April 15, 1916
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Philadelphians Carry Away Richly Merited Honors in New York Production of “Symphony of a Thousand”—Metropolitan Opera House Scene of Inspiring Demonstration for Conductor Stokowski, His Orchestra and Choruses—But the Symphony Itself, with All Its Elaborate Trappings, Is Revealed as “Kapellmeistermusik,” Lacking in Inspiration

GUSTAV MAHLER’S Eighth Symphony in E Flat—the famous “Symphony of a Thousand”—underwent the judgment of New York at the Metropolitan Opera House last Sunday night. It had already enjoyed a run of eight performances in Philadelphia with what results readers of this journal are familiar. To the enterprise and initiative of the Society of the Friends of Music local music lovers are indebted for acquaintance with this, the magnum opus of the late composer-conductor, just as they are for a variety of more or less significant musical experiences in the course of the past two or three years. The performance represents a costly and financially un-remunerative undertaking, actuated by a spirit of indisputable artistic idealism.
It was necessary to import the whole Philadelphia production—the term is decidedly pertinent, however strangely it rings with respect to a symphony—which comprised the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, liberally augmented to meet the vast instrumental demands of the composition, five choral organizations, aggregating 950, and an octet of picked soloists. It also became necessary to hire the Metropolitan as the only auditorium large enough to contain the greatest out-pouring of music lovers drawn by any local concert function in years and as affording space enough for the performers without having actually to trespass on the audience’s territory. Of all this and much else the Friends of Music cheerfully shouldered the burden and paid out of their own pockets the difference between cost and receipts—a considerable item, though the house was sold out days in advance and many clamored for standing room after the sale of admissions stopped. The whole project represented on the part of the distinguished society an act of genuine supererogation and altruism.
In point of outward show and theatrical circumstance, the event stands preeminent among the non-operatic doings of the season. Its dominant atmosphere and visible symbols were sharply differentiated from the habitually sober elements of a symphonic function. Copious advertisement of one sort or another during the preceding weeks imparted a potent aspect of sensationalism to the affair and heightened that inherent in the work itself. And the arriving audience—made up of the musical blue blood of the city as well as many scarcely alive to the precise nature of the entertainment—was equipped at the door with librettos, thematic analyses, quasi-philosophic commentaries and pamphlets compounded of appreciations of Mahler written by leading musical lights. Tardy arrivals were made to stand during the first half of the work, though as the threat of such punishment had been proclaimed in the advance announcements of the concert and as Conductor Leopold Stokowski took the stand at quarter to nine instead of a quarter past eight, as originally proposed, few suffered the uncomfortable consequences of the edict.
Closed curtains hid the chorus from view until the proper moment, when, as they parted, the startling picture offered by a sea of faces rising tier upon tier, boxed in drab-colored draperies and solidly banked to nearly the full height of the proscenium, brought a spontaneous burst of applause. The instrumentalists sat on an improvised apron built over the orchestral pit, while the eight soloists had places behind the orchestra. These singers—Florence Hinkle, Inez Barbour, Adelaide Fischer, Margaret Keyes, Susanna Dercum, Lambert Murphy, Reinald Werrenrath and Clarence Whitehill—had a welcome when they came in, while Mr. Stokowski enjoyed an ovation.
Laurels Well Earned
The Philadelphians richly merited honors last Sunday night and richly did they reap them. Of their devoted efforts, of their enthusiasm and spirit in surmounting egregious difficulties, of the prevailing felicity of achievement, we shall comment in greater detail shortly. Discussion of the symphony’s nature and worth must wait upon a casual mention of the scenes of heart-warming enthusiasm that rewarded the performers after the first movement and that broke forth even more ungovernably at the close. The Metropolitan has been the scene of few more inspiring or protracted demonstrations over purely operatic feats this winter. Mr. Stokowski got two monstrous wreaths when the first half of the evening ended; but it was upon a scene of pandemonium that he appeared and reappeared at the close.
But lest the visible and audible tokens of satisfaction be construed as unimpeachable testimony to the value of the symphony itself, it behooves us to record at this point that the real element of triumph lay in its execution and all that this implies. For stripped of its pretentious trappings and external glamour, the mammoth, unwieldy composition stands revealed as merely a sublimated example of kappelmeistermusik—a creation opulent in mechanical ingenuity of a sort, the labor of a spirit self-flagellated in the inexorable, torturing desire to utter great things greatly, but denied the spark of inspiration wherewithal to attain the heart or enkindle the imagination. It is a pathetic, nay, a tragic, document, this “Symphony of a Thousand,” though its avowed spiritual goal is light and blessedness and redemption. It is an archetype of essential futility, a pitiful instance of an ardent sincerity, beneficent ambition and puissant will in united travail toward an ineffectual consummation, because unfired by the innate, vitalizing flame of true creative ecstasy. Between purpose and achievement stretches an impassable gulf.
To those who have given ear to the four other symphonies of Mahler heard at divers times during the last decade or so in New York, these facts will cause no surprise. Mahler’s place has long been fixed, and fresh examples of his output far from enforcing a revision of judgment or accomplishing some new revelation have but tended to confirm prevailing notions. Writing a month ago of the Philharmonic’s performance of the Fourth Symphony, the present commentator took occasion to remark that Mahler possessed “talent, large craftsmanship, a real vein of feeling and sincerity that brooked no question.” But also that “he had vaulting ambitions that undid him because—much like Berlioz—he lacked the inspiration and originality of expression to carry them to the desired end. He is, in the keen words of Romain Rolland, ‘an egoist who feels with sincerity.’ “These sentiments mutatis mutandis are as pertinent to the present work.
An Elongated Cantata
In form and manner the composition is rather an elongated and bulky cantata than a symphonic creation in the accepted sense. That, however, is a detail as inconsequential in the last analysis as its unconventional architecture—two massive movements instead of the academic four, one of them occupying approximately thirty minutes in performance, the other an hour. The structural complications are, moreover, too great to permit precise appraisal of subtle organic relationships on the strength of a single hearing. But through thematic correlations and certain obvious developments, kinships and reiterations a sense of basic formal integrity can be obtained. Mahler’s employment of the poetic text, vocally proclaimed, though professedly the outcome of the initiative adopted by Beethoven and further cultivated by Liszt and certain later symphonists, never impresses one—as in the Ninth Symphony or the “Faust” finale—as the inevitable agency of emotional communication necessitated by the failure of sheer musical means to attain an indispensable explicitness of utterance. Beethoven’s message becomes articulate through its transcendent intensity; Mahler adopts the verbal medium coolly and deliberately, not as a last resort. And his choristers and soloists carry a more responsible burden that his orchestra, which, save for a few passages, performs what seems a highly organized accompaniment rather than a factor co-equal in significance.
The first part of the symphony utilizes as its choral text the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus,” the second the closing scene of “Faust.” The intent is, as it were, a potent drama of spiritual issues. The treatment of the medieval hymn shows no trace, however, of liturgical association. Mahler has envisaged it as an exultant invocation to the spirit of universal creativity and conducts it through divers ramifications on the basis of this conception. The second part, the song of accomplished redemption through love, follows as a sufficiently obvious spiritual corollary.
But Mahler failed in the task of convincingly voicing his transcendental program. With his thousand performers, his bloated rhetoric, his cumbersome effects and protracted discourse, he cannot even remotely suggest what Beethoven uttered in a folk-tune. The joy of the chastened soul of humanity is in the childishly simple melody of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony; neither humanity, nor the essence of beauty or joy, is in the “Symphony of a Thousand.”
The first movement lacks warmth, graciousness, vital expressiveness, lyrical contrast and distinction; the second originality and variety of character. When not sweetish and reminiscent Mahler’s ideas bear a singularly unsympathetic and crabbed physiognomy and want the partially redeeming virtue of plasticity. Without sounding an individual note in the first section, he nevertheless contrives to keep his skirts fairly clean of reminiscent suggestion. But the latter half is a gallery of echoes. The “Purgatory” division of Liszt’s “Dante” furnishes the mood, if not the definite musical idea of the convincingly effective mystical introduction. Immediately thereafter Mahler leans heavily on Wagner in general and “Parsifal” in particular. Strauss contributes one of his “Don Juan” themes and the flowing melody of the Mater Gloriosa signifying redemption is merely a greatly sentimentalized and practically undisguised variant of Schumann’s familiar “Slumber Song.’’ But apart from blemishes of this nature, the movement suffers from the monotony of its rhythmic progress. More alluring in its euphony and sensuousness of melodic flow than the first, it nevertheless surpasses it, in dreary lengths and wanton prolixity.
The close of both parts is practically identical and in each case stirred the audience to excitement. To the large choral and orchestral crescendo is added the brazen clamor of trombones in the balcony. Mahler owes this device for making the welkin ring to Berlioz, who went him several better in the “Tuba Mirum” of his “Requiem” by employing a force of sixteen trombones in different parts of the house. Similarly, Bruckner used it in one of his symphonies heard here several years ago. Unfortunately in every previous case the hurtling sonorities, while they thrilled, served but as a clever temporary means of masking the composer’s paucity of ideas. And so it is with Mahler.
Dissonance Infrequent
The harmonic scheme is characterized, surprisingly enough, by a comparative reticence in the use of dissonance and at its sharpest the dissonance is never disquieting. Neither is the polyphony arresting nor the instrumentation novel or overpowering of effect, despite the augmentation of choirs and the pompous aggrandizement of the band with celesta, piano, bells, organ, mandolin. Yet the counterpoint is visible to the eye that reads the score and the instrumental combinations and resulting clang—tints should be original and beautiful. The fact of the matter is that Mahler’s score fails in many respects to “sound”—to use a musician’s phrase. Withal, Mahler’s orchestration was never wont to disclose the elasticity, the sensitiveness or glitter of, for example, his contemporary Strauss. What is said of his instrumental counterpoint applies also to the polyphony of his gigantic choral masses. And if the Symphony bears any kinship to Beethoven’s Ninth it consists in the vocal writing, which, especially in the solo parts, is for the greater part execrable—cruel in tessitura, ugly and cross-grained in interval—and the musical accentuation of Latin words is far from flawless.
Mr. Stokowski made several cuts in the score—though without notable gains on the matter of duration. Why he suppressed the violin solo accompanying the “Infirma nostri corporis” and recurring elsewhere in the course of the work was not so clear. But this is detail. The important fact is that the conductor created a finer impression by the skill which he had lavished on the presentation of the symphony and his broad and weighty reading of it—from memory, by the way—than by anything else he has ever done here. The certainty and facility with which he held in firm grasp all strands of the huge fabric won him undivided sympathy and respect. He might, it seemed, have lavished a greater variety of nuance on the first half in which the chorus sang at the top of its lungs, almost throughout in a manner not demanded by the score. On the other hand, there were abundant instances of delicacy later on. The orchestra played admirably and with great technical virtuosity, though this is not a work calculated to reveal the finest qualities of such an organization.
The piano part was played by Constantin von Sternberg, the organ by Henry Gordon Thunder. The participating choral bodies were the Philadelphia Orchestra Chorus, the Philadelphia Choral Society, the Mendelssohn and Fortnightly clubs and a boys’ chorus. They sang with enthusiasm, precision, fine tone and generally correct intonation, though considering the multitude the volume of tone was remarkably small. Indeed, the effect of sonority was barely more imposing than that achieved by the opera chorus. Yet the choral host never proved itself unwieldy. However, if the occasion enforced any practical lesson it lay in the fact that a chorus of this magnitude is not capable of effects a whit more startling than a well-trained one of half the size.
The Soloists
The chief solo glories fell to Florence Hinkle, Margaret Keyes, and Messrs. Werrenrath and Whitehill. They disposed of their difficult and unvocal parts with surprising ease. Miss Hinkle coped, without noticeable effort, with the high-lying passages, and her silvery voice rang, bell-like, through the ensemble. Mr. Werrenrath sang his solo portions with breadth and authority, and the same was true of Mr. Whitehill. Lambert Murphy’s sweet tones beautified the tenor phrases and Mmes. Barbour, Fischer and Dercum shone forth brilliantly every now and then. The ensemble of soloists could, indeed, scarcely have been stronger.
Among the musical notables who heard the symphony were Paderewski, Kreisler, Pablo Casals, Frank Damrosch, George Chadwick, Horatio Parker, Louis Koemmenich, Kurt Schindler, Katharine Goodson, Julia Gulp, Gabrilowitsch, Bauer, Grainger, Friedberg, Rubin Goldmark, Henry Hadley, the Kneisels and Flonzaleys, Otto H. Kahn and Serge Diaghileff. —HERBERT F. PEYSER.
Opinions of other New York critics on the Mahler Symphony:
It is not easy to see in this composition the really potent achievement of a creative imagination. It seems rather the high aspiration of a musician of great s kill and knowledge, of far-reaching intelligence, intense earnestness, and truly spiritual promptings; a musician whose lofty ambitions are not matched by his inspiration. —The Times.
The work seemed to me successful only in certain episodes and more the work of reflection than of the inspiration of genius. —Staats-Zeitung.
We find in it the agonized straining of the gaze that would pierce infinities, the inexpressible torturing of an insatiable spirit, the splendid and hopeless sincerity of an ineffectual soul. Behind a stupendous machinery we find some few kernels of fine thought threshed into tender wheat. —The Sun.
The performance entitled Philadelphia’s musicians and Mr. Stokowski to a rich and fragrant guerdon of praise. The precision of the singers was admirable, their nuances excellent and their enunciation of the text highly commendable. —The Tribune.
The symphony is a tedious, dreary affair. One would not exaggerate much in terming it a musical Sahara, without a palm tree or a mirage. Apart from its bigness it has little else to offer. —The World.


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