Mahler’s 9th, part 3: Getting Gotten

NaBloPoMo Day 22!

You know, I have a confession to make: I thought it would be pretty easy to capture my experience of hearing Mahler’s 9th last Sunday; after all, it hit me like a velvet anvil — something you don’t soon forget! And I didn’t expect my review to become a series — I thought I’d come right home and spill it all in a single spasm of manic elation. But I underestimated the task I had laid out for myself, and what it would take for me to feel I’d done the thing justice.

First of all, it’s the kind of experience that just takes a little time to digest; it’s kind of like you ate the elephant all at once rather than in the recommended way. Second, I got caught up in the back story, which I felt was pretty important, and that delayed getting to the music itself. (It’s hard to know exactly how much background you need to give in order to keep up the appearance of being a Responsible Music Scholar. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about things like that! ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) Third, I really wanted to look at the score while I listened to my CD, and the gods of library logistics decided to toy with me briefly before they allowed me get my hands on the dang thing.

Fourth, I just plain think too much. ๐Ÿ˜›

So what I now realize is that I would really like to spend weeks on end combing through it, analyzing it, playing bits of it on the piano, and just generally sinking into it like a giant vat of dark chocolate pudding. But I don’t know if y’all would bear with me through all that (if I’m wrong, lemme know!), and anyway, I have a few other things competing for my attention right about now (don’t we all? ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

Perhaps at some point I’ll work up some kind of detailed analysis that proceeds at a leisurely pace. For now, I’ll simply give my impressions and fleeting thoughts and goofy observations, without attempting to be responsible for all aspects of the piece, including the structure of each movement or the quotations from other works that appear. That info is widely available here on the ‘tubes or in CD liner notes (you should own a recording of this — really, you should), so I don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Also, this isn’t a proper review in that I’m not really going to critique the performance, except to comment on a couple funny things the conductor did, but that’s fair game, right? I mean, the DSO rocks; ’nuff said.

So here are some things that struck me, blissed out and slightly hypoglycemic as I was. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I started to mention before how Mahler makes the most of every section of the orchestra. And one thing I especially love is when what are called the auxiliary woodwind instruments are given a real workout. Piccolo, English horn, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, and — growlingly last, but not least — contrabassoon. All heard prominently, not just used as orchestrational icing. Some of them have enough to do that they don’t double on their respective “regular” instrument, as is often the case: the piccolo player plays piccolo the whole time.

And of course there are several beautiful solos from this group of instruments, but I have just two thoughts for the moment: 1) You don’t hear too many contrabassoon solos — it’s more often used to reinforce the bassline — and as I said yesterday, it’s frickin’ cool! and 2) E-flat clarinet kinda sounds like a regular clarinet after inhaling helium. ๐Ÿ˜€

Yesterday I mentioned Mahler’s use of short motives and sparse textures, in contrast with his usual soaring lines and rich orchestrations. The second movement doesn’t do the sparse thing so much — it sets forth its waltz and Lรคndler themes with the continuity and fullness you’d expect. And I was surprised when I noticed that, in contrast to my absolutely rapt attention during the small-building-block passages, I kind of checked out once a straightforward theme got going. I felt like we were covering familiar ground — no need to be so vigilant. Of course, my complacency was misplaced, as Mahler never stays easy or conventional for long.

Oh, that reminds me, here’s funny conductor comment #1: there were a couple of places where a quiet moment gave way to a bright beginning, and when the conductor gave his upbeat to the new section — conducting the louder dynamic as well as beating time — I could hear him inhale, even all the way up in the balcony. This is what I call a “sniff upbeat” — it happens quite often in chamber music, especially when the parts are very syncopated and the players are working hard to fit them together precisely — they sniff the upbeats together to get the downbeats just right! ๐Ÿ˜€

I’m not knocking the dance-like sections, please understand. I took notes as I sat there in the dark (I’m pretty good at writing without being able to see ๐Ÿ™‚ ), and all I wrote about the 3rd movement was: “Rock ‘n’ roll!” ๐Ÿ˜‰

But lest we get too comfortable, this piece features a higher degree of dissonance than Mahler’s other works — he seems to have gotten the memo that tonality was scheduled to dissolve at some unspecified point during that decade. One device he uses several times is to have one chord still sustaining while another, perhaps harmonically distant, chord comes in. The two chords remain recognizable, but the way they combine definitely pushes the envelope, even for late, late Romanticism in all its decadent glory. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Another standard Mahler trick, which I don’t mean to disparage in any way by calling “standard,” is a particular kind of crescendo-to-subito piano progression. The music builds and builds, with one of his patented unwinding melodies, and just when you get to the place where you expect the really big, loud chord, you get a suddenly soft, suspended, sometimes crystalline resolution. It’s like riding a wave from its smallest beginnings, staying with it as it builds and builds and — instead of crashing down with it on the shore, being gently deposited into heaven, the wave having evaporated into a cloud.

At one point it occurred to me that there might exist, in some dank and dour precinct somewhere, an uptight meanie who might want to argue that Mahler’s music is maudlin. And I wondered if I needed to worry about that, or be embarrassed about shamelessly luxuriating in it, in case that meanie were right.

After careful consideration, I concluded that I just don’t care. ๐Ÿ˜›

A few years ago, I participated in a wonderful 2-week workshop for music theater artists. There were five composers, five lyricists, and five actor/singers. We were grouped together in varying configurations to create new works — I wrote five songs in 10 days! It was crazy, but the results were amazing.

I had a little trouble adjusting, though, because I was still in coursework at UCSD, where the kind of heart-on-your-sleeve sincerity that music theater really demands is, let’s just say, unfashionable. I had to reorient myself to writing tonal music, too, since I had been steeped in modernism for several years by that point. I was afraid that if I wrote down a C-major triad, I would go to hell. ๐Ÿ˜› A few other participants in the program were similarly warped, so we helped each other out. By the end of it all, we had adopted this motto:

Dare to be Corny!”

Sometimes you’ve just gotta give yourself permission. ๐Ÿ˜‰

So I’m not going to be embarrassed by how this music gets me. I know that there are certain pieces of music that will evoke their desired emotional response in me even after repeated listenings, even when I know what’s coming. “Sucker!” I think to myself. But, again — don’t care!

(This kind of thing started, for me, with Chopin, way back in my pre-teen piano lesson days. I think now that Chopin is like a gateway drug. One hit of that, and you’ll be snorting Bruckner and Mahler before you know it! Kids, say no to drugs! ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

I’ll wind this down with funny conductor moment #2. The end of the last movement is a long, gradual fadeout — not the kind you’d find on an old pop record, where the chorus just repeats into oblivion for lack of anything better to do, but a sweet and poignant dying away that keeps you in the palm of its hand and on the edge of your seat until it’s done with you. As the final sustained notes finally died away, the conductor held his last pose for a noticeably long time, and the audience waited — I swear I wasn’t the only one holding my breath — for the ending to really sink in and resonate, for the prickling on the back of our necks to run its course — before he “put the piece down.”

It was so different from what you’d expect from the end of a great symphony — the traditional way involves triumphant chords that put several exclamation points on the conclusion of our heroic journey, and the conductor’s final decisive downbeat lets the audience know exactly when to start with the “Bravo!”s. This ending was no less powerful. In that moment of suspension, the audience was no less elated for being silent. And when the conductor finally signaled it was time, the ovation was just as roaring. In fact, the conductor was brought back to the stage three times, which was good because he needed plenty of chances to acknowledge all those soloists! ๐Ÿ˜‰

It’s uncanny that that image from American Beauty came up for me, as I mentioned yesterday. Because I think the end of the monologue that narrates that magical dancing-bag shot perfectly sums up the whole of Mahler’s music, from the tragic to the triumphant to the transcendent:

Sometimes, there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

It gets me every time.

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    2 Responses

    1. I think something that can be brought to mind is that life in the turn-of-the-last-century Western world included facing death first-hand in ways that few of us in the post-Depression era can even imagine. People ordinarily witnessed people actually dying, not in the theater, not in the movies, not on TV, not with actors feigning death, but real people they knew, cared about and loved dearly die, and would then personally wash, tend and dress the body for burial. Undertakers were a luxury that few could afford or imagine. The abdication of one’s duty of care to a loved one’s memory was shameful and revolting to many, lasting well into the 20th century.

      Having now been privileged and burdened with witnessing, first-hand, the deaths of many, I can say that the not-really-knowing when another has died, passed, given up the ghost, breathed their last, etc. is the actual fact.

      We use the trope “to die away” lightly. It is in fact what most of us will do; we will fade by imperceptible degrees, until the suspense fades and succumbs to the inevitable, without clear demarcation. The “death rattle” is not a guaranteed herald. I have yet to assuredly have heard one.

      Mahler, and his contemporary listeners, knew this process deeply and personally. His contemporary listeners would have recognized the evocation in ways most of us nowadays do not know, and probably will not know for ourselves personally, as the living left behind.

      The ending of the Mahler’s Ninth is a relic and a window on all our mortalities.

    2. My God, that’s beautiful, McDoc.

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