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The story of Schumann’s violin concerto is one of the most convoluted in classical music history.  It includes a composer who was past the breaking point, friends  and family trying to save his reputation, a séance, Anti-Semitism, and another composer the Nazi regime considered a degenerate.

When Robert Schumann composed his Violin Concerto in d minor, it was 1853. He was mighty close to the fateful night when he jumped into the nearly frozen Rhine River.  By then his insanity had become clear to all his friends.

Joseph Joachim (the work’s dedicatee), Schumann’s  dear friend Johannes Brahms, and Schumann’s wife Clara thought the concerto reflected his instability too much. Joachim went so far as to say that it suffered from “mental lassitude,” “bewildering passages,” “morbid brooding,” and “tiresome repetitions.” 

Joachim was put in charge of the score. He decided to sit on it.  After Joachim died in 1907, it passed to the Prussian State Library with the stipulation that it not be published until 100 years after the composer’s death (1854).

Joachim’s niece, Jelly d’Aranyi, a well-known violinist in her own right, claimed that she’d heard of the concerto in a spiritual visitation (more likely, her uncle had "spilled the beans" to her before he died). 

d’Aranyi wanted to perform it. But this was Germany in 1937. The Nazi party claimed she was of Jewish heritage, and forbade the performance. 

When it did premiere later that year, the solo parts had been almost totally re-written by Paul Hindemith, even though by then the Nazis had branded Hindemith degenerate. 

Iit wasn’t until 84 years after the work’s completion that it was finally heard as Schumann had composed it. The premiere of the true Schumann violin concerto was at Carnegie Hall, with the New York Philharmonic and pianist Georges Enescu.


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Bartolomeo Cristofori (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Bartolomeo Cristofori (Wikimedia Commons)

From the Middle Ages, Italy’s Medici family was a magnet for artists and artisans, who created extraordinary works under the family’s generous patronage. In 1688, Florence’s Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici hired Bartolomeo Cristofori, then 33 years old, to look after his collection of harpsichords. This was an important position: Cristofori was paid as much as any court musician.

The harpsichord of Cristofori’s time was a well developed instrument, responsive and flexible. But it lacked one feature: variable dynamics. The harpsichord’s mechanism plucked the strings of the instrument. There was no practical way (then) to make it pluck them more gently. The only way to vary volume was to change stops or combine manuals. The possibilities for dynamic variety were fairly limited.

Cristofori's piano action
Cristofori’s piano action

Some time in the 1690s, Cristofori had a brainstorm. He realized that if he replaced the harpsichord’s plucking mechanism with one which struck the string instead, the force of the strike — and thus the volume of the sound — could be under complete control of the player.

The idea of a keyboard instrument that struck the strings rather than plucking them wasn’t really new. The clavichord had existed since at least the 15th century. A clavichord had tangents fastened to the keys. Instead of controlling jacks and quills which plucked the strings, the tangents themselves struck the strings inside the instrument’s case.

The problem with the clavichord was that while it was capable of extraordinarily sensitive dynamic expression, its volume range was from almost inaudible to barely audible. Let’s face it, the force that a keyboard player can transmit through his or her fingers is limited. The clavichord’s tangents couldn’t strike its strings hard enough to make a sound that could be heard, say, in a church sanctuary. This meant that the clavichord wasn’t suitable for anything other than the most intimate music-making. (It made a magnificent instrument for late-night keyboard practice, however.)

Cristofori solved this problem by adding a mechanical action. It multiplied the player’s string-striking force by four (eight, in his later instruments) and used that force to drive a hammer against the string. He also added an escapement mechanism. The escapement allowed the hammer to fall back after striking the string, so the string would keep vibrating.

Cristofori piano, 1720 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Cristofori piano, 1720
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

(Think of the way a fine crystal goblet rings when you tap it with a spoon — as long as you don’t keep the spoon touching the glass after you tap it.)

Cristofori called his invention arpicimbalo che fa il piano e il forte — harpsichord with soft and loud. Today, we shorten that name a bit. We call it the piano.

Maybe you’re expecting me to say here that Cristofori’s piano "took Europe by storm" (or some similar cliche’!) and almost immediately eclipsed the harpsichord.

That didn’t happen. Truth to tell, keyboard players didn’t like the touch. The Florentine piano was harder to play, and the keys just didn’t feel right when pressed. They didn’t like the tone, either; it was too soft, too muffled. Besides, who really needed that much variety in volume anyway?

It would remain for later piano makers to solve these problems. But Cristofori had begun the process of breaking the harpsichord’s lock on public keyboard performance. It’s not hard to imagine that without the financial and moral support of the Medici family, Cristofori probably couldn’t have pushed keyboard technology ahead — but that’s another story for another day.

Domenico Scarlatti (Wikimedia Commons)
Domenico Scarlatti
(Wikimedia Commons)

Now back to 1700, and over to Naples. That’s when and where Domenico Scarlatti, one more musical member of a hugely talented musical family, was named organist and composer of the Royal Chapel. He was even granted a special additional salary for his work as chamber harpsichordist.

Domenico Scarlatti was only 15 years old.

Two years later, Scarlatti and his father Alessandro made the first of two visits to Florence. Their host was none other than Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, Cristofori’s patron. Did Domenico play one or more of Cristofori’s Florentine pianos on these visits? Perhaps. History doesn’t tell us. So far no documentation has surfaced — no letters home raving about (or excoriating!) the new-fangled instrument, no eyewitness reports, no newspaper articles.

By 1708, Domenico had joined his father in Rome. There he attended the weekly concerts originated by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. In 1709, Prince Ferdinando sent the Cardinal a lavish gift from Florence: one of Cristofori’s pianos. Did Scarlatti play or hear that instrument? Again, history doesn’t tell us.

Infanta Maria Barbara  (
Infanta Maria Barbara (

In 1719, Scarlatti left Rome, ostensibly for England. In actuality, he was on his way to Lisbon, Portugal, where he had a job offer — he was to be master of the Royal Chapel there. In Lisbon he encountered an exceptionally talented royal youngster — the infanta Maria Barbara, who, as a contemporary report said, “Surprise[ed] the amazed intelligence of the most excellent Professors with her Mastery of Singing, Playing and Composition.”

In January of 1729, Maria Barbara married Ferdinando, the Spanish infante. It was a rather uncomfortable union whose purpose was entirely political. Maria Barbara soon found herself in the hostile company of the jealous Queen Isabella of Spain. Isabella even refused to allow Maria Barbara to bring along her personal servants — all but one, that is: her music teacher, Domenico Scarlatti. During the remaining 28 years of his life, Scarlatti composed and catalogued over 550 keyboard exercises for Maria Barbara — from 1746, queen of Spain.

Scarlatti and the Florentine piano are linked (if only circumstantially) at several other times and places, but what’s undeniable is that Maria Barbara herself was a point of intersection.

Maria Barbara owned pianos. We know this because she died just over a year after Scarlatti did, and at her death, her instruments were inventoried. Of her dozen (!) keyboard instruments, three were pianos, and two more were harpsichords which had been converted from pianos (perhaps because their actions failed, or because they were judged unsatisfactory as pianos). It thus becomes rather difficult to deny that Scarlatti was acquainted with the piano.

But did he play them? Did he intend for Maria Barbara to play his sonatas on them?

Ralph Kirkpatrick (
Ralph Kirkpatrick

Ralph Kirkpatrick didn’t think so. Kirkpatrick was an American harpsichordist (1911 – 1984). He had a distinguised career as a performer, but his magnum opus was his biography of Domenico Scarlatti. It occupied him for 16 years, from 1937 to 1953. When it came to Scarlatti’s sonatas, Kirkpatrick’s views in that 1953 publication were enormously influential, guiding the performance practice of a generation of historically-oriented keyboard musicians.

Kirkpatrick pointed out that 73 of Scarlatti’s 550-some sonatas required more keys than the queen’s pianos had. This is pretty hard to argue with! It seems very unlikely that either Maria Barbara or Scarlatti played those 73 sonatas on any of the pianos to which they had known access. That’s a carefully qualified statement, but it’s about as definitive as we can really get in this discussion.

Kirkpatrick thought that was sufficient evidence to declare that Scarlatti probably had the harpsichord in mind for playing all of his sonatas. There is more to his argument, but it’s mostly conjectural, related to what he saw as the musical suitability of the piano of the time to the sonatas. What else can one do without definitive surviving documentation?

But from 1970, other historically-oriented musicologists and performers began to question Kirkpatrick’s assessment. Their re-evaluation of the evidence, sketchy as it was and is, led to harpsichord maker David Sutherland’s 1995 article in Early Music magazine, “Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano.”

Sutherland argued that, in making his recommendation, Kirkpatrick should have given more weight to the circumstantial evidence connecting Scarlatti and the early Florentine piano. Sutherland also questioned Kirkpatrick’s judgement of the Florentine piano as unsuited to Scarlatti’s sonatas, but in all honesty it’s difficult to see Sutherland’s view of this matter as any less subjective than Kirkpatrick’s. Finally, he took issue with Kirkpatrick’s argument that the piano was mostly used at court for accompanying singers. Sutherland’s evidence here seems about as persuasive as Kirkpatrick’s. Stalemate.

Who’s right? I don’t know.

Keyboard isn’t my instrument, so maybe I’m able to view this whole discussion with a bit of detachment. We’ve invested over 70 years in poring over what little documentation exists (reckoning from when Kirkpatrick began his research for Domenico Scarlatti). We have more informed opinions than ever (and thank goodness for that), but informed as they are, they’re still opinions. We don’t have a definitive answer as to whether Scarlatti intended his sonatas for the harpsichord or the piano. Perhaps he intended some of them for one and some for the other, but we have no way of knowing that. If he did, the 73 I mentioned before are the only ones which we currently have much hope of assigning. Actually, we don’t know whether Scarlatti even cared which instrument they were played on. We may never know. There just isn’t enough evidence to say.

Meanwhile, players of the modern piano, from Dame Myra Hess to Vladimir Horowitz — and countless others since — have never stopped playing Scarlatti. Why should they? For them, I suspect that the question of what instrument Scarlatti had played was pretty much academic. His music worked for them on their chosen instrument. They gave Scarlatti a voice, and also found their own expressive nuances in the sonatas. Audiences loved it. I imagine that was enough for them.

What I do know is that I’ve heard successful and musically enlightening performances of Scarlatti sonatas on harpsichords, Florentine pianos, and modern pianos. But don’t take my word for it; compare for yourself. Here are three short clips from Scarlatti’s Sonata in f minor, K519 — played on modern piano, a reproduction of Cristofori’s Florentine piano, and harpsichord.

Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on modern piano (Beatrice Long)

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Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on Florentine piano (David Schrader)

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Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on harpsichord (Colin Tilney)

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I’ve also heard some pretty good Scarlatti on other instruments, including harp and guitar. His music seems to suit many different instruments, and I for one am glad that one more avenue of timbre and style has opened up for interpreting Scarlatti sonatas.

Further reading:

Domenico Scarlatti. Ralph Kirkpatrick, 1953 (1983 revision).

Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano. David Sutherland, Early Music, 1995 (Note: JSTOR access is required to read this article. A public-access computer associated with a university or library will usually connect immediately, but most home or business computers will not.)

A Florentine Piano c.1730 for Early Piano Music. Denzil Wraight.

Domenico Scarlatti, a brief biography. Chris Whent, Here of a Sunday Morning, WBAI, New York.

Cristofori, Inventor of the Piano. Roy E. Howard, Cantos Para Todos.

This article was originally published in WKSU Classical on 17 July 2008.

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Bach at the Keyboard

Bach was only 19 in 1704, working at his first church gig (or second, depending on how you count what amounted to lackey toil at Weimar) when a rare opportunity arose.

I’m neither clergyman nor Lutheran, but my understanding of the Lutheran Church Year – the calendar by which Bach effectively lived his work life – is that it begins with Advent, the 4 weeks before Christmas. The calendar’s other major anchor point is Easter, if I can call a floating date an anchor. Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon after the Spring equinox, and that date determines all the dates from Epiphany on.

To account for this movable feast, the Lutheran calendar has a variable number of Sundays after Trinity. Usually it’s between 23 and 26. Only rarely – when Easter falls between the 22nd and 26th of March – does the Lutheran calendar have a 27th Sunday after Trinity. Bach’s rare opportunity to compose a work for Trinity 27 came in 1704. And for that special day, Bach composed – nothing special.

But that shouldn’t be a surprise. It wasn’t in his contract! Bach’s job was playing organ at Arnstadt’s New Church. Yes, he was one of a long line of Bachs who had done that job (and a well paid one it was, despite the church’s feeble budget). But nothing formally or legally compelled him to compose a special large-scale work for the 27th Sunday after Trinity in 1704.

Special large-scale works weren’t part of his job; yet not even a year hence, Bach would feel the sting of rebuke when the church’s elders berated him for not composing enough of them. (Of course, that might have been just piling-on, while they were about chastising him for getting into an altercation with one of the church’s musicians. Remember, Bach was then what we would consider college age.)

Did Bach carry a vivid memory of this verbal caning for over a quarter-century? Is it possible that he simply regretted not having written anything for Trinity 27 in 1704? Could one or both of these be the reason, or reasons, that the cantata he composed at Leipzig in 1731 is such a masterpiece?

Some historians and commentators think Bach put the extra time and effort into Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme simply because Trinity 27 was such a rare event. Maybe. But Bach was an eminently practical musician. Many of his Leipzig cantatas show clear evidence of his compositional short-cuts. Wachet Auf, though, is as finely wrought as anything he could have expected to use year after year, despite the fact that he had only one other chance to use it in his 16 years in Leipzig.

Bach did borrow his chorale melody and part of his text – an entirely normal practice. He got them from Philipp Nicolai’s hymn of the same name. In 1599, when he composed it, Nicolai had just survived a plague epidemic. If that left him feeling especially inspired, that would certainly be understandable!

Nicolai’s work accounts for 3 movements of this symmetrically-structured cantata, including the most famous, the central one. Who wrote the text for the other movements? We don’t know. Picander is one possibility; Bach mined his words for other works. Some scholars even suggest that Bach himself may have been the poet.

Nicolai’s text is the Biblical parable of the bridesmaids awaiting the bridegroom. There’s a visual trick behind this text that Bach, numerologist that he was, surely would have appreciated. Look at the shape of the lines when you center them (first verse only shown):

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heisst diese Stunde
Sie rufen und mit hellem Munde:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?
Wohl auf, der Bräutgam kömmt;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Macht euch bereit
Zu der Hochzeit,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!

It’s unmistakably the chalice, the symbol of the Eucharist – and in fact in early editions Nicolai’s hymn was printed this very way.

But Nicolai and Bach are not so pious that they miss the chance to connect at a worldly, even earthy, level with their readers and listeners.

For one thing, Nicolai evokes the medieval song form called Aube (morning song) in France and Wächterlied (watchman’s song) in Germany. These are thoroughly secular love poems! The watchman’s role in these songs is to alert the (illicit) lovers to the impending dawn, when they must part to avoid discovery and preserve their reputations – or their lives. In Wachet auf, the watchman’s job is to alert the negligent bridesmaids (the Church) to the approach of the bridegroom (Christ).

But that’s not all. Picander’s (or Bach’s) verses include an ardent love duet (movement 6), and introduce vivid images from the Bible’s fevered, almost erotic Song of Songs.

Here we find "My beloved is like a roe or a young hart" (2:9); Bach says, "The bridegroom comes, like a buck and a young stag." "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me." (2:6); Bach’s bridegroom tells his bride, "At my left hand you shall rest, and my right hand shall embrace you." The Song of Songs poet writes, "My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies." (2:16) Bach says, "My beloved is mine, and I am his … you shall revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses." We even find watchmen in the Song of Songs: "The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?" (3:3)

Even though Bach programmed this cantata no more than twice in his lifetime, today it’s one of his best known and most frequently performed. In fact its central chorale is one of his most oft-played works of any type, with arrangements available for nearly every imaginable instrument, from clarinet to ukulele. You may know that chorale better by its English name: Sleepers, Awake.


Bach: Cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, S140

Donna Brown, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Michael Volle, bass
Gächinger Kantorei
Bach Collegium, Stuttgart
Helmut Rilling, conductor
Recorded on 28 November 1998


Movement 1 (chorus)
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme Wake up, the voice is calling us
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne, Of the watchmen in the high, high tower;
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem! Wake up, you city of Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde; The hour is midnight;
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde: They call to us with ringing voices:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen? Where are you wise virgins?
Wohl auf, der Bräutigam kömmt; Come on, the bridegroom comes;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt! Rise up and take your lamps!
Alleluja! Alleluia!
Macht euch bereit Make yourselves ready
Zu der Hochzeit, For the wedding,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn! You must go to meet him!
Movement 2 (recitative)

Er kommt, er kommt, He comes, he comes,
Der Bräutgam kommt! The bridegroom comes!
Ihr Töchter Zions, kommt heraus, Come forth, you daughters of Zion,
Sein Ausgang eilet aus der Höhe He rushes forth from the heavens
In euer Mutter Haus. To your mother’s house.
Der Bräutgam kommt, der einem Rehe The bridegroom comes, like a buck
Und jungen Hirsche gleich and a young stag,
Auf denen Hügeln springt Leaping on the hills
Und euch das Mahl der Hochzeit bringt. And takes you to the wedding feast.
Wacht auf, ermuntert euch! Wake up, bestir yourselves!
Den Bräutgam zu empfangen! To receive the bridegroom!
Dort, sehet, kommt er hergegangen. There, look, he comes to meet you.
Movement 3 (aria: duet)

Wenn kömmst du, mein Heil? When are you coming, my salvation?
(Ich komme, dein Teil.) (I am coming, your share.)
Ich warte mit brennendem Öle. I am waiting with burning oil.
Eröffne den Saal
(Ich öffne)
Open the hall
(I open)
(Zum himmlischen Mahl.) (For the heavenly feast.)
Komm, Jesu! Come, Jesus!
(Komm, liebliche Seele!) (Come, lovely soul!)
Movement 4 (tenor solo or chorus)

Zion hört die Wächter singen, Zion hears the watchmen singing,
Das Herz tut ihr vor Freuden springen, Her heart springs for joy,
Sie wachet und steht eilend auf. She wakes and hurries to rise.
Ihr Freund kommt vom Himmel prächtig, Her beloved comes from heaven with glory,
Von Gnaden stark, von Wahrheit mächtig, Strong with grace, mighty with truth,
Ihr Licht wird hell, ihr Stern geht auf. Her light grows bright, her star rises.
Nun komm, du werte Kron, Now come, you precious crown,
Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn! Lord Jesus, God’s Son!
Hosianna! Hosannah!
Wir folgen all We all follow
Zum Freudensaal To the hall of joy
Und halten mit das Abendmahl. And take part in the communion.
Movement 5 (recitative)

So geh herein zu mir, So, come in to me,
Du mir erwählte Braut! You, my chosen bride!
Ich habe mich mit dir I have entrusted myself
Von Ewigkeit vertraut. To you eternally.
Dich will ich auf mein Herz, I want to set you on my heart
Auf meinen Arm gleich wie ein Siegel setzen and on my arm, just like a seal,
Und dein betrübtes Aug ergötzen. And bring pleasure to your troubled eye.
Vergiß, o Seele, nun Forget now, oh spirit,
Die Angst, den Schmerz, The fear, the pain,
Den du erdulden müssen; Which you have had to endure;
Auf meiner Linken sollst du ruhn, At my left hand you shall rest,
Und meine Rechte soll dich küssen. And my right shall embrace [kiss] you.
Movement 6 (aria: duet)

Mein Freund ist mein, My beloved is mine,
Und ich bin sein. And I am his.
Die Liebe soll nichts scheiden. Nothing shall separate our love.
Ich will mit dir
(Du sollst) (mir)
I wish to, with you
(You shall) (me)
in Himmels Rosen weiden, Revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses,
Da Freude die Fülle, da Wonne wird sein. There we shall find satiety and bliss. 1
Movement 7 (chorus)

Gloria sei dir gesungen Gloria be sung to you
Mit Menschen- und englischen Zungen, With human and angel voices,
Mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schon. With harps and cymbals to boot.
Von zwölf Perlen sind die Pforten, The gates are made of twelve pearls;
An deiner Stadt sind wir Konsorten In your city we are consorts
Der Engel hoch um deinen Thron. Of heavenly angels round your throne.
Kein Aug hat je gespürt, No eye has ever seen,
Kein Ohr hat je gehört No ear has ever heard
Solche Freude. Such joy.
Des sind wir froh, Thus we are glad,
Io, io! Io, Io!
Ewig in dulci jubilo. Eternally in sweet rejoicing.2

1Here the poet is indulging in poetic wordplay, with multiple shades of meaning. Weide (n): pasture; weiden (v): graze, pasture, turn out to pasture; revel in something. Füllen (n): foal, colt, or filly; füllen (v): stuff, fill to satiety. A Füllhorn is a horn of plenty.

2 Io is pronounced “ee-yo.” It’s an expression of religious rejoicing from classical Latin. You can also find it in the second verse of the Christmas song Ding Dong Merrily on High: "E’en so here below, below / let steeple bells be swungen, / And i-o, i-o, i-o, / by priest and people sungen."

Translation: David Roden – Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA

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Gustav Mahler in 1892
Gustav Mahler, 1892
(Wikimedia Commons)

It was quite an honor for a young composer – a chance to play his latest work for a master conductor – and Gustav Mahler accepted it gratefully.

At the keyboard, Mahler glanced up from his score. Conductor Hans Guido Freiherr von Bülow’s hands were covering his ears! Mahler’s Totenfeier trailed off. "No, no," Bülow murmured. "Please, carry on."

Mahler’s first symphony, the "Titan," had premiered in 1889. He’d tried to deny that it had a program, but eventually admitted that what he had in mind was "a strong, heroic man, his life and sufferings, his battles and defeat at the hands of Fate."

With this new work, Totenfeier – Funeral Rite – Mahler was burying his first symphony’s hero.

Mahler arrived at the final notes of the Totenfeier. The room fell silent. Long seconds ticked away. Bülow sat, silent, staring. Then the words poured out: "If what I’ve just heard is still music, then I no longer understand anything about music."

Mahler was crushed. The critics had written after his first symphony that Mahler was a fine conductor – but, like most fine conductors, he had no future as a composer. Now this. "I’m thinking of giving it up," he wrote to his friend Richard Strauss.

He didn’t. Nor did he allow Bülow’s judgement to turn him away from his work. And, as it turned out, Bülow would have yet another role to play in the composition of what would eventually become Mahler’s second symphony.

It took Mahler another 2 years to make further progress on the symphony. By that time a mildly revised Totenfeier had become the symphony’s first movement. Once he’d finished the symphony’s andante second movement in July of 1893, Mahler almost immediately composed the third, a scherzo.

As a study for that scherzo, Mahler had written a song, a setting of a text from the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). The verse he chose was "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" (St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes). This tale had significance for Mahler, as we’ll soon see. In his Hamburg study – Mahler was chief conductor of the State Theatre there – hung an artist’s image of this aquatic sermon. It was a sermon politely and attentively received by the saint’s scaly audience – and an entirely ineffectual one.

That same month, Mahler briefly set aside the symphony to compose music for yet another Wunderhorn verse. "Urlicht" carried a decidedly more optimistic tone. Initially, Mahler meant it for his collection of Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs.

Now Mahler had the first three movements of his symphony. He’d already realized that the largest orchestra wouldn’t suit the statement he wanted to make with its finale, that he’d need a chorus. But what words would they sing? Nothing seemed quite right. Not even his beloved Wunderhorn collection yielded his text.

So things remained through the rest of the summer and the winter of 1893.

It was Bülow who gave him the answer in the spring – though not in the way Bülow might have preferred. In early February of 1894, Bülow had gone to Cairo, searching for relief from his failing health. But five days on, the spark of life winked out for Bülow.

Bülow’s body was returned to Hamburg. On the 29th of March, Mahler attended his memorial service at St Michaels. "It hit me like a lightning bolt, and everything became plain and clear in my mind!" Mahler told a friend. The choir had sung Friedrich Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode in Bülow’s service: "Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n, wirst du, mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!" ("You will rise, my dust, yes, rise, after a brief rest.").

Mahler had the text for his choral finale. Or, rather, for some of it; in the end, he chose what suited him from Klopstock, and wrote the rest of the words himself. Three months later, the finale was finished.

But Mahler was still not satisfied with the symphony’s structure. He thought the lightness of the second movement, the andante, was too much of a contrast with the massive first movement. He didn’t like the transition between the scherzo and the finale, either.

The second problem he solved by inserting the "Urlicht" song between the 4th movement and the finale – the first time any composer had done such a thing in a symphony.

For the first problem, he experimented with placing the scherzo ahead of the andante. Ultimately, though, he decided to go with plan A – andante first – and suggest that the conductor allow an interval of "at least 5 minutes" between the first movement and the andante.* (In one performance Mahler conducted, he also inserted a pause between the 4th movement and the finale. In the end, though, he thought better of it, and said that the finale should immediately follow the "Urlicht," with no break at all.)

So exactly what was it that Mahler needed to say in his second symphony? Why did he need a massive orchestra, two soloists, and a chorus? The subtitle, "Resurrection," might lead you to think that he was expressing a religious idea.

However traditional it may be, though, that subtitle is not Mahler’s. He was not a religious man. Though he’d been born and raised in Judaism, Mahler didn’t much adhere to its precepts as an adult.

Mahler converted to Catholicism early in 1897, but that too had little spiritual significance for him. It was really just a way round Vienna’s virulent official anti-semitism, which had stood in the way of his directorship of the Vienna Court Opera. (As he left the conversion ceremony, he remarked to a friend, "I have just changed my coat.") Later, asked why he’d never composed a mass, Mahler replied that he couldn’t state the Credo and still maintain his artistic and spiritual integrity.

The real meaning of this music can be found in Mahler’s own words: "My [first] two symphonies are nothing but the full substance of my whole life."

Over a period of nearly 5 years, Mahler gave his listeners much more specific information about his second symphony, in the form of movement-by-movement programs. He wrote three in all. Even though he eventually withdrew them, I think they still provide useful context for the music.

Gilbert Kaplan, the businessman and amateur musician so taken with Mahler’s second symphony that he created the Kaplan Foundation to support study and preservation of Mahler’s music, and even studied and learned to conduct the work, has developed an analysis which draws from all three of Mahler’s programs. Here is a somewhat abridged and paraphrased version.

Movement 1: Allegro Maestoso. Mit Durchaus Ernstem Und Feierlichem Ausdruck. We stand at the coffin of a beloved person. His whole life, his struggles, his passions, his sufferings, his accomplishments, all pass before us. The distractions of everyday life are lifted like a hood from our eyes, and a solemn voice chills our hearts: "What next? What is life? What is death? Why do we live? Why do we suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke?" We must answer these questions if we are to go on living — indeed, if we are to go on dying! This answer I give in the final movement.

Movement 2: Andante Moderato. Sehr Gemächlich. You are struck by a memory, a ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless, out of the departed’s life. Surely you’ve had the experience of burying someone dear to you. Perhaps, on the way back, some long forgotten hour of shared happiness suddenly rose before your inner eye, sending a sunbeam into your soul — and you almost forgot what had just taken place.

Movement 3: Scherzo: In Ruhig Fliessender Bewegung. You awaken from that blissful dream. The surge of life in ceaseless motion, never comprehensible, suddenly seems eerie, like billowing dancers in a brightly lit ballroom that you gaze into from a distance so great that you cannot hear the music. The movement of the couples seems senseless. You imagine that, to one who has lost his identity and happiness, the world looks like this — distorted, as if reflected in a concave mirror. Life for such a person becomes meaningless. Disgust for every form of existence seizes him. He cries out in anguish.

Movement 4: Ulricht. Sehr Feierlich, Aber Schlicht. The voice of simple faith rings in our ears: "I am from God, and to God I will return! The loving God will give me a small light, will light me to blessed eternal life!"

Movement 5: Im Tempo Des Scherzos. Wild Herausfahrend. The finale starts with the same anguished scream that ended the scherzo. The Last Judgment is at hand. The earth trembles; the Last Trumpet sounds; the graves burst open; all the creatures struggle from the ground, moaning and trembling. They march in a mighty procession: rich and poor, peasants and kings, the whole church with bishops and popes. All cry and tremble alike because, in the eyes of God, there are no just men. Their fearful cries for mercy and forgiveness ring in our ears.

The wailing becomes more terrible. Our senses desert us; all consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches. The trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out.

Finally, the graves are empty; the earth lies silent and deserted. Comes now the long note of the bird of death. Even it finally dies away.

What happens now is far from what we expected. All has ceased to exist. Then: the soft, gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts: "Rise again, yes, you shall rise again!" The glory of God comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Behold: there is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great, no small. There is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with bliss and illuminates our existence.


"The whole symphony sounds as though it came to us from some other world. I think there is no one who can resist it. One is battered to the ground and then raised on angels’ wings to the greatest heights."

  – Gustav Mahler


Gustav Mahler: Symphony #2 in c minor "Resurrection"
Christine Brandes, soprano; Lucille Beer, mezzo-soprano
Canton Symphony Chorus; Malone University Chorale; Walsh University Chamber Choir; University of Mount Union Concert Choir; [College of] Wooster Chorus
Canton Symphony Orchestra
Gerhardt Zimmermann, conductor

Movement 4: Urlicht (Primal Light)
Alto (or Mezzo-Soprano)
(From the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn [The Youth’s Magic Horn])
O Röschen rot! O little red rose!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not! Mankind lies in greatest need!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein! Mankind lies in greatest pain!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein! I would much rather be in Heaven!
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg; Then I found myself on a broad path;
da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen. Came then an angel who would divert me.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen! No, no, I will not be diverted!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott! I’m from God, and intend to return to God!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben, The loving God will grant me a small light,
wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben! will light me to blessed eternal life!
Finale: Auferstehen (Arise)
Soprano, Alto (or Mezzo-Soprano) and Chorus

(1st 2 verses: Friedrich Klopstock; remainder: Gustav Mahler)

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du, You wil rise, yes, rise,
mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh! my dust, after a brief rest!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben Immortal life, immortal life
wird, der dich rief, dir geben. He who called you will give you.
Wieder aufzublühn, wirst du gesä’t! You were sown to bloom again!
Der Herr der Ernte geht The Lord of the Harvest
und sammelt Garben goes forth and gathers us in,
uns ein, die starben! the dead, like sheaves!
O glaube, mein Herz! O glaube: O believe, my heart, o believe:
Es geht dir nichts verloren! You have lost nothing!
Dein ist, ja Dein, was du gesehnt, All you have yearned for is yours,
Dein, was du geliebt, was du gestritten! Yours, for which you have loved and striven!
O glaube: Du warst nicht umsonst geboren! O believe: not for nothing were you born!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten! You haven’t lived and struggled in vain!
Was entstanden ist, das muss vergehen! What has come to be must pass!
Was vergangen, auferstehen! What has passed, arise!
Hör auf zu beben! Cease your trembling!
Bereite dich zu leben! Prepare yourself to live!
O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer! O all-penetrating pain,
Dir bin ich entrungen! I am wrested from you!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger! O death, you who vanquish all,
Nun bist du bezwungen! Now you are vanquished!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen, With wings that I have won for myself,
in heißem Liebesstreben in heated pursuit of love,
werd’ ich entschweben I will soar aloft
zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen! to the light which no eye has reached!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen, With wings that I have won for myself,
werde ich entschweben! I will soar aloft!
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben! I will die, so that I may live!
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du, You will rise, yes rise,
mein Herz, in einem Nu! my heart, in an instant!
Was du geschlagen, What you have vanquished
zu Gott wird es dich tragen! will lead you to God!
Translation: David Roden – Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA

*In today’s (25 November 2012) broadcast of the work, we’ll honor Mahler’s request – and simultaneously deal with our legal obligation to the FCC – by taking time out between the first and second movements for a station identification.

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Incipit (cantus part) from
Canticum Trium Puerorum
(Renato Calcaterra)
Click to zoom

Now and again music history gives us personalities whose accomplishments range far and wide, well beyond composition. One such musician is Michael Praetorius. Not only did he leave us a good-sized body of music both sacred and secular, he created a reference volume that generations of early music researchers and performers have found invaluable: Syntagma Musicum, describing performing practice and musical instruments in the late Renaissance era.

Among Praetorius’s many publications of Lutheran church music is the collection Musarum Sioniarum: Motectae et Psalmi Latini. The 34th item in that volume is a setting of a text from the Latin Vulgate Bible.

In the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – also called Ananias, Azarias and Misael – the three men refuse to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, so Nebuchadnezzar has them thrown into a furnace. There, the story goes, they’re protected by an angel. They walk about in the flames, unscathed, praying and singing.

This text has come to be called The Prayer of the Three Holy Children. In the Latin Praetorius used, it’s Canticum Trium Puerorum – the song of the three boys. It’s not clear to me why they’re called boys or children when all of the biblical text refers to them as men, but those seem to be the terms used.

If Bach was the master of number symbolism (more detail here and here), Praetorius excelled at word-painting, at least in this work. Where his text is "bless the lightning and clouds," at "fulgura" (lightning) he zig-zags the music across the voices. At "nubes" (clouds) the music gets softer and darker.

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But Praetorius’s best word-painting is the trick he plays on us throughout the entire work.

Praetorius structures Canticum Trium Puerorum as a series of verses and two alternating refrains, on a text which exhorts all of Creation to bless the Lord. In the first verse, two high voices (they would have been the boys of his choir) speak of the angels and heaven.

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With each verse, Praetorius adds more voices. By the time he reaches the last lines of the text almost 20 minutes later, all of Creation is indeed singing – or at least all 8 voices in his choir.

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Our recording is from 1980 (regrettably, out of print). It was produced by Erato Records of France, with the Audite Nova Chorale of Paris and director Jean Sourisse. The choir is doubled in the refrains by a small cornett and sackbut ensemble. In general, when it comes to Renaissance music, there’s ample evidence to support the use of such doubling. However, some purists might insist that since Praetorius didn’t specify an instrumental ensemble, a pure choral reading would be safer, if you’re going for authenticity.

A reviewer for Gramophone also sniffed that the 38-voice choir was too large for Praetorius. I’ll stay out of this one and let that reviewer work it out with Praetorius, should they ever meet. I will say, though, that I suspect that reviewer would wax apoplectic if he heard Erato’s earlier recording of this work.

That older performance was my own introduction to Canticum Trium Puerorum, back when I was little more than a pup, musically speaking. This was long before the historically informed performance movement had made any real inroads, and it made no claims whatsoever to authenticity. Praetorius’s modest notes were sung by a massive 500-voice choir, doubled in the refrains by a blaring modern brass band (the Paris Police Force brass ensemble, if you can imagine that). It produced the sort of effect that, as the recording’s annotator pointed out, Praetorius could only have dreamed of.

That recording was distributed in the US over a half-century ago under the Westminster label, and later by Musical Heritage Society. It’s many years out of print. We’ll just have to make do with 38 voices.

Latin text to Canticum Trium Puerorum
From the Vulgate Bible (Daniel 3)
Benedicite, Angeli Domini, Domino: benedicite, cæli, Domino. Bless the Lord, angels of the Lord: the heavens bless the Lord.
Benedicite, aquæ omnes, quæ super cælos sunt, Domino: benedicite, omnes virtutes Dómini, Domino. Bless the Lord, all waters above the heavens: bless the Lord, all powers of the Lord.
Benedicite, sol et luna, Domino: benedicite, stellæ cæli, Domino. Bless the Lord, sun and moon: Bless the Lord, stars of heaven.
Benedicite, omnis imber et ros, Domino: benedicite, omnes spiritus Dei, Domino. Bless the Lord, rainshowers and dew: Bless the Lord, every spirit of God.
Benedicite, ignis et æstus, Domino: benedicite, frigus et æstus, Domino. Bless the Lord, fire and heat: Bless the Lord, winter and summer.
Benedicite, rores et pruina, Domino: benedicite, gelu et frigus, Domino. Bless the Lord, dew and hoarfrost: Bless the Lord, frost and cold.
Benedicite, glacies et nives, Domino: benedicite, noctes et dies, Domino. Bless the Lord, ice and snow: Bless the Lord, nights and days.
Benedicite, lux et tenebræ, Domino: benedicite, fúlgura et nubes, Domino. Bless the Lord, light and darkness: Bless the Lord, lightning and clouds.
Benedicat terra Dominum: laudet et superexaltet eum in sæcula. Let the earth bless the Lord: let it praise and extol Him forever.
Benedicite, montes et colles, Domino: benedicite, universa germinantia in terra, Domino. Bless the Lord, mountains and hills: Bless the Lord, all things that grow in the earth.
Benedicite, fontes, Domino: benedicite, maria et flumina, Domino. Bless the Lord, fountains: Bless the Lord, seas and rivers.
Benedicite, cete, et omnia quæ moventur in aquis, Domino: benedicite, omnes volucres cæli, Domino. Bless the Lord, whales, and all [creatures] that move in the waters: Bless the Lord, birds of the air.
Benedicite, omnes bestiæ et pecora, Domino: benedicite, filii hominum, Domino. Bless the Lord, beasts and cattle: Bless the Lord, sons of men.
Benedicite Israel Dominum: laudet et superexaltet eum in sæcula. Bless the Lord, Israel: praise and extol Him forever.
Benedicite, sacerdotes Domini, Domino: benedicite, servi Domini, Domino. Bless the Lord, priests of the Lord: Bless the Lord, servants of the Lord.
Benedicite, spiritus et animæ justorum, Domino: benedicite, sancti et humiles corde, Domino. Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the just: Bless the Lord, holy and humble of heart.
Benedicite, Anania, Azaria, Misael, Domino: laudate et superexaltáte eum in sæcula. Bless the Lord, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael: praise and extol Him forever.
Benedicamus Patrem et Filium cum Sancto Spiritu: laudemus et superexaltemus eum in sæcula. All bless the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: praise and extol Him forever.
Benedictus es, Domine, in firmaménto cæli: et laudabilis, et gloriosus, et superexaltatus in sæcula. Blessed is the Lord in the firmament of heaven: and praised, and glorified, and extolled forever.

This is an updated version of an article previously published in WKSU Classical on 2 May 2010.

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