Visions of Childhood – Following Mahler on the Path to Eternity
Music from Wyastone – Studio Concert Series
Prelude – Mahler Symphony No.4 (Opening)
Wagner (arr. Woods) Siegfried Idyll
Humperdinck (arr. Woods) Der Kleine Sandmann/Abendsegen (The Little Sandman/Evening Prayers) from Hänsel und Gretel
Schubert (arr Woods) Die Forelle (The Trout), Lied and Variations for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble
Mahler (arr. Woods) Das Irdische Leben (The Earthly Life)
Schubert (arr. Woods) Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), Variations and Lied for Chamber Ensemble
Mahler (arr. Stein) Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) from Symphony No.4
About this Concert
In 1892, Gustav Mahler completed a song based on a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) called Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life). It appears at first glance to be a modest work, mostly gentle, tender and playful in character, describing a child’s view of Heaven as a land of plenty, and place of serene happiness. It is a work that seems simple, but Mahler understood that The Heavenly Life was actually one of his most profound and multi-layered compositions, and he eventually decided that it should serve as the finale of his next symphony.
Between 1892 and 1896, Mahler worked on his Third Symphony, the work which still holds pride of place as the longest symphony ever written by a major composer. Throughout this work, he threaded dozens of references to The Heavenly Life, preparing the way for the song to appear at the end of this epic journey. But it was not to be – after composing the Third’s huge Adagio, Mahler realised that, at 100 minutes, the Third Symphony was complete, and The Heavenly Life was destined to find its home in the Fourth Symphony, which he could complete four years later. Thus, this modest song was to be the focal point of Mahler’s creative life for nearly nine years.
What are the many themes in the poem which so inspired Mahler? This moving programme takes the listener on a journey that is both musical and spiritual, exploring both the composers and the ideas that influenced Mahler.
A welcome from our conductor, Kenneth Woods
About the Concert
The programme opens with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a tone poem which is essentially a cradle song, written as a birthday gift to his wife Cosima just after the birth of their son, Siegfried. It is the most intimate and touching evocation of the miracle of birth, the bond between parent and baby, and of those precious but often fraught early days of life in all music.
Englebert Humperdinck was a notable conductor and assistant to Richard Wagner, and his opera based on the Brothers’ Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel has long been the most beloved of children’s operas. In the second scene of Act Two, Hansel and Gretel find themselves alone and terrified in the forest as night falls. The mysterious sleep fairy, The Little Sandman, appears and tells them they have nothing to fear, and as their eyelids droop, the two children sing their Evening Prayer, trusting that in the morning, all will be okay.
Schubert’s song, Die Forelle (The Trout), is a scene described through the eyes of a young girl who watches a playful trout in a stream and the fisherman who is trying to catch it. Unable to get the clever fish to take the bait, the fisherman muddies the waters so the fish no longer sees the danger, and soon the fish is caught. It captures the underlying unease of our relationship with food, and serves as a metaphor for other forms of deception by those who would manipulate the innocent. This adaptation combines Schubert’s song with the set of variations he wrote on it in his famous ‘Trout’ Quintet.
If the essence of the Heavenly Life is the experience of an endless bounty of food and music, what then is the essence of The Earthly Life? Mahler’s song of that title, Das irdische Leben, is a nightmarish mirror image of his playful portrait of heaven. A child calls out to her mother “Mother, I am starving! Give me bread or I will die.” The mother tells her, “Wait just a while, we are planting the corn the garden and then there will be food.” Again the child begs “Give me bread or I will die,” and the mother replies with greater urgency “hold on, soon we will reap, and then there will be bread.” Finally the child begs again in even more desperate tones and the mother assures her that “the bread is in the oven, it will be ready in a minute,” but when the bread comes out of the oven, it is too late.
Schubert’s song, Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), asks a question that may well find an answer in Mahler’s The Heavenly Life. A young girl spies the figure of death. “Pass me by,” she begs, “I am only young. Please leave me be.” Death answers:
Give your hand, you beautiful and delicate figure!
I am a friend and do not come to hurt you
Be of good cheer!
I am not wild,
You shall sleep softly in my arms!
Does death speak the truth? Does this encounter promise salvation or horror
Mahler’s song tells us:
We revel in heavenly pleasures,
So we shun all that is earthly,
No worldly turmoil
Is heard in Heaven,
Everyone lives in sweetest peace;
We lead an angelic existence,
And yet we are perfectly happy,
We dance and leap,
We skip and sing,
Saint Peter in Heaven looks on.
Mahler, himself an agnostic Jewish-Catholic-Pantheist, believed that the essence of the heavenly life is that any view of Heaven must be that of a child. That, freed of the horrors and cares of The Earthly Life, we can all achieve a state of childlike bliss.
About the Arrangements
Erwin Stein made his now-famous arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), harmonium, piano, percussion and solo strings in 1921. It was intended for the Society for Private Musical Performances run by Arnold Schönberg in Vienna. To complement Stein’s arrangement of Das Himmlische Leben, the ESO’s Artistic Director and Conductor Kenneth Woods, who also serves as Artistic Director of Colorado MahlerFest, has made new arrangements of all the other works on this programme for the same forces.
About the Music - April Fredrick Introduces Hansel and Gretel
About the Music - April Fredrick introduces "The Trout"
About the Music - April Fredrick introduces "The Earthly Life"
About the Music - April Fredrick Introduces "Death and the Maiden"
About the Music - April Fredrick introduces "The Heavenly Life"
Visions of Childhood - The Conductor's perspective
Kenneth Woods & Morten Solvik discuss 'Visions of Childhood'
Seen and Heard International - 16th October 2020
Following hard on the heels of their inaugural online concert of music by Richard Strauss (review), Kenneth Woods and members of the English Symphony Orchestra offered the second concert in the series. The concert had been recorded in the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth during the summer and once again the orchestra was joined by the soprano, April Fredrick, their Affiliate Artist.
For this concert fairly modest forces were assembled: string quartet, double bass, flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano, harmonium and (for the Mahler items only) a percussionist.
The concert began with a tiny upbeat in the shape of the first few bars of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The relevance of that fragment would become apparent later. The programme was presented as an unbroken sequence, so Kenneth Woods’ arrangement of Siegfried Idyll followed after the briefest of pauses. The use of just 10 players brought a real sense of intimacy to Wagner’s domestic musical offering, though the intimacy did not preclude passion at the work’s brief climax. I appreciated the sense of flow that Woods imparted to the music. For her first appearance April Fredrick was suitably costumed to sing as Humperdinck’s Sandman. For this, and all the other vocal items, English subtitles were provided. The serene Evening Prayer followed, sung by Hansel and Gretel. I was mildly surprised to see both singers wearing headphones; only later did I discover that through the magic of digital technology it was April Fredrick that we saw and heard singing both parts. The sophisticated innocence of Humperdinck’s music was well conveyed in this performance.
Kenneth Woods has made several arrangements of pieces to programme alongside chamber performances of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. I know that his Variations on ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ is one such and I presume that the Variations on ‘Die Forelle‘ is another. Woods’ arrangement of Die Forelle ingeniously combines Schubert’s song with the variations which he composed for his ‘Trout’ Quintet. April Fredrick sang verses of the song, each one separated by an instrumental ‘interlude’ from the quintet. Ms Fredrick’s singing was fresh and animated and I enjoyed very much the experience of hearing the two Schubert pieces effectively blended into one. Woods’ arrangement was most successful and I particularly liked the extra variety of timbre that resulted from adding the three woodwind instruments to the usual mix of strings and piano. This is an attractive and inventive piece.
By contrast, in the Variations on ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ we don’t hear Schubert’s song until the very end. I have heard this piece before. It was included in a 2019 concert in which Kenneth Woods conducted the Orchestra of the Swan; April Fredrick was the soloist on that occasion, too (review). Woods’ arrangement is of the slow movement of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ String Quartet, D810. Appropriately we hear just the four stringed instruments first, gravely intoning, as they do in the Quartet’s slow movement, the music which, in the song itself, is associated with Death. Then Woods expands the scoring to bring in the other instruments. His re-touching of Schubert’s original is most discerning: I especially liked the way the cor anglais is used at times. Throughout the performance – as elsewhere in the concert – it was apparent that the players were listening keenly to each other; this was genuine chamber playing. The arrangement of Schubert’s Quartet movement segues seamlessly into the song ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’. Woods achieves his segue by having the grave introduction played by the harmonium and this very different timbre acts as a neat punctuation device. I liked Kenneth Woods’ take on ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ the first time I heard it and a second opportunity to experience it was very welcome.
In between the Schubert offerings Ms Fredrick sang Mahler’s song ‘Das Irdische Leben’. She put the song across intensely and Kenneth Woods’ scoring, which I am sure took its cue from Erwin Stein’s chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, was extremely effective. It was entirely appropriate, then, to finish the programme with ‘Das Himmlische Leben’ in Stein’s chamber version. Not only was this an intelligent alteration of Mahler and Schubert but it also took us full circle to that tiny Mahlerian fragment with which the concert began. I must be honest and admit I have never been a great fan of the chamber arrangements of some of Mahler’s works. I fully understand why the earliest arrangements were made, in order to disseminate Mahler’s music more widely in days long before broadcast and recordings were feasible. However, even in the most skilful of such arrangements I miss so much when I listen to these arrangements – for example, in this present case the rasp of the horns at the point where the text refers to St Luke slaughtering the ox. Having said that, though, I found this present performance of the finale of the Fourth worked much better than I had expected. I can only conclude that this was because it came as the culmination of a similarly-scored and well-constructed programme. April Fredrick sang in a very appealing way and I especially admired her expressiveness in the closing pages (from ‘Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden…’) As they had done throughout the concert, the players of the ESO displayed great sensitivity. This was a fine way to end the programme.
This was a most thoughtfully constructed sequence of Visions of Childhood. Not only was the choice of music discerning, I also thought the ordering of the pieces was highly perceptive. So, for example, the light, charming world of ‘Die Forelle’ gave way to the darker environs of ‘Das Irdische Leben’ and ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ before the mood lightened again with ‘Das Himmlische Leben’. This was very intelligent programme planning.
The musicians performed all this music with great skill and empathy. It was an enjoyable and stimulating concert.
Arcana.fm - 17th October 2020
The English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone online series continued this evening with an ingenious programme centred on Childhood, as depicted in music from the latter 19th century, and featuring chamber arrangements by the orchestra’s principal conductor Kenneth Woods.
The initial bars of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, heard in the now relatively familiar reduction by Erwin Stein, led seamlessly into Siegfried Idyll – here arranged for identical forces and so affording even greater prominence to Wagner’s felicitous writing for woodwind. In this never rushed account, Woods underlined the methodical aspect of music whose birthday association and ethereal aura rather bely its formal ingenuity. There were no qualms over instrumentation, even if the trumpet’s timely presence might have made the ecstatic climax seem even more so.
April Fredrick (whose impressive account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in the first of these concerts is required listening) then took the stage for a medley drawn from the second act of Humperdinck’s timeless Hänsel und Gretel, trebling up as the Sandman and then both main characters in a reminder that the enchanting essence of this opera is seldom without its more ambivalent, even ominous undertones in the treatment of childhood. Moreover, this chamber reduction brought an intimacy that more closely aligned the music to its origins as a singspiel.
Of especial interest were two Schubert pieces – hardly unfamiliar in themselves, here given an unexpected while revealing guise. In the case of The Trout, this entailed interweaving the verses of the song with those variations of the fourth movement from the later piano quintet so as to make more explicit the constantly shifting emotions across what is often considered one of this composer’s most equable settings. A different procedure was adopted for Death and the Maiden, in which the slow movement of Schubert’s eponymous string quartet – its intensifying variations characterized by appealing woodwind contributions – were followed by the earlier song, heralded by the hieratic strains of harmonium, and whose mingling of anguish with resignation threw the variations’ emotional trajectory into more acute relief.
Following each of these items were songs by Mahler, the natural successor to Schubert in so many aspects of his music – not least these settings of texts from Des knaben Wunderhorn. In its pivoting between the child’s supplications and the mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of this composer’s most evocative songs – albeit of the child’s existence running out as though grains of sand. By contrast, The Heavenly Life speaks of a child’s paradisal existence in the afterlife and if Mahler’s treatment is a good deal more complex than the words might suggest (the singer’s assessment of this on the ESO website is worth hearing), Fredrick’s judicious floating of the vocal line was integrated with Wood’s astute handling of the ensemble to good effect.
Hearing the latter piece in Stein’s reduction as finale of the Fourth Symphony served equally to bring this well-planned and thought-provoking programme full circle; one that is required listening for those yet to hear it, and with the next concert in this series keenly anticipated.
Birmingham Post - 17th October 2020
“…”Das Himmlische Leben”, soprano April Fredrick so resourcefully communicative, the tiny ESO remarkably sonorous under Kenneth Woods’s quietly urbane conducting.”“…this was a rapt account, every note perfectly placed, immaculately led by Zoe Beyers, fondly remembered from her days with the CBSO.”“April Fredrick is totally enchanting in the Sandman’s aria from Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel (was she also the children who sang the Evening Hymn?), outraged in Schubert’s Die Forelle, Woods interweaving elements of the Trout Quintet between verses of the song, characterful in Mahler’s Das Irdische Leben, and bringing a compelling conclusion to Woods’ imaginative variations on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, the harmonium appropriately doomily trombone-like.”“a presentation as sensitive and smooth as this made the whole experience very rewarding.”