Gustav mahler

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Opening night at the final classical concert of the Oregon Symphony season showcased two masterful works bursting with the drama and imagination that make composers Gustav Mahler and Kurt Weill especially popular today. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D  and Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins were not popular in their own times and places, however. 

Mahler’s audiences at the premiere in Budapest in 1889 were confused and overtly put off by the unconventional work. The 29-year-old, who had been engaged in his conducting career for almost a decade, went on to make numerous changes until the formal publication in 1888, with the “final” version completed in 1896 (although tweaked by Mahler for years to come). The year it premiered, Mahler, born an Austro-Bohemian, also received the conducting post he had long coveted, the Vienna Hofoper (Vienna Opera). He balanced composing and conducting for the rest of his short life. 

Storm Large joined the Oregon Symphony for Weill’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ in 2012. Photo: John Rudoff.

Two generations later, Kurt Weill was experiencing tremendous success in the German Weimar (post World War I) culture as a composer of stage works. Born in Germany in 1900, his professional career blossomed in the 1920 – 1930 period. Though he composed several traditional “classical” works, which showed influences of Mahler and Stravinsky, Weill earned popularity for his politically and socially charged stage works, one-act opera, vocal music and musical theater.  

But by the time he completed his Seven Deadly Sins, the Weimar republic had collapsed, Hitler came to power, and Weill’s music was reviled in Nazi Germany. Mahler’s earlier music was also labeled degenerate and banned. Both composers were Jewish and subjected to the anti-Semitic social/political climate in their homelands. As Jews were not allowed to hold high positions in Vienna in 1889, Mahler “converted” to Roman Catholicism. 

Weill fled the country in 1933, taking his art to Paris, where Seven Deadly Sins was commissioned and premiered that year. The rebirth of Mahler’s music would come after World War II, aided by an American conductor named Bernstein. 

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