Mahler: Blumine

Blumine

GUSTAV MAHLER
BORN: July 7, 1860. Kalischt (Kaliště), near Humpolec, Bohemia
DIED: May 18, 1911. Vienna

COMPOSED: Mahler 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

WORLD PREMIERE:  June 23, 1884. Premiered in its earliest form as part of the staged premiere of Der Trompeter von Säckingen 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 standalone piece, it was first performed on June 18, 1967, with Benjamin Britten conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, Great Britain

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1970. Seiji Ozawa conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2013. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, trumpet, timpani, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 10 mins

The roots of Mahler’s 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 Joseph 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. After the symphony’s ill-starred premiere, he continued to revise it on several occasions until as late as 1906.

The symphony that 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 simply identified it as a five-movement “Symphonic Poem in Two Sections.” Those who had read their newspapers the day before 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.” This is in line with Mahler’s own characterization of Blumine, which he later told his confidante Natalie 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 music 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; and so it did the following year when Mahler led the work in Weimar.

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. 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, 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 develops the melody in a more lush direction. Blumine deserves to be heard and savored.

— James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings:   Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Masterpieces in Miniature (SFS Media)  |  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)

Reading:  Gustav Mahler—Volume One: The Early Years, by Donald Mitchell (University of California Press)  |  Mahler, by Henri-Louis de La Grange (Doubleday)  |  The Mahler Companion, edited by Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson (Oxford)  |  Recollections of Gustav Mahler, by Natalie Bauer-Lechner (Cambridge)

DVD: MTT and the SFS in the two-part Keeping Score: Mahler (SFS Media). Also available at keepingscore.org.

(January 2017)