The one that Mahler dropped

The one that Mahler dropped


norman lebrecht

December 05, 2010

I heard Mahler’s first symphony last night with the discarded Blumine movement re-inserted as the original second movement. It is not attempted often, and with good reason. Mahler dropped it after three unhappy performances, it was never published with the symphony and was not heard of again until it turned up in an auction room in 1959.

Benjamin Britten performed it as an Aldeburgh curiosity and it has since turned up from time to time in concert, seldom within its original context. I have never heard Blumine before as Mahler first performed it in Budapest, in 1889.

So it there a case for reinserting Blumine? Not from what I heard at the Royal Festival Hall. Vladimir Jurowski, ever experimenting, set off the symphony with a dexterously balanced kaleidoscope of ambient sounds, the trumpets distantly placed offstage, and built up a complex set of tensions for the movement to end on a whip-crack.
That’s when Blumine almost ruined the show. The movement belongs, in a literal sense, to incidental music that Mahler wrote in 1884 for Die Trompeter von Sakkingen and, in a textural sense, to the plangent atmospherics of the third and fifth symphonies. Mahler is, in other words, reaching both back and forwards. He is both behind and ahead of himself. Nothing in the passage relates to the autobiographical narrative of the first symphony. It is both distracting and disruptive. When the orchestra returns after the Blumine episode to the familiar scherzo, it feels as if an intruder has been removed from the premises.
Jurowski took care to observe Mahler’s original break between the scherzo and the funeral-march movement, its macabre ironies dangerously under-characterised, before redeeming the performance with a dazzling finale that had the London Philharmonic players at the edge of their wits and the audience at the edge of its seats. It was one of those hair-raising concerts where too many risks were taken without coherent necessity. Blumine unbalanced the show. It needs to be put back in its drawer. To Blu, or not to Blu? It’s not much of a question.
Here’s a comprehensive paper on its origins and its place on Mahler literature. Enjoy.
And here’s a caricature of Mahler conducting it.


  • Enrique S. says:

    When I first heard the BLUMINE on the radio back in the 70s, I thought it was a “interesting” addition to the “Titan” experience. Probably the main reason was my unquenchable thirst for new music during those innocent days. Having now not heard it for probably 20 years, I took a stab at it again on YouTube, after reading this article and the linked excerpt by Jeffrey Gantz. The length of the performances were wildly diverse…but my sad conclusion is that I agree with Mahler’s removal from the first printing. I don’t it is as particularly “sentimental” as it is really not in character with the rest of the opus. And gosh, it is quite repetitive and rather goes nowhere. It is more like an typically insipid movement by Yanni than one by the master, Mahler.

  • Tom Peters says:

    I participated in a performance of the Titan a few years ago with Blumine attached, and I would have to agree that the extra movement is superfluous. While the movement is certainly lovely, it tends to disrupt the flow of the work as a whole.
    The premiere performance of any work is rarely the best performance. After spending a career working with composers, I firmly believe that revisions done in the composer’s own hand should, by and large, be respected. If a composer chooses to jettison–or expand, for that matter–a portion of a work after its premiere, it is usually for very sensible, dramatic reasons.

  • Laurence Glavin says:

    On a related topic, I think that Beethoven’s String Quartet #13 Opus 130 should be performed with the alternative finale LvB composed somewhat later. If the usually recalcitrant Beethoven took the advice that the “Grosse Fugue” didn’t fit with the sublime beauty of the rest of the piece, who are we to argue?

  • GUSTAV MAHLER, like Beethoven, KNEW when it was proper to replace an earlier work with a new version. It was proper for Mahler to remove BLUMINE from publication. Beethoven had 2 more Leonore Overtures to replace his Fidelio’s first Leonore Overture. WAGNER improved his Dresden version of Tannhauser with the Paris version with a Bacchanale following the Overture, and revised and enlarged Acts One and Two. Verdi revised his La Forza del Destino.

  • Yi-Peng Li says:

    I do admit that I like the discarded movements because they help us to see the thought process of the composer. In the case of Mahler it might be good to place it on the same CD as the First Symphony, but either before the symphony or after the symphony as some kind of encore.If people don’t like it they can always programme it out.