Friday, July 01, 2011

Last Thoughts on Mahler

This is it, I promise ...

Just because Michael Tilson Thomas is blabbing to the whole world about Gustav Mahler on Public TV (see Keeping Score) there's no reason I can't add the rest of my thoughts as a kind of footnote. So here in no particular order are some further impressions that came out of my recent immersion in those nine symphonies.

Beginnings: Out of the silence, grandeur. Some of them emerge like pale shapes swimming up out of the depths of a dark ocean. Others begin in medias res, sort of like, "So as I was saying ..." or "Then the next thing that happened was ..." It feels like the composer was so familiar with his material that he could begin that way, fully confident of where he was going.

I'm reminded of something a friend said after listening to part of Wagner's Ring cycle in Germany: "It goes on forever, but then every once in a while there's this incredible music." (It's also been said that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds.")

While building familiarity with Mahler I sometimes felt that way, impatient to get to my favorite parts. But eventually I understood that these choice moments had been set up by the texture of everything that went before. The music is a continuum, an environment in which one wanders, stopping here and there to enjoy the expansive views. Clouds and fields of sound, oceans to swim, forests in which to wander. He's created an entire world, the way a novelist does.

Vocals? In a symphony? Yes, and not just material from his lieder, but soloists and whole choruses stray into the orchestra pit and demand to be heard. Melody is not enough, he seems to say. I must put a voice to the deep feelings here. It's another example of the great range of expression to be found, from the collosal augmented orchestra down to the intimate scale of chamber music. When is the last time you ran into an extended duet for violin and french horn in the middle of a symphonic work?

A lilting tune that becomes too much for itself, strains, develops discords, turns anguished. ... Wait, is that "Frere Jacques?" Yes, but in a minor key and reduced to only two parts while being scored for a hundred instruments.

All the time in the world, no rush to get anywhere. Endless brooding, currents and counter currents. And now it sounds so nostalgic, like "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places ..."

And again, there's comic relief in the form of Jewish folk dances, or circus-style marches that sound like they belong in a Fellini film.

Long endings. Really long. Endings that make you consult the minute hand of your watch. One time in particular I sensed the vast gathering of forces that signals a Coda, the grand finale ... except instead of the usual thirty or forty seconds it was fully eight minutes until we got there.

And now here we are.