Mahler – and a bit about Life

Mahler – and a bit about Life

Not everyone “gets” Mahler. Whether they’re musicians, or not.

Some people can’t spend a day without it. Remember that scene in Educating Rita, where Julie Walters is met at the door by Maureen Lipman – complete with Mahler 6’s finale blaring away behind her? Indelibly etched upon my memory of childhood was the phrase “wouldn’t you just DIE without Mahler?”



And then there are plenty of musicians who can’t stand the stuff, avoid it like the proverbial, ask for time off the orchestral schedule whenever it’s on the programme, that kind of thing. I’m most definitely not one of them. I suppose there must be people out there who are placidly indifferent to Mahler, although quite how that’s possible is beyond me – Mahler is all-involving and consuming (if you’re doing it right), and remaining dispassionate is, well, I just can’t imagine. Mahler is like Marmite: you either love it, or you hate it.

I’ve just conducted two performances of the 6th symphony, and have No 5 coming up the weekend after I write. Here’s a little audio-glimpse into the recent performance (a film – with some longer extracts, rehearsal, and interviews – is planned for later in the spring.)

These Mahler 6 performances were with the fantastic young musicians of Southampton University Symphony Orchestra. All 109 of them, on stage, for an 85-minute epic. What strikes me now, only days later, is how many of them feel the gaping hole in their lives, now that Mahler isn’t filling it. I know this because of that eternally-accurate arbiter of fact and knowledge: people’s facebook statuses. Many of them write as if they’ve lost something, or even someone. Gloomy and despondent. Truly a post-Mahler malaise.

Thing is, for the vast majority of them, it was their first experience playing Mahler, any Mahler. Imagine never having really heard Mahler before, let alone played any – and suddenly being hit with the ferocity of emotion that is Mahler 6. At the first rehearsal I told them that this will be a journey – and at its end there will be tears, and longing for more. Few, if any, believed me at the time, but I know how poignantly many of them will be feeling it now.

And here’s the crucial point – this is only the START of the journey. There are another 9 symphonies, of course, and songs, Das Klagende Lied… In turn, Mahler will lead to Berg, Shostakovich – and over the shoulder to Bruckner. It can unlock all kinds of things. Imagine the harmonic possibilities suddenly unleashed inside a Mahler-fuelled brain… Or klangfarben, as vivid and intoxicating to a musician now as it would’ve been to (say) a young Schoenberg, or Bruno Walter, a century ago.

Deep down, some of the players will now be different musicians than when they began this Mahler journey. Somehow, they will approach their craft differently. And not all the members are studying music, either. Few things warm me more than reading that a medical student has listened to the entire symphony twice more in two days, and that a geographer can’t wait for her next fix of Mahler. They’ll flock to the Proms this summer – always plenty of Mahler there. Who knows.

It will have changed lives – only a little tiny bit, perhaps, but it all counts. This is the power of music, and of Mahler. 109 young musicians may be wandering around like lost souls right now, but it’ll pass. What is most vital is that they’ll remember it for the rest of their lives, no matter where they’re destined, and however high they climb as musicians.

  • Paul Johnson

    An excellent blog and the fragment of the andante is terrific. When I first heard Mahler 6 at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, played by the BBC NOW under Tadaaki Otaka, I was so overwhelmed and astonished, I heard it again with the same orchestra and conductor the following night at St David’s Hall in Cardiff.

    It’s true that a lot of people don’t “get” Mahler. I had an acquaintance that referred to him as “all gloom and doom” without hearing his music! I’m not sure I “get” Mahler, or whether in fact, I actually need to do so.

    I just know that he speaks to me like no other composer ever will. His music is life-changing, and my life is all the better for listening to it.

  • Thanks Paul. You mention “gloom and doom”… Mahler gets such harsh rap for that. It’s odd, because I never regard this work as a TRAGIC symphony. In places, yes, it can be truly tragic. It certainly has the darkest end of all 10 symphonies, no question. However, Mahler was at his happiest when first writing it. The slow movement is one of the most touching outpourings in music. I never, ever feel I’ve been through *only* tragedy when I conduct it, or hear it. I go through many things, and may leave the stage an emotional wreck, yes, but that’s another matter…

    Point is: it’s not ONLY tragic. It’s not even, to my mind, MAINLY tragic. You know the one thing I’m left with after conducting this piece? LOVE. Pure and simple. Love.

  • Paul Johnson

    That has moved me, because it’s how I feel too. The andante is ravishing and I believe it to be as much about Alma as Mahler himself. The soaring moments of the first movement are references to Alma.

    Even the 9th Symphony has its positive moments. Henry Louis De La Grange the renowned Mahler authority said of the adagio “There are moments where the desire to live, work and exist in every possible way are as strong as the presence of death. No quiet resignation.

    One wonders, after the tremendously refined first movement of the 10th Symphony, how it would have progressed had he completed it, not to take anything away from Cooke’s completion which is miraculous.

  • James Locke-Scobie

    As one of the medical students that you so kindly call a musician, I helped deliver my first baby after said weekend of Mahler. I’ll remember both things for the rest of my life, and both things inspired many of the same emotions in me!

  • This pleases me James, on so many levels. Thanks for posting!

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