Monday, July 23, 2012

Mahler's Second Symphony

There are few other pieces of music which move me as much as Mahler's Second Symphony does. I imagine I first heard it at the end of 1983 after Tom Field introduced me to Mahler in preparation for a recital given by Maureen Forrester at our college. But I don't remember really falling in love with the piece until the following year when I was in Europe. I had bought a tape of Bruno Walter's recording with the N.Y. Philharmonic and listened to it hundreds of times throughout 1984-85.
The first time I heard it live was in summer 1986. My Austrian girlfriend was visiting me that summer, while I was living at a friend's apartment near DC and working with my college roommate in his record stores in Northern Virginia. I somehow found out that Maureen Forrester would be singing the alto solo part with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the Riverbend Music Center on the Ohio River, a good 10 hours from DC. My old VW Rabbit was on its last legs, so if I was going to make it out there, I'd have to find someone as crazy as me to drive us out there.
Janet Kirkly, a fellow DJ from our college radio station WCWM, was up for a road trip, so she drove Johanna and me out there. We broke up the trip on the way out by spending the night in a motel somewhere in PA.
A friend of the family, Charles Bell, played French horn in the orchestra, so I contacted him beforehand and had him order us tickets. We stopped by and visited him and his wife and child before the concert. I'll never forget walking into the practice room in his house, which was lined with records of virtually all the existing recordings of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and other heavily brass-laden composers. Quite a beautiful site for a lover of the classical repertoire!
Well, you drive two days to hear a large-statured, aging Canadian contralto sing a four-minute solo in an outdoor performance of a piece you've never before heard live, and you expect to be disappointed. Janet, who was heavily into punk at the time, quietly left somewhere in the long first movement (longer than Beethoven's entire Fifth Symphony!), realizing that the music wasn't to her taste.
I had fallen hard for Maureen after hearing her give a recital at William and Mary in October 1983, primarily because of the charm and intensity she projected from the stage. That charm, the intense performance (I believe Michael Gielen was conducting), the warm evening, my Austrian girlfriend soaking up my enthusiasm - it all made for an unforgettable First Time. I went up and spoke with Maureen on the stage afterward where Johanna took a picture of us together.
Then we were off. Janet wasn't particularly disappointed. A road trip is a road trip, but she and I both had to be back in DC the next day for work, so we drove through the night. When she and I were too tired to drive, Johanna tried but Janet was so scared she wouldn't get us there safely that she ended up driving the rest of the way herself.

Maureen sang Mahler II (and Berlioz' "Nuit d'ete") in Raleigh a year later, which was also a very moving experience for my new girlfriend and me. At that time I was teaching high school English and German in Richmond and couldn't help talking about Mahler and his morbid premonitions of his own death. When reading early American literature (Poe, Hawthorne, etc.), it is easy to broach the topic of death. Some of the 17-year-old indestructible boys in my classes started calling me Mr. Death, though. And yet it was the resurrection part of Mahler's Second Symphony that so attracted me.
According to the composer's program, the Titan, whose life is explored musically in his First Symphony, looks back at his live once again in the first movement of the Second Symphony. Then he falls, the bird of fate twitters and a chorus of hundreds resurrect him from his grave.
I hadn't fully grasped the reason why this music was so able to move me when I met my next girlfriend. Early on, I gave her Leonard Slatkin's recording of Mahler II and said, "Listen to this and understand me better. You have to like it."
She didn't and she said so. Perhaps a recording can't do what a live performance can. We drove together through a snowstorm to Charleston, WV, to hear Maureen sing "Das Lied von der Erde". I had booked the tickets long in advance (by telephone; this was in the days before Internet) and said I wanted the best available seats. When we arrived, we realized we were in the next-to-last row in the balcony. I went down to the box office, told the woman we had driven all that way and had expected better seats. She remained stubborn but luckily another woman at there sympathized with us and upgraded our seats to the fifth row center at no extra cost.
The Mahler followed Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's "Scottish" Symphony. The tenor was excellent and Maureen was exquisite! What the early Mahler Symphony exudes in hope, "Der Abschied" takes us down to the netherworld of our thoughts, helping us realize we are all just mortals.

After that relationship ended and I still hadn't found anyone to love Mahler with me, I had a revelation. Curiously, it was a professor from the University of West Virginia who helped me jump across the chasm. Leading me and a classroom full of teachers through a journaling exercise, during which he sent us into a twilight state, he told us to freewrite whatever was on our mind when we woke back up. I wrote, "Sterben musst du, um zu leben." That is the main message in Mahler's Second Symphony. I took that as a sign to quit my teaching job, move to Germany and start studying musicology. "Now or never," I thought. You have to die (give something up) in order to live (get on to the next stage in your live).
Needless to say, I've never regretted the decision. Over here in Germany I've been able to study music, go to lots of concerts and learn a great deal about the arts in general. I've never heard a bad performance of Mahler II. The Stuttgart Philharmonic's performance one Sunday morning brought me to tears. Listening to a performance by the RSO Stuttgart from the fourth row made me realize what a prominent role the solo trumpet plays (in this case by the wonderful Thomas Hammes).

I guess I've learned this about the piece: It is not the Mahler you should start with. Listen to his First and Fourth Symphonies first. Then listen to his songs. If you like them, then you're ready for the Second. And if you're ready for the Second, you're ready for anything!

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