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December 29, 2011

Winding up the Mahler year at the keyboard

To mark the centennial of Mahler's death in 2011, I finally read, cover to cover, the last volume in the monumental biography of the composer by Henry-Louis de la Grange.

It's a 1,700-page tome, so it took several months of that year for me to get through it. Not that I'm a pathetically slow reader, just that I usually don't feel much like reading after a typical computer-heavy day at the paper, and .... well, no point in making excuses. I made it. That's what counts. OK, so I didn't read every appendix, but will return to them I'm sure.

Anyway, it was a terrific experience to become immersed in the minutiae of the last years in Mahler's life -- and I do mean minutiae. De la Grange crams in everything and everybody; the footnotes alone (yes, I did read all of them), would make a good-sized book.

Even when things became just a little dull as a result of all that detail, it was still worth it. The net effect was that Mahler seemed more alive and approachable than ever.

And I kept discovering little things that intrigued me. The gay couple, for example, Mahler befriended with apparent ease and sincerity. The fact that Mahler conducted at the National Theatre in my hometown of Washington, something I had somehow overlooked before. Reading about his trip made me realize that he also saw my current home city of Baltimore on the way to and from, if only from a train window. Cool.

The book exposed some really big problems, bigger than I previously realized, with ...

New York critics during Mahler's time at the Metropolitan Opera and, especially, New York Philharmonic. It seems impossible that so many of them could have been so blind (or deaf). De la Grange takes understandable delight in also including reviews Mahler received on tour with the Philharmonic -- not the first or last time that critics in the provinces have been closer to the mark than big city fellers.

Like recent biographies of Tchaikovsky, this one persuasively debunks the notion of a composer filled with premonitions of his own death. Mahler, de la Grange argues, was far from a deep depression until the fatal illness struck.

The composer/conductor would have returned for at least one more Philharmonic season, despite the problems he was having with some folks in management or the board. Mahler's untimely death seemed all the more pitiful as I read the closing pages. Imagine the things this guy could have done had he lived even another year or two.

As my final Mahler-year fixation, I have been enjoying a Christmas gift from Robert -- a new reprint of a 1920s book of excerpts from Mahler symphonies arranged for solo piano. Ages ago, I found some of this music in a public library (San Diego, I think) and made now well-worn copies of a few selections. It's great to have the whole thing in one neat volume.

No idea why there is nothing from the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies, but there are plenty of other things to tackle, which I have been exploring during my week off from work. I find it curiously satisfying to pluck out this music at the keyboard, as if the mere act of producing the notes brings me a little closer to Mahler. (Of course, all my tempos are terribly slow. But, hey, I like my Veni Creator Spiritus on the deliberate side.)

In the next few days, I may get out and stumble through all my other Mahler transcriptions -- a vintage Peters edition of Symphony No. 5 and  wonderful arrangements done recently by Serge Ollive

I'll give Mahler a little rest after this blast, but I know he will still figure in my musical life in 2012. And 2013. And 2014. And .....

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:23 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes
        

Comments

Thanks for your detailed comments on the Mahler book. I have read the other volumes, and I need to follow your example...

Please take a few minutes to explore my Blog on classical music:

http://www.myclassicalnotes.com

I'd appreciate your comments/suggestions...

IN MY CASE I READ THE FIRST THREE VOLUMES OF DE LA GRANGE MAGNIFICENT WORK...BUT I HAVE NOT GOTTEN AROUND TO READ THE FOURTH VOLUME OTHER THAN THE FIRST 170 PAGES...I WOULD LOVE TO FINISH READING IT...BUT MY AGE (79) AND STATE OF HEALTH PREVENT ME..I AM USING CAPS DUE TO VISUAL IMPAIRMENT...I FIRST DISCOVERED MAHLER UPON HEARING A NY PHILHARMONIC BROADCAST WITH STOKOWSKI CONDUCTING THE 8TH SYMPHONY,,,THAT WAS IN APRIL OF 1950...I WAS 17 THEN AND ALL I REMEMBER WAS THAT IT WAS LOUD AND LONG....HOWEVER BY 1956 I BECAME A MAHLERITE WHILE TUNING INTO THE FIFTH SYMPHONY ONE WEEKEND....IN THE COURSE OF TIME I ACQUIRED ALL HIS RECORDED WORKS...I HAVE DOWNLOADED ALL THAT SERGE OLLIVE HAS TRANSCRIBED SO FAR...BUT HE HASNT DONE ANYTHING NEW IN THE LAST THREE YEARS...HE DID TELL ME HE WAS WORKING ON THE FIRST MOVEMENT OF THE NINTH...WHICH I EAGERLY AWAIT....BUT AS HE SAID IT MIGHT BE SOME TIME DUE TO HIS SCHEDULE BEFORE ITS COMPLETE....IT MIGHT INTEREST YOU TO KNOW THAT THE 8TH SYMPHONY IS AVAILABLE IN VOCAL PIANO SCORE..BY SERENISSIMA MUSIC INC...IT IS NOT THAT HARD...ALSO I WAS ALSO ABLE TO ACQUIRE HE OPENING MOVEMENT FROM THE 10TH SYMPHONY AS A PIANO DUET BUT WITH A LITTLE BIT OF INGENUITY ONE CAN MANAGE TO COMBINE BOTH PARTS AS THEY ARE UNDER EACH OTHER...THIS FROM UNIVERSAL EDITION....OTHER THAN THAT I ACQUIRED 5TH SYMPHONY ARRANGED FOR PIANO SOLO...THE ONLY PUBLISHED SYMPHONY OF HIS IN THE PETERS EDITION...FOR ME MAHLER HAS WRITTEN THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MUSIC EVER...

THANKS SO MUSIC FOR YOUR WONDERFUL COMMENTS. I HOPE THERE WILL BE SOME WAY YOU CAN FINISH VOLUME FOUR AFTER ALL. PERHAPS FRIENDS COULD TAKE TURNS READING AT LEAST PARTS OF IT TO YOU. I LOVED HEARING ABOUT HOW YOU CAME TO MAHLER. THE FIFTH SYMPHONY DID IT FOR ME, TOO. AND THANKS FOR TELLING ME ABOUT THE VOCAL SCORE OF THE EIGHTH. I JUST MAY TRY IT OUT. THEN AGAIN, THE WAY I BUTCHER THE MUSIC AT THE KEYBOARD, IT MAY BE BETTER IF I LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE. BUT IF SERGE DOES COME THROUGH WITH THAT FIRST MOVEMENT OF THE NINTH, I WOULDN'T BE ABLE TO RESIST IT. THANKS AGAIN FOR WRITING. BEST WISHES. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog
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