Taiwanese composer Chen Shu-si (陳樹熙) examines the theme of love with two orchestral arrangements based on Gustav Mahler’s marriage to the beautiful Alma Schindler.
At 22 years old, Viennese lieder composer Schindler married Mahler, who was 19 years her senior. The relationship left her barely satisfied, for Mahler appeared to love her every bit as much as he disliked her ambitions in music composition. Schindler, in turn, felt protective toward the sickly Mahler, even as she maintained an affair with architect Walter Gropius.
“It was a marriage that was special and very complicated,” said Chen, a classically-trained composer who conducts the National Symphony Orchestra (國家交響樂團).
Chen has arranged two orchestral pieces with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (國立臺灣交響樂團) about the relationship between Mahler and Schindler, which will premiere today in Greater Taichung and tomorrow in Taipei.
A Journey to Mountain Lang-yei (琅琊行) gives voice to the couple through a guqin (古琴), a seven-stringed zither that will be played by respected musician Zhao Xiaoxia (趙曉霞). Chen’s concerto opens with a reposeful melody broken up by runs of quick, light variations based on the traditional guqin tune Flying Wild Goose on the Sandy Beach (平沙落雁). Chen’s second movement comes in forcefully with themes drawn from Wine Frolic (酒狂), another zither classic.
“This movement is about drinking, dancing and more drinking in a beautiful landscape. They say things like, ‘Let’s not talk about politics.’ They dance until they collapse,” said Chen.
“Then they say, ‘What do you think,’ but only in a whisper. At the end, you might be left with a question mark,” he said.
Wie Ich dich liebe... (我愛你有多深…), Chen’s second arrangement, borrows heavily from Mahler himself. The piece incorporates two of his works, one famous and one not.
The lesser known If You Love for Beauty (Liebst du um Schoenheit) is a two-minute musical poem about Schindler that Mahler had penned upon request.
“Alma had begged and begged him for a love song, so he finally wrote one,” said Chen, who incorporates its soaring but moody melodies into the opening of his composition.
Chen turns later to the Adagietto, the fourth and best-known movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
At its premiere, Mahler’s Adagietto surprised his audience with its persistent funereal trumpet solo. Yet the movement has since been considered by some — including Schindler herself — to be a love song without words. In Wie Ich dich liebe..., Chen works to fill in the unsaid, scoring Adagietto with a poem attributed to Mahler, before he leads into his own melodic interpretation of their complicated love. “You could say I am this relationship’s third party,” he said.