About Mahler

“One of us must be crazy and it isn’t me” wrote Vienna’s most influential music critic, Eduard Hanslick – baffled over Gustav Mahler’s mish-mash of styles

The “Mahler boom” in the 1960′s and early 70′s attracted countless admirers to the music of this highly complex genius — amongst them myself, a fledgling musician and unabashed admirer of the craft of orchestral trumpet playing. The adolescent thrill of hearing Gustav Mahler’s music for the first time, and particularly hearing the pervasive role in which trumpets are cast throughout most of his complex scores, remains with me today. I’m proud to be a musician, and hearing the complete cycle of Mahler Symphonies for the first time served as the catalyst for me to become a musician. Mahler’s symphonic music is an emotional lightning rod — my pulse still quickens at the funereal opening of the Fifth; I cringe when the hammer blow falls in the Sixth; and my heart soars with the chorale at the end of the Third. The triumphant marches of the Second and Seventh bring goose bumps, on and off the stage, and the final movement of the Ninth, as well as of Das Lied von der Erde (Der Abschied ), rarely fail to bring tears to my eyes — a confession that I’m very proud to make.

What is it, then, in the language of Mahler that makes it so compelling to listen to, to play on the trumpet, or simply to study? Is it the characteristic Mahlerian juxtaposition of the tragic and the banal (Mahler’s first known piece was a polka preceded by a funeral march!), or allowing such beautiful trumpet writing to live side-by-side with such turmoil, that so quickly underscores his undeniable genius and identifies his unique voice? Is it a knowing eye and ear for theater that served Mahler so well during his term as Director of the Vienna Opera — the most powerful job that a musician could hold in the Habsburg Empire? Is it his undeniable faith, so generously and unabashedly revealed in his Resurrection Symphony, living simultaneously within a man who was also fascinated by Faustian philosophy (note Mahler’s astonishing coupling of a medieval Latin hymn tune and Goethe’s Faust in the second part of Symphony No. 8) and oriental mysticism (Das Lied von der Erde)? Or is it some inner conflict exemplified by, in Leonard Bernstein’s words, “the shame of being a Jew and the shame of being ashamed” that lies at the heart of his music? Mahler once claimed, late in his life, to be “thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed”. In spite of the possibility of his inner turmoil is being overstated here, I believe that it is safe to say that Mahler’s soul was rarely at peace… much like his music.

To these questions, I offer no definitive answers. I simply play, teach and occasionally conduct Mahler’s riveting music. It must be said, however, that simple realization of the highly detailed instructions that Mahler left us is only the initial step to then be followed by many more which comprise a great performance. Musical interpretation, especially in professional performances of canonical works, can be seen as an ongoing conversation with colleagues, the audience and, very importantly, those who have preceded us. When we sound the opening of the Fifth Symphony, we’re not engaged in some sort of neutral transmission of notes on a page — we’re expressing our deeply personal views about this passage. Furthermore, when we play it in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, New York’s Carnegie Hall or Vienna’s Musikvereinssaal (or, perhaps even more, when we record it) we are contributing through those views a “conversation” that goes back to Mahler himself. As a result, any musical performance is always more than a commentary on the piece — it becomes a personal statement on both the composer and the many performances that his works have received to date. Opening our own windows to learn as much as possible about the man and his complex musical world allows us the freedom to interpret Mahler’s music — the orchestral trumpeter’s art.

Written September 17, 2009

Last updated October 22, 2010  

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