Welcome to My Mahler!
Over 2010/11, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham International Season present Birmingham's first ever Mahler cycle - marking the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death, and 150 years since his birth. The Birmingham Mahler Cycle features great orchestras and great conductors - and of course, some of the most incredible music ever written.
Mahler's music is unrivalled in the powerful emotional reactions it inspires. So, as we go on an exhilarating journey through this mind-blowing musical world, we want to hear your thoughts, feelings and reactions. Whether he moves you to tears, sends a shiver down your spine, or leaves you with a deep sense of peace, your response is sure to be as individual as you are - your Mahler.
James is Director of Communications at the National Youth Orchestra
“For some people the word ‘unfinished’ is an instant turn-off. It doesn’t matter how much a composer completed their piece, if it’s not all their own, the purists aren’t interested. Those who make this judgement with Mahler 10 do so at their peril.
As some orchestras programme it alone, it’s become a common misconception that Mahler only really wrote the first movement, but this isn’t true. Delve into the detail and you’ll find that every critical note of the five movements is the composer’s own. There’s no pastiche here, and no melodic Polyfilla jammed into cavities.
It’s Mahler right to the end. The end, in fact, is possibly more Mahler than anything else he wrote but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
It starts with violas alone. In context, this is a thrilling feature. Mahler’s much-heralded ninth symphony, ends in defeat, with only a frail viola heartbeat wavering weakly in the final bars. It’s those same violas which resume the action here, tentatively veering one way than another, almost as if they have entered a new realm and are now cautiously finding their way in the afterlife following the defeat of the ninth. If this feels like a curious moment for Mahler, it’s because almost all his canon features not one line but two. About a minute in, the violas find their counterpoint and we’re back in more familiar territory.
Never moreso than in the final movement is the composer’s trademark counterpoint more apparent. Scholars say he took this from J S Bach, which is true, but for me it says something else.
Two lines in Mahler is generally two people: him and his wife Alma.
Take the ardent Agadio of his sixth symphony; it’s seldom more than two lines interweaving, trying to find some kind of consolation together, and we all know he wrote that piece about her. The same occurs here, but with even more emotional potency as the dense orchestration of the earlier symphonies is stripped right back. We know that Alma had already betrayed him by this point in his life and, on the original score, the final pages are scribbled with exclamations of how much still loved her and needed her. When the violins make their final skyward leap, it’s like he’s desperately reaching out to her one last time. For me, it feels like the whole endeavour of his symphonic output distilled in one gesture and, for that reason, always makes me cry.
If your Mahler journey usually ends with the ninth, I urge you to join those hardy violas and take a step into the beyond. After all the drama and the tumult and the ardour, you end up seeing the man himself.”
This is another wonderfully powerful reflection on a lifetime’s Mahler, handed in to the CBSO stand at Artsfest last weekend:
“When I was a teenager, I treasured my Classics for Pleasure Symphony No. 1; then in my bedsit, I wallowed in No’s 5 and 6; loved Visconti’s ‘Death in Venice’; identified with an American poetry book title ‘Mahler Grooves’. Lush, rich, reflecting the surprising sounds of everyday life and the inner turmoil of consciousness – romantic yet insistently modern.
Over the years, my adolescent crush was tempered by other composers, other musics; but I still loved to hear now and then Kathleen Ferrier with the lieder and Rattle’s readings of the big monster symphonies. So I’m delighted – in my bus pass years – to have discovered Uri Caine’s small scale, fresh, imaginative and cool reading of this eternally fresh composer’s oeuvre. Mahler still grooves for me – forty years on.”
Here are two of the great responses to the question ‘What does Mahler mean to you?’, collected at the CBSO’s Artsfest stand in Birmingham last weekend:
“A feeling in your heart and a tingle down your spine.”
“A vast musical canvas which often seems to progress inexorably towards its final purpose.”
Comment below to let us know what Mahler means to you – and don’t forget that the Birmingham Mahler Cycle opens tomorrow night with the Symphony of a Thousand!
Michael , 17 from Newbury, is a trombonist with the National Youth Orchestra:
“I will never forget my first encounter with a Mahler symphony: I had been recommended a recording of his ‘tragic’ symphony with the LSO and Maris Jansons (stunning!) and sat in the dark late at night, totally immersed in what was, at that point, the most powerful piece I had ever heard. I was struck by the humanity of the work, with its expression of love, fear, inevitable death and bitter sarcasm.
For literally weeks, my Mahler obsession became so uncontrollable that every minute that wasn’t spent listening to Mahler was spent contemplating it. Two years down the line, I have tempered my obsessions, rationing myself to only complete listenings on occasions. Mahler 9 is now my favourite symphony.
While Mahler 6 is (in my humble opinion) a healthy man contemplating and predicting his own downfall and eventual death, his ninth shows the difference between imagining the feeling of unbearable suffering (hence the almost fantasy-feel of the first movement and theatrical hammer-blows) and then knowing what it feels like to be suffering a fatal illness. I find it fascinating that while the sixth is in A minor, the ninth is in D major. The love of life seems always present – the first movement’s first subject never fails to send shivers down my spine and on certain occasions has been known to make me weep…
The first time I realised my Mahler obsession had reached the sky was when I was reminded of my activities the morning after a rowdy party. So the story goes, I was provoked by a friend who declared ‘Mahler is whiney rubbish’, at which I jumped on a table, called for everyone’s attention, and lectured for a few minutes on why Mahler is a genius and why everyone should love his music.
Presumably my argument was not coherent, but hopefully my passion did any necessary converting!”
A fascinating interview with the comedian, writer and creator of The Thick of It, In The Loop and The Day Today from The Times earlier this year: