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February 21, 2011

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:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:39 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes


Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be performing the final concert as part of its Mahler tribute this autumn. The dates are October 6, 7, and 8. Here's hoping it will be on CSO Radio's broadcast schedule, so that those not in Chicago can hear the concert.

CSO Annoucement:

Leave it to Muti to dig up all those pieces. Thanks for letting me know about that event. TIM

Thanks for calling attention to the Busoni. Frederik Praunitz, longtime conducting guru at Peabody, recorded it and if memory serves me also conducted it with the Peabody Symphony at one of his last concerts.

One of his last concerts, eh? Spooky. Maybe this is a bad luck piece for conductors. TIM

Busoni's best work, IMHumO, is the "Fantasia Contrappuntistica", which I have in more recorded versions OF its various versions than I care to count.

His most "enjoyable" work is the near-70-minute "Piano Concerto," complete with silly (though sincere) choral finale! (He was definitely "sowing his oats" with grand visions!) Ohlsson/Dohnányi/Cleveland is my favourite recording, though the Hamelin/Elder/Birmingham is a pretty close (if tamer, though to pleasant effect) second.

And, of course, one can always turn to "Doktor Faust" (hmmm, maybe being in the box with Arturo made him think of Mephistopheles?), whose "Prologue 2" is simply awesome.

Mahler conducting "Doktor Faust" -- now THERE would have been a concept, even if Busoni's music was probably as "alien" aesthetically to Gustav as Scriabin's or Sibelius'. ;^)

That piano concerto sure is a lot of fun. I've only heard it live once and would love to encounter it again in a concert hall. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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