Posts Tagged ‘self-criticism’

Mahler, Symphony No. 1, “Blumine”

Monday, August 24th, 2009

As a working composer, I am always very interested in false starts, incomplete pieces, works which composers abandon at any stage of composition, even after performance.  The process of composition is just as important to me as the product.  It is only fitting, then, that I at least take a peak at the “missing” movement, titled “Blumine,” from Mahler’s first symphony.

In the original 1889 symphony, “Blumine” was the second of five movements, with a programmatic scheme.  By the time of the original 1899 publication, Mahler had dropped the program of the symphony, and with it, this movement.  The score ended up in the hands of one of Mahler’s pupils, and came to light in the 1950s.  It was subsequently published and recorded in the late 1960s.  Since then,  most performances and recordings have kept to the four-movement plan which seems to have been Mahler’s final intention, but “Blumine” occasionally pops up.

As a composer, I must ask myself why an entire completed and performed movement was deleted from this piece.  Compositionally, the piece works.  It is beautiful, well-scored, unambiguous and basically successful.  As always, Mahler’s use of the orchestra, while not as adventurous as in the other movements of the symphony, is flawless.  From this composer, I would expect nothing less.  But Gustav Mahler was his own worst critic, and frequently made extensive revisions during rehearsals and after the premieres of his symphonies (his Tenth symphony was probably left incomplete because of the time spent on a major revision of the Third Symphony).  It is believed that many works by Mahler simply have not come down to us because the composer destroyed them, guarding his legacy carefully, perhaps.

So why would Mahler have excised “Blumine?”  One flaw of the piece is that it is somewhat limited thematically, and feels at times more like a strophic song than a symphonic movement.  I have been discovering that Mahler’s use of repetition is a key to understanding his ability to build large forms, and here the repetition is not unwelcome–the piece works–but it is somewhat unabated.  There is a single theme, based on a single motive.  There is some development, but it is not extensive.

A second reason that suggests itself is that it just doesn’t seem to adhere to the composer’s style as expressed in the other movements.  This piece is very clearly an intermezzo, standing between the more significant first movement and the more forceful Landler that would become the second movement.  Mahler’s middle movements are rarely the sort of fluffy, friendly pieces that we see in “Blumine.”  Where is the angst, the drive, the seriousness?  In addition to the dramatic suggestions, the style simply seems dated.  It is more like Berlioz than Mahler.  Perhaps Mahler came to realize that the symphony became too disparate in sentiment with the inclusion of “Blumine,” and when it came time for publication, it seemed best to leave the piece behind.  The Wikipedia article on this piece suggests that it existed before the rest of the symphony as incidental music for a play unrelated.  While Mahler may have had good feelings for the piece, it lacks the passion, the irony, the dramatic import of the rest of the piece, and even seems mispaced harmonically (C-major, where the other movements are in D-minor or D-major).

An interesting diversion, to be certain.  Score and recordings are readily available (I found a good recording on the Naxos Music Library), and any serious Mahler fan should check them out.