1st Symphony was the story of Mahler’s identity

THE challenges that Gustav Mahler faced being a Jewish composer were highlighted during a talk about his 1st Symphony.

The talk was given by Mahler expert Gavin Plumley at the Glasgow City Halls, before a concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of music by Jewish composers.

“When Mahler began writing it (his 1st Symphony) in Leipzig in 1884, he decided to ponder over what a symphony actually was,” Mr Plumley said.

“He went deep into his own soul and he is in every single bar and note.”

Mahler was born in Bohemia in 1860. Shortly after he was born, Jews were granted mobility rights by the Austrian Emperor.

His father Bernhard moved the family to Iglau and he became an innkeeper. It was a town with a large Jewish population, but Mahler never forgot his minority status.

Mr Plumley said: “The Third Movement of the symphony is much closer to Mahler’s Jewish history and a klezmer band looms in it.

“Metropolitan bourgeois audiences were not used to hearing klezmer music and it shocked them. The triumph of a Jewish composer was not received well and when it was performed in Budapest, they were not impressed.

“The reaction in Vienna a few years later was even worse. One critic commented, ‘one of us must be mad and it isn’t me’.

“It was a city in which antisemitism was absolutely at the heart of the culture and the 1st Symphony was the story of Mahler’s identity.

“Mahler wasn’t bowed by the experience and continued to reveal himself in the other symphonies he wrote.

“It is the kind of diversity, in these dark, antisemitic times, that we need to cheer to the rafters.”

The concert, with conductor Thomas Dausgaard, began with Leonard Bernstein’s Overture: Candide followed by Ernest Bloch’s Shelomo, with guest cellist Jian Wang.

For the start of the second half, the orchestra was joined by Klezmer group She’koyokh for the performance of a 10-minute piece Klez’Mahler, composed by She’koyokh double bass player Paul Moylan.

At the end of the piece, with the fusion of group and orchestra complete, the members of She’koyokh, while still playing, filed off the front of the stage and down the aisles, their music becoming fainter as the eerie strains of the 1st Symphony began.

At the end of the concert, the klezmer musicians returned to the stage for a short set.

The band formed in 2001 with the support of a Millennium Award from the Jewish Music Institute.

In 2008 they were awarded first prize in the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam.  

Mr Moylan who, like the rest of the band, isn’t Jewish, told the Jewish Telegraph: “I started playing klezmer music with Gregori Schechter maybe 25 years ago, simply because a friend invited me to do a concert with him.

“I was really attracted to the music and gradually learned lots about it. I knew and played with She’koyokh on and off almost from the beginning, but became their regular bass player four years ago.

“This piece was the result of Thomas Dausgaard wanting us to do a workshop with his orchestra on the themes of the Mahler.

“It was clear that it wouldn’t really be possible to teach them themes and the style by ear so it was decided someone would need to write a piece.

“As a composer I was the obvious choice and jumped on it for the exciting opportunity. Thomas and I had a long chat about what he imagined and I went off from there.” 

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