Teachers who think they know better than the composer

Teachers who think they know better than the composer


norman lebrecht

September 13, 2011

The New England Conservatory is putting on a performance of Mahler’s first symphony in the original version. That’s the five-part epic with the Blumine movement, which the composer dropped after the third performance, acknowledging that it unbalanced his creation. He never talked of conducting it again in the original version. It was a mistake. He learned from it.

The NEC has not. They are puffing up their forthcoming performance of the original version as  ‘an American premiere’, no less, and ‘the first time it has been heard since its 1889 premiere’.

I am not sure that is entirely true. Seiji Ozawa recorded the five-movement version with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for DG a few years back and there have been other reconstructionists who tried it out, here and there. The NEC claims that ‘the performance of the First will include not only the Blumine movement that Mahler ultimately discarded but also significant segments of music, notably in the finale, that never made it into any subsequent versions. ‘ Hmmm… Why is that? Because Mahler cut them out. They were superfluous.

It looks like the NEC and its director of orchestras, Hugh Wolff, are trying to prove they know better than Mahler. If this were an experiment for scholarly purposes, so be it. But to make a PR event of it – to claim some kind of first – that’s just perverse.

The link’s here, if you want to go. Apparently, it’s the start of a cycle.


  • Andrew Lee says:

    I’ve read Norman Lebrecht’s writings; and, as much as I’ve enjoyed reading them, I don’t always see eye to eye with him. I am sure these teachers are NOT saying that they know better than Mahler, just that this is a worthwhile experience. It is ALWAYS interesting to listen to discarded versions, as well as to perform them. And, it is an interesting enterprise to make everything sound just right, which is always a challenge, whatever the piece, whatever the version, whether one is the listener or the musician.

    • Yishu Siow says:

      Hi Andrew,

      In my opinion the key point is the term “original”.

      Due to their exaggerated emphasis on the “original”,
      it sounds as if someone edited the symphony and the edited version is more famous than the original.
      It could be misleading that this version is kind of the “correct version”.

      • Andrew Lee says:

        Hi Yishu,

        We are … not on the same page. I think Mr. Lebrecht is too hard on these people; and, he has used hard-line language typical of … how should I put it … an authority figure who has made up his own mind and is ready to shrink anyone who does not see things in the same way with choice words, laced with psychological warfare stratagems. I don’t know how to put it more politely. Indeed, to me, this was exactly what happened. So many critics are like this.

        I don’t think they are exaggerated about “original”. Their advertisement style may be flawed, but, their intent isn’t. Well, whether it’s the standard version we know or this earlier version, everything is original, quotations unnecessary. After all, they all came from Mahler. I am not adverse to performing, recording and listening to discarded versions (e.g. all versions of Bruckner’s symphonies are interesting and worthy of study). Look, we are speaking about geniuses here; so, even their discarded material has quality, interest, and potentials.

        I also a professional musician and versed in musicology (yes, the whole nine yards and then some), and, with my own self-confidence to boot. Nothing anyone can say could faze me. Since I compose too (I can also read and *hear* a score as I could read a book), I know that each composition has infinite possibilities.

        I am sure no one at the NEC is pretending to call this version THE correct version. They just want to experience it. I believe it’s a viable experience. Also, I am not the sort who would dare pass an opinion or judgment without viewing all the evidence. And, I never accept others’ judgments as the be all and end all, even if these came from the authors themselves. Their judgments and decisions *work(ed)* for them, but it does not mean that it is absolute (i.e. the only right way – the absolute singular best), no matter how sound their judgments and decisions are.

  • I don’t know the impetus behind the PR on this performance, nor do I have any allegiance to NEC (I am a Juilliard grad:-), but it is worthwhile to remember that even when PR is done in-house, the message is delivered by persons who have little, if any, education in music. As such, said message often becomes so convoluted and misdirected as to become a shadow of what it was originally supposed to accomplish. It is my hope that NEC is trying to demonstrate what it is like to have lived through rehearsals, trials and errors on a compositional level, performances which may or may not have been successful on many levels (let’s not forget how long it took for Mahler to become mainstream as a composer), and to take us through the process on a personal level. Surely, there is no argument that seeing, as an abstract example, Beethoven’s sketches for the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony, makes one perform it differently than not having seen a single sketch. Students who actually go through this get a great deal more out of the process than just hearing about it in lectures or reading accounts of it in books and essays. Let this be a way to retrace the steps in a manner that piques the curiosity of the next generation of musicians and scholars, rather than simply doing it again.

  • Waldo says:

    This is ridiculous. NEC is doing this as an intellectual exercise, not to prove anything about who knows better than the composer. Norman, do you not find it interesting to hear what Mahler originally wrote? Personally, I’m fascinated. It creates myriad discussion points about why Mahler removed what he removed and why he kept what he kept. Maybe the PR is off here, but the idea to perform what Mahler originally wrote and then edited is extremely fascinating, much like sketches of Monet’s or Van Gogh’s that line the walls of museums everywhere. Norman, have you actually the heard the additional music(besides the Blumine movement) that NEC will be performing? If you haven’t, why are you not even a little bit curious to hear it?

    • 1 Yes, I have studied as many of Mahler’s ur-texts as I could lay hands on.
      2 No, I accept his editorial judgement that the first version was flawed. I don’t share my unpublished manuscripts with a general audience; why should his be thrust on them?

      • Waldo says:

        Norman, in your first answer you explained that you have studied as many Mahler scores as you can; I think this proves my point even more! Why would you NOT want to hear these scores in their gestation periods? No one is saying that the five movement 1889 version is the definitive version of Mahler 1, only that this is an interesting look at a composer’s development, and a chance to hear a version of a piece that possibly has not been heard for over a hundred years. We must remember that NEC is a conservatory, and this performance will give hundreds of musicians at the school a chance to see how someone as mighty as Mahler developed as a composer. I have no doubt that the performance NEC will give will not be the Mahler 1 we know, and it probably will not be as good of a piece, but do we have to hear the same performance of the same piece over and over again without any variety? Again, if we see this as an intellectual exercise, and a chance to educate both students and musicologists at the same time, I see no problem with this and in fact I wholeheartedly support it. And why shouldn’t it be promoted heavily? I’m a New Yorker, but I know the situation in Boston, where every orchestra competes daily with the Boston Symphony for the eyes and ears of the public. Having heard the NEC orchestra with Hugh Wolff, they play at a remarkably high level, so promoting this YOUNG orchestra with this curious and fascinating look at a YOUNG Mahler seems like a great idea to me. Best wishes to you Norman!

        • ariel says:

          The same old , same old same old same old bores . If the NEC didn’t try some gimmick to attract
          an audience to hear Mahler they would be playing to a mostly empty house except for friends of the orchestra.
          Why torture the students with Mahler ?

  • Alejandro says:

    I hate it when I do things out of vague historical interest and accidentally KILL MAHLER.

  • Brian says:

    While I don’t always agree with Mr. Lebrecht and sometimes find his arguments over the top, I have to find myself in full agreement here. A conductor’s job is to serve as, in the words of Mr. Leinsdorf, the composer’s advocate. I take this mission very seriously, to do all in my power as both a student and teacher to present the will of the composer. Undoubtedly there will be some in the audience completely unfamiliar with Mahler’s eventual published intent, so their perception of the first symphony will be based upon a fallacy. The same must be said for various editions of the symphonies of Bruckner and others: let the composer speak for him/herself. No one else has the right to offer to the public anything other than the composer’s FINAL WORD on the subject. If he, as in this case, excises a movement originally intended for a work, that is that. End of discussion. The rest is just a musicological exercise.

    • Richard Hertz says:

      I actually think that music shouldn’t even be performed, just stared at. Who among us can follow a score exactly in every way with no mistakes? There should be no room for any interpretation or differentiation to any degree.

      Ink>sounds. music is a museum, and now a tomb.

  • Daniel Plante says:

    To consider this performance “an American premiere” is, of course, false. Not only did Eugene Ormandy perform and record the symphony with Blumine movement for RCA in the early 70s, the work in this version was performed and recorded in the 60s for CBS by Alexei Brieff and the New Haven Symphony. For that matter, the Blumine movement was published by Theodor Presser (well-known American publisher) in 1967 so I would assume that the symphony with the deleted movement is well-known to just about anyone interested in the piece. In my opinion, however, compared to the established four movements, it is the weakest and detracts from it, but shouldn’t others have the opportunity to experience?

    Should Brahms have destroyed his copy of the original of Schumann’s 4th Symphony rather than publishing it (it’s really extraordinary) or, for that matter, should we listen only to the late revised (but curiously much less interesting) version of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony rather than the original that everyone knows and loves?

    I can understand a living composer withholding early versions of works or even suppressing work’s they don’t wish to reflect on their name, but an established composer whose work’s are standard repertoire can only be better understood by giving us the chance to see what might have been in the works we already know and love. I don’t see anyone in the other arts getting on their high horse when an artists sketches for a masterwork are exhibited (which happens all the time), or when an early draft – such as for Elliot’s Waste Land or Joyce’s Portrait – were published.

    Should we not be allowed to listen to and enjoy the early version of Fidelio or Don Carlo?

  • Doug says:

    Mahler ‘unleashed?’ What is he, some kind of rabid pit bull?

    Is there nothing left in classical music these days that isn’t poisoned by marketing?

  • NIgel SImeone says:

    I seem to remember that what Ozawa did was to perform the symphony as it stands, with the addition of “Blumine” where Mahler had originally placed it (as the second movement). Presumably the reason there’s some hype about the NEC performance is that they are actually giving the work in its 1889 version, which has significant differences in the four usual movements – it’s not just a case of bunging in Blumine at the right spot. (Intriguingly, what seems to have upset the audience at the premiere was the second half of the (then) two-part work, comprising the Funeral March and Finale – not Blumine).

    There’s one recording of this original version (complete with the different ending and numerous other changes) by the Norköpping SO conducted by Ole Kristian Ruud on Simax (PSC 1150) and I think it’s the only time that this version has been recorded. It sits on my shelves as a thing that can be referred to from time to time, but I agree with Norman – it’s not a particularly inspiring experience and the revisions (not the suppression of Blumine, but the many other changes) are all improvements. It’s nice to hear Blumine from time to time, but that’s a different issue.

  • duvidl says:

    I attended a performance of the original version of the Mahler First (with the “Blumine”) at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University in the early ’70’s. It was conducted by Joel Lazar, who later became assistant to Jascha Horenstein. The orchestra was, I believe, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. So this is not only not an American premiere, it is not even a Boston premiere!

    • Hugh Wolff says:

      The work known today as Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 was premiered as Symphonic Poem in Two Parts (and five movements) in Budapest on November 20, 1889 with the composer conducting. What we performed at New England Conservatory this week was movements 1, 3 and 5 from a manuscript dated November 20 and 21, 1889, discovered in the estate of Mahler’s brother-in-law, Arnold Rosé, and movements 2 and 4 from Mahler’s first comprehensive revision, the 1893 version he performed in Hamburg, which is published by Theodore Presser Co. The 1889 manuscript came to light in the 1990’s and had never been transcribed or performed before. It is in a copyist’s hand with Mahler’s first round of changes in his own hand visible. It contains just movements 1, 3 and 5; movements 2 and 4 from that performance were presumably lost. Mahler revised the work several times over the next seventeen years and personally conducted at least four different versions of it. We felt there was significant musical and musicological interest in the public hearing as much as possible what the young composer performed in Budapest in 1889. While the music is quite similar to the 1893 version (which has been performed and recorded several times since the 1970’s and is the version incorrectly assumed to be what we performed at NEC by many posts on this blog), the orchestration is significantly different. The orchestra for the 1889 version is quite small: two of each woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, one timpanist, harp and three percussion. The most interesting difference is in the development section of the FInale which, in 1889, contained about five minutes of music subsequently discarded. Mahler originally recalled the first movement opening, the Blumine movement, the opening of the Finale, and its secondary theme in a stunning misterioso fantasia that dissolves into nothingness before reprising the Finale’s opening dramatic opening fanfare fortissimo.

      We are a school and aspire to present projects of educational value. I found this project absolutely fascinating and compelling in how much it revealed about the compositional process and growth of one of the most important symphonists in history.

  • I love this kind of controversy because it touches on many aesthetic and philosophical points. I’m not going to go into detail here as I think this deserves a full-blown post on my own blog: