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.