Friday, June 25, 2010

Nereffid versus Mahler. Episode 1: Prologuey thing

I first heard the music of Mahler 25 years ago in what are probably not typical circumstances. I was the proud owner of a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and was diligently going through the user's manual when I came to the chapter on how to produce sound. The BASIC command was BEEP (duration, pitch) - basic stuff, indeed. Well, the example tune they gave was the opening theme of the third movement of Mahler's Symphony no.1. Of course this is just a minor-key version of "Frere Jacques", as I soon realised. Exotically, though, the manual described the music as "the bit where the goblins bury the U.S. cavalryman". To this day I don't know what that's supposed to mean - is it maybe a reference to Ken Russell's film? As a further exercise, the manual offered the tongue-in-cheek suggestion "Now program the rest of Mahler's First Symphony". I hope that somewhere, someone did.
I thought no more of Mahler for some time, although the ZX Spectrum did have a significant impact: the theme tune to "Manic Miner" was Grieg's "In the hall of the mountain king", which I found in my father's record collection, which led on to the rest of the Peer Gynt suite and the piano concerto, and then Tchaikovsky's piano concerto, and then, and then... Things, as Rich Hall once said, snowball.
Our story resumes some years later, when I was browsing in the college music library and found Mahler's 1st. "Hmmm, I wonder what this sounds like coming from an actual orchestra rather than a beeping computer..." I was instantly hooked, and sought out the rest of the symphonies. Mahler very rapidly became my favourite composer, and remains so today.
But why? Oh, he just is. Presumably when you listen to your favourite composer's music, your mind creates all these images, associations, feelings, and stories that make it seem much more than just music. Maybe with Mahler it's more than that; I don't know. But his music instantly fitted me like a glove. It's got that just-right quality that Leonard Bernstein memorably talked about with Beethoven, but for me Beethoven's just-rightness and wonderful inevitability are purely musical in nature - the consequence of key relationships, decisions about tempo, note choices, etc. Whereas with Mahler I hardly hear the formal musical concepts at all, just as when you're watching a great film you tend not to notice that its overall story structure is probably pretty much the same as most other films you've seen. Mahler's symphonies are stories, a combination of narrative and idea that I've never heard anywhere else.
I haven't listened to much of Mahler in recent years, and with 2010 being the 150th anniversary of his birth (and 2011 the 100th of his death) I decided it was high time to renew our friendship. But this couldn't be just a case of taking out my faithful recordings (generally, one of each symphony) and listening to them again to remind myself of all the things I love about Mahler. No, that would be way too easy. Instead I decided to take advantage of the fact that my eMusic subscription allows me to get any of Mahler's symphonies (except maybe the Eighth) for little more than, and often less than, one euro. Over the last several months I've been vastly expanding my Mahler collection through eMusic, supplemented with various recognised classic performances that I didn't own. And so begins a lengthy project to listen to many recordings of each of the symphonies and songs, not in a vain quest to find "the best" but to look at Mahler from as many angles as I can, to find new ways of listening and understanding, and to work out what it is I like about the music in the first place.
So join me as I blog intermittently about my Mahler experiences over what will probably be a couple of years (I've ended up with far more recordings than I anticipated). Nereffid versus Mahler: come get some!

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