to bring Bach’s music back to life in all its richness. Mahler even played the continuo part himself in his performances with the New York Philharmonic (in the meantime, Mahler had moved from Vienna to New York City), while conducting from the ‘harpsichord’ – which was, in the absence of a suitable instrument, actually a spinet modified by Steinway & Sons.
On the other hand, an interesting ahistorical aspect of Mahler’s suite is the progression inherent in his choice of movements. Contrary to the Baroque custom of composing all movements in the same key, Mahler moves from B minor to D Major: this is a small step, but introduces an element of progressive tonality that also occurs in some of Mahler’s symphonies. In addition, only the last two movements include trombones and a drum, giving the suite an extra element of direction towards a climactic end.

The greatest lesson one can learn from Mahler’s arrangements of other composers’ music, is probably that one gets an insight in Mahler’s views as a musical interpreter. For example, he extensively adds very precise and drastic phrasing, articulation and dynamical markings. Given that most musical editions at that time were interpretative editions, this actually raises the question to what extent certain aspects of Mahler’s arrangements are just interpretative choices. It is indeed sometimes a fine line, although there is no doubt that his changes to the actual notes count as arranging. By comparing with the original score, we can actually try to uncover the reasons that led Mahler to those alterations. In this way, we also see Mahler the orchestrator at work, whereas for his symphonies, we just receive the end result.
At a broader level, we can observe a somewhat naive mixture of historical awareness and an effort to bring older music to life on the one hand, and a late-nineteenth-century self-confidence on the other hand. Instead of adding more winds and brass, it would indeed have been against the Zeitgeist to actually reduce the orchestra to the size it had in Beethoven’s time, for instance, as happens in many performances today. To put it bluntly, ‘the bigger, the better’ was still the reigning mentality.
The finality in the late-nineteenth-century belief of being able to uncover older music’s true character at last, leads to a paradoxical situation nowadays. In an age where historically informed performances are very common, performances or recordings of arrangements like Mahler’s are historicised as well. Whereas Mahler thought of them as the ideal way in which Schumann, for example, should be played, we would now rather adopt the almost postmodern view that Mahler’s arrangement is one of many possible interpretations of Schumann’s works, connected to a specific period in history.

Although he most likely would have wished otherwise himself, it is indeed with the main focus on Mahler the interpreter, rather than on the original composer, that some of his arrangements continue to be performed and recorded to this day. Whatever our views on performing older music are nowadays, let alone our views on arranging older music, we can but enjoy the fact that Mahler has left us more music than we might think when just considering his original compositions.
Because they range from his early to his later years, his arrangements are connected to many phases in Mahler’s life. Because they include works from Bach to Bruckner, they give us information about Mahler’s interpretations of music from various styles and periods. And because they are arrangements for symphony orchestra, we find out about Mahler’s orchestration process. But do they sound good? That question is left for the reader to answer.


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Hansen, Mathias. Reclams Musikführer Gustav Mahler. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1996.

Kende, Götz Klaus. “Gustav Mahlers Wiener “Figaro”.” Österreichische Musikzeitschrift Vol. 26, Issue JG (1971): 295–302.

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