My Ultimate Mahler Experience

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Mahler? You gotta be kidding?

    Okay! I admit it. I'm a Gustav Mahler fan. The other day, I boarded AMTRAK from San Diego to LA for no reason other than to hear a performance of his Eighth Symphony, known as "Symphony of a Thousand."

    "Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand!" I burbled to my LA buddy "Jane" two months ago. "Do you realize how rarely this is performed?"

    These days, they get by with a bare bones complement of merely 400 singers and musicians, but that's enough to bust the budget of any symphony orchestra. Moreover, Mahler is an acquired taste. Who is going to turn out to hear Mahler?

    Okay, maybe nine or ten thousand at the Hollywood Bowl on a week night.

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    Jane had the tickets and a picnic. Her friend brought some more goodies. I brought the wine and the good weather.

    Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand premiered in Munich in 1910, with an 850-strong chorus and an orchestra of 171. The composer himself conducted. The performance brought down the house. Wild clapping and stomping went on for 20 minutes. "Long live Mahler!" the kiddies in the chorus cheered.

    Eight months later he was dead at age 50, of a weak heart complicated by an infection. On the moment of his greatest triumph, he was already a dying man.

    That same year, in Paris, an unknown Stravinsky premiered "Firebird." A new age was afoot. Mahler would soon be forgotten. It was only when Leonard Bernstein began championing his cause in the 1960s that Mahler became a household world in classical music circles.

    That was the beginning of the cult of Mahler. You either loved him or hated him. Nowadays, he attracts a far more broad following. Still, to the uninitiated, his music can sound terribly strange.

    I counted eight or ten french horns and eight solo vocalists. Not to mention an organ, plus three others on various keyboards.

    "Only one tuba," I commented. "You'd think he could have made this a two-tuba symphony."

    Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen brought down his baton. The air around me erupted in sonic splendor. Recordings don't do the work any justice. This was the ultimate cosmic vibration - the origin of all things, the sum total of all things. It was as if Mahler had provided a sound track to the big bang.

    But the guts of the piece was in miniature, akin to a layered chamber work - a single voice against a few instrumentalists here, a solo instrumentalist blending with the voices there. Sections of orchestra, sections of chorus, forces joining up, fragmenting, regrouping ...

    Sound, wonderful sound.

    Eighty minutes went by in a micro-second. Then it was my turn. Play it again! I wanted to shout. Instead, I politely carried on like a football fan tearing down the goal posts.

    Only someone with bipolar could have written something so incredible, and of course Mahler fit the bill. In "Touched with Fire" Kay Jamison describes Mahler as cyclothymic, with a strong family history of mental illness. He was treated by none other than Freud.

    We feel deeper and wider than those around us. We make connections others are too astigmatic to see. Think Beethoven, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Newton, Hemingway, Woolf, Tesla, Marilyn. For that matter, think of that long ago ancestor crazy enough to have brought a burning piece of tree into the cave.


  • We bring the world the gift of civilization, and how do they display their gratitude? They marginalize us.

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    But they're the ones to be pitied. They don't see the world as we do. Or, for that matter, hear the universe. Listen to Mahler and listen to how lucky we are. Listen, just listen ... 

Published On: September 11, 2008