Thank you, Gustav

Gustav Mahler
, 1907

7 July 1860, Kaliště in Bohemia, now Czech Republic – 18 May 1911

Because I've been working so hard on composing my art history courses and teaching, and unable to carve out time for personal expressive creation, I've been thinking a lot about Gustav Mahler lately. Mostly about his response to someone about his time spent composing vs. conducting and, perhaps, which may have been more important.

"I conduct to live. I live to compose." —Gustav Mahler

Unfortunately, I don't have the source or context. But, regardless, the drift is clear.

The first time I ever heard Mahler was while watching Visconti's Death in Venice while still in high school at the Ardmore or Bryn Mawr Theater in Pennsylvania. Already primed with a lot of listening to and love of Richard Strauss, I was completely swept away without having any idea of what was happening to me. I was falling in love with the music of Gustav Mahler.

At later viewings, after knowing Mahler's music far more intimately and because of how often Visconti uses themes from that one Adagietto movement from Mahler's 5th Symphony, I had to hold my seat when I really wanted to walk out because of the overuse of snippets of those particular passages and because, though I loved Death in Venice at first sight at 16, I later found it cloying and overdone. Still, considering the time frame in which the film was made and Visconti's attempt to merge Thomas Mann's character of Aschenbach with Mahler, the composer, and, I'm sure his personal experience and maybe, longings...the mishmash, lusciously shot by Pasqualino De Santis, featuring a not so flattering but profoundly made performance by Dirk Bogarde in the title role, it is still a cinematic masterpiece.

Donald Elfman or Chris Rouse, or both, gave me a recording of Mahler's 9th for my birthday - Bernard Haitink's recording (really, if you're going to listen to one thing, listen to this.) recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra — for what must have been my 18th birthday or maybe just for fun, and I fell hard for at least a decade. Really, for the rest of my life

I listened to every recording of any Mahler I could get my hands on and while we were all still hanging out together in Philadelphia, Donald and Chris picked out for me what they thought were the best recordings. (There were few at that time.) A few years later, in 1980 — before the wide public embrace of Mahler — I knew a UCLA professor who would say in lecture, "If you were going to buy stock in a composer today, I'd advise you to invest in Mahler."

I went to Mahlerthons where nut cases like myself would listen to Mahler's entire output uninterrupted. I never actually stayed through the entire 'thon but it was fun to stop by, lay down on whosever carpet it was and listen for a couple of hours.

When you become familiar with Mahler and all of his music, it's easy to perceive it as one, long gigantic piece of music interrupted only by the composer's conducting obligations. A cathedral of themes and variations. I still have scores for all the symphonies. I think. If so, they're in storage near UCONN.

Although I'm listening to Haitink's 9th right now, I haven't really sat down and listened to a Mahler symphony or song cycle in years. If I had a proper system, I'd schedule Jascha Horenstein's 1970 recording of the 3rd with the London Symphony Orchestra asap. It's a little too quiet on computer uploads to be fully appreciated so I recommend Pierre Boulez's more recent recording of the 3rd with Anne Sofie von Otter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra .

The best Mahler symphony I ever saw performed live was conducted by Boulez at one of his Avery Fisher Hall Rug Concerts. It was an absolute thrill, the whole thing. So I downloaded the Boulez version of the 3rd and though it's a completely different approach from Horenstein's, there are some really interesting choices and interpretations and, being as it's conducted by Boulez, it's meticulous and transparent with a web-like rhythmic structure.

I think I read somewhere that upon its completion, Mahler showed the 3rd Symphony to Bruno Walter and asked Walter how he might conduct it because Mahler — the leading conductor at the time — did not know how. Boulez certainly did.

Now, there are plenty of books on Mahler and loads of recordings of his music. Make your life better. Listen to, learn about Mahler if you love music.

Ken Russell made a film about Mahler that only Ken Russell could have made (Ken Russell's Mahler). I think it was  Robert Powell's destiny to portray Mahler and Georgina Hale is fab as Alma. Watch it. It is, I think, the quintessential example of Ken Russel's cinematic expression and, in that, a brilliant, if brutal, portrait of Mahler. In another film, Bride of the Wind, Jonathan Pryce plays Mahler.

I'm glad to have made myself sit down and listen to the 9th again while writing this post. It's been a great, emotional pleasure. Mahler is not easy, especially in this day and age. You have to take time out and really listen. He requires your full attention. At length.

Listening to, obsessing over, Mahler's music has made my life a profoundly richer experience. Thanks again, to Don and Chris for giving me an enthusiastic foundation.

Click here for Leonard Bernstein conducting the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th with the Vienna Phil

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