Poet on a Mountaintop by Shen Zhou (1427–1509)

We’re only a week past the autumnal equinox and over a month away from the dreaded end of daylight saving time but, at least here in St. Louis, it’s finally beginning to feel like fall. Temperatures are mercifully cooler, days are shorter, and I find myself thinking of that Kurt Weill lyric about how the “the days dwindle down to a precious few.” Winter is coming, and so is the night.

[Preview the music with my commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts Stéphane Denève will conduct this weekend (September 30 and October 1) have a decidedly nocturnal and autumnal feel to them, starting with a pair of local premieres by Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996) and Chinese-born Qigang Chen (b. 1951).

Tōru Takemitsu
Photo: Guy Vivien

The concerts open with Takemitsu’s “Night Signal,” the second of two “antiphonal fanfares” for brass ensemble (the first, not surprisingly, is “Day Signal”) published collectively as “Signals from Heaven” in 1987. Unlike the prototypical fanfare, “Night Signal” is a quiet, almost mysterious piece in which the physical distance between the two instrumental groups becomes an integral part of the work. In that way, it's a bit reminiscent of the antiphonal brass music Giovanni Gabrielli (c. 1554/1557–1612) wrote for St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, in which groups of players engaged in “call and response” music across the vast space of the church. Perhaps that’s why “Night Signal” somehow sounds ancient and modern at the same time.

Distance is also a factor in the next piece, Qigang Chen’s “Éloignement” for string orchestra. It’s there in the title (which translates as “distance” or “separation”), as well as in the music itself, in which a traditional Chinese tune “Zou Xi Kou” (“Going Beyond the Western Gorges”) repeatedly struggles to be heard against more agitated motifs. Describing the song as “a love-song upon the departure of a beloved one, plaintive and nostalgic,” the composer says that “its melody is used in L’Éloignement because it retains a basic simplicity and because it gives the composer the possibility to express therein his own estrangement.”

This is, in short, music that speaks of the disconnection of the émigré from their homeland. The sense of conflict in “L’Éloignement” represents the composer’s own conflicting feelings. “L Éloignement,” writes Chen in program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra,  “depicts separation, disorder, imagination, and yearning. The music is both happy and sad, nostalgic and exciting, all of which account for the conflicting moods of the departing one.”

Qigang Chen

Formally speaking “Éloignement” is a traditional rondo, but one that sometimes feels like a pitched battle. It ends serenely, but only after a considerable struggle.

Perhaps the greatest distance, though, is the one between life and the eternal darkness of death. The latter is the subject of this weekend’s major work, "Das Lied on der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth") by Gustav Mahler (1860–1911).  When Mahler began work on the piece in the summer of 1907 (as I originally wrote in notes for the SLSO’s last performance of “Das Lied” in 2014), his eldest daughter had just died of scarlet fever at the age of four and the composer himself had just been diagnosed with the heart condition that would lead to his demise four years later. Suddenly death—which had always been a theme in Mahler's music—became very personal.

Scored for large orchestra and two singers (typically tenor and mezzo-soprano, although Mahler allows for the substitution of a baritone in the second, fourth, and sixth songs), "Das Lied" is essentially a vocal symphony. Mahler didn’t call it that, though, because it then would have been his Symphony No. 9. And he had come to believe that because Beethoven and Schubert died after writing nine symphonies, the ninth symphony would always be a composer’s last.

Mahler in 1907
Photo: Moritz Nähr

Absurd? No doubt. And yet Mahler would go on to seemingly prove the superstition he essentially invented by writing a Symphony No. 9 and then promptly dying before he could complete his Symphony No. 10.

“Das Lied” takes its texts from Hans Bethge's "The Chinese Flute," a German-language rewrite of English, French, and German translations of some ancient Chinese poems. Further edited and rewritten by Mahler, the lyrics contemplate a variety of aspects of life and death. "Every mood," writes Tony Duggan at "from cynical and drunken hedonism to serene and Zen-like stasis gets covered in the course of the hour this work takes. At the end, the message is that, since the beauties and mysteries of the earth renew themselves year after year, our own passing should not be feared but accepted calmly and without rancour. The earth, the world and nature goes [sic] on without us."

Too true. In particular, the last movement—"Das Abschied" ("The Farewell")—is possibly one of the most emotionally powerful things you will ever encounter in a concert hall. In it, the narrator's farewell to a friend becomes a farewell to life itself: "Die liebe Erde allüberall Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen! Ewig... ewig..." ("Everywhere the good earth blossoms in spring and turns green once again! Everywhere and forever, distant spaces shine their blue light! Forever...forever...").

"Mahler’s own philosophy saw death as a part of life,” writes Tim Munro in his program notes, “and in Der Abschied we meet death as friend, not foe.” It's a notion of death which, while uncommon, is hardly unknown. The character Death of the Endless from Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" graphic novels comes immediately to mind.

[Note: "Les feuilles mortes" (literally "The Dead Leaves") refers to the 1947 Joseph Kosma/Jacques Prévert song beter known to us Anglophones as "Autumn Leaves." Either way, the message is the same.]

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts the SLSO in Tōru Takemitsu’s “Night Signal,” Qigang Chen’s L'Éloignement," and Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” with mezzo Kelley O’Connor and tenor Clay Hilley. Performances are Friday at 7:30 pm Saturday at 8 pm, September 30 and October 1.  The Saturday concert will be broadcast live, as usual, on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

Under the baton of Ben Whiteley, the SLSO returns on Sunday, October 2 at 3 pm for a "A Little Sondheim Music." A joint presentation with The Muny, this program of the music of the late Broadway legend features six prominent singers, including St. Louis's own Ken Page. All performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

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