Gustav Mahler’s Totenfeier
We’re going to hear something relatively short by Mahler on this program, at about 7 a.m. It’s 26 minutes long.
Before he wrote his second symphony, Mahler composed something, possibly intended as a first symphonic movement, called Totenfeier. Totenfeier became, with subtle editing changes and clarifications, the first movement of the eventual second symphony. But before that, Mahler intended it as a separate piece, and actually performed it separately once.
When you hear Paavo Järvi’s performance of Totenfeier, it will sound different from the first movement of the second in several different ways. (For simplicity, let’s call the first movement of the second symphony the ‘Movement,’ to contrast it with ‘Totenfeier.’)
First, there are passages in Totenfeier that Mahler removed from the Movement. I believe that almost every measure of the Movement can be found in Totenfeier, but not vice versa. The cuts Mahler made appear to be quite intelligent.
Second, the scoring often differs in subtle ways, and you will notice many changes if you know the Movement. In many cases, Mahler seems to be making the kinds of changes that produce his fine orchestrational touch. In a few cases, I think Mahler was making difficult editing decisions, and here and there, I prefer his orchestration in Totenfeier. In some cases, Mahler changed orchestration because he was also changing melodic lines. There’s a Totenfeier passage where a motive appears in several wind parts, starting and finishing in the oboes. In the Movement, the flutes get this motive first, and also get it last. The need for the change seems to be that Mahler added a few notes to the last phrase, making it go up high, where flutes can finish it off more smoothly than oboes could.
The biggest change, very noticeable, is tempo and phrasing. I understand that the score of Totenfeier, which I have not read yet, is much less precise than the score of the Movement. Mahler may have expected to perform Totenfeier the same way as the Movement, but in conducting it, he would have conveyed his desired approach to the orchestra in person. In the score of the Movement, tempo and phrasing are very precisely spelled out. Järvi takes liberties allowed by the Totenfeier’s imprecision to interpret the music in a way vastly different from any conductors – that I know of – of the second symphony. Mahler’s precise indications require a Marcato interpretation; Järvi plays the Totenfeier, wherever possible, for an elegant smooth legato sound. The result is very beautiful, something that other conductors of the symphonies might like to emulate, but Mahler’s precise scoring won’t let them.
A final note about tempo: you will hear some short passages played much faster than you expect. In the score for the Movement, these passages are marked “Tempo I”, that is, the tempo of the opening bars. Totenfeier’s score must say something different, and the effect is very dramatic.