Thursday, October 1, 2009

on Mahler's Ninth Symphony

The orchestra and I had our first rehearsal on Mahler's Ninth last night. One member of the orchestra commented that he thought I looked like an old man as I walked into the hall -- not surprising, as this symphony has taken a lot out of me.

My teacher, Otto-Werner Mueller, used to tell his students to be careful studying Mahler, because something can happen to you, and creep into your soul. And when the symphony in question has (what many to believe to be) a preoccupation with death, you begin to get an idea of what it's like to take on this mammoth work.

Bruno Walter, who knew Mahler well and conducted the premiere of the Ninth a year after Mahler's death in 1911, calls this symphony "Mahler's masterpiece." And many believe the first movement to be his finest symphonic movement -- structural and spiritual perfection.

Why so?

Michael Steinberg believes it has a great deal to do with Mahler's mastery of the transition, which, next to variation, is perhaps the most challenging aspect of composition. Think about it for a moment: you write something, and then you have to move on to the next event, seamlessly. No bumps or grinds.

David Letterman makes it look easy every night with his first transition: how does Dave get from the stage to his desk without millions of people looking at his backside? Simple -- introduce Paul Shaffer. Or, in other words, create a diversion.

But Mahler has no such luxory. He must skillfully move from one event to the next without so much as a hiccup. (Mahler frequently litters his score with the directive unmerklich - - imperceptible.)

And so the first movement begins Andante comodo (a comfortable walking tempo), and proceeds from there to go faster (Allegro moderato -- moderately fast), then still faster (Allegro), but then there are other moments when Mahler clearly wants to get your attention, by suddenly (Plotzlich) getting slower. Towards the end of the movement, Mahler gets slower still, then very slow at the end.

How many tempos altogether, just in the first movement? I couldn't begin to count them all -- Mahler is clearly trying to attain some kind of overall rubato (from the italian, rubare, to steal time, but in music, rubato usually means to steal time and then give it back. . . listen to any great pianist playing the music of Chopin and you'll get an idea, as the left and right hands move in different tempi, but always end up together).

That's the ebb and flow -- what about the stuff of this movement? What makes it symphonic? The first thing you hear is an irregular 3-note rhythm (Mahler's heartbeat? a doctor told him to cut back on his vigorous exercise regimen when he detected a valvular dysfunction) played by the cellos and fourth horn. The harp immediately answers with a regular rhythm (is this Mahler's way of saying, 'but I want life! I have more to say!'), then another horn takes it a step further by playing an amalgam of the two -- part regular, part irregular -- this has the makings of a theme. Still only a fragment, with heroic potential, but it gives us some hope for a melody to come.

Then the second violins make their first entrance. . . is this a melody? Or is it the beginnings of one? Two notes, like a sigh, falling. Again two notes. More resignation. They expound a bit, but silence remains a big part of their music, as if they are searching for a way to express themselves, and what they wish to say continually eludes them.

And so, in the first moments of this symphony, you are given an irregular and regular (heart)beat, a (heroic) motif, and a haltering theme of resignation. A lot for you to digest, certainly! But these musical seeds are all you need as you traverse this nearly half hour of music, Mahler's masterpiece of ever-evolving transitional variation.

And we have only just begun.

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