by Mary Hammann, violist
During our first rehearsal of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, mentioned studying Gustav Mahler’s score of the opera. The mention of that score intrigued us all, so I went with MET Orchestra violist Katherine Anderson to find out more. With every inch of the Met in use at the beginning of the season, Sir Simon, Katherine, and I tucked ourselves into a noisy corner in between a piano being tuned and a singer rehearsing.
Some years back, when Sir Simon was rehearsing Tristan with the Vienna State Opera, their librarian delivered a package for him at his hotel: the Tristan score. But it wasn’t just any score. It was the score Gustav Mahler used and marked when he conducted that opera in Vienna, with all of Mahler’s markings still intact.
“I don’t think, if I had been doing Tristan for the first time, I would have even understood what a treasure trove it was,” said Sir Simon. “Basically, all the biggest problems of this piece are all sorted out in his own particular way.”
Mahler did what many conductors did: he went to multiple performances and took note of what other conductors did. “There’s always the question of whether to conduct in two or four. So the score had all these conductors who had conducted this part in two. And all these conductors who had conducted it in four. And then Mahler writes, ‘Richard Strauss in 5?’ Obviously, it’s his way of elbowing Strauss and saying, ‘Who the hell knows what he was doing?!’” But Sir Simon explains that even more than the beat patterns are notated by Mahler in this score. He also marked bowings, phrasing, and balance within the orchestra.
“One of the most interesting things Mahler puzzled through was the problem of balance. You can approach Tristan as a carpet of sound, and the singers come in and out of that carpet. But Mahler wanted the singers to be heard, so he terraced the dynamics, like he did in his symphonies. His is a very original way of letting the singers come through the thick textures in Tristan. It is not a matter of the orchestra just being very quiet, but a real balancing of the voices in the orchestra with the voices on the stage.”
“Nina Stemme came up to me after a rehearsal here to thank me. She said, “I’ve never been able to do so many colors without being covered.” And I said, “Thank Gustav.”
“It was more important for Wagner to move on to new works than to revise his old ones. By the time he got to Parsifal he had figured out how to let the singers be heard through the music. Mahler, on the other hand, revised his existing works all the time.” Mahler’s Tristan score is full of a composer’s solutions to the problems of the piece. Sir Simon says that the score offered an experience like having Mahler at his side.
In fact, despite his propensity to move on from completed works, Wagner also revised Tristan’s dynamics. In a new edition of Wagner’s score, there are more than 3000 changes that Wagner himself made after listening to other conductors’ performances.
“There are so many things I would love to ask Wagner, and Mahler answers some of them. I would love Wagner to hear the modern orchestra and see what he recognizes. In London, I played Rheingold with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, on period instruments. It was absolutely gorgeous in its own way and so easy for the singers to come through the texture.”
Really, Wagner was “inventing the modern orchestra.” As Sir Simon explains it, Wagner was inventing a new tonal world and a new kind of opera. That creation, in fact, is a large part of the reason our instruments have come to sound like they do today.
The first time Sir Simon heard Tristan, as a teenager, was a recording with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting and Kirsten Flagstad singing Isolde. Years later, while conducting in Birmingham, he discovered that “My concertmaster was playing on the front desk of the second violins in that recording. He told me that Furtwängler got them to play the triplets at the end like a slow tremolo. Everybody passes on the tricks of the trade and you keep it all with you.”
“Looking at that score, full of Mahler’s markings, I felt he was with me. Sometimes you feel like you are standing on the shoulders of those who came before you. I feel like that when I conduct [the MET Orchestra]. You follow so beautifully. I see you all taking in my physicality. And in about twenty minutes you are all there and I can’t lose you. I feel Jimmy’s influence and care when I work with you here. There is no opera orchestra like you.”