Enter Mahler…

After writing yesterday’s post about the BBC’s Genome Project and its (strictly qualified) success in making old Radio Times schedues electronically searchable, I couldn’t resist the temptation to go and do a bit of digging myself for something that looms large in my own musical past. In fact, it took less than a minute to find what I was looking for — and to establish that the formative event in question took place on the evening of 20 July 1979.

I’ve just used the word ‘formative’ — and I really mean it: what happened that evening didn’t just make an indelible impression on my musical mind, such as it is, but it also played a crucial role in defining my thought ‘about’ music and — as a result — in shaping my approach to music education. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I tell you all about it now.

I can’t remember that anything out-of-the-ordinary had happened in the earlier part of that Friday; and I can only presume that I watched the episode of Star Trek that started on BBC One at 6.55pm. Truth be told, I was a bit of a fan of the show, so it’s pretty likely that I sat through it — even though the episode scheduled that night (‘Arena’, first aired in 1967) is the one that contains the worst ‘fight scene’ in the entire history of television…

All right: that’s enough of that.

It must be from around 7.40pm — about the time that the episode (or my interest in it) came to an end — that my memory picks up the threads: I remember pushing our TV’s stiff, bangy buttons to find out what was on the (two!) other channels. What happened then was that my arrival at BBC Two coincided exactly with the remarkably arresting music heard at the start of the following clip: I’ve coded-up the video (which shows a different performance) so that it plays just the part that I heard — don’t worry: it’s only a few minutes out of your life…

And the reason the video stops where it does is that it was somewhere near that point — before the end of the trombone solo — that I gave up very decisively with an affronted air that combined ‘I’m not listening to this junk!’ with ‘It perked up for a minute, but now it’s gone all slow and miserable again!’ What I did next, I can’t remember; but it’s perfectly possible that I sat and watched the programme about the 1969 Moon landing that had started on BBC One — or maybe I sat and watched the programme about the 1969 Moon landing that had started on ITV. Either way, that was the end of what I didn’t know to be Mahler’s Third Symphony and the First Night of the 1979 Proms.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t really the end. You see, something else I remember with forceful clarity is that, in the hours and days that followed, the music I’d heard wouldn’t leave me alone. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t liked it: the point was that I couldn’t stop hearing it in my head. There was that bizarre bassoon bit, with its bubbling trill… There was the tense shape that kept rocketing up on the sharp-edged trumpets… And there was that long phrase — the one with the massive downward leap — that was played for the second time just at the point where I gave up: in some weird, uncanny way, that contour seemed — really, really did seem — to be a shape that I’d always known… Over and over again, I put these things out of my mind (this was the weekend, after all!) — and, over and over again, they came back. The rhythms on the bass drum taking an age… The pulsing, funereal chords on trombones…

So it was that the start of this symphony changed from something I hadn’t wanted to hear the first time, into something I longed to hear a second time. On top of which I found, to my surprise, that I actually wanted to know what happened next… Before long, I’d dug out the old newspaper to see what it was I’d heard — and, once the weekend was over, I went and got the bus to the Central Library to see if they had a record of it. As it happened, they did: the 1966 Bernard Haitink recording, whose cover — as I will remember until the end of my days! — looked like this:Mahler3CoverAnd once I’d got that box home, of course, I made the staggering discovery that the several minutes of slow music I’d heard were in fact merely the introduction to a continuous span half an hour in length (in those days, I had no idea that anything in music could take that long!) — with another hour of amazingly colourful and often breathtakingly exciting music still to follow… (Anyone who doesn’t know this symphony and wants to hear it in a Haitink performance can click this; anyone who does know it is invited to tell me why Haitink clearly doesn’t like glissandi…)

This, then, is the story of how Mahler entered my life. And, as it happens, he and I have been very happy together ever since — aside, perhaps, from a certain amount of disagreement concerning the Eighth Symphony; but I think even that is pretty much resolved now. As for what I’ve learned from the way this 35-year relationship first began, I’d like to offer a few thoughts: give me 24 hours to get them straight and type them out, and I’ll meet you back here at the same time tomorrow…


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