The Measure of Mahler…

Yes, I know the ‘Game Over’ thread hasn’t yet reached its proper conclusion; but you see, the thing is that some of my friends and regular readers could be described as people who are rather easily bored. Particularly my good pal Hugh — who the other week sent me a message with a distinctly peeved tone after a particular thread had extended beyond three or four consecutive postings. So, rather than try his patience, or anyone else’s, with another outpouring of well-substantiated ‘Game Over’ gloom so soon after the last, I thought I’d dive into something more specifically musical, just for a day or two…

Not that this will benefit Hugh all that much — because what I currently have on my mind is something concerning the great Austrian symphonist Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), and it so happens that he’s a composer Hugh doesn’t like very much. So: sorry Hugh!

mahlerjpgActually, this topic is in fact related to my ideas about classical music’s ever-worsening state of displacement and marginalisation — and pretty closely, too. You see, over the years, I’ve had quite a few girlfriends who weren’t even remotely familiar with the classical repertoire. (Yes, it’s true: even in the glamorous world inhabited by an international jet-setting playboy like myself, people who actually give a damn about the West’s art-music tradition prove to be very thin on the ground.) And, as a result, there have been a fair few occasions when I’ve played a favourite recording to an inamorata — only to see the expression on her face turn from ‘friendly curiosity’ to ‘frozen alarm not unmixed with alienated boredom’…

On one such occasion, having been invited to bring round my favorite piece of music, I put on the finale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (well, she did ask!) — a work which, for me, is quite simply one of the deepest and most magnificent symphonies ever composed. This all took place — let me stress! — quite a long time ago, when I was a good deal younger and stupider than I am today … so it was only when I saw the lady’s eyes glaze over before the end of the finale’s slow introduction that I began to realise how that huge, constantly developing, contrast-rich structure must be sounding to someone whose musical experience consisted almost entirely of the tiny, repetitive, verbally accompanied and interpreted structures of commercial pop music.

mahler6scorepage1No, that’s not a snobby evaluation, however much you think it sounds like one. What I’m talking about is simply the fact that the amount of material and the range of different ‘structural functions’ (introductions, statements, transitions, developments, etc) deployed in an elaborate symphonic structure — as well as the sheer spans of time across which it can all extend — is something that you have to develop a ‘feeling’ for, and a certain degree of self-confidence also. And the only way to do that seems to be to do an awful lot of listening (and, in an ideal world, singing, playing and even composing), from as early an age as possible — even if that means starting now.

Yes, now. You see, since I know that this blog is read by more than a few people who haven’t heard much classical music and don’t know any Mahler at all, I’d like to ‘go back in time’, as it were, and do that Mahler 6 thing again in a slightly more controlled setting. What I’ve done today is code up a Mahler 6 recording so that it only plays the slow introduction to the finale — yes, just the introduction. Everything you’re about to hear — assuming you are prepared to take the fateful step of clicking on that panel! — will be preparatory to what you might call ‘the main action’ of the finale  — though, of course, the fact that it’s by a composer with a mind as profound and complex as Mahler’s means that all the ideas in it come back over and over again in various forms and combinations before the piece ends.

The reason I’m surgically separating this section from the rest of the movement is that I want to remove from every inexperienced listener the kind of nagging uncertainty — ‘What the hell is supposed to be happening here?!?’ — that can easily get in the way when an unfamiliar piece of music is still proceeding through a collection of gloomy and sometimes nightmarish fragments four and even five minutes in: inevitably, the world of popular music doesn’t offer the normal person all that much preparation for this kind of experience — whence the part of the newcomer’s mind that should be taking the ideas in may instead be spending time and energy wondering if it’s fallen off the edge of the world. On this present occasion, however, every ‘first-time’ listener can be confident that they really are meant to be hearing a 5-minute introduction to a 30-minute movement. (Yes: half an hour!)

All right, then: off you go:

Well, I wonder how you did. I’m not going to ask anyone  — least of all Hugh! — to go any further into the movement right now: we’ll cross that bridge tomorrow. Meantime, let me gently rub in the point about the sheer scale of the introduction you’ve just heard: in the time it took you to listen to it, you could also have listened twice to the miniature masterpiece that is The Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand. And if you don’t believe me, I urge you to try the experiment — even though, inevitably, the results of the combination (I Wanna Hold Your Hammer…? [Mahler joke]) are far from pretty:

See you tomorrow!


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3 thoughts on “The Measure of Mahler…

  1. Oh dear! Well, in my defence, I note that “The first of the fugue” (which is where these seemingly limitless sequences of postings originated) made it as far as number 5 – right back at the beginning of the month, nay! – and then died. I still have links to the placeholders for numbers 6 and 7 were supposed to appear. So perhaps the author agrees with me that these things have a natural limit?

    As for Mahler, well I admit that’s my problem. You’re referring to someone who last night was at a concert performance of “A Little Night Music” (the Sondheim musical, just in case anyone’s unfamiliar with the title) – incidentally, that was sold out (at the London theatre where The Commitments is currently playing), so how different to so many classical concerts… And I’m just back from a second viewing of the Disney(fied) film of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”. Anyone who wants a break from Mahler is encouraged to go to the latter and stay for the final (detailed) credits. If you want to hear a good waltz – not to mention fabulous orchestration (owing more than a debt to Ravel, rather than Mahler, natch) – then this is the thing for you.

    Sorry, I’m getting carried away. This isn’t my blog (I don’t have one, mercifully).


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