Games of Thrones Program Notes


JAMES CONLON conductor
TAYLOR RAVEN mezzo-soprano
MAY FESTIVAL YOUTH CHORUS Matthew Swanson, director
MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director
The May Festival Chorus is endowed by the Betsy & Alex C. Young Chair


Das klagende Lied

Der Spielmann (“The Minstrel”)
Hochzeitsstück (“Wedding Piece”)


Prologue to Mefistofele


Prologue and Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov



Das klagende Lied (“Song of Lament”)

Composed in three movements in 1878–1880, revised and movement I omitted in 1893 and further revised in 1898. Two-movement version premiered on February 17, 1901 at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, conducted by the composer; movement I premiered on November 26, 1934 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, conducted by Alfred Eduard Rosé, as part of the first performance of the complete work.

In 1875, when Mahler matriculated there, the Vienna Conservatory was one of the leading music schools in Europe, rivaled only by those of Paris and Leipzig. Mahler’s principal professor of harmony at the school was Robert Fuchs, who had begun what became a 40-year tenure at the Conservatory just one year before; his composition teacher was Franz Krenn, a prolific writer of sacred music known for the thoroughness and stiff pedanticism of his instruction. Though not formally enrolled in his classes, Mahler also sat in on some counterpoint lectures by Anton Bruckner. (He attended the premiere of Bruckner’s Third Symphony in 1877 and published an arrangement of the score for two pianos.)

Mahler proved to be an excellent student, attentive to his studies and even inspired when it came to composition. During his three years at the Conservatory, he is known to have written at least one movement of a symphony (which he destroyed), several songs, and a goodly number of chamber pieces, including the opening movement of a Piano Quartet in A minor. His creative ambition was hardly satisfied by such small-scale pieces, however, and in early 1878 he drafted the text for a three-movement work for chorus, soloists and large orchestra titled Das klagende Lied, based on a legend told in an eponymous fairy tale by Ludwig Bechstein, Der singende Knochen (“The Singing Bone”) by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and a poem by Martin Greif. The libretto was finished by March 1878, but he did not begin composing the music for it until autumn of the following year. Its three parts—Waldmärchen (“Forest Fairy Tale”), Der Spielmann (“The Minstrel”) and Hochzeitsstück (“Wedding Piece”)—were completed on November 1, 1880.

Waldmärchen tells of a lovely but haughty queen who thinks no man worthy to marry her. She decrees that she will only accept the knight who can find a single, beautiful, red flower in the forest. Two brothers, the younger “comely and gentle,” the elder full of “hate and curses,” set out on the quest. The younger discovers the red flower, sticks it in the band of his hat, and lays down to rest. The elder chances up him, spies the flower, kills him with his sword, and runs off with the prize.

In Der Spielmann, a wandering minstrel discovers a bone poking from the soil and carves it into a flute. When he sets the instrument to his lips, it plays a sorrowful song: “Oh minstrel, my dear minstrel/This must I now lament to you:/For a beautifully colored little flower/Has my brother struck me dead!/In the wood were my young bones bleached,/While my brother courted a lovely wife!” The minstrel travels far and wide to learn the meaning of this threnody without success, so goes to the queen’s castle to inquire there.

The minstrel arrives to the festive sounds of the Hochzeitsstück (“Wedding Piece”). Amid the celebration, the king—the murderous elder brother—sits “pale and quiet.” When the minstrel stands at the door and plays his keening flute, the king leaps from his throne and seizes the instrument. He plays upon it and the slain brother’s lamenting, accusatory song is heard by all. Queen and king flee, and the guests rush out as the castle crumbles around them.

The title of Das klagende Lied is usually translated as some variant of “Song of Lament,” but musicologist Benjamin Folkman, in a 1988 program note for the New York Philharmonic, pointed out that “the word klagen also has the secondary meaning of accusation.” (Kläger in German is “plaintiff,” the party that brings a court case against—accuses—another of wrongdoing.) Given the work’s subject, it seems likely that Mahler intended the phrase Das klagende Lied to indicate the capacity of the bone-flute’s song to both lament and accuse, a remarkably mature and subtle insight from a 17-year-old composer that is matched by the text’s musical realization.

After graduating from the Conservatory in June 1878, Mahler took some classes in archeology, philosophy and history at the University of Vienna, tried out vegetarianism, pieced together a living from teaching, giving a few piano recitals and conducting operetta at a summer spa, and worked on the score of Das klagende Lied. By the time it was done, in November 1880, it had grown to a full hour in duration and required a vast orchestra, large chorus, seven soloists and an off-stage band of eighteen. Mahler, 20 years old and unknown as a composer, realized he could not arrange his own performance of anything on that scale, so he submitted it for the 1881 Beethoven Prize (Brahms, Goldmark and Hanslick were among the judges), but it was ignored. (That year’s award went Robert Fuchs, his teacher.) In 1893, Mahler revised the work, reducing its performing forces and completely omitting the first part, and revised it some more in 1898–99, by which time he had composed his first three symphonies and been appointed director of Vienna’s Court Opera. He conducted the premiere of Parts II and III with the augmented Vienna State Opera Orchestra, four vocal soloists, and some 500 singers from the Wiener Singakademie and Schubert Bund on February 17, 1901 at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The score was published in that two-movement form the following year and conducted by Mahler again in Vienna in 1902 and in Amsterdam in 1906. Movement I was finally premiered on November 26, 1934 as part of the first complete performance of the three-part version of Das klagende Lied on a radio broadcast from Brno, Czechoslovakia under the direction of Alfred Rosé, the son of Mahler’s sister Justine and violinist Arnold Rosé, a classmate of the composer at the Conservatory. The complete manuscript of the original work was acquired by Yale University in 1969, and movement I was published in a provisional edition later that year; Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra included it in the first recording of the complete Das klagende Lied, in 1970. The critical edition of the entire work was published in 1997, thus allowing Das klagende Lied to be heard in both its original three-movement form and in the two-movement revision.

Das klagende Lied is, perhaps undeservedly, the least-performed of Mahler’s major works. Not only does it show the brilliance, boldness, scope and maturity of his unique genius from his first years as a composer, it is the closest he ever came to writing opera—a genre in which he became one of his generation’s foremost interpreters—as well as “the one and only source” for what followed, according to Pierre Boulez. The composer himself called Das klagende Lied “the first work in which I found myself as ‘Mahler,’ the work I mark as opus 1,” and Boulez concluded, “The great novel is sketched: we will read its chapters progressively in the works to come.”



Prologue to Mefistofele

Composed 1862–1868; revised 1875 and 1876. Premiered on March 5, 1868 in Milan, conducted by the composer; revised version premiered on October 4, 1875 in Bologna.

Though he is remembered primarily for the masterful librettos he created for Verdi’s last two operas (Otello and Falstaff), Arrigo Boito was a man of considerable and diverse achievements: author of librettos for Catalani, Ponchielli and Bottesini, respected critic and poet, journalistic champion of such younger musicians as Puccini, and gifted composer of the operas Mefistofele (“Mephistopheles”) and the unfinished Nerone (“Nero”). “While Boito’s principal accomplishments were literary rather than musical,” wrote the American musicologist William Ashbrook, an authority on Italian opera and former editor of The Opera Quarterly, “he must nevertheless be regarded as an incomplete rather than an inconsequential composer. He was a man of aristocratic fastidiousness, a scholar of perception and sensitivity, a man who had a genius for friendship. The mark he left on Italian music of his time is greater than the sum of his own accomplishments.”

Arrigo Boito was born in Padua in 1842 to Josephine Radolinska, a Polish countess, and Silvestro Boito, a painter specializing in miniatures. When Silvestro found domestic life not to his free-spirited liking and deserted the family, Josephine took her son first to Venice, where the boy’s musical gifts became apparent and he received his earliest formal instruction, and then to Milan, where he won a scholarship at age eleven to enter the city’s prestigious conservatory. Young Boito proved to be an exemplary student during the following years, studying composition with Alberto Mazzucato, reading voraciously, mastering several languages, and collaborating on two patriotic cantatas with his classmate Franco Faccio, who became a life-long friend and one of Italy’s leading conductors. Boito was awarded a grant upon his graduation in March 1862 that enabled him to travel to Paris, where he met Berlioz, Rossini and Verdi. Verdi was impressed with Boito’s literary skills, and he asked him to write the text for a choral anthem—Inno delle Nazioni (“Hymn of the Nations”)—he had been commissioned to compose for the upcoming London Exhibition.

Boito was back in Milan by the end of 1862, when he began an intensely creative period of writing poetry, plays, polemics criticizing what he perceived as the provincialism of Italian opera (which deeply offended Verdi), a libretto for Faccio’s opera Amleto (“Hamlet”), and music and drama criticism, as well as working on both the music and libretto for an ambitious operatic version of Goethe’s Faust, which he had first envisioned while still a student at the Milan Conservatory—

Mefistofele. After serving briefly in 1866 with Garibaldi’s forces in their long struggle to unify the Italian nation, Boito worked diligently on Mefistofele, which was premiered at La Scala under his own direction on March 5, 1868. It was a fiasco: the singers were vocally insufficient for their demanding roles; the 26-year-old composer was inexperienced as a conductor and the performance was poorly prepared; the show lasted more than six hours, not finishing until well after midnight; and the opposing factions that Boito had stirred up with his outspoken writings expressed their positions vociferously both in the auditorium and in the square fronting the venerable theater after the curtain came down. The only part of the work that received general approval was its visionary Prologue. Mefistofele was performed just one more time at its initial run, split over two evenings, and then dropped.

Following the disheartening introduction of Mefistofele, Boito devoted several years to publishing articles on music and literature, organizing a chamber music series in Milan, preparing Italian versions of German songs and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Rienzi, Weber’s Der Freischütz, and Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla, and writing opera librettos, including the one for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. A successful performance of the Prologue to Mefistofele in Trieste in 1871 encouraged him to take up the opera again. He thoroughly reworked the score during the next four years and Mefistofele finally won acclaim when it was staged in Bologna on October 4, 1875. After yet further revision, it was produced successfully in Venice (1876), London (1880), Boston (November 16, 1880, in English) and New York (November 24, 1880, in Italian) before returning to La Scala in its definitive form in 1881.

In 1879, Faccio and the music publisher Giulio Ricordi effected a rapprochement between Boito and Verdi, who had long been upset over the writer’s earlier criticisms of the state of contemporary Italian opera. Verdi had written nothing for the stage since Aida nine years before (though he had made a dramatic setting of the Requiem in 1874), but Ricordi believed that his creativity was still far from exhausted and proposed to him the subject of Otello. Boito would write the libretto. Verdi, an avid Shakespearean (he composed Macbeth in 1847 and thought for years about using King Lear as a subject), was tempted by the project, so, both to test Boito’s skill as a librettist and to evaluate their suitability as collaborators, he assigned him to revise the text for Simon Boccanegra (1857), which was scheduled for a revival at La Scala in March 1881. The relationship proved to be both congenial and fruitful, and their old animosities were put aside. Verdi and Boito wrote Otello between December 1884 and November 1886, and it was premiered to great acclaim at La Scala on February 5, 1887; by the time that their Falstaff was introduced triumphantly six years later, Verdi and Boito had become trusted professional partners and close personal friends. Boito began a libretto for the long-considered King Lear, but Verdi, then 80, said that he was no longer up to the challenge. Boito visited his now-beloved colleague frequently and was with him when he died, on January 27, 1901 in Milan.

After Falstaff, Boito made Italian acting versions of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet for the renowned actress Eleanora Duse (with whom he had an affair in the early 1890s), and continued to tinker with his five-act Nerone, his only significant musical work beside Mefistofele, which he had been sketching for nearly three decades. Public recognition came his way during his later years: an honorary degree from Cambridge University (he conducted the Prologue to Mefistofele at the investiture ceremony in 1893); selection to official committees to improve both music education in Italy and the operations of La Scala; and election as a delegate to the Italian Senate in 1912. His health and concentration began to fail and he developed heart disease during World War I, however, and had to be admitted to a nursing home in Milan. He died there on June 10, 1918. Boito left Nerone incomplete, but Arturo Toscanini headed an effort to bring the score into a performable state, and it was staged at La Scala on May 1, 1924.

Goethe’s Faust treats the eternal question of the contention between good and evil in human life, and Boito labored mightily to reflect the play’s universal vision in Mefistofele. This dramatic and philosophical tension is distilled in the opera’s Prologue, which calls for large orchestra, adult and children’s choirs, and bass soloist. (The title character is one of the operatic repertory’s greatest bass roles. Feodor Chaliapin chose it for his first appearance outside Russia, at La Scala in 1901, when Caruso sang Faust, and for his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1907.) The Prologue, set in “the cloudy regions of space,” opens with an extended “flourish of trumpets” to herald the Celestial Host hymning the glory of God. An abrupt change in the character of both music and text marks the appearance of Mephistopheles, who mockingly announces his intention to contend with heaven for the soul of Faust. A Mystic Chorus accepts the challenge. When Mephistopheles declares that he will triumph, he is driven off by a swarm of Cherubim, who, he says, “like bees, fill me with loathing and annoyance.” Penitent Women pray to the Virgin Mary before the Prologue to Mefistofele, one of the most imposing scenes in all of Italian opera, closes with a final hymn of praise from the assembled Celestial Host.



Prologue and Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov

Composed in 1868-1869; revised in 1871-1872. Premiered on January 27, 1874 in St. Petersburg.

Boris Godunov is Mussorgsky’s sweeping chronicle of Russia and its Tsar at the end of the 16th century. In 1584, Ivan IV (“the Terrible’) was succeeded on the throne by his son Fyodor. A brother of Fyodor’s wife, Boris Godunov, born around 1551, established himself as a power behind the weak ruler. In 1591, Dmitri, another of Ivan’s sons and a potential successor to the throne, died under mysterious circumstances. In 1598, Boris was crowned Tsar. Suspicion ran high that Boris’ agents had murdered the boy Dmitri to clear his path to the throne, but the story was never proved. For his opera, Mussorgsky assumed it to be true.

The first of the Prologue’s two scenes is set in 1598 outside the Novodevichy Monastery, near Moscow, where Boris has withdrawn, a ruse to make it appear he is unwilling to occupy the throne of Russia. Boris is eager to legitimize his reign by having it acclaimed by the people, and his agents exhort the crowd outside the Monastery to implore him to become their Tsar, which they do, though with much grumbling. The Prologue’s second scene, set in a square in the Moscow Kremlin, portrays Boris’ coronation. The crowd proclaims him in a traditional Russian hymn melody, but he is worried and introspective about the position he has usurped.