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Volume 11 • Number 1

Spring 2004


 

 

To Interpret or to Follow? Mahler's Beethoven
Retuschen and the Romantic Critical Tradition

by Katarina Markovic-Stokes

On 4 November 1898, just two days before Gustav Mahler's first concert as music director of the Vienna Philharmonic, a letter entitled "The Jewish Regime at the Vienna Opera" appeared in the Deutsche Zeitung. Riddled with inflammatory anti-Semitic content and personal attacks, it harshly criticized Mahler's interpretation of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, particularly his addition of the E clarinet and some brass instruments in certain moments of dramatic climax. The correspondent, identified only as "E. Th.," states:

Yes, Herr Mahler has E clarinets on the brain. Not content with adding one to the Eroica he has also reinforced the trombones and double basses, and it is even being said that he will send his brother-in-law to Jericho to rediscover Joshua's trumpet, because Aryan trumpets are not loud enough for him. . . . The orchestra is preparing to hold the forthcoming rehearsals of the Eroica on the Steinfeld, so that Mahler can employ the field artillery with some guns to reinforce the kettledrums.
While Mahler obviously did not have any intention of including field artillery, certain passages in his performances of the Eroica were undoubtedly more forceful and emphatic than in performances under other conductors. As the author of the letter correctly observed, Mahler's orchestra was heavily reinforced in several passages in the Symphony, the most notable being the famous syncopated passage in the development section of the first movement (mm.248–79). At this point, Mahler's annotated orchestral parts from which the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra played in this concert of November 1898 show that this passage received the most changes of any in the Symphony, including alterations in orchestration, dynamics, and articulation.2 The fact that changes were so extensive suggests that the passage had some special significance in Mahler's vision of this work.

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