“If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.” Gustav Mahler
Our local symphony orchestra had their final concert of the season the other night. It was Mahler’s second symphony, commonly known as the Resurrection Symphony. Clocking in at about an hour and a half, you get a full concert experience. It was the most popular of Mahler’s works to be played in his lifetime, but then something happened at the beginning of the 20th century. The world turned on Mahler and symphony orchestras around the world stopped playing him. It wasn’t until the 1960’s when Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, began to reintroduce audiences to his favourite composer. He was met by bureaucratic red tape and some outright hostility from the public at the outset, but through his efforts Mahler slowly returned to the consciousness of the symphony orchestra attending public and remains a fixture on the programs across North America and around the world.
Mahler, to me, remains a mystery.
By the time I was a teen, I was indoctrinated as a classical music fan. Growing up, my Dad listened to classical music almost exclusively. He had one or two jazz albums (Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet comes to mind), but the bulk of his collection leaned heavily towards symphonic works. This was balanced by my Mom’s collection of BeeGees, ABBA, and her beloved Neil Diamond. But as far as I can remember, there was no Mahler in my Dad’s record collection. He seemed to favour Mozart and Handel above all else, with a nod to Beethoven here or there. Oddly enough, he had a passion for organ music. I remember on summer road trips the rule was we could each choose one side of a cassette to listen to in the car. My brother and I would be picking stuff like Glass Tiger, Dire Straits and Huey Lewis, my Mom: Neil Diamond of course, and my dear old Dad would always pop in some “Great Organ Masterpieces” or some damn thing. Well that usually killed the vibe, and the dramatic change in volume between the quiet, gentle moments and the loud bits when all the stops were pulled out nearly caused my Mom to drive off the road a few times. (My Mom always drove on holidays, my Dad “navigated”: a reversal of the typical stereotype). But Mahler never made it on the road.
Mahler to me seems like a code: Nine full symphonies. One uncompleted one. Some are short and sweet (like Number 4), some are devastating (like Number 6), one is entirely performed with a choir (Number 8). The music is sometimes harsh and unmelodic, and yet other times can be the most transcendental thing you’ve ever heard. Like a storm and the quiet after the storm. Maybe you wouldn’t have appreciated the quiet so much if you didn’t have to endure the storm. Something in me felt a long time ago that if I could learn and listen and recognize the difference symphonies, then maybe I would unlock something; some secret musical mystery that has been lying dormant for over a hundred years. An auditory Da Vinci code, if you will. I know it sounds crazy, but that was my motivation a few years ago to learn a little bit more about Mahler and his music.
With Mozart, what’s to get? It’s beautifully melodic music from the first time you listen to it: almost instantly recognizable, and at the same time new and fresh. Whenever I hear a new Mozart piece to me, I marvel at its beauty and also feel perplexed at the possibility of it ever not existing. At the same time, it’s perceived simplicity can also make it unfairly disposable.
Mahler is different to me. Mahler feels more like homework.
Neither my wife nor I were particularly enthused about going to hear Mahler 2, for a couple of different reasons. I had bought the tickets back in the winter because there was a chance I was going to sing in the chorus that sings in the final movement. I periodically join a local choir in town, especially when they perform larger works with the local symphony orchestra. I thought that if I was singing in it, then maybe my wife and a friend would like to come and see it, or maybe my Mom. I wanted to get the tickets ahead of time because sometimes these big “event” concerts sell out. Well, as it turned out, this past Spring proved to be extra busy and I couldn’t commit to the rehearsals. Ironically, I wouldn’t have minded singing in it, but sitting through it was another idea altogether. I’ve tried listening to Mahler 2. I have it on my iPod. (The Leonard Bernstein version, of course), and I just can never seem to get into it. Mind you, listening to it on a little set of stereo speakers or through ear phones while you’re making supper or reading a book is not how it was intended to be heard.
Another reason we weren’t keen was that my wife was at the doctor’s a couple of days before and she had some wax cleaned out of her ears. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get all of it out and some water got caught in there, causing some pain and alot of deafness in both ears. Not the best situation for a symphony orchestra concert, am I right? I joked that I could describe what was happening through whispers. “Okay, now the flutes are playing. They sound lovely. Okay, here come the trumpets!”
Another factor was that a friend of ours was having a reading of her new play on the very same night. A bunch of our friends were going to be going to that and there would be a chance to go out for a visit and a drink and a bite to eat afterwards and it was going to be fun and great and oh right. We can’t go. We’ve got Mahler.
But despite these reservations, we decided to go anyway. We were both pretty glad we did.
After a brief bit of comedy involving our seats (someone was sitting in ours, but when she got up to move she insinuated that she wouldn’t mind sitting in my lap! My wife was seated next to this guy who was a dead ringer for the Major from Fawlty Towers who seemed pleased he didn’t have to sit next to lap girl. That honour went to me), we settled in for the performance.
Mahler’s Second was the only piece on the program that night and there would be no intermission. An hour and a half of nonstop music. From the opening tremolo in the upper strings being answered by the lower strings, I began to realize that Mahler was not designed for iPods or earbuds. I tend to treat classical music as “background” music: something nice to listen to when you’re doing the dishes or reading or driving. Mahler, on the other hand, demands your full attention. Watching the interplay between the different parts of the orchestra, and then later the interplay between the soloists, chorus and orchestra, I was struck at how revolutionary this must have sounded when it premiered over a hundred years ago. The program notes, written by Mahler himself, explains that his second symphony is an interpretation of the journey from death to life. In typical Mahlerian fashion, he later banned any program notes from subsequent performances, encouraging the listener to come to the mystery their own way.
Throughout the performance, I began to think about the Mahlerian code again and wondered if maybe the code is that there is actually no code, that the music ultimately speaks for itself and will mean something different to each listener. Isn’t that a hallmark of true art anyway? It would let me off the hook, but questions linger. What I do know is that I don’t want to listen to Mahler on my iPod anymore. In fact I think that I said that to my wife afterwards. “Why would anyone want to listen to that on an iPod after hearing it live?” The Fawlty Towers Major leapt to his feet for an immediate ovation, and the lap girl happily stayed in her seat until the end. I couldn’t begin to guess what their stories were. I can’t imagine anywhere else where the four of us would belong. Amazingly, my wife’s ears cleared enough for her to really get something out of the evening. So much so that she even heard the cougher and the crumpler behind us.
Mahler, too, remains a mystery, and I’m okay with that.