Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gustav Mahler's "Doomsday" Symphony

Since the Harrisburg Symphony is performing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3 this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm – I'm doing the pre-concert talks an hour before each performance – I thought it would be appropriate to post some excerpts from my recently completed music appreciation thriller, “The Doomsday Symphony,” a scene involving Mahler's most recent posthumous symphony which gives the novel its title.

Two of the main characters, Dr. T. R. Cranleigh and Zoe Crevecoeur, have just returned from Dresden, May 1849, rescuing Richard Wagner from the history-changing clutches of the villain, Klavdia Klangfarben, who is out to eliminate the music written by four of the most influential Great Composers. They have returned to Harmonia-IV, that parallel universe where dead composers go but continue to compose.

In this scene, they’re on the edge of the woods outside the city. They’ve just run into some talking flowers (yes, a parody of a scene from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”) and notice someone further off the beaten path...

*** ***** Excerpt from Chapter 40 ***** ***

Just beyond the flowers, I noticed a man with his back to us sitting on a large mushroom-shaped cushion. He appeared to be playing the bassoon, though I couldn't hear a single note he was playing.

Everything he wore was some shade of bluish-purple, blending into the shadows so well, it was difficult even to see him, at first.

The man turned out to be Alexander Skryabin, much annoyed having his meditation disturbed. He wasn't playing the bassoon so much as smoking it, having modified it like a hookah. Judging from the sweet aroma, my guess is it wasn't tobacco.

"I am working on my Mysterium, my greatest composition. Leave me, please," he said imperiously, closing his eyes.

"You've been writing it for almost a century? How much is left to finish?"

"All of it, of course. It is the ultimate creation, meant only for my own appreciation."

With that, drifting away, he stopped talking.

…We kept walking along, figuring there was no sense bothering [him] further: in a parallel universe, he was his own parallel universe.

Another bend and more voices lay ahead. This was one busy place!

Certainly, someone here must know where we are?

The first man I see is easily recognizable.

"Oh my God, it's Mahler!"

He stood next to a large-built man looking vaguely familiar but I couldn't place him.

The two were looking over a score lying open on this table covered with many dishes of food like they were in the midst of a reception.

Zoe said, "wasn't that the man talking to Wagner back in Dresden?"

"Of course! I didn't recognize him in the top hat."

Mahler saw us and waved us over to join them.

I knew that Gustav Mahler, despite being a titan of the symphony, was a relatively short man in real life but he looked almost diminutive next to this hulk in the black trench coat and top hat. Who he was or what he was doing here, I had no idea.

Mahler explained as if we were late-comers and not total strangers appearing from nowhere, "I was just telling Herr Schweinwerfer about my newest symphony – put the finishing touches on it yesterday, in fact!"

The man named Schweinwerfer ignored us as he paged through the score.

Zoe and I looked at each other in great relief. That confirmed we were back at Harmonia-IV, at least, so now all we had to do was find our way back to the city. But to talk with a man like Mahler about his latest symphony was an opportunity not passed up lightly. We stood on his other side.

It was his Symphony No. 17, even though there were a few other large-scale works he didn't call symphonies that probably were. Recently, he'd become looser about the concept of the symphony as a "musical organism."

"After all, 'symphonic' means something that is developed or expanded through development, not just a four-movement work in a set and acceptable pattern."

This one was a massive work – two hours in length – with eight movements and a typically huge orchestra: thirteen horns, seven trumpets, six trombones, three tubas and quintuple woodwinds including two contrabassoons. "Enough to wake the dead!"

Schweinwerfer laughed what could only be described as a malevolent laugh, deep and resonant. "Everyone will call it your 'Doomsday' Symphony!"

"Doomsday – yes, I like that," Mahler said, "that's exactly what I had in mind. I'm not sure about this series of chords, though," pointing at one on the next page.

My eyes bugged out just looking at it.

"There are seven of them placed structurally throughout the piece, each becoming increasingly weightier, violent, expanding till the last one is like the hammer-stroke of fate that initiates nothing less than the destruction of the world!"

No doubt, judging from the look of this one!

Like the hammer-strokes of his 6th Symphony translated to a universal level, would he take the last one out for fear it would ultimately fell the world-hero?

Schweinwerfer said it would unleash dark matter from the black hole that would destroy Earth on the winter solstice of the year 2012.

As Schweinwerfer laughed, Zoe tugged at my arm, pointing to the right. There on the horizon were two unmistakable figures advancing rapidly toward us.

They were not Sebastian and Xaq as I'd hoped.

"Ah," I said, excusing myself for changing the topic, "can either of you show us the way back to the center of town? It's rather urgent."

Mahler graciously pointed the way, down the path to our left. "But must you go so soon?"

"I'm afraid so: we're trying to avoid those two unpleasant people."

Mahler looked up. "Kedaver? I should think so."

...[We quickly left, heading in the opposite direction...]

"Ach, my angel of destruction," Schweinwerfer said, grabbing the familiar figure by her waist, "my little devil of temptation!"

Klangfarben resisted but clearly she was no match for him and Kedaver wasn't about to take him on.

Mahler, meanwhile, engaged the lawyer in a conversation about a possible law suit he was contemplating.

"Abner, those bastards are getting away!"

"And so, my angel, someone put a bullet through your neck, too, and now you're here?"

"I'm not dead. Leave me alone!"

"Ah, so then this time, I could kill you? And keep you here forever?"

[Schweinwerfer is referring to Klangfarben’s having killed him back in Dresden in May 1849, while trying to delay Wagner so he would be captured by the royalist army and eventually tried and probably executed for treason, but that was a previous chapter. In a subsequent chapter, conductor Rogers Kent-Clarke, who’d met Puccini at his haberdasheria, is trying to locate the entrance to the black market hiding place where he could find the opera Puccini had been telling him about (see this earlier post).]

*** ***** Chapter 42 ***** ***

The directions Puccini gave him sounded simple enough but Rogers Kent-Clarke kept wondering if he had somehow taken the wrong path – literally as well as metaphorically…

This was so unlike his character, the mild-mannered assistant conductor usually reacting to others people's biddings rather than forging his own path through life. Even on the podium, he had to conduct it the way the regular conductor planned to, so as not to confuse the musicians. Here, he was on his own and it was kind of thrilling.

Even when he conducted on his own – like this lousy Collierville Festival where he was billed as a guest conductor – he found himself relying on other conductors' interpretations or, instead, listening to recordings. He'd become used to not applying himself. He hated doing new works: you had to study the scores because there was nothing else to go by.

But to present a previously unknown opera by Puccini, now, that would be a coup worth the work it would take to learn it. He could imagine the excitement of anticipation and the boost to his career.
People would be talking about him. "Oh, you're the guy who discovered that new Puccini opera!" What if it were a masterpiece on the order of Turandot? Even if it were only another Fanciulla, it was still Puccini and still new. With N. Ron Steele's backing, it should be a cinch finding a company to produce the world premiere.

The only drawback he could see was Steele's wife [Rosa Budd] as the tragically wronged virginal maid. The composer's wife was likely to be the meatier part, a mezzo, unsuitable for Rosa's peculiar lack of range and talent.

His fantasies were interrupted by the sound of a squabble coming from beyond those trees. Who knew how long he'd been looking for this secret mineshaft's entrance, so he thought he'd interrupt these people and ask.

Was this a tea-party in the middle of the woods? And who was that arguing with that other man – Gustav Mahler? What luck!

The big guy in the top hat kept shouting while scuffling with a beautiful woman in a stunning black leotard with wildly streaming platinum blond hair. Should he rush out and rescue her? Maybe she was a mezzo – she’d look fabulous as the composer's wife in La vendetta di sposa! But what was Mahler, looking very unconcerned, doing here?

"Excuse me," he said meekly, stepping forward from beneath the trees' shade.

Immediately, they all came to a stop, turned and stared at him.

Mahler waved him over with an invitation to join their little party.

The woman broke free of the big man's grasp, then, with the man in the black cravat, took off down the path in the opposite direction, streaming curses behind her, her hair streaming in the breeze.

"Sorry to interrupt," Kent-Clarke began, "but I was looking for a..."

"You're just in time," Mahler said, cheerfully clapping him on the shoulder.

The bigger man stuck out a massive paw by way of introduction.

"Siegfried Schweinwerfer's my name and the world is coming to an end, soon. You must prepare!"

"Pleased to meet you. I'm Rogers Kent-Clarke, a well-known conductor in the United States... internationally, I mean," quickly correcting himself.

Mahler said he was just showing Schweinwerfer his latest symphony.


The composer began explaining a little bit about it, paging through the score, pointing out things he thought a conductor would especially appreciate.

Speechless, Kent-Clarke was holding in his hands a huge, brand-new symphony by Mahler!

The whole time Mahler was talking to him – "me," he thought, "a lowly assistant conductor!" – Kent-Clarke realized, "This trumps a Puccini opera, any time, in my book!" With several choruses involved and twelve vocal soloists – perhaps something Rosa Budd could handle, but who cared? – not to mention this huge orchestra, why, it must be a "Symphony of TWO Thousand!"

He listened attentively as Mahler told him how many years it had taken to complete – seven – and how the big central scherzo, "The Apocalyptic Dance of the Four Horsemen," had already been thoroughly revised five times.

Even the choral selections from the Popul Vuh, he explained, had been based on the numerical symbolism of the Mayan calendar, creating a web of complex counterpoint rhythmically intersecting like several time-spans across a cosmic disturbance.

To his percussion, he added several of Harry Partch's instruments, tuned in quarter-tones and sounding completely other-worldly, representing the static nature of Eternity.

The final movement which he called "The Rapturous Song of the Final Cataclysm," was a spacious adagio, gradually increased in unbearable intensity until the very end – "in fact," Mahler chuckled, "the very end of Time itself!"

"Amazing," Kent-Clarke said, "a 'Symphony for the End of Time'!"

That was good, too, but Mahler felt Schweinwerfer's "Doomsday Symphony" was more marketable.

Suddenly, it dawned on Kent-Clarke there really was no reason for him to go looking for some old mineshaft Puccini had been telling him about: black market or no black market, he had just found his vehicle.

But, Kent-Clarke wondered, would he be able to “ride” this symphony back to the Other Side? Surely, Mahler wouldn't bother entrusting it to the first conductor who came along? And who was he – a mere unknown!
If he managed to premiere this, he would be unknown no longer. Everybody would know his name. "Gilbert Kaplan, eat your heart out!"

The only way was for him to steal it, right out from under Mahler's nose, then run as quickly as he could back to that field where he'd found the gateway. How difficult could that be?

Meanwhile, Schweinwerfer was thinking about his own plot. He had to get this score over to the Other Side where its premiere would bring about the apocalyptic end of the world. Then he would be vindicated.

Clearly, this conductor, a Trespasser, was hungry and ambitious. He had only to wait for the right moment – and he'd steal the score!

*** ***** Excerpt from Chapter 51 ***** ***

Rogers Kent-Clarke stood by the table, listening to the conversation as he munched on more of those little sandwiches cut in the shapes of clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds, laid out upon the table like a spread of playing cards. He liked especially the heart-shaped ones with bits of pimento skewered to the top, held in place by tooth-picks.

“From the heart, may it return to the heart,” he said after a reasonable pause, raising his tea-cup as a toast to Mahler who smiled back at him, pleased with the quote from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.

Mahler and Schweinwerfer discussed, each with their considerable passions, their thoughts about the inevitable end of the universe – more, Schweinwerfer declared, than the mere destruction of Earth. Mahler was disappointed it was not just a cleansing of the Earth, making way for a new world, a new and better society, starting over and this time, eventually, getting it right.

As the party progressed, others wandered by, unexpectedly, people out on a stroll stumbling across Mahler’s little reception quite by accident. Verdi was there, said a few kind but patronizing words, clearly bored with Mahler’s symphonic rhetoric, but spoke, as usual, about his plans for Lear which he continued to toy with more than a century after his death. He lamented how he’d not had great success in his posthumous career, so he often found himself glancing over at Puccini’s shop and envying him his retirement. But still, the idea of Lear gnawed at him unrelentingly.

Even Skryabin stopped by again, drawn by the smell of sardines on rye toast, delighted to find in the middle of his woods a table loaded with zakuski, the Russian repast similar to British “high tea.” All it needed, he said, was a samovar and perhaps a pretty young maid to be pouring out cups of steaming orange-flavored tea.

Schweinwerfer, doffing his battered top hat, greeted Skryabin cordially with dripping sarcasm, asking him how his ecstasy was today – “better than yesterday’s?” Briefly, they discussed their cosmic world-views but refrained from arguing beyond mere superficial statements.

“He’s mad, you know,” Skryabin whispered to Kent-Clarke, pointing at the philosopher with his toothpick.

“I thought that’s what philosophers always were,” the conductor responded, trying to appear as mild mannered as possible, hiding his excitement. It wasn’t often someone like him had a chance to stand around chatting with the likes of them. (Perhaps it was a dream…)

Kent-Clarke realized this would be his opportunity. Several guests were preparing to leave, offering their farewells. Verdi had long gone when Skryabin woke up poor Lyadov, so bored with the conversation he could barely stay awake. Together, they wandered off down the path and Kent-Clarke, thanking Mahler once again, quietly followed them, disappearing into the bushes along the trail.

Schweinwerfer nodded after him with a wink and a wave, then warmly shook Mahler’s hand, thanking him for his time and pointing at the score, saying something under his breath, before he, too, turned and left.

Mahler, sipping the last of his tea, gazed out over the empty fields, wondering if anyone else would stop by. Skryabin, he thought, was whacky enough but this Schweinwerfer was a complete riddle all by himself. It was one thing to be passionate about your views and another to be close to incomprehensible not to mention so depressingly irredeemable.

There was a commotion in the distance, something he could barely see. There were several groups of people converging on a couple – hadn’t they stopped by to say hello? Yes, it was, but the police had suddenly charged them from the woods, yelling. The woman with the platinum hair and that cad, Kedaver, turned and ran into the forest.

What did that mean? Why were the police after those people?

When he turned back to get some more tea, he noticed a large blank space where the score had been.

It was gone!

Mahler screamed.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

- Dick Strawser

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