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Czech Philharmonic • Titan
At a special concert you will hear the first of Gustav Mahler’s great symphonies. The work is sometimes called a “tone poem in symphonic form”, but it is better known by the subtitle Titan, which is a reference to Mahler’s inspiration from a novel by Jean Paul with that title, which is a summation of the heroic ideals of the era.
Symphony No. 1 in D major (53')
Semyon Bychkov conductor
Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall
Customer Service of Czech Philharmonic
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Customer Service of Czech Philharmonic
Tel.: +420 227 059 227
Customer Service office hours are on weekdays from 09:00 a.m. to 06:00 p.m.
“This was a testament not only to Mahler, but also to Mr. Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic... this was a moving and intelligent reading of the Resurrection, dramatic in the opening and finale, sweet and playful in the inner movements, and sublime in the setting of Urlicht...”
The New York Times
Semyon Bychkov's tenure as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic was initiated with concerts in Prague, London, New York and Washington marking the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence in 2018. Since the culmination of The Tchaikovsky Project in 2019 – a 7-CD box set released by Decca Classics and a series of international residencies – Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic have been focusing on the symphonic works of Mahler with performances and recordings scheduled both at home and abroad.
During the 2021/22 season, Mahler’s First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies will all be heard internationally including on tour at the Grafenegg Festival in Austria during the summer. The Czech Philharmonic’s 126th season’s subscription concerts in October will open with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In the spring, a Czech Festival at Vienna’s Musikverein featuring Smetana’s Má vlast – recorded by Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic during lockdown - alongside works by Kabeláč, Dvořák, Martinů and Janáček will be followed by an extensive European tour including concerts at the Philharmonie in Berlin, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and two concerts at London’s Barbican Centre.
Especially recognised for his interpretations of the core repertoire, Bychkov has also worked closely with many extraordinary contemporary composers including Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux and Maurizio Kagel. In recent seasons he has collaborated with René Staar, Thomas Larcher, Richard Dubignon, Detlev Glanert and Julian Anderson, conducting premières of their works with the Vienna Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Highlights of the new season include the German première of Larcher’s Piano Concerto with dedicatee Kirill Gerstein in Berlin, the Czech première of Bryce Dessner’s Mari and the world première of Anderson’s Prague Panoramas, also presented in Prague. The three new works are amongst fourteen commissions initiated by Bychkov at the start of his tenure with the Czech Philharmonic.
In common with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the culture of the East and the other in the West. Born in St Petersburg in 1952, Bychkov emigrated to the United States in 1975 and has lived in Europe since the mid-1980's. Singled out for an extraordinarily privileged musical education from the age of 5, Bychkov studied piano before winning his place at the Glinka Choir School where, aged 13, he received his first lesson in conducting. He was 17 when he was accepted at the Leningrad Conservatory to study with the legendary Ilya Musin and, within three years had won the influential Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Denied the prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic, Bychkov left the former Soviet Union.
By the time Bychkov returned to St Petersburg in 1989 as the Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor, he had enjoyed success in the US as Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic. His international career, which began in France with Opéra de Lyon and at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, took off with a series of high-profile cancellations which resulted in invitations to conduct the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestras. In 1989, he was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris; in 1997, Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne; and the following year, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.
Bychkov’s symphonic and operatic repertoire is wide-ranging. He conducts in all the major houses including La Scala, Opéra national de Paris, Dresden Semperoper, Wiener Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Teatro Real. Madrid. While Principal Guest Conductor of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, his productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa, Schubert’s Fierrabras, Puccini’s La bohème, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov each won the prestigious Premio Abbiati. New productions in Vienna included Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Daphne, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal, and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina; while in London, he made his debut with a new production of Strauss’ Elektra, and subsequently conducted new productions of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Recent productions include Wagner’s Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival and Strauss’s Elektra at the Wiener Staatsoper.
On the concert platform, the combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy has ensured that Bychkov’s performances are highly anticipated. In the UK, in addition to regular performances with the London Symphony Orchestra, his honorary titles at the Royal Academy of Music and the BBC Symphony Orchestra - with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms – reflect the warmth of the relationships. In Europe, he tours frequently with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Munich Philharmonic, as well as being a frequent guest of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Orchestre National de France and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; in the US, he can be heard with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Symphony, Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras. This season, in addition to extensive concert commitments with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov's guest conducting engagements include further performances of Mahler’s symphonies with the Orchestre de Paris, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Berlin, Oslo and LA Philharmonic Orchestras, and Strauss’s Elektra at the Opéra national de Paris.
Bychkov made extensive recordings for Philips with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. Later, his 13-year collaboration (1997-2010) with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne produced a series of benchmark recordings that included works by Strauss (Elektra, Daphne, Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen, Alpensinfonie, Till Eulenspiegel), Mahler (Symphony No. 3, Das Lied von der Erde), Shostakovich (Symphony Nos. 4, 7, 8, 10, 11), Rachmaninov (The Bells, Symphonic Dances, Symphony No. 2), Verdi (Requiem), a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, and works by Detlev Glanert and York Höller. His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was recommended by BBC’s Radio 3’s Building a Library (2020); Wagner’s Lohengrin was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Year (2010); and Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna
Philharmonic was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Month (2018).
In 2015, Semyon Bychkov was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards.
Symphony No. 1 in D Major, “Titan”
Langsam, schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut (Slow, dragging. Like a sound of nature)
Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving strongly, but not too quickly)
Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemnly and moderately, not dragging)
Stürmisch bewegt (Stormily agitated)
Symphonic music developed along two lines in the 19th century. A crack in the previously rather monolithic compositional approach to symphonic form and its content appeared when Ludwig van Beethoven attached descriptive titles to the movements of his Sixth Symphony and included a choir in his Ninth Symphony, and the split became deeper when Hector Berlioz published an entire story for his Symphonie fantastique. Franz Liszt took inspiration from literature for his symphonic poems, and Richard Wagner said the possibilities of the classical symphonic form had been exhausted by Beethoven. Simply put, the dispute was over whether and to what degree music can and should tell a story, and whether the notes are able to express a storyline or programme. Music criticism played a major part in the shaping of aesthetic judgements and taste, and under the influence of critics, the musical community was divided into two camps: advocates of “absolute music”, with its pure forms, and proponents of “programmatic” music, in which a composition’s structure is determined by an extramusical subject taken from literature, the observation of nature, history etc. At the end of the 19th century, the two camps, having been artificially presented as irreconcilable, again began to converge and overlap, and Gustav Mahler made an important contribution to this with his nine symphonies, each of which represents an original approach towards a solution.
Mahler began composing his First Symphony in 1884 when his career was on an uncertain path. That June he began working in Kassel as a conductor, in August 1885 he was hired as the second conductor of the German opera company at the Estates Theatre in Prague, then for two years after that he was the second conductor in Leipzig. In October 1888 be became the music director of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest. It was there that he finished writing the symphony, originally in five movements, and on 20 November 1889 he performed it as a Symphonic Poem in Two Parts. The critics were merciless, panning the composition as nothing but “dissonances, dull drones, cacophony”, and those who opposed his position at the helm of the Royal Opera declared that Mahler’s “music is just as incomprehensible and confused as his activity as the director of opera”.
Over the next seven years, five versions of the symphony emerged. Its transformations show us Mahler seeking out a path of his own between the opposing camps in the conflict discussed above over programmatic and absolute music. For the performance in October 1893 in Hamburg, he added the title Titan, a tone poem in symphonic form, and he gave the individual movements titles. He borrowed the title Titan from Jean Paul’s novel, which was published in four volumes between 1800 and 1803. The novel is set in the 18th century, and the hero is the Spanish nobleman Albano de Cesara. Over the span of 900 pages, the author tells his life’s story from his youth and his ascent in society. Mahler had no intention of retelling the story of the novel; what he had in mind was a generalisation of the vagaries of human life with all of its excitement, tribulations, triumphs and defeats. The influence of Franz Liszt made itself felt in the work’s treatment of literary themes, while Wagner served as a musical model, for example in the original orchestration at the beginning of the composition with the use of strings in the high register in the manner of Lohengrin. In Part I of the symphony, we are introduced to the composition’s hero in the fullness of joyous life (thus far, it is still possible to draw parallels with the character of the novel), then Part II reveals the other side of the coin: decay and death, and it has nothing to do with the action of the novel.
At a performance in Hamburg, the first part of the symphony bore the title From the Days of Youth; Fruit, Flowers, and Thorns, with individual movements titled “Endless Springtime”, “Blumine”, and “Under Full Sail”. Part II bore the Latin title Commedia humana (The Human Comedy) with the penultimate movement titled “Shipwrecked. A funeral march in the manner of Callot” and the finale “Dallʼ inferno” (From Hell). The movement named “Blumine” (a collection of flowers or a collection in general) was also a reference to Jean Paul, who had used the word as a title for a collection of his journal essays. In the end, Mahler deleted the movement from the symphony, and it became a free-standing composition. The “Funeral march in the manner of Callot” was a reference to a collection of fanciful tales by E. T. A. Hoffmann. In turn, for his title Hoffman had borrowed the name of the 17th-century French draftsman and engraver Jacques Callot, famed for his cycles of grotesque figures. At a performance of the symphony in Weimar in 1894, however, Mahler said he had been inspired by a woodcut by Moritz Schwind that depicted forest creatures burying a hunter. In the fifth movement, along with a reference to Balzac’s cycle of novels La Comédie humaine, there is also a scene of hell, referring to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The ambiguity of the titles did not, however, help with comprehension of the work; to the contrary. Mahler ultimately abandoned the titles of the movements and even rejected Titan as the title of the whole symphony on the grounds that it was just misleading the public. Nonetheless, the symphony is often still listed as Titan along with its key, D major, which Mahler also later removed from the title. In the definitive version, the composer retouched the symphony mostly with changes to the orchestration; for example, the Wagnerian strings in the first movement are replaced by fanfare motifs. What had been a “programmatic” work now became an “absolute” symphony, but the composition’s extramusical subtext is unquestionable even without the annotations. It is expressed in the performance instructions (the voice of the cuckoo in the first movement “like a sound of nature”), or it is contained in the quote from the song “Ging heutʼ morgen über’s Feld” (While walking across a field this morning) from Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). The scherzo movement is based on dance rhythms in the form of a caricature that is typical of Mahler. In the third movement, the tragic note that pervades all of Mahler’s works encounters a grotesque grimace. The funeral march is a variation on the French canon “Frère Jacques” (known as “Bruder Martin” in German), then the middle part of the movement again quotes Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, this time the song “Die zwei blauen Augen” (The two blue eyes). The fourth movement, in a sonata layout, is a portrait of the Titan of the title, at war with the world and with himself. Through the return of thematic material, the hero looks back on his life; Mahler thus brings the cycle to a close by using a compositional technique to round off the work.
The symphony’s final version was premiered on 16 March 1896 in Berlin; two years later, on 3 March 1898, Mahler conducted its Prague premiere at a symphonic concert of the New German Theatre. According to the press, the two thirds of the 90 players in the expanded orchestra were from the New German Theatre, and one third were members of the orchestra of the Czech National Theatre.
From the autumn of 1897, Mahler was at the helm of the Vienna Court Opera, where he performed Smetana’s Dalibor immediately upon arrival, as press reviews emphasised after the concert, also recalling Mahler’s earlier brief tenure at the Estates Theatre. Angelo Neumann, director of the New German Theatre, held a banquet for the composer at his home. According to an unnamed witness: “The evening’s honouree Mahler appeared surrounded by his admirers. We could hardly recognise him. This is a different Mahler from the one who left us. He is somehow smaller, bonier, his moustache is gone, the locks of hair that once fell to his forehead now flutter boldly behind him, and on his nose are the spectacles of a scholar. He also seems a bit more nervous: being a composer, conductor, and theatre director at the same time is too much for two human shoulders to bear.”
According to a glowing review in Prague’s German press, “The Symphony No. 1 is the work of a powerful creative spirit that is finding its way wherever there is true musical feeling and pleasure from lovely sonic effects. Those who were expecting untamed innovation, symbolist solutions to problems, or revolutionary aspirations might have felt rather disappointed. Mahler gives us nothing of this, nor does he submit to the Wagnerian spirit. He is going his own independent way towards a destination that clearly lies neither in the realm of philosophy nor in tone painting; his music follows only the commands of its own internal disposition, and it is driven by a wealth of imagination that soars daringly at times.” The Czech correspondent to Vienna offered a similar report.