All Commentary
Monday, January 16, 2017

Try Again, Without the Acceleration: Mahler and His World

What we learn from rehearsal that we can't see in performance.

There are several passages in Gustav Mahler’s first symphony that are surprisingly dramatic but extremely difficult to perform. They occur right at the end of sections when the tempo picks up quickly and rushes to a sudden ending.

The players must develop an internal sense of pacing and it must be coordinated across all sections. Timing is the problem. It can’t be done by the conductor alone. No hand waving causes it to happen. The players must develop an internal sense of pacing and it must be coordinated across all sections. One person with a different sense ruins the effect.

I didn’t know how difficult this is until I attended a rehearsal of the piece, purely as a spectator, by the Emory University symphony orchestra. It was an absolutely fascinating experience because the orchestra was sight reading the symphony for the very first time. It’s not a professional orchestra; many of the players are history or chemistry majors or something else. They do this because they love the music and nothing more.

And yet, there it was, perhaps my favorite piece of music for as long as I can remember, coming to life right in front of me. Here we have 100 musicians with nothing more than their instruments, a conductor, and music stands with papers, and on those papers are a series of lines and dots plus instructions in German. And yet what emerges is the sound I love, the symphony that rocked Europe in 1889 and, twenty years later, received its premiere performance in New York as conducted by the composer himself. Today the piece – among Mahler’s most accessible works – is as commonly performed as many pieces by Beethoven and Mozart.

Mornings, Musical and Real

As I sat in the rehearsal hall, students struggling their way through a thicket of musical complications, the memories came rushing back. I was perhaps 9 years old and I had the vinyl record, a turntable, and a timer switch used for holiday lights (it was quite the innovation at the time). I set the switch for 7:00 am, and the turntable would begin its rotations, causing the vinyl to fall on the spinning plate; the arm with the stylus would drop and begin to play. I would be in bed and begin to listen.

The music has the effect on the brain like a perfume; it creates and recreates deep and complex experiences.Then I would hear Mahler’s expansive split octaves in perfect stillness, indicating a scene, perhaps clean air and a sunrise. There’s no motion, only sound. After some time, the clarinets and flutes would begin to make small sounds like animals reacting to the appearance of the sun. It was a nature scene, a forest waking up, and the activity would grow until it became full-throated with prettier and more defined themes.

It was a beautiful way to wake up in the morning, and my habit of listening to this piece daily continued on for many years. Even after I finished college, I would recreate this morning experience once CDs came out, and I had since moved on to listening to symphonies 2 through 7 (to this day 8 and 9 elude me).  

I hadn’t known this was happening to me but I realized it once I arrived at the rehearsal. This symphony had become an essential part of the soundtrack of my life. The sounds recreate experiences I had, emotions I’ve felt, places I’ve been, people I’ve known.

The music has the effect on the brain like a perfume; it creates and recreates deep and complex experiences, bringing with it penetrating pain, striking joy, and everything in between. But whereas perfume is a fluid with a chemical form, the music we love is pure sound, rendered on soundless paper and illuminated with inaudible dots, thanks to the greatest invention of the Middle Ages.

Mahler’s Jewishness

I can recall as a child being puzzled by the third movement of this symphony, the slow one that sounds like “Frère Jacques” except in a minor key. The theme is initially stated by a lone string bass, confident and slow but isolated. When I was younger, the power was lost on me, but as an adult you know more and the ear develops the patience to understand.

This symphony made its debut in Vienna in 1900, in the most culturally and intellectually vibrant spot on planet earth, a place that in so many ways represented the hope of humanity. Mahler was like Ludwig von Mises, both Jews at home in this place of wonder, accepted and respected but still facing some measure of suspicion from the ruling class. Mahler, for example, played it safe and joined the Catholic Church. But in this one movement – in the symphony that introduced his work to Vienna – he added this third movement that is unmistakably Jewish.

The theme alone is suggestive.

But as it develops, the Jewishness of the piece becomes more obvious, with an impersonation of a Klezmer band.

Mahler knew for certain that he would always be known as a Jewish composer, no matter how acculturated he became, no matter how high the circles in which he moved or married, and no matter how tolerant and diverse Vienna had become. This movement, then, was his open acknowledgment of his personhood and history, a public expression of the identity of the composer and the people his presence represented.

It is impossible to listen to this movement without also hearing the weeping and cries of pain that the subsequent history would reveal. It was composed in love and with confidence. And yet he could not have known, and surely no one did in those days, the terror and horror that would befall Vienna 35 years hence, with the advent of war and mass death and the end of freedom itself.

Mahler died in 1911; within a generation it would be illegal to perform his music in his home city. Mises was driven out too. So was Sigmund Freud and thousands of other intellectuals. The diaspora was the result of the Nazi takeover and crackdown on human rights, shattering the most beautiful and most advanced experiment in liberalism in Europe.

The symphony had been composed in the last years of what is sometimes called the Age of Laissez Faire – a world without passports, confiscatory taxation, restrictions on movement; slavery was over, technology was on the rise; women had gained rights; world peace seemed approaching a state of permanence. Then, in the blink of an eye, it ended, and the horror began with the Great War and all that followed.

Today, in light of this history, it is impossible to listen to this movement without also hearing the weeping and cries of pain that the subsequent history would reveal. We listen today with new knowledge and awareness, making this piece the same as it was when it was composed but also different because we are different.

A Tribute to Imperfection

We lose something when we hear only perfection. Most of the recorded music we hear today is either perfectly performed or nearly perfectly performed. This is true no matter the genre: we hear the final, perfectly mixed cut, performed by the best of the best. Professional live performance is not that much different, especially in the classical realm. Even with my training and background, I cannot discern differences in quality between the New York Philharmonic and the Denver Philharmonic or the Columbus Symphony. There are so many amazing musicians available today.

We lose something when we hear only perfection. We lose access to the human drama of the struggle to improve. We lose appreciation for the sheer difficulty of the task – even the seeming impossibility of porting something as mighty as Mahler’s first across time and space and bringing it to life in a new time and place for a new audience.

For me, listening to nonprofessionals is so much more engaging. The possibility of error is always present and so the listener is in the role of emotionally cheering on the players, with an ear that forgives flubs and looks forward to continuing improvement. And you discover the relative difficulty of passages you might know so well but had no idea the level of mastery necessary to make them right.

Let’s return to those difficult passages in which the orchestra is asked to speed up the pace dramatically as the ending approaches. To achieve this requires one hundred hearts and minds to play in sync with each other, with instruction but without a scripted direction.

Let us continue to practice freedom until we get it right.  During the sight reading session, conductor Richard Prior demonstrated the effect in his direction but the first result was confusion and disorientation. He backed up and said “try again, without the acceleration.” He said this was necessary so that the musicians could understand how their own parts worked with others and how the harmonies and rhythms fit together. He used the phrase “understand the architecture.” And so it proceeded and I was permitted to hear it too. The acceleration can come in later rehearsals, once the fundamentals have been internalized.

Piecing this masterpiece together is no easy task for the Emory Orchestra. They only have a couple of months to achieve this before they get on stage and perform it for the city.

How much more difficult would it be to piece together the world and institutions that existed when Mahler composed this? How much more of a struggle to recover the love of learning, liberty, peace, and tolerance that formed the firmament that inspired its creation?

We have the recordings. We have the dots and lines on the page. What we lack is the experience itself. I know of no other way to acquire this than to come to a greater understanding of the institutional architecture by trying again and again, practicing freedom until we finally get it right.