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.
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.
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 JewishnessA 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.
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.