Marking the 100th anniversary of Mahler's final concert
Exactly 100 years ago -- Feb. 21, 1911 (it was a Tuesday) -- Gustav Mahler conducted for the last time.
Against his doctor's advice, he decided to go ahead with the scheduled performance by the New York Philharmonic at 8:15 p.m. in Carnegie Hall. Mahler did not know, of course, that the fever and chill he experienced that day were indicative of something more serious. He would be dead three months later.
As Henri-Louis de la Grange writes in the final volume of his definitive biography of the composer/conductor, "Given that this was to be Mahler's last concert, it is both sad and ironic that there was so little music of lasting value in the program" -- a program designed to celebrate Italian orchestral music.
As it turned out, Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony was put into the mix, replacing a symphony by Giovanni Sgambati that Mahler apparently decided, after the first rehearsal, wasn't quite worth the effort.
That still left room for
works by several living Italian composers -- an overture by Leone Sinigaglia, Giuseppe Martucci's Piano Concerto No. 2, the "Intermezzi Goldoniani" for strings by Marco Enrico Bossi, and, prophetically, the "Berceuse Elegiaque" by Ferruccio Busoni. The latter was a world premiere, and the composer was in the hall, sharing a box with Arturo Toscanini.
None of the Italian pieces went on to enjoy any kind of popularity. I've never heard any of them live. The Busoni item seems worthy of attention, especially this year for the centennial of Mahler's death. I found a couple performances of it the "Berceuse Elegiaque" on YouTube, both recorded live, one of them conducted by Toscanini. I almost decided to post his version here, but, in the end, I just couldn't do it. Toscanini was so creepy to Mahler during their few seasons in the New York spotlight that I didn't think it quite right to let him get any attention today.
So here's a more recent account (the Royal Concertgebouw, led by Ed Spanjaard) of this moody elegy by Busoni, a reminder of music Mahler made during his final night on a podium: