Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Me, Mahler and MI6

Mahler's 9th Symphony always reminds me of the News of the World. More specifically, their old strapline 'all of human life is here'. Certainly, all of my life is contained in that music. That's why it means so much to me.
I first heard it on the radio when I was about 14. Mahler became very fashionable in the sixties so I thought I'd give it a try.
It blew me away. A crude slang phrase but I can't think of a better one. I decided to play it while writing this piece but I'll have to turn it off because I can't see the keyboard through the tears. Familiarity has never diminished its power to move me, even though almost nothing makes me cry these days. Perhaps it's a 'conditioned response'. I prefer to think it's the terrifying yet uplifting experience of seeing your entire life pass before you without the usual prerequisite of actually drowning. That couldn't have been true when I was 14 so maybe it was intimations of the joy and the pain and, ultimately, mortality that lay ahead.


After hearing it on the radio I saved up my pocket money and set off to the music shop in my provincial town to buy the record.
The man in the record department regarded classical music as an exclusive club of which he was the self-appointed membership secretary. He asked me if I wanted the Bruno Walter version. I said I just wanted the Mahler version, so we got off on the wrong foot.
Things got even worse when I let slip that we only had a mono record player. Stereo was not very common in those days and quite expensive. He gave me a long lecture about the absurdity of somebody claiming an interest in serious music who didn't own a stereophonic gramophone. My father held this man in contempt after hearing him say at the interval at a concert "the timpani were half a beat late coming in during the Third Movement".
But, although feeling as chastened and humiliated as a 14 year old who has tried to buy condoms at the chemist, I went home clutching my expensive boxed set of Mahler's 9th and sometimes played it in my bedroom on moonlit nights when I wasn't playing Love Me Do or Like A Rolling Stone.


Many years later in London a friend told me that he liked Mahler so I lent him my now rather scratchy LPs of the 9th.
This friend had always been rather eccentric but one day he came to my flat late at night in a state of great agitation and said that MI6 were following him everywhere. "They're outside in the street now", he said.
Stupidly, I got up and looked out the window and said I couldn't see anyone.
"Of course you can't", he said. "They're secret agents. They're masters of disguise."
Shortly after this he left the country, presumably with MI6, MI5 and possibly the M4 Traffic Police in hot pursuit. This was a great relief to me until I realised that Mahler had gone with him.


Twelve years passed. Twelve long Mahler-less years. Twelve years of Rondo-Burleske, lived very much allegro and al dente, or is that something else?
Then, living in Newcastle, I saw a poster for Mahler's 9th at the City Hall and bought a ticket. I've never liked attending concerts because I always find myself studying the shoes of the First Violins. But I closed my eyes and the magic began to happen. Then, at the end of the second movement a man in front turned to his friend and said "What do you think of it so far?"
"Well, it's good for a laugh", his friend replied.
I haven't been to a concert since.


A few years ago I finally bought the 9th on CD - Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. Amazon didn't interrogate me about the quality of my CD player and, so far as I know, the timpani's timing is correct to a nano-second.
I've said little about the music because I know almost nothing about music. But it's music characterised by polyphony and montage, by things happening on different levels simultaneously with 'samples' of waltzes, folk tunes and operatic melodies overlaid on top of the main themes.
Do you see where I'm going with this? It anticipates contemporary techniques used in club dance music (which I also love), in which different tracks are super-imposed.
More than genius. Revolutionary genius, 100 years ahead of his time.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put the CD back on and cry like a baby.
You can scoff all you like. It's my CD and I'll cry if I want to.

7 Comments:

At 1:47 PM, Blogger Paul G. McCurdy said...

Thanks for the great memories. I love Mahler but am also on the 'outside' -- I don't know Walter from Karajan. I still lean toward the 5th symphony (largely because of the film Death in Venice), and Das Lied von der Erder has been the one song I'd take with me to a desert isle for the last dozen years.

 
At 5:12 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I also like the 1st symphony but I should really get to know more of his work including the songs.
Nice to hear from a fellow gay Piscean who likes Mahler!

 
At 7:06 PM, Blogger cello said...

I will share a tear with you Willie, any day. Only music can do that to you.

Willie, it would be a great pleasure and privilege to tell you about some of the songs, and if you don't know Das Lied von der Erde then prepare to be blown away once again."O Roschen Rot" might make a fine funeral item for you.

But if you like that referential style, incorporating snatches of other pieces in a sort of musical collage then try and listen to Berio's Sinfonia sometime. Not only does it have snatches of Mahler and others it also has lots of bits of the 60s popular music that we both love.

Sleep tight, Willie.
x

 
At 7:46 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

cello, many thanks for those tips. I need to up-date my Amazon wish list because there can't be many shopping days left to Christmas.
Of course, if the BBC's experiment with Beethoven is extended, then it may be possible to download lots of classical music for free. Maybe it already is on other sites.

If you ever wish to give me other recommendations please feel free to use the Peacockian email on my profile.

 
At 3:06 AM, Blogger Rob said...

Willie, you're not alone in finding Mahler overwhelming. The ninth I ddn't really appreciate until the (amateur but very competent) orchestra I played with did it in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe some years ago. It is shattering, although the sixth is equally so, I think. The second is the one that has the effect on me that the ninth has on you, of making me emotional and causing flashbacks. I played it not long after my father had died, which was a very strange feeling. When the offstage brass kicked in in the last movement it really did seem that if music was going to be played for the purpose of awakening the dead, then this would be that music.

There is a rather wonderful story of a bloke called Gil Kaplan, who was the publisher of something like the Wall Street Journal, very rich and with no special interest in classical music. Some friends had a spare ticket for Mahler 2 and took him along. Not only did he cry openly (one gets the impression that he barely retained enough control of his functions to get out of the concert hall) but the music quite literally changed his life. From that day on he devoted himself to the music of Mahler, and the second symphony in particular. First he collected recordings, and went to concerts, and bought a score and learned to read music. Then he had conducting lessons and learned to conduct it. He studied Mahler's original manuscript, his working conducting scores, his letters, everything. The he started conducting the piece at every possible opportunity. He has now recorded it twice: the first recording with the LSO, while a budget recording, received reviews when it came out that put it second only to Simon Rattle and the CBSO (released around the same time). Since then, Kaplan (who normally only conducts the second symphony) has flirted with the fifth and (I think) the third, and has now recorded the second again with the Berlin Philharmonic. Apparently this one is even better, which is saying soemthing. I have the earlier one, as well as the Bruno Walter recording, and it stands up very well by comparison.

The moral is: music can change you, and Mahler's music more than most. (Though I think Wagner has that effect on people, and Bach, sometimes.)

 
At 7:16 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Rob, many thanks for that interesting story. I must listen to the 2nd which I don't think I've ever heard.
I conduct the 9th quite well in the privacy of my room. Maybe I should do what Kaplan did. As a child I had a disastrous encounter with the violin, which I must write about one day. It's surprising it didn't put me off music for life.

 
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