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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.

Duration of the programme 1 hours

Programme

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 1 in D major (53')

Performers

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Titan

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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Performers

Semyon Bychkov  conductor

Semyon Bychkov

In recognition of the 2024 Year of Czech Music – a major celebration of Czech music celebrated across the Czech Republic every 10 years since 1924 – Chief Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov has put the music of Antonín Dvořák at the centre of his programmes with the Czech Philharmonic throughout the 2023–2024 season. In addition to conducting three programmes devoted to Dvořák in Prague, Bychkov and the Orchestra will tour the Dvořák programmes to South Korea, Japan, Spain, Austria, Germany, Belgium and the United States, as well as recording the last three symphonies for Pentatone. 

Semyon Bychkovʼs tenure at the Czech Philharmonic began in 2018 with concerts in Prague, London, New York, and Washington commemorating the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence. Following the culmination of The Tchaikovsky Project, Bychkov and the Orchestra began their focus on Mahler. The first discs in a new Mahler cycle were released by Pentatone in 2022, with Symphony No. 5 chosen by The Sunday Times as its Best Classical Album.

Bychkovʼs repertoire spans four centuries. His highly anticipated performances are a unique combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy. In addition to guest engagements with the world’s major orchestras and opera houses, Bychkov holds honorary titles with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms – and the Royal Academy of Music, who recently awarded him an Honorary Doctorate. Bychkov was named “Conductor of the Year” by the International Opera Awards in 2015 and, by Musical America in 2022.

Bychkov began recording in 1986 and released discs with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia Orchestra and London Philharmonic for Philips. Subsequently a series of benchmark recordings with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne featured Brahms, Mahler, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Strauss, Verdi, Glanert and Höller. Bychkov’s 1993 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with the Orchestre de Paris continues to win awards, most recently the Gramophone Collection 2021; 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 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, he studied at the Leningrad Conservatory with the legendary Ilya Musin. Denied his prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic, Bychkov emigrated to the United States in 1975 and, has lived in Europe since the mid-1980’s. In 1989, the same year he was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris, Bychkov returned to the former Soviet Union as the St Petersburg Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor. He was appointed Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra (1997) and Chief Conductor of Dresden Semperoper (1998).

Compositions

Gustav Mahler
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.