I have just received my own copy of Norman Lebrecht’s classic book on Gustav Mahler, called “Why Mahler?” I borrowed the book often from the library, but realized not long ago that my relationship with it had gone beyond the point of being able to hand it back. I needed my own copy that I could tag and mark up. It is that good.
Reading Mr. Lebrecht’s introduction made me think once again of my own introduction to Mahler and his music. Though I had heard of him, known he was labelled the ‘prophet of doom’, and had written a lot of very sad music, I never sought Mahler out during the years when I borrowed every classical record available from our local library. Too dense, too intense. I was afraid of it. And rightly so.
But then life dealt me and my family a nasty jolt. A family member nearly died by their own hand. It took years for me to even be grateful they had survived. Such was the tortuous and snarled world of ‘mental illness’. It was as though one fell off a tightrope into depression or unmanageable anxiety. There was simply nothing good about it. In this case, it had become my conviction that another family member may have even bullied and traumatized this person into having a breakdown. The possibility of the threat of a near-by predator became just as terrifying as that of the events that unfolded. There was no way out. There was simply ‘down’. I felt isolated. I lived by music. I immersed myself in whatever called to me, and always found myself strengthened and somehow less helpless. But I lived alone with all my thoughts and concerns over these family events for some time, dragging them around with me like a heavy tail I could feel but not see.
But then I happened upon a coffee concert at the Minnesota Orchestra long ago. In its pre-Vanska days I was unable to enter the hall with anticipation of anything more than hearing mostly war horses played with just about every bad musical habit known to man. So I sighed and prepared to grit my teeth once again, as the concert began. I had not completely given up hope, however, that they might this one time play together with a cohesive sound.
And then the Mahler 1st began, with guest conductor Klaus Tennstedt. The “Titan”, it was called. A god, kicked out of heaven. I felt that way myself sometimes. I was tempted to wonder what pompous and drawn-out angst might await me. And then I heard the flute — the first morning, calling out. I was intrigued. Before long, I was drawn in. Then mesmerized. The mocking insolence of the oboe in the funeral march was a cue to me that I was experiencing a different sort of interpretation. In my own life, I had imagined a dark angel, a magician of the night, as it were, pulling the strings of everyone in my family, pulling us apart. I knew how that felt; Mahler had put it to music.
The opening crash of chords of the last movement made me jump in my seat. How could anyone get inside my head? How could they possibly describe what my experience felt like in sound? How could one contrast the sweet gentleness of life with the relentless viciousness that mocked it? How could both exist together? Yet they did, in Mahler’s world. And in mine. And this orchestra, more often than not a ragtag bunch that seemed to find more significance in the poker games they were playing in the lounge than the music they were called to perform on stage, became, for that hour, a cohesive group playing beautifully, even brilliantly.
I was not alone. My experience had a voice, and this was it. Mahler had gotten inside my head and put my experience into focus. This is life — this is our world — it is sublime one moment and horrible the next, and those who can retain gentleness will somehow survive.
And so began my quest to find out everything I could about this enigmatic composer. I soaked up books at the Minneapolis Public Library. I came to realize that Mahler had lost a family member to suicide; his brother, Otto. I felt then that Mahler was simply the most unusual composer I had heard. I still do. It is for this reason that I was compelled to title the second episode of PIPER TO THE ALTERNATIVE “Titan”. It was simple. Nothing else would do.
Now I need to get back to reading and poring over and mussing up my very own copy of “Why Mahler?” 🙂