Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It's Mahler Time: An Epiphany - Getting Ready for Mahler's 9th

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony performs Mahler’s 9th Symphony with Stuart Malina conducting. I’ll be doing the pre-concert talks for both performances. Consequently these past couple of weeks, in the evenings after a busy day composing, I’ve been reading about Mahler’s life and times and trying to re-familiarize myself with the piece, listening to several recordings and checking out the full score.

At the same time, I’ve been doing a lot of similar re-familiarization with his 6th Symphony – it figures in the novel I’ve been working at since November, for one thing, plus to understand the 9th, it helps to know the 6th – and it’s odd how at times the two works start running together. The 6th is often called the “Tragic” Symphony that collapses, crushed, at the end while the 9th is clearly a Farewell Symphony, a “farewell to life and love,” that transcends the pain and drama of life.

In 1907, when Mahler and Sibelius – two great symphonists at the turn of the 20th Century – discussed writing symphonies, Sibelius thought of it as architectural and abstract with its severity of form and its profound logic which Mahler summarily dismissed with a wave of his hand. To him, “the symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.”

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The first conducting I ever did with the Harrisburg Symphony was back in 1981, taking the first rehearsal for Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, essentially my “audition” to be their assistant conductor, which in fact was the first piece I ever conducted in front of a full orchestra at all. Aside from my own compositions, the only other work I had conducted even with a small orchestra was Webern’s Symphony when I was teaching at UConn. So tonight I listened to Bruno Walter’s recording from 1961 – it was Bruno Walter, friend and protege of Mahler’s, who conducted the premiere in 1912, the year after Mahler’s death – and decided to do some air-conducting for the first time in over a year or so, something I’d told myself years ago I really needed to do just to keep reminding myself I was a musician long before I was a radio DJ... Doing that, on occasion, like playing Bach fugues or a movement of a Beethoven sonata, is good for the soul even if it’s totally impractical, helping me to reconnect with distant roots. It’s weird how I can recall, almost 50 years ago, being in this same room and air-conducting to some of my favorite recordings. Who needs karaoke?

The first time I heard Mahler was a live concert being broadcast on the radio, back in the very-early 1960s. I don’t recall what station was carrying it – long before public broadcasting, that’s for sure – or even what orchestra or who conducted it. I’m pretty sure it was Mahler’s 6th but on our tiny (and tinny) little radio that my folks had probably bought in the very-late 1940s, I can’t say it was very impressive. We had just walked in the door and I turned the radio on. The music was very loud and rhythmic – perhaps the opening March movement or the very similar 2nd movement – and I’d never heard anything like that before. But it was very long and there were other things that had to be done – homework, probably – so I couldn’t devote my entire attention to it, sitting there at the dining room table beside the console. Plus I think my folks wanted to watch TV in the living room so I had to keep the volume down. And it just kept going... and going... for what seemed like hours. I missed the ending but walked back into the room as the applause started so I could now find out what it was – and my impression of composer Gustav Mahler was that he wrote very long pieces, if this was any indication.

When I was a high school student, I would go into the Dauphin County Public Library on Front Street and check out some recordings – LPs, of course, in those days (the mid-60s). The work that turned me on to Mahler was a recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic of Mahler’s 9th. By this time, we had set up a portable record player down in the basement, far removed from my bothering anybody wanting to watch TV or talk on the phone. And this time, with nothing to distract me, I sat there and listened intently to this music that began the way a cell begins coming to life, gradually quivering into existence and then splitting into more and more complex cell-like patterns until I was eventually engulfed in a flood of intensely emotional music which bore the imprint of some of these first cells which by now had grown into immense proportions and far deeper scope than it would’ve seemed possible. The only way I knew time was passing was getting up to change the LPs – the fact it was over an hour long didn’t bother me any more.

By the end of the spring, I had taken out all the Mahler recordings they had in the library – the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 6th as well as the 9th a few more times before I went off to college.

The Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Edwin MacArthur, played Mahler’s 1st in 1970 and again in 1973. I know I’d heard the first concert but would have no recollection what the performance would have been like, even to compare it to the one Larry Newland conducted (and which I had rehearsed) in 1981. In between, I had heard the Eastman Philharmonia play Mahler’s 1st a couple of times – it seemed whenever they needed something big and loud for an impressive occasion, Walter Hendl, conductor and President of the school, pulled out Mahler’s 1st. There was at least one live performance of it, too, when I was living in New York City in the late-70s, probably Zubin Mehta and the New York Phil. But none of the other ones, oddly enough. I heard more Bruckner live, then – the 3rd, 4th, 8th and 9th symphonies – and one season it seemed everybody was bringing Bruckner’s 8th to Carnegie Hall. But not a lot of Mahler.

There may be a lot of similarities between Bruckner and Mahler besides the fact they both wrote nine very long symphonies, but there is an old saying that explains the major difference between them: Mahler was always searching for God; Bruckner had already found Him.

In a way, it’s true. Bruckner was very secure in his Catholic faith. Mahler, born a Jew, was not very religious and held a more pantheistic approach, especially regarding God and Nature. He converted to Catholicism in order to obtain the post of conductor and general director of the Vienna Opera (it was one of the requirements) but it probably didn’t changed his outlook very much. In his last completed symphony, Mahler came closest to the acceptance of death and his understanding of God – he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition two years earlier which his busy conducting schedule would aggravate – but as Bruno Walter pointed out in an interview included in that 1961 recording of the 9th, that was one and the same thing. On the other side of Death is Eternity: “Death is our doorway to God.”

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In 1904, Mahler ended his 6th Symphony with a huge final movement that contained three hammer-blows which cut off the rising intensity that seemed to be leading to a triumphant conclusion. According to Alma Mahler, these represented three blows of fate, the last one felling the symphony’s hero (presumably the composer himself) “like a tree.” Then two things happened to Mahler, then in his late-40s and at the peak of his career: his one child died and he was diagnosed with a heart condition. Small wonder Mahler chose to take out the third hammer-blow – the one that might fell him like a tree – whenever he conducted the 6th Symphony. Where it should occur, near the very end, it may have simply been a matter of over-doing it, since this time the music never recovers and in fact ends in one of the most brutally pessimistic endings of any symphony (except Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique – resignation more than being resigned; depressing definitely, brutal maybe).

In 1909, Mahler began his 9th Symphony. If the 6th is the opposite of his 5th Symphony – like other 5th Symphonies, or Brahms’ 1st, that triumph over Fate – the 9th takes this defeat in a different direction. There is a Fate Rhythm in the first movement not very different from the pounding march rhythm in the 6th’s opening – in the 9th’s soft and hesitant beginning, it has been described as Mahler’s irregular heartbeat though more accurately reflects the “heart murmur” he was diagnosed with in 1907. While the first movement is full of wildly emotional climaxes, it’s easy to hear this as a funeral march of someone facing death and reluctant to “let go.” The second movement is a dance but more like a distortion of a German ländler (a more rustic version of the waltz), a world-weary movement that is difficult to interpret and where a conductor really needs to get his hands dirty to bring out all the very odd things Mahler accomplishes in this quirky scherzo. The third movement is even more grotesque and is in fact subtitled “burlesque,” a parody with its grim laughter that tries to turn chaos into order by becoming a fugue. An extreme contrast, then, the final movement, the long heart-rending slow movement that transcends this fear of dying, sounds more like a simple chorale hymn, the acceptance of death (resignation may not be the word), a dignified song of the soul that is far removed from being the “Ode to Despair” one might use to describe the end of the 6th. It can be argued that Mahler is often autobiographical – directly or indirectly – in his symphonies: if the 6th is about “a hero,” the 9th embraces everyone.

I’ll get into this a little more in a later post – this is getting too long and it’s too late to continue, anyway.

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