MAHLER: Blumine 

Blumine 

Gustav Mahler was born July 7, 1860, in Kalischt (Kaliště), Bohemia, near the town of Humpolec, and died May 18, 1911, in Vienna, Austria. He composed his symphonic movement Blumine in June 1884 as part of his incidental music for the stage work Der Trompeter von Säckingen. He perhaps revised the movement when he included it in his First Symphony in 1889 and almost certainly revised it after that in 1893, completing those alterations on August 16 of that year. It was premiered in its earliest form as part of the staged premiere of Der Trompeter von Säckingen, on June 23, 1884, in Kassel, Germany. Blumine was then heard as the second movement of Mahler’s First Symphony at the first performance of that work, on November 20, 1889, in Budapest, with Mahler conducting the Budapest Philharmonic. As a stand-alone piece, it was first performed on June 18, 1967, with Benjamin Britten conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, Great Britain. The only previous performances by the San Francisco Symphony were given in March 1970 with Seiji Ozawa conducting. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, trumpet, timpani, harp, and strings. Duration: about ten minutes.

Gustav Mahler obtained his first professional appointment in 1880 as conductor of a summer opera theater in the Upper Austrian town of Bad Hall. From that inauspicious beginning he built a steadily growing reputation thanks to a quick succession of directorships with musical organizations in Ljubljana, Olomouc, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, and Budapest. The roots of his symphonic movement Blumine (“Bouquet of Flowers”) stretch back to 1884, when it (or an earlier version of it) was one of seven movements of incidental music Mahler wrote to accompany a theater piece presented in Kassel, where he was serving as musical and choral director at the Royal Theater. A pension-fund gala was planned for June 23 of that year, and the capstone was to be a newly devised series of tableaux vivants illustrating episodes from Der Trompeter von Säckingen (“The Trumpeter of Säckingen”), a popular, humorous epic poem by Victor von Scheffel. Mahler reported to a friend that he wrote the music for this stage work in two days, that he was very pleased with his creation, and that “as you will imagine, my work has not much in common with Scheffel’s affectation and goes much beyond the poet.” Following the single performance in Kassel, where Mahler’s score was much admired, the music was revived in Mannheim, Wiesbaden, and Karlsruhe. Mahler came to consider the score mostly negligible, but documentation makes it clear that one scene furnished the material for Blumine—which explains the prominence of the trumpet in the piece. The score for Der Trompeter von Säckingen has disappeared, so we don’t know to what extent this music was transformed into the score that survives today as Blumine.

Blumine next found a home in the early versions of Mahler’s First Symphony, a work composed mostly during February and March of 1888. Later that year Mahler moved to Budapest to assume the directorship of the Royal Hungarian Opera, and it was there that he unveiled his Symphony No. 1 near the end of 1889 to an uncomprehending and unreceptive audience. Mahler would later say that the disastrous reception of his First Symphony prevented his being accepted as a composer for the rest of his career—probably an overstatement, but containing a grain of truth nonetheless. “My friends bashfully avoided me afterward,” Mahler told his confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner. “Nobody dared talk to me about the performance and my work, and I went around like a sick person or an outcast.” After the symphony’s ill-starred premiere, he continued to revise it on several occasions until as late as 1906.

The symphony premiered in 1889 was different from the Symphony No. 1 as it is normally heard today. It was not even presented as a symphony; instead, the program identified it as a five-movement “Symphonic Poem in Two Sections.” But it made a curious symphonic poem, since the printed program did not offer any explanation of the work’s content. Instead, attendees were confronted with five movements bearing for the most part “strictly musical” titles:

Section One
1. Introduction and Allegro comodo
2. Andante
3. Scherzo

Section Two
4. A la pompes funèbres; attacca
5. Molto appassionato

Those who had read their newspapers the day before, however, might have spotted an article in which Mahler—unidentified, but it must have been he—was more expansive about the “meaning” of the symphonic poem about to be unveiled. The first section comprised what we know as the symphony’s first two movements separated by an additional Andante movement called Blumine, and Mahler said they were meant to depict spring, happy daydreams, and a wedding procession (respectively). The second section contained what are now the symphony’s last two movements, and in the symphonic-poem version they were said to represent a funeral march to accompany the burial of a poet’s illusions, followed by an advance towards spiritual victory.

August Beer, a critic who reviewed the Budapest premiere, described the Blumine movement as a serenade in which “we easily recognize the lovers exchanging their tender feelings in the silence of the night.” (He added, “The two obbligato instruments [trumpet and oboe] are very sensitively accompanied by the string quartet.”) This is in line with Mahler’s own characterization of Blumine, which he later told Bauer-Lechner was “a sentimentally indulgent movement, [a] love episode,” and a “youthful folly” of the character imagined as the hero of the symphonic poem’s narrative.

When Mahler revised and re-introduced the work in 1893 in Hamburg—now identified as a “tone poem in the form of a symphony” and carrying the principal title Titan—the Blumine movement remained in place, carrying the tempo marking Andante allegretto; and so it did the following year when Mahler led the work in Weimar. (Since the score of the Budapest version of the First Symphony does not survive, the earliest surviving state of Blumine is that from the Hamburg version of 1893.) The whole “Titan” business was connected in some way to the German Romantic author Jean Paul and in the broadest sense to his novels Titan and Blumen-, Frucht-, und Dornenstücke (“Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces”); Mahler even appropriated the latter title to serve for a while as the heading for the opening “half” of his symphony. In such a context the very Blumine would evoke a collection of Jean Paul’s essays called Herbst-Blumine (“Autumn Bouquet”).

Not until the symphony was performed in Berlin in 1896—as a symphony, pure and simple, and with no extra-musical program attached—did Mahler reduce the work to standard four-movement symphonic proportions by eliminating the Blumine movement. The critic Ernst Otto Nodnagel, resistant to program music, had savaged the work in its symphonic poem form. Possibly his criticism played a part in Mahler’s decision to revise his work into an “absolute” symphony. In any case, Nodnagel (who became an enthusiastic Mahler champion) now changed his tune about the symphony, and he made note of the fact that some critics previously hostile to the piece found this new incarnation admirable.

Once it was deleted from the First Symphony, Blumine was effectively forgotten. Mahler gave the manuscript to his pupil Jenny Feld Perrin, and her family offered it for sale at a Sotheby’s auction in 1959. It was purchased by Mrs. James M. Osborn, who donated it to the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, which deposited it at Yale University Library. Finally published in 1968 (with the tempo marking Andante allegretto), it is very occasionally inserted into performances of the First Symphony, but more often its rare appearances are as a musical orphan.

Notwithstanding his ultimate rejection of it as the symphony’s second movement, Mahler did esteem Blumine highly enough to keep it in the first three incarnations of that work. It is a sentimental piece, as he acknowledged, and its materials are not complicated. The principal melody, which reigns over the movement’s beginning and end, could be easily imagined in a straightforward arrangement for palm-court orchestra or seaside resort band. The middle section, however, develops the melody in a more lush direction. On the whole, this piece lacks the variety or extremes of expression widely admired in the composer’s music.

The general consensus is that Mahler was wise to remove Blumine from the First Symphony. Including it extends the pastoral spirit of the first movement unnecessarily, dampens the contrast between that opening movement and the astonishing scherzo that follows, and pushes the symphony’s running time beyond the one-hour mark. On the other hand, performances of the First Symphony with Blumine included can also be very effective, shaped to the contours of a luxuriant, five-movement form. In any case, Blumine deserves to be heard and savored.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, included as an appendage to the First Symphony (RCA Victor Red Seal)  |  Yoel Levi conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, incorporated into the First Symphony (Telarc)  |  James Judd conducting the Florida Symphony Orchestra, included as an appendage to the First Symphony (Harmonia Mundi)

Reading: Gustav Mahler—Volume One: The Early Years, by Donald Mitchell (University of California Press, the first installment of Mitchell’s three-volume study of the composer)  |  Mahler, by Henri-Louis de La Grange (Doubleday; this is the first of the author’s four-volume study of the composer)  |  The Mahler Companion, edited by Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson (Oxford)  |  Recollections of Gustav Mahler, by Natalie Bauer-Lechner (Cambridge)

On DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in the two-part Keeping Score: Mahler (SFS Media). Also available at keepingscore.org.