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Mahler’s 9th Symphony; Loren Maazel and the LSO. 21st June 2002

Mahler’s 9th is mysterious.

The other symphonies – especially the early ones – are very concrete. They are soundscapes of mountain rockformations, summer moods, military bands, twittering birdsong. As the series progresses they become increasingly abstract. Increasingly eliptical.

The religiosity of the 2nd, the Resurrection Symphony, is a well-established Christian one. When the Chorus came in after that astonishing musical painting of the Last Trump that precedes it, singing “Auferstehen, wir werden auferstehen!” – it must have spoken very directly to a shared, communal sense of comfort and redemption in the mainly Christian Vienna of the turn of the century.

As a questing, deeply spiritual lapsed Jew, Mahler moves on through the symphonies to other more personal, less communal paths of transfiguration. There is the secular, Nietzschean narrative of the 5th, the Vedic trajectory of Faust’s remains in the second movement of the 8th and then, in the 9th, an almost opaque but triply intense sense of personal dissolution into the Infinite.

Everyone says it is Mahler’s great essay on death. There are plenty of reasons to think that this obsessive death motive can be overplayed. But musically there is a calm, less paranoid, approach to death and what comes after.

There is the Great Shake of the last movement.

A “shake” is that musical ornament that twiddles the note before the very last note in centuries-worth of Classical music. It’s the dum-dum DIDDLE DIDDLE dum that you can hear in Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven. Essentially it’s a musical cliché. But just as Beethoven took tiny phrases and span epic movements from them, Mahler take this slight ornament and turns it into a vast, last sigh. An extended meditation on the penultimate. On the last moments before death, the final chord.

This sounds heavy and it is. Coming out of Thursday’s performance of the 9th, I felt like I’d had a near death experience. Like my life support had cut out, I’d gone Outer Body for a hour or so and then mysteriously come back into my seat at the Barbican.

Infact there’s a moment in that immense last movement when it seems that after endlessly repeating that elongated, swollen paradiddle, death actually comes. There’s a harsh brass incident and it’s as if the line has been crossed. The protagonist, (that is music) has moved from a subject dying to an object dead. From being in the music, suddenly we’re outside, observing the music from the other side. It’s the same slow, slow turn but its now on the Other Side and we can only observe it disappearing. From then on all we hear are echoes, traces of the thing that’s vanished. It’s an eery experience. And one I don’t pretend to fully comprehend. But it’s beyond any thing that music usually evokes.

But Mahler aimed high. Speaking of Beethoven, he said that in the future Beethoven’s nine would be eclipsed by his own. What may have seemed monomania at the time has now been proven correct. Mahler’s symphonies are played more often and better attended than Ludwig’s. In the last BBC Prom there were 4 Mahler symphonies and only one Beethoven.

So, what is it with Mahler? His symphonies are immense. They require vast expensive orchestras and last for hours. (The third clocks in at over 2 hours.) And yet they are immensely rich. Provided you can sit still and listen for those long stretches of time (not an easy accomplishment in our nanosecond world) there’s never really a dull moment. There’s always something happening. There are movements in the set of Nine that are less dazzling than others. But there’s rarely any outright boring bits.

So what’s so amazing?

First and foremost it’s the orchestral sound. There is no other composer I know who is so utterly in control of the orchestral instrument. Close your eyes and put on a piece of Mahler and there is the most seamless, organic growth of sound. An aural organism that swells and shatters, twitters and morphs like a huge biosphere. It’s hard to know which individual instruments are making the sounds. It’s the most extraordinary soundscape.

There are moments when the orchestral goes mad all playing at once. There are numerous instances when the swirling harp swoops up on the back of a huge orchestral wave exploding into a vast space of sound. (I’m thinking particularly of that moment in the long slow movement in the 4th where it sounds like the massive gate of Paradise are opened and suddenly everything is vast and luminous beyond vision. ) There are moments where the weird drama of the soundscape is startling. The cascade of offstage trumpets in the 2nd. The troll-like floundering of the tubas at the end of the 6th. The offstage snaredrum just before the recapitulation in the first movement of the 3rd.

Then there’s the psychology of the Mahler world.

The American composer Aaron Copland said the Beethoven was like a man who walked down the street and was great. Mahler, on the other hand, was a man walking down the street pretending to be great.

And it’s that self-consciouness, that shifting, playful, sometimes neurotic personality that makes Mahler so attractive to the listener in the 21st century. The grand narratives of liberation that Beethoven subscribed to have been eroded and corrupted. Simply hymning Liberty isn’t enough these days. We’re aware that reality is nuanced. That ideals are often illusory and that simple answers are rarely satisfying.

So Gustav’s grasping for truths alongside his acknowledgement of their slipperiness is attractive.

Take the 5th symphony. The central scherzo is the “World without Gravity” (in both senses of the word). It is an astonishing piece of orchestral writing (most brilliantly performed, I think, in the recording by the Concertgebouw under Riccardo Chailly) painting dizzying speed and mecurial weightlessness.

It doesn’t mean anything. Like all great music it is wonderful precisely because it cannot be reduced to words. It is irreducibly joyful and atheletic. Like Springtime waltzes in space. But like Spring weather it darkens and twists. The euphoria becomes unruly. It becomes dangerous and then sours. And even though the joy returns it is convincing. Joy in life is never pure. It is never unalloyed ideal. Life, like Mahler, is constantly changing.


(This is entirely subjective and will probably be shot down in flames by other Mahler fiends.)

I’d recommend listening to a movement at a time. They’re so enormous (often 15 minutes a piece) that one is often more than enough. Listen on headphones. Lie on the bed. Close the curtains. Let yourself be sucked in.

Here are my favorites:

Symphony 2: 3 Crazed scurrying tornado

Symphony 3: 1 Weird and wild brass mountains

Symphony 4: 3 lullaby that turns into heaven

Symphony 5: 3 World without gravity

Symphony 6: 1 Business and passion

Symphony 8: all of it

Symphony 9: 1 extraordinary

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