Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 68:24 November 28, 2002 p.14
The Arts


Mahler Assessed
and Re-Assessed

New York Premiere of "Die drei Pintos"

By Leonard J. Lehrman

[It is a sobering thought (as Tom Lehrer said of Mozart in a similar vein several decades ago), that when Gustav Mahler was a year or two older than I, fourscore and seven years ago, he'd been dead for four years.] In barely half a century (1860-1911), this eccentric but brilliant figure left a musical legacy, the appreciation of which has been growing year by year, with no sign of abatement.

One of the great conductors of his time, or any time, Mahler's credo was: "I conduct to live; I live to compose." His work was infrequently performed in his own lifetime, but his compositions have inspired virtually every ambitious composer who has written for large orchestra since: Richard Strauss, a competitor whose opera Salome Mahler recognized as a work of genius before anyone else; Arnold Schönberg, who extended Mahler's extended tonality to the point of attempting to break with it altogether; Alexander von Zemlinsky, whose operas are only now finding champions; George Rochberg and David Del Tredici, neo-Romantics returning from the Schoenbergian abyss to Mahlerian extended tonality; Korngold, Elgar, Britten, even early Bartok all have Mahlerian moments[; Dmitri Shostakovich hurried from his Ninth Symphony on to his Tenth (eventually reaching Fifteen) in order not to be felled after completing just nine, in the tradition of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler; and Elie Siegmeister kept putting off naming his own Ninth Symphony, giving it programmatic titles, fearing it might be his last, which it was].

Deeply identifying with Mahler as a Jewish-born composer/conductor, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) did more than anyone to make Mahler a household word.

His article in the April 1967 issue of High Fidelity announced: "Mahler: His Time Has Come." Bernstein's recordings of the masterpieces, "Das Lied von der Erde," the "Kindertotenlieder," the "Rückert Lieder," and the nine symphonies, seem to have sold better than anyone else's.

Yet, the dean of Mahler biographers, Henry-Louis de la Grange (b. 1924), an independently wealthy Parisian aristocrat who in 1986 set up the Gustav Mahler Library in Paris, finds the interpretations of Bernstein [(whose name he pronounces "Bernschtein")] on the "hysterical" side. [He also disputes the maestro's identification with Mahler's alleged "guilt," for having converted to Catholicism in order to work in Vienna, among other things. (Though Bernstein never converted, he was urged by Serge Koussevitsky to consider changing his name to Leonard S. Burns, a proposal he rejected.) The difference of approach here appears to be based at least partly on background, reminding this writer of a question once asked him by his teacher Nadia Boulanger, who was also La Grange's teacher for five years: "In your ['e]art, don't you feel even a little bit Catholique?"] The fourth and final volume of La Grange's monumental Mahler biography is not yet complete. Once it is, he says he wants to return to the first volume, of 1973, and correct its "errors and half-truths" before he retires. Meanwhile, the assessment and re-assessment of Mahler continues.

The most important contribution made toward that effort by [Editor changed to: "was at"] this fall's Bard Music Festival at Lincoln Center was [Editor changed to: "with"] the New York premiere of the work that first made Mahler famous, his completion of the comic opera "Die Drei Pintos." Mahler worked with the sketches left by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), after Meyerbeer and others attempted it without success. Encouraged by Weber's grandson Karl, who helped adapt the libretto by Theodor Hell (the pseudonym for Carl Gottfried Theodor Winkler[--it was thus indeed a libretto from Hell!), and with whose wife Mahler fell in love and nearly eloped], the 27-year-old composer spent 1887 deciphering, completing and assembling other Weber fragments for incorporation into the work. He then conducted its premiere January 20, 1888 in Leipzig.

Successful productions followed in Hamburg, Munich, Dresden, Kassel, Berlin, and Prague. With the exceptions of rival conductor Hans von Buelow and the puristic musicologist Heinrich Reimann, who labeled the enterprise "criminal," nearly everyone, from the King of Saxony on down, found it difficult to discern, aurally, which parts of the work were by Weber and which by Mahler. (A widely-circulating German pun used the terms ge-webt [woven] vs. ge-malt [painted].) To this listener's ears, only the orchestration of an a cappella canon in Act II using timpani alone sounded late rather than early Romantic. But the piece is definitely by both composers, its sources laid out meticulously in the printed vocal edition, edited by James L. Zychowicz[, who contributed most enlightening program notes and a pre-concert lecture].

Zychowicz is editing a collection of essays on "Posthumous Collaborations: Completions of Unfinished Works by Other Composers" for the University of Illinois Press. Mahler's completion of "Die drei Pintos" and his adaptations of at least two other Weber operas, along with others' completions of his own Tenth Symphony, will be an important chapter. Others are to deal with Bach ("Kunst der Fuge"), Mozart ("Requiem"), Offenbach ("Contes d'Hoffmann"), Puccini ("Turandot"), Charles Ives ("Universe Symphony"), Franz Schubert, and Marc Blitzstein.

In a letter to Opera News, [posted on the website of The New Music Connoisseur], Jerrold Morgulas, former General Manager of the Bel Canto Opera in New York, cited "Die drei Pintos" as an example of a work where "the question really is not the percentage of... material that is incorporated and worked out... but whether the opera is a good piece of musical theatre or not."

While initially well received, the Weber-Mahler opera faded from the repertoire after the First World War, much as Johann Strauss's "Zigeunerbaron" did, and perhaps for the same reasons. Subtle and not so subtle glorification of bellicosity [quickly] became rather unfashionable, at least in intellectual circles. But the Strauss has returned to many stages, and the Weber-Mahler deserves to also. It will however need more than the English narration by Jonathan Levi which the Bard Festival provided, to say nothing of tempering the ruthlessly swift tempi of conductor Leon Botstein.

The model for such efforts has to be the Bernstein-Blitzstein collaboration (as conductor and translator) on the Brecht-Weill _Dreigroschenoper_ at Brandeis in 1954 [sic: 1952], a work which then ran seven years Off-Broadway. [The Glimmerglass/New York City Opera production of Emmanuel Chabrier's satirical opera of 1877, "L'Étoile," a work which Jerrold Morgulas has been promoting for decades, and for which he wrote the City Opera program notes, succeeds only partially: George Manahan's conducting is appropriately lively. But Jeremy Sams's English translation seems makeshift--often witty, though not as much as it could be, and frequently leaving strophes in the original French, which sort of begs the question. This writer's adaptation of the same work, for the Bel Canto Opera production of 1988, referenced the Marx Brothers. NYCO's Robert Orth, as the over-the-top King Ouf, includes a Maurice Chevalier imitation. Whatever works...]

© 1998 Back to List of Articles | last updated on: 1/5/03