• Roxanna Panufnik
  • Alma's Songs Without Words
    (Three Alma Mahler lieder reimagined for orchestra)

  • Peters Edition Limited (World)

WP 29.01.2022 Dominion Energy Center, Richmond Richmond Symphony Orchestra Valentina Peleggi Cond. https://www.richmondsymphony.com/event/violin-virtuosity/#

  • 2+pic.3(III:ca).3.2+cbn/
  • 12 min

Programme Note

When the conductor Valentina Peleggi asked me if I would orchestrate some Alma Mahler songs for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, I was ashamed to say I had never heard them. They are extraordinary in their intensity, passion and almost feverish swings in mood and tempo. Mahler was very prescriptive with musical expression: her instructions could move from verklärt/blissfully to Drängender/more urgently to Wieder ruhig/again calm in just the space of five bars! Reading about her personal life, one could compare these sudden (sometimes mid-phrase) changes in dynamics and mood to her frequent changes of romantic allegiance between the many men who were understandably captivated by her beauty and brilliance.

Alma’s Songs Without Words reimagines three Alma Mahler lieder for orchestra. The sudden changes of expression in the original songs are taken to the orchestral extreme; I would like to think that Alma would have approved of this approach.

In each of the three songs, a section of the orchestra takes on the role of the ‘Singstimme’ (voice). In Hymne, the singing qualities of the cello (especially higher in the range) perfectly capture the plaintiveness of the human voice. I emphasize the majestic hymn-like chords of the accompaniment and have added a short introduction where harp and violins play on the first four notes of Alma’s melody, using celestial harmonics. Rising and falling peals of church bells in the harp, celesta and tubular bells can be heard, and a liturgical sounding plagal cadence (‘Amen’) follows at the end.

The oboes and cor anglais take the vocal line in Ansturm, which reminds me of a summer storm – short but powerful in its emotional impact. I have injected ‘thunder’ and the sound of falling rain into the introduction. The tremolando in the strings anticipates what is to come. A transition is needed to take us from the happy relief of A major at the end of the storm to the lonely and wistful F minor of the beginning of Hymne an die Nacht. This transition recalls the hymn-like atmosphere of Hymne through the French Horns, which act as the ‘Singstimme’ for this song. They are muted, rather like Alma’s creative expression when she married Gustav Mahler: although he allowed her to reignite her creative flame eight and a half years into their marriage, she could never forgive him for stifling it in the first place. Alma’s beautiful and plaintive melody appears before the swift changes of tempo, dynamics and emotion return. The noble, hymn-like feel of the first song is echoed here, as are the pealing church bells which return with woodwind added to the harp, celesta and tubular bells.

I am hugely grateful to Valentina Peleggi and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for introducing me to Alma Mahler and commissioning this work, and to Marina Fistoulari Mahler for her biographical input.

Roxanna Panufnik, January 2020


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