In a conversation with Sibelius in 1907, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) set out what exactly he considered that a symphony must contain. Mahler’s symphonies do indeed encompass a wide range of genres and emotions. But these extreme mood swings were not popular with the audience at the première of his First Symphony in 1889. The listeners were used to Brahms, rather than the quirky world that Mahler presented them with. Critics were harsh in their judgment and described the composition as ‘an incomprehensible and disagreeable cacophony, an endless series of long, sustained notes and unbearable dissonances’.
While Mahler’s First Symphony is firmly rooted in the German musical tradition, the Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa (1955) reaches back, in his Blossoming II, to his own roots and deliberately explores the boundaries between the western and eastern cultures, ‘in order to let the music blossom inwardly from there’
Hosokawa is one of the leading composers of Japan today. He initially studied composition in Japan with Isang Yun, and thereafter went to Berlin to study with Klaus Huber and Brian Ferneyhough. The western avant-garde style worked its way into his early works, but over the years, eastern influences also seeped into his compositions. For his compositions, Hosokawa always starts out from a central image. Often that is a flower, in honour of his grandfather, who was a master of ‘ikebana’ – the Japanese art of flower arrangement. At the same time, the theme also evokes traditional Japanese theatre, where the best actor is considered a ‘flower’.
The lotus flower is at the basis of his orchestral work titled Blossoming II, which is the symbolic flower of Buddhism. For this work commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival Society, Hosokawa reworked his string quartet Blossoming into a new composition for chamber orchestra. This work is also marked by an organic structure, starting with one long, sustained note in the middle register: ‘From this emerges the body of the mother, from which a song (a melodic fragment) is born like a flower. This sustained note symbolises the surface of the water of a pond; the lower notes stand for the world underwater, while what is higher reflects the world above. This note, which is the flower, then grows out of the womb of harmony that slumbers deep beneath the surface, and keeps on rising to the surface.’
Mahler spent four years developing the first sketches of his Symphony No. 1 into a full-fledged composition. His flourishing career as a conductor took up too much of his time, so that he rarely got around to composing. Only in 1888 did his first symphony, under the title Symphonic Poem in Two Parts, have its première in Budapest, where he had just been appointed musical director of the opera. But the mixed reception prompted him to take up his pen again. He changed the title to Titan – a poem in the form of a symphony, after the novel of the same title by one of his favourite authors, Jean Paul, in which a hero is brought down by his own pride. He gave the movements the respective subtitles of Spring without end, Blumine, Under full sail!, Stranded: Funeral march in the manner of Callot and Dall’inferno al paradiso (From hell to heaven). In 1896, Mahler would in turn remove the title Titan, thus stripping the symphony of any extra-musical context. The same year, he reduced the symphony to the four traditional movements by deleting Blumine. The definitive version was ultimately published in 1899.
Mahler’s First Symphony is full of allusions to the German musical tradition, including his own work. For example, the song Ging heut’ Morgens übers Feld from his earlier cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) contains almost all the thematic material for the first movement. After an aethereal opening in which nature awakens – in the distance, we hear a cuckoo – the folk song reappears. But among the optimistic notes (‘I walked across the fields today; dew still hung on the grass. The song of a finch declared that the world is beautiful’), the first threatening sounds are heard. In the second movement, Mahler drew on the tender song Hans und Grethe from his Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit (Songs of Youth), now hidden among the dance-like notes of a Ländler.
The innocent delight makes way for a funeral march in the third movement. Mahler says he was inspired here by a drawing from the children’s book The Huntsman’s Funeral. It tells how animals from the forest drag a hunter to his grave. A well-known but strange melody is heard: Mahler used the children’s song Frère Jacques, but in a minor key. This is followed by a melodious fragment based on Die Zwei blauen Augen (The two blue eyes) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, in which a young man laments the loss of his beloved and finds solace in the thought of death. But this melody ends suddenly in a dark lament. Mahler described this part of the symphony as follows: ‘The piece now swings between an ironic, humorous mood and an eerie, brooding mood. This is followed immediately by ‘Dall’ Inferno ’(Allegro furioso). The movement represents the sudden outburst of despair from a deeply wounded heart.’ After a turbulent beginning, reminiscences from the first movement come to the fore, and end in hopeful final chords.
Drawn from life
Of his first two symphonies, Mahler said that they contained a summary of his whole life:
In the case of this symphony, there were rumours that Mahler’s passionate relationship with the singer Johanna Richter were the foundation; after all, that relationship ended just as he was finishing the symphony. But Mahler relativised this theory: ‘I should like to emphasise that the symphony is more important than the love affair on which it is based. The real life experience was the reason for the work, but certainly not the true meaning of the work.’