What’s the deal with Gustav Mahler?

What’s the deal with Gustav Mahler?

I don’t get it. Mahler is one of the most popular composers with the WQXR audience and with the New York Philharmonic audience. I do not understand it.

10.17.09 This post will be a running journal of my time spent with the Mahler symphonies.

I note at the outset, I have zero musical training, not even music appreciation courses. I had my father’s introduction to Classical music; back in the 1960’s, I had Sid Mark and Joel Dorn at WHAT Jazz in Philadelphia.

Today, I have John Schaefer, David Garland, Terrance McKnight and Nadia Sirota for classical teachers at the new WQXR, and for Jazz I have Dan Buskirk and Will Constantine at WPRB, Princeton, NJ. For Jazz I also have everyone at WBGO, Jazz 88, Newark, NJ. And, especially these days for New Music, Marvin Rosen, also at WPRB.

When I want to immerse myself in some composer’s music, I put it in some order in my Zune software, and then sync it to one of my four 120 gig Zune .mp3 players. I take the player with me on my exercise walks, on planes, to the dentist, wherever. And I listen down through a cycle. If it is Jazz or Rock, Keith Jarrett or Bob Dylan; if it is Philip Glass, or Steve Reich, then I have them in chronological order by year. I just put the year in front of the album name in the ID-3 tagging in Zune or Windows Media Player. If it is one of the older classical greats, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or, in this case, Gustav Mahler, then I just put the symphonies and concerti in number order. I also have the album art in Zune, icons do help the memory.

So, I am starting in with the Mahler Symphonies.

cover

So, up to date I am through just the 1st and 2nd symphonies, and one movement of the 3rd. I repeat, I just do not get it. First, for me, too much brash brass carrying the main theme. The strings seem secondary. Too almost militaristic. And, no “hooks”, no melodic themes that just grab at you.

Back in 1993, Stephen Hill at Hearts of Space presented Program No. 332, “Deep Forest: Music of the Rainforest Pygmies”. About this music, he said,

From sweet child-like solo pieces to angelic group choruses, the Pygmies’ music is intensely melodic and filled with natural hooks….”

Deep Forest

Colin Turnbull

Beethoven is full of hooks. So is Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg, Philip Glass, Arvo Part. Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Howard Shore’s music for Lord of the Ring – all hooks. From Mahler I remember nothing. When my friend and I are in the car on the way to go cycling or hiking, we listen – in his car – to Classical music. Very often I can say at least who the composer is, because they seem to have a “footprint” in terms of voicing, rhythm, harmony. All I can think of about Mahler – so far – is LOUD. BRASS. THE WEST POINT PARADE GROUND.

So, what I would like is for someone, anyone out there who can type and who knows Mahler and enjoys his work, tell me for what I should be listening, help me navigate my way into Mahler.

I will be continuing this post as I go through the Mahler.

10.23.09 Well! Into and through the fourth symphony, and viva viva Mahler!! What a difference. Lyric, lilting, a veritable ditty after the first three. Much more do the strings come to the fore and carry the melodies, instead of being almost drowned out by the brass. In the second movement I even heard a short violin solo.

This was such a surprise that I figured something wonderful must have happened in Mahler’s life. Composers have to have it all in them; but some thing or things must act as a stimulus to bring it out. Did he get married? Divorced? Maybe a new child? Did someone who oppressed him go on to the great beyond?

So, I hotsied myself over to Wikipedia to compare the chronology of the symphonies with the Maestro’s life. Alas, nothing is apparent.
I am just happy that I found something more to my liking, and now I can go on with a positive attitude.

10.30.09 Well, not much outdoor exercise; but a fair amount of the Mahler. The last several days, I was stuck inside in rainy weather. So, Tuesday, I decided to redo the Digiteria.

IMG_0983Digits galore

While I did this, I listened to the Symphony No 5 and Symphony No6. The one movement I loved was the slow fourth movement of the No 5. I recognized it right away, from, I think, a Sarah Brightman concert. Today, I got out for a walk with Symphony No 7. It was not as bombastic as the first three; but, alas, nothing to grab me.

11.4.09 This is just a sad quickie update. I have now been through the first nine Mahler symphonies. I quit. It turns out I do not have the complete tenth symphony. I must say – I am sure it is my loss – Mahler is wasted on me. I just do not get it. I said up above that nothing sticks. For me, there is nothing to stick. No hooks, no repetitions of melodious themes. So, on to to other things.

I do believe that this is the way to immerse oneself in a composer or performer. Get a lot of the work, it could be Bach, Jimmy Smith, Emerson Lake and Palmer, John Coltrane, Philip Glass, EmmyLou Harris, Miles Davis, Steve Reich. Put them into some sort of date order (easily done for Zune or Windows Media Player by going into Edit in Zune, or Advanced Tag Editor in WMP11 and putting the year in front of the name of the album. Put symphonic works, concerti, etc., in number order.) Then listen on down. Look for the growth. Look for the dynamic. Look for the shifts in compositional style.

Any comments, please, do not hesitate.

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