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The Swannanoa River runs in western North Carolina from the town of Black Mountain to Asheville. It is where I live now, and it is spring. 

As I drive through the valley, with the Swannanoa Mountains directly to the south and, further north, in the distance, the lofty Black Mountains — the highest east of the Mississippi — the lower slopes of the Swannanoas are green, the bright green of early spring. The mid slopes are what Robert Frost wrote about: “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.” And the tops of the peaks are still the dusky grey-black of winter. You can see spring climbing up the mountains. The green-line moves fast; a few days ago, it was all grey. Tomorrow, the line will be hundreds of feet higher up the slope, chewing up the grey, until it is all consumed in green. In their half-world, the hills look almost iridescent, the way draped satin will pick up the highlights and shimmer.

And all the while, I have Mahler’s Third playing and — I didn’t plan this; it’s just what was in the CD player — the first movement culminates in a great joyous march that is meant to describe the triumphant return of spring; all the animals and plants, all the hills and rivers are marching in procession like Mummers. It was overwhelming. I almost had to pull over and stop. Luckily, I hit a traffic light. I could steal a look to the left and soak in the iridescence and the utter, unutterable beauty of it all. De Welt is schoen.

I will be heartbroken to leave it when my time comes.

It used to be that January turned to February and February turned to March — and so on. Then, as I got older, it was January-July-January-July. Now, it is January-January-January. I don’t know why time speeds us so in senescence. I think, May is so far off, I don’t have to decide anything yet, then, all of a sudden, it is May again. The earth spins around the sun like a propeller.

It never stops; it only speeds up. Existence is not a thing but a process: nature is a verb, not a noun. It is never the same river; it is always the same flow. The green climbs up the hillside; my years shrink in front of me. I have now seen countless leaves sprout, green, shrivel and fall, and countless lives. The loss builds up and each spring slightly more wistful, more sad and the joyful march of plants and animals, hills and rivers deeper and more grief-laden. All rolled up into a single procession, full to bursting. 

Die Welt ist tief; tief ist ihr Weh. 

Tallulah Rose

Tallulah Rose

I have an interesting “contest” going on with my granddaughter, Tallulah Rose. She is 16 and immersed in music, taking guitar, piano and banjo lessons; she has some genuine talent. When I chauffeur her around on those occasions when I am called on, and am playing some Bach or Beethoven on the car CD, she is apt to say something like, “Classical music is so boring; it all sounds the same.” And, of course, when I hear her listening to pop music on her iPad, my reaction is the mirror: Pop music is so boring; it all sounds the same. So, I scratch my head and wonder.

How can something sound so monotonous to me and not bore her to tears? How can something so varied and glorious as classical music possible sound to her as if it is all the same gluey mush? It is more than a question of taste; we are clearly hearing different things.

Most people are likely to think of this as merely a matter of taste — “I like indie rock, but she likes country,” —  and it is, to some degree — but while someone who likes Taylor Swift may say they don’t like Justin Bieber, they recognize it as merely a different genre of pop, and they wedge into their corner of sound comfort. Is there anything more insular than heavy metal?

But classical music doesn’t seem to function to Tallulah Rose as just one more Billboard magazine chart category, like soul or country-Western or hip hop. Those are all options out there for popular consumption and one chooses the category one feels most simpatico with.

But classical seems to be a different species altogether. It isn’t, for its serious listeners, just one more entertainment option. Its goals are elsewhere.

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse

Tallulah Rose and I thought we might explore this question. She suggested an exchange. She would choose 10 pieces of pop music for me to listen to and I would choose 10 pieces of classical music for her. Tallulah Rose isn’t one of your ordinary junk-music fans: She has high standards for her music and would consider the bands she has chosen for me to be “art,” or at very least music that no one of any musical sophistication would be embarrassed to be heard listening to. She has excellent taste in her music. She picked for me music by Wilco, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, among others. I was to listen to her music and write about it, and she was to do the same for my choices.

What T-Rose chose for me:

1. Jesus, Etc. by Wilco
2. Australia by The Shins
3. Hannah Hunt by Vampire Weekend
4. Ragged Wood by Fleet Foxes
5. Wake Up by Arcade Fire
6. Young Folks by Peter Bjorn & John
7. Little Black Submarines by The Black Keys
8. This Charming Man by The Smiths
9. Missed the Boat by Modest Mouse
10. Dance Yrself Clean by LCD Sound System
Bonus track: Title and Registration by Death Cab for Cutie

In choosing music for her, I felt it only fair that I not bury her under the Bruckner Fifth or the Mahler Third, but try to find pieces of reasonable length, and I chose several movements instead of whole concertos or symphonies. Her music for me tends to run between 3 and 5 minutes. Here is my list for her (She snuck in an extra for me, so I added one extra Mahler track for her):

1. Gabrieli — Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 for brass choirs
2. Bach — Prelude and Fugue in c-minor from WTC Book 1
3. Mozart — First movement of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in d-minor
4. Beethoven — Third movement from the “Tempest” sonata, Op. 31, no. 2
5. Chopin — Mazurka Op. 30, no. 4
6. Brahms — Finale of the Fourth Symphony
7. Mahler — Two songs: Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht? from Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Ging heut Morgen ubers Feld from Songs of a Wayfarer
8. Rachmaninoff — Finale from Piano Concerto No. 3
9. Villa Lobos — First movement from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5
10. Copland — Fanfare for the Common Man

I have listened four times through to all of T-Rose’s music and I can say that none of them is musically unsophisticated, but neither can I say, outside the LCD Sound System’s Dance yrslf Clean, which actually does something with the music,  that they engage my deepest sympathies. Again, I am convinced that my music and hers simply are not attempting the same thing.

For a start, her music’s appeal depends greatly on the lyrics. Even when I read rock criticism in, say Rolling Stone, the criticism is less about the music qua music, and more about the quality of the words. The sentiment expressed is expressed verbally, not musically. (More on lyrics later).

Second, the parts of music that seem most treasured by the rock and pop listener is a consistent beat, often aggressively propulsive. Following that, it is a melody — although in contemporary pop music, melody sounds more like chant than tune — prosody is so slipshod that the same melodic note can sustain a single syllable or three or four, if that is what the words demand.

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

For my classically oriented ear, the unrelenting rhythm is monotonous; I keep hoping it will lead to something, but it doesn’t. For my ear, harmony is paramount. I am always aware of it, shifting from major to minor, or to a Phrygian mode or the endless unresolved but constantly yearning dissonances of atonal or serial music. I am always aware — more than the melody at the top of the orchestral heap — of the bass line. I remember Brahms saying when he got a new piece of music to look at, he’d cover up the top staves and look at the bass line. That way, he said, he could tell if the music was good or not. When I listen to popular music, the bass line is generally undistinguished, often repetitive, and rather more in the way of a continuo — a second reinforcement of the beat slammed out by the drums and cymbals.

When I say her music and mine are not doing the same thing, I mean, in part, that the music part of her music is meant to be a place to drop her head into for a few minutes, to grok on a pulse, while the verbal part is there to express, often elliptically, the concerns of a young mind. At worst, in the kind of pop music T-Rose wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, those concerns are numbingly conventional, but even the more sophisticated lyrics speak to the exaggerated optimism or cynicism of adolescence, the need to be appreciated as wise and knowing, even when those of us who have been through it already, now recognize those attitudes as pose.

angry young men

Slight digression: The question of pose is most obvious in the many band photos used for PR or for CD covers. The musicians look so serious and world-wise: You can’t put anything over on them. But you can run through hundreds of photos and they all seem to be the same people: surly faces, collars drawn up, hands in their pockets standing in a warehouse district street to prove their working-class origins. One can’t help recognize the same memes from the Angry Young Men of England in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s as if every band has seen photos of John Osborne and wants to be Richard Burton from Look Back in Anger or Tom Courtney from Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The straight-jacket of the meme is limiting.

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Vampire Weekend: More hands in pockets

Back to the main issue: The music of rock and pop seems meant to create a pervasive mood throughout the length of a song — and except for a few experiments, all this music falls into the 3 to 5 minute song form.

Classical music, on the other hand, revels in contrast: The tempos keep changing, vigorous first themes alternate with quiet second themes. An established key center is disrupted by a series of wrenching modulations only to be reaffirmed. Instead of a single simple emotion, there is a constant development of emotions. When I find T-Rose’s music boring, what I mean is it doesn’t grow — but then, it’s not meant to. And one of the things she finds boring in my music is that it never settles down into something she can depend on, to give her that one single, clear emotion she wants from her tune.

Another thing: For her music, as I said, the words are paramount. The music behind the words seems to function more like the music in a film: to underline the sentiment, but not to express it directly. Something interesting to hear while the “real” action is happening in the words. For my music — at least for the big 19th century pieces that make up the bulk of the repertoire — the music attempts to make an argument from start to finish, like the slow shift from c-minor to C major in Beethoven’s Fifth, or the chapters of Mahler’s Third, “What the fields tell me,” “What the birds tell me,” “What love tells me.” It works like an opera, telling a story — musically — from start to finish. To hear its meaning, you have to be aurally sensitive to changes in harmony, in orchestration, in dynamics, in the ways the themes change and grow. The way you hear the E-flat arpeggiated tune at the beginning of the Eroica changes from a closed-off, harmony-denying drop to its D-flat in the third bar to that bright, victorious arpeggio in the recap and coda, where the same tune ends on the upper B-flat dominant that seems to rise above all the violence and disaster of the previously heard music. Classical music is about development; pop music seems to be about stasis.

Arcade Fire: yet again -- hands in pockets

Arcade Fire: yet again — hands in pockets

I write as if I think classical music is superior to pop music — and I would be lying if I didn’t fess up to that prejudice — but that is not what I’m writing about here. Rather than argue that one music is superior, I’m saying their goals are so different, so at odds, that it is almost silly to compare them at all. One might as well compare apples to double-entry bookkeeping.

But I wanted to note something interesting about the words in the music T-Rose gave me.

The conventions of prosody have shifted dramatically. In the “old days” — as recently as the Beatles — words were written as poetry and scanned with regular meter, and carefully crafted to fit the tunes. In this, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were no different from Oscar Hammerstein II. Think of such lyrics as, “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” Every accented word drops on every accented note, with the weaker beats hitting off-beats in the tune. A comfortable fit. The same with “Some enchanted evening,” or “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair.”

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night…” or “You should see Polythene Pam, she’s so good lookin’ she looks like a man.”

Even the Rolling Stones followed the conventions: “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes; I have to turn my head until the darkness goes.”

This is what Robert Frost would call playing tennis with a net.

Playing with the net can bring delightful surprise and pleasure. Think of, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes.”

Words and music: Hand in glove.

But listen to the songs T-Rose gave me, and something different is happening: First, the words don’t scan; they are more like snippets of prose. Some words have a strong beat, others fit in the space between, no matter how many or how few syllables. They just cram into whatever space is left for them.

Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie

The song is designed around a short, repeated pattern of notes that are memorable, or are meant to be memorable. The words fill in the interstices and the music is a mortar between the word-bricks. (This method would seem to derive from the blues, with its statement and licks, but they no longer follow the 12-bar harmonic pattern of the blues).

“You’ll be damned to pining through the windowpanes,/ You know you’d trade your life for any ordinary Joe’s,/ Well do it now or grow old,/ Your nightmares only need a year or two to unfold.”

There’s no regular rhythm to the words. But over and over in these songs, I do hear a pattern, and it is a surprising “revenant” from the past: It is the pattern of Medieval English verse — the four-beat line split in half with a caesura, or pause. Like The Seafarer or Piers Ploughman, the lines come with heavy stresses counted, but unstressed syllables come willy-nilly, and always that pause in the middle.

“I looked on my left side (pause) as the lady me taught
and was aware of a woman (pause) worthily clothed.”

Think of the line by Pope: To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Then try these lines from Ragged Wood, by Fleet Foxes:

“Come down from the mountain (pause) you have been gone too long
The spring is upon us (pause) follow my ornate song.”

If Norwegian Wood had been written by Wilco, no doubt its words would be something like: “I got a girl (pause) She had me.”

(I doubt this is in any way a conscious or even unconscious DNA reappearing in pop music from the distant past, but rather that there is something meaningful in such a line that means it can reappear like convergent evolution that makes a marsupial Dingo look like a canine. Anyway, I’m sure I’m over-analyzing that habit.)

The pattern occurs in song after song that T-Rose gave me. With this one variation. In some songs, the two-beat (pause) two-beat is followed by a closing three-beat line. The Black Keys’ Little Black Submarine:

“I should’ve seen it glow (pause) But everybody knows
That a broken heart is blind” (three beats).

(In conventional prosody, “I should’ve seen it glow” would scan at three beats — “I SHOULD have SEEN it GLOW” — but with the music under it, it has only two beats: “I SHOULD’ve seen it GLOW.”)

It’s a whole different prosody; a whole nother esthetic.

I have listened yet again to the songs on T-Rose’s list, and I can hear many interesting bits in them. I even came to think very highly of the music in Dance yrself Clean — it actually goes somewhere. But overall, I’m stuck where I began: Popular and rock music — even indie music — is too simple musically, too repetitive, too harnessed in its beat, and written with lyrics created under an esthetic that I am simply too old to be simpatico with. I can respect it, but I cannot enjoy it.

I think the same for Tallulah Rose: I believe, on her part, she has already given up on Bach and Copland. I have not heard anything from her about it.

conductor ecstasy

“It doesn’t matter how badly they played,” said my old mentor, Dimitri, “if the symphony ends with a lot of loud, rousing brass, it will get a standing ovation.”

It is the end of a symphony, more than anything that has gone before, that leaves the most vivid impression on its audience. And I don’t mean the coda of the finale, but those last repeated chords that hammer home the end, those tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant tuttis that were so viciously lampooned by Eric Satie in his Embryons Deséchés.

Satie embryons deseches 1

Sometimes they never seem to be willing to give up and let you go home. Beethoven’s Fifth is the poster child for this cliche (not that it was a cliche when the composer first did it).

But ever since, the bringing home the tonic key and signing off a 45-minute symphony has been left to block chords pounding our ears.

There are exceptions, of course, and there are many examples of composers doing something interesting, surprising and creative with those end notes.

Here are my top five symphony conclusions:

Brahms symphony 2 with arrows

Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D, op. 73 — This is the symphony that Dimitri meant when he talked about rousing brass. No symphony comes close to the exciting, fresh, explosive yelling-it-out in ecstasy rah-rah that winds up this monument. It’s already loud and compelling when the trumpets, horns and winds sing out a quadruple-repeated and harmonized Nachschlag (turn) and do it again a third higher (first yellow arrow in the score). The audience is going “whoopee” and then the trombones and bass trombone hit and hold a D-major chord (which Brahms particularly marks fortissimo) over the staccato final chords of the rest of the orchestra, and finally resting on a tutti D. Wow. You always want to stand up and cheer at the end — which audiences habitually do.

Haydn Farewell Symphony

Haydn, Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp, “Farewell” — Modern instruments can negotiate most keys fairly well, but in Haydn’s day, F-sharp was a pretty out-there key, which made this symphony strange sounding to begin with. There was an extra bite of instruments that could not quite play easily in key. This is the only symphony Haydn wrote in this orphan key. It is a “Sturm und Drang” symphony, full of sound and fury, accentuated by the odd key choice, but the finale ends in a whimper, not a bang. It is the opposite of the Brahms. In fact, Haydn has the instruments stop playing, one by one, and walk off the stage, leaving only two violins at the end playing a simple A-sharp below an F-sharp, as the concertmaster blows out the candle that would have illuminated his sheet music. A visually dramatic end, and a musically audacious feat.

Sibelius symphony 5 piano score

Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat, op. 82 — Silence is the astonishing surprise at the end of Sibelius’s Fifth, also, but loaded in between otherwise standard cadential chords. It was a really audacious thing to do — bring the symphony to a rousing climax and then stop everything for five beats, then hit another chord and wait again. Over and over at the end, with irregular silences between the bang-chords. If you count them, you can see the rests are oddly spaced, which gives the music a real off-balance feeling, like you cannot know what to expect. If you count out the rests in quarter-note time and the outbursts of tutti, you get: 1-2-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-Bang, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-Bang, 1-2-3-Bang. (When he wrote the first draft of the symphony, those rests were filled in with noodling in the orchestra, the effect was bland, but he left these “black holes” there instead and blew the minds of his audience.)

Mahler symphony 9

Mahler, Symphony No. 9 — The last notes of Mahler’s final symphony, after 80 minutes of angst and rancor, are marked “ersterbend,” “dying.” The last two pages of the symphony take a full six minutes to play, attenuated and stretched to the limit of concentration by player and audience alike. They are orchestral whispers — death-bed speech as the music quietly accepts death. When played with the proper attitude, the audience greets the final silence not with applause, but with hush. In Amsterdam in 1995, when Claudio Abbado played it with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Mahler Festival, the audience stayed silent for several literal minutes before any applause, each member gazing into his or her own private abyss before coming back to reality and applauding the performance.

Leningrad children prepare for gas attack

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 15 in A, op. 141 — This has to be one of the most peculiar symphonies in the repertoire, with its quotation of the Lone Ranger tune from Rossini’s William Tell in the first movement, and turning Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde into a waltz in the finale. But the final moments of the symphony are a complete enigma: Over a hushed pedal point in the violins, which goes on for two minutes, the percussion ding, snap and clang quietly in a mechanical tick-tock over and over, with xylophone, woodblock, castanets, glockenspiel, tympani, snare drum and triangle until a final C-sharp (the third of the tonic A-major chord) dings a final punctus, sounded on glockenspiel and celeste. What was Shostakovich thinking? He never explained. He smiled like the Cheshire cat.

Beethoven symphony 9 strings

One last note — There is one symphony ending that has a surprising finish that you almost never phase 4hear. It is buried under a welter of excited sound. When the chorus sings its final “Götterfunken” at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the coda that follows builds up steam quickly and drives home to a final D major chord. It is in the final chords that Beethoven hides an extra fillip: He has his fiddles, which are already racing as fast as they can go, double the number of notes they have to play — dig-ga-dig-ga to diggadada–diggadada — and the tympani doubles its speed, too. This detail is usually buried in the overwhelming drive of the rest of the orchestra, but one recording makes the change clear: a 1967 recording by Leopold Stokowski and the London Symphony, originally released on a London Phase 4 LP, with singers Heather Harper, Helen Watts, Alexander Young and Donald McIntyre. Its drive is overwhelming.

BSO
It’s odd, considering how old much of it is, that classical music is so recent an invention.

We think of classical music as being longhair music written by dead White guys. But, in fact, Mozart didn’t know he was writing classical music. He was just writing music.

“There’s only two kinds of music: good and bad,” jazz icon Duke Ellington said. (Mozart is in the first group.)

Bu something changed over the centuries: As mass audiences grew to like popular music, the kind of music written by the older composers was relegated to a new category: classical.

“Classical music is the kind we keep thinking will turn into a tune,” humorist Kin Hubbard wrote in the 1920s.bugs plays piano

And, increasingly, audiences diverged; one group went to the dance halls, the other to the concert halls. Classical music became marginalized, especially in American culture. It became a target for the Three Stooges and Bugs Bunny.

Yet a hunger for music that addresses larger and more complex issues has always existed alongside fiddle tunes. Even in the world of rock music, some music is understood to be more important than others. Radiohead has serious fans that would look down their noses at, say, Justin Bieber.

The distinction should be made, not so much between classical and pop musics, but between music created primarily as an entertainment and music that attempts to express more profound human issues.

There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. We all love a good song. But it isn’t the only thing there is. And we should not judge the one by the standards of the other.

Everyone knows what to listen for in popular music. They have a lifetime of dealing with it. The beat, the tune, the words, the instant gratification.

Rock music now has the “wow” factor, the light and spectacle. And now that’s what people expect, to be bowled over emotionally, to get their juices pumping.

Classical music is emotional, too, but it’s more interior and subtle. And it’s dramatic in ways audiences just aren’t familiar with anymore.

Drama is the key word: Like a play or a film, classical music deals with multiple characters (called themes) as they interact over time, and where you start isn’t where you end. Like I’ve written before: Classical music is movies for the ear.

Popular music is a place; classical music is a journey.

Listen to Mahler and one movement may take 45 minutes. But there are so many ideas juxtaposed in so many different ways that your mind starts spinning. You connect A to B and then A to C and then C to F. It’s all interacting in different ways.

You have to come to the concert hall prepared for that journey. You have to come equipped.

There are five important ways classical music differs from pop.

* Its length.

Classical music is almost always longer, In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida notwithstanding. Pop music may be likened to music videos, classical to a full-length feature. The plot takes longer to develop.

* Its dependence on harmony both structurally and expressively.

A sonata is built on D-major or F-minor, and the elaborate and subtle changes in harmony are both the structural and expressive content of classical music. You don’t need to know the name, but you feel the changes of harmony in your chest, physically.

* Its reliance on variety and contrast.

Unlike pop, which sustains a single clear mood, classical moves constantly, now fast, now slow; now loud, now a whisper. It seldom keeps a single mood for long, but asks you to compare and contrast.

* Its multiple simultaneous voices, or counterpoint.
Fugue

Whether it’s a fugue or a quartet, there almost always is more than one thing going on at any given moment. You have to be able to hear two or more things at once.

* And finally, on the importance of “active listening.”

That is, the importance of paying attention and following ideas as they change and develop through the course of the piece.

Memory is the important part. You need to have a musical memory of some kind to distinguish between what happened before and what happens now.

You have to pay attention, the way you would when reading a novel, keeping track of what’s happening to Raskolnikov at any given time and how he changes over time.

Of all these things, harmony is the hardest to discuss in words. There is no non-musical language to express the modulation from D-major to A-flat. You have to hear it.

Or you try to describe it in words that can’t possibly mean anything to a non-musician: An enharmonic shift, followed by a run around the circle of fifths. How about the Neapolitan relationship? Does that mean anything to you? Didn’t think so. But you can hear it without naming it. Like the way you can hear the “changes” in 12-bar blues. You can feel when the phrase starts anew, with each round of chord changes.Brahms Fourth

It’s only more extreme when you follow the same kind of repeating chord changes in the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony: You feel the drive of those harmonies racing to the finish line.

Harmony is the emotional effect created by playing several notes at once as a single idea. It also is the movement from one set of notes to another, and the emotional effect created by that shift.

Western music has the idea of expectation and release in it. Play a dominant-seventh chord and then try to stop. You can’t do it comfortably. You have to have it resolve.

Harmony, more than rhythm, provides the forward motion of classical music.

Of course, pop and classical aren’t mutually exclusive genres. It’s more of a spectrum of intent: There is pop that tackles serious issues and there is classical music meant merely to entertain.

And there are many classical musics from around the world: Indian, Chinese — and for many of us, American jazz — are classical musics. They all tend to be longer and more complex than the popular music from those same cultures.

Classical music isn’t only music with violins and oboes. It can be made with synthesizers or electric guitars, as any fan of Philip Glass or Steve Reich knows. Classical is not a style but an approach; not a sound but a way of thinking about music and what music means.

If all this makes classical music sound like work, well, it is. It requires more from the listener. But there is a reward for all the effort you put in.

It reaches depths of our souls that everyday music just doesn’t.

And it satisfies the hunger that poet William Carlos Williams defined: something that is difficult, but “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Popular music deals with thoughts and emotions that are understood and already defined; classical attempts to understand things that we don’t yet fully grasp: the big questions of life and existence that don’t have simple answers.

Like all fine art, it seeks rather than finds, it defines questions rather than provides answers.

It’s a richer experience, and some people gravitate into it with age and maturity. People can graduate from pop to classical music, but it seldom happens the other way round.

jumping for joyIn Shelley’s Ode to a Nightingale, he reminds us that “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” And in classical music, our greatest symphonies, quartets, sonatas and trios all give us a complex emotional universe — and the greater the music, the more likely it will contain heavy, dark, profound and difficult emotions. When it’s doing its job, a symphony is not background music.

You can go through it all: Even music that is ostensibly about joy tends to be about a kind of manic fervor or about the transcendence of the pains of mortal life — not simple happiness. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” for instance, is so over the top, that sometimes you just want to say, “Boy, get a grip.”

Happiness would seem to be the province of the popular song — Feelin’ Groovy, or Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies (you should hear Duke Ellington’s take on that one in Blues No End). What you feel coming out of a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony is something different — rung out, depleted yet renewed, taken through the paces of all of life. Happiness is irrelevant. Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’ First, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, Mozart’s Jupiter — They are all large, complex and attempts at metaphor for the joys and pains of being alive.

“Our sincerest laughter/ With some pain is fraught.”

But mere happiness? You can look long and wide to find anything that simple in classical music. And yet …

And yet, as I was driving to the store the other day, with Brahms’ First Serenade in the CD player, I felt a swelling of pure happiness as I listened. The music flew by with a genuine joie de vivre, a thought you rarely think when Brahms comes along. Johannes is all gravitas, Weltschmerz, longing — it used to be joked of Brahms that when he is happy, he sings, “The grave is my joy.”

But here he is, without a thought in his head, spinning out tunes of unreflexive pleasure. The horns and clarinets seem to dance their way through the six movements, with no angst over whether the G-major of this theme leads to the e-minor of that one, or whether the rising fourth here is balanced by a descending fifth in the finale. None of it, just tunes. Bouncy, happy tunes. Who knew Brahms had it in him.

And I began to consider other pieces in the standard repertoire that might share something of this simplicity, this sheer pleasure in the notes —  that feeling of walking along on a sunny day with some spare change in your pocket, knowing you will see your sweetie in the evening and whistling a happy chune. Happy couple

Could I list at least 10 such compositions: It was a challenge I set myself.

First up, of course, come Schubert’s “Trout” quintet. No one has ever written so many hummable tunes in a single piece of music, from beginning to end, pure forward-moving bouncy, danceable melody. It is the counterweight to that other quintet, the string quintet that seems to bind up in its aching arms all the sorrow and pain of the world. In the “Trout,” there is none of that, only hope and pleasure and everything that a major key can shout.

Did Beethoven ever write anything so worry-free? Beethoven had bigger fish to fry. He was busy creating a new century. And yet …

Buried in that treasure hoard of piano sonatas — the so-called “New Testament” of piano literature — there is one tiny sonata in G-major, op. 78 — alla Tedesca — that has nothing but bounce and verve. It is short, clever, witty and fun. Not your usual Beethoven adjectives.

Haydn, of course, is the fountain here. You can pick almost any of his works and find acres of wit, bounce, pleasure and fun. There are his more profound moments, but pick any symphony in the 60s or 70s and you can run from start to finish with a smile in your heart. When I want to feel good, I snap in a Haydn symphony to listen to.

For instance, the Symphony No. 73 in D, “La Chasse,” which ends with a fox hunt, a rousing ride through the countryside with horn and hounds.

Or the Symphony No. 60 in C, “il Distratto,” which has a joke larded into it every 11 bars — you never have to wait long for another one, like a New York City bus. There’s the place where he stops and has the orchestra retune, right in the middle of the finale; there’s the second theme in the first movement, that just stops in its tracks harmonically and seems to fall asleep. But it isn’t the jokes, per se, that I am touting here, but the sheer joy of the music, unalloyed with anything like “the saddest thought.”

If you want to find the same music, but in a 19th century idiom, you have it in Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C, which he wrote when he was a mere stripling of 17. It begins with joie and ends with enthusiasm and in between it is stuffed with buoyancy and energy. You cannot listen to it without it putting a bounce in your step.

I had the pleasure of seeing the New York City Ballet perform George Balanchine’s Symphony in C at the Palais Garnier in Paris, and I couldn’t tell which thrilled me more, the choreography or the music. It is one of the high points of my esthetic life and kept me smiling for days, even weeks.

You get something of the same confident buoyancy in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, written as a virtuoso piece for orchestra, and everyone gets to join in the party. No shadow hangs over the music — it is all joy.

The 20th century is a sorry one, filled from end to end with war, murder, oppression and genocide. But there are points of light in the music. Prokofiev may have the three great “War Sonatas,” with all the weight of the world on them, but he started out with his Classical Symphony, which is a nod back to the music of Haydn, but with all the hot sauce of Modern dissonance tossed in for spice. The music bounces its way from the get-go. You can’t have a heavy thought while listening to it.

And Paul Hindemith — who used to count as one of the big three of Modern music with Stravinsky and Schoenberg (how the mighty have fallen) — joins my list with his Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. He is helped out, of course, with the jaunty tunes that he culled from Weber, but he costumes those tunes with the happiest, bounciest orchestrations and developments.

And finally, to round out my self-assigned Ten, there is the verve and sass of Darius Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit, which is 15 minutes of toe-tapping polytonality based on dance tunes from Brazil and named after a cabaret in Paris where the avant-garde met and drank and did their best to show off to each other. Listen to the music once and you will not be able to get it out of your head for days — or out of you hips, knees and feet. Not a care in the world.

The cares of the day will come back, as they always do, and even such happiness as embedded in this music can wear out its welcome, joyful, but a bit thin compared to the Big-Boy cousins in the concert hall, but for a moment, like that happiness you feel skipping down the street on a good day, it seems like all the world needs.

Here’s my list. Please add to it or make your own:

–Symphony No. 60 in C “il Distratto” by Joseph Haydn

–Symphony No. 73 in D “la Chasse” by Joseph Haydn

–Piano Sonata No. 25 in G, op. 79 “alla Tedesca” by Ludwig van Beethoven

–Piano Quintet in A, op. 114, D. 667 “Trout” by Franz Schubert

–Symphony No. 1 in C major by Georges Bizet

–Serenade No. 1 in D, op. 11 by Johannes Brahms

–Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

–Symphony No. 1 in D, op. 25 “Classical Symphony” by Serge Prokofiev

–Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber by Paul Hindemith

–Le Boeuf sur le Toit, op. 58 by Darius Milhaud

Mahler conducting

There are rainstorms, and then there are hurricanes.

There are symphonies, and then there is Gustav Mahler.

The Austrian composer is like nothing else in classical music, and his unique brand of emotional fury inspires a cultish following. You may love Mozart or Chopin, but if you’re a Mahler fan, you are in love. Devoted. An acolyte; it’s akin to religious conversion.

“I love all composers,” said the late music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky, “but the composer for whom I will make the greatest effort, or spend the most money, is Mahler. There is nothing in life that can replace what Mahler’s music does to and for me.”

It is almost an addiction.

The music hits closer to the experience of being alive than almost any other: deeper, more emotional, more direct. The Mahler addict measures a performance not so much by whether he leaves the hall whistling the tunes, as whether he has lost control of his lacrimal glands and has to hide his face as he leaves, so as not to show himself weeping in public. Mahler’s music is personal; it batters your heart. Zasche Theo Gustav Mahler 1906

He asks you the questions you think about only at the most extreme moments of your life: Why are we here? What is death? Love? How has the child become the man? It isn’t the intellectual answers he seeks, but the emotional landscape of the questions themselves.

There is nothing moderate in music or performance. Leonard Bernstein, often credited with starting the modern Mahler revival, was a particularly passionate exponent of the music.

“People are always saying that I exaggerate Mahler, which is so stupid,” he said, “because you cannot exaggerate Mahler enough! To play a Mahler symphony, you have to give it your whole heart and body and soul and everything.”

As William Blake said, “Enough or Too Much! Less than all cannot satisfy.”

‘3 times an outsider’

Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, one year before the American Civil War began, to a Jewish family in what now is the Czech Republic. He rose to prominence as a conductor in Vienna, where he was alternately lionized and vilified. By all accounts, he was one of the greatest conductors of his time, but a vicious element of anti-Semitism conspired against him, despite his careerist conversion to Roman Catholicism.Gustav Mahler Emil Orlik 1902

“I am three times an outsider,” he famously said, “as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout the world.”

He finished his first symphony in 1889, and he put into it much of his life up to that time. Every Mahler symphony is in some way autobiographical. It’s not just abstract music; the symphonies are his life.

Even in the First, the opening section depicts recollections of his childhood, of taking walks in the woods in Moravia with his father. So those high harmonics in the violins depict the wind blowing through the pine needles, and the clarinet depicts cuckoo calls, and then an offstage trumpet plays a fanfare because, in the woods they used to walk, there was a distant army barracks.

Mahler himself said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

It must be made the musical version of D.H. Lawrence’s “bright book of life.”

A challenge

Mahler presents an initial challenge to the newcomer, who is used to attending a concert for the purpose of hearing the great abstract artform left to us by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Copland, Prokofiev. But nothing in Mahler is merely abstract: It is all personal. All life. All extreme. The composer asks his audience not to enjoy his melodies, but to use the music to search their own lives for the return of serve he rockets into your court.

The Fourth Symphony is the best entry point for the neophyte: Mahler’s shortest symphony, filled with all the things that make the composer so compelling. There are great tunes, inspired orchestration, a vocal part and many of the deeper themes that pervade all his symphonies: Nature, nostalgia, tragedy, death and innocence.Mahlercartoon 1907

From there, you can move on to his more intense symphonies, where he feels compelled to throw at you everything he knows, everything he’s ever felt.

For him, that meant adding to his already huge orchestra such things as sleigh bells (which open the Fourth Symphony), cowbells, mandolins and — in his tragic Sixth Symphony, hammer blows that “fell a man like an ax cutting a tree.” The First Symphony has everything from klezmer bands to military marches.

He was trying to make a world, and that world is as much marching bands, elegant waltzes and earthy landlers as it is soaring, breathless melodies.

There is Mahler counterpoint, too: layers of tunes and snippets of tunes, less like the long line of a Bach fugue, and more like a Picasso collage, with torn fragments overlapped.

That mixture of high and low is both the hallmark of Mahler’s world view and our own Postmodern world. Perhaps that is why Mahler feels so contemporary to us. For Mahler’s contemporaries, his symphonies too often seemed to be infected by the worst sort of vulgarity. They had come to hear hochste deutsche Kunst — high German art — and got tin whistles and banjos thrown in in the bargain.

The “unmedicated” Mahler

If Mahler is about anything, it is about these extremes: sublimity and camp, aspiration and despair, irony and sentimentality.

In his famous essay about the composer, Bernstein wrote: “Think of it, Mahler the creator vs. Mahler the performer; the Jew vs. the Christian; the believer vs. the doubter; the naif vs. the sophisticate; the provincial Bohemian vs. the Viennese homme du monde; the Faustian philosopher vs. the Oriental mystic; the operatic symphonist who never wrote an opera.”mahler caricature 4

Mahler can whip you around these opposites, turning his music on a dime, snapping your emotions back and forth like a pennant in a Wrigley Field bluster. Not only between movements, but he can be ecstatic for three bars, and, suddenly, you’re in the deepest depression for six, only to snap to attention with 12 bars so alert that they seem electrified.

If he were alive today, he’d probably be on medication.

The slow movement of the Fourth Symphony is that way: It is a theme and variations on two themes, one elevated and serene, the other devilish and taunting. The two themes merge in variations, finally both stopping as the orchestra bellows a loud cry — for some, it is the gates of heaven opening. Time, and the music’s forward motion, stop dead in glory.

All that is followed in the finale by a song sung by a soprano, directed to sing in a childlike, innocent way, about the wonders of that heaven, imagined by a child, where “the angels bake the bread.” From the sublime to the ridiculous in one easy step.

Exhausting pinnacle of art

You can leave a concert humming Mozart’s tunes or inspired by Beethoven’s nobility, but after Mahler, you are simply spent. You’ve been “rode hard and put up wet.” He has dragged you from pillar to emotional post, pounded your deepest fears, pointed with your most fervent hopes. Mahler exhausts.mahler caricature 2

For those who are up to it, it is the pinnacle of art. For those who ask for something less exaggerated from their music, Mahler can be interminable and exasperating.

The symphonies are long — some single movements are longer than whole Beethoven symphonies. Mahler is an acquired taste.

Yet, while they are sonically splendorous, they are spiritually deep, and if music is an expression of the human spirit, Mahler is exploring its deepest depths.

For Drobatschewsky, it is summed up in the Mahler Ninth that he heard conducted by Claudio Abbado in Amsterdam.

“I am not a religious man, but what other people get out of religion, I get out of Mahler: solace, joy, every feeling that’s known to man.

“All out of Mahler’s music.”

NAG NAG NAG: An ADDENDUM

Gustav Mahler was a control freak.

Look at most music scores and you see not only notes but some basic instruction: tempo markings, how loud to play, whether to speed up or not.Mahler silhouette Otto Böhler

Look at a Mahler symphony score and you see enough writing to fill a book. He was a micromanager.

The Dover miniature score for his Fifth Symphony, for instance, has four pages of small-print glossary to translate Mahler’s German instructions. Hardly a bar goes by without some nudge by the composer.

In the first four bars alone of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, he asks the orchestra to play “Moderately, not rushed,” and with “Grace notes very short,” “staccato” and “piano” (“quietly”), followed by “sempre piano” (“always quiet”), followed immediately by a diminuendo (“get quieter) — which would seem to contradict the sempre piano by asking the orchestra to change. Meanwhile, he asks that the music be played “grazioso” (gracefully), while also asking for a “poco ritardando” (“slow down a little”).

That’s in three bars. In the fourth, he asks for a return to the original tempo, but it should also now be “comfortable.” Meanwhile, he throws in a reminder: “Expressively.”

That’s only four bars out of an hourlong symphony.

You have to give yourself over to Mahler’s intentions, perhaps more than for any other composer, due to the sheer volume of specific instructions he has left us.

The markings can be difficult to interpret, however. The very first instruction Mahler gives for his “Songs of a Wayfarer,” before he says anything else, is “Faster.” Faster than what? That is followed by “Slower” and, two bars later, “Faster,” and back and forth until he gets to “Smoothly agitated.”

Most conductors mark up their scores with little notes to themselves to remember this or that detail in the music. Mahler was a conductor, too, and has given the performer the benefit of his own marking up.

Basically, Mahler was a backseat driver.

Mahler 9 ending

I am at this moment listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and my face is covered with my own tears and my insides are torn up by the force of the music.

It is the morendo of the final movement. Ersterbend, is what Mahler asks for. And he means “dying.” Not the dramatic or theatrical dying a sensitive teenager imagines, but a slow extinguishing ad nihil: a kind of evaporation of the last molecules of life. I can hardly tell when the last note actually ends, it is so quiet.

The great music critic, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who died last year at 90, (and who attended the Ring cycle at Bayreuth 17 times, and before he retired, managed to go to two different Mahler festivals, one in Amsterdam in 1995 and the other in Berlin 10 years later) said the highest experience he ever had in a concert hall was the Mahler Ninth conducted by Abbado in Amsterdam. As that last note hung in the ether and finally could be heard only in the mind’s ear, Dimitri said he was afraid the mood would be destroyed by the expected applause, but it didn’t: “No one applauded for a full five minutes,” he said. And I’ve read the same thing in other accounts of that concert. If he was exaggerating, it is only by a little.

Applause would have been the inappropriate response to the music; this was hardly a case of hearing pleasant tunes and enjoying them. The music, rather, spoke to its listeners on some deep, disturbing and emotional level.

The profound emotions drawn out of us by Mahler, or the late Beethoven quartets, or the Bach unaccompanieds (take your pick, fiddle or violoncello), have long ago persuaded me that music is not abstract, as the current prejudice would have it, but rather, it was meant by its composer to be “about something.” That is, the music is deeply metaphorical.

When we listen to Shostakovich’s Seventh or his Eighth quartet, or to Beethoven’s Eroica or Mahler’s Third, we are hearing the composers thoughts about extra-musical issues. Yes, they are all elaborate, complex and interesting arrangements of notes, but they are also about war, heroism, nobility, longing, death, love and idealism, among many other things. To ignore those things in the music is to misunderstand the music. Worse, it is to trivialize it.

I am not making the argument that all music, or all classical music is meant to be understood philosophically, but that a certain level of music by a certain class of composer was intended to intersect the larger issues of being alive. A brilliant Mozart divertimento may not be more than an especially graceful and intelligent divertissement, and our main concern may be the clever things he does with D-major, but you cannot hear “Viva la libertad” from Don Giovanni and not weep for its extra-musical import and what it meant at that instant of human history.

Neither am I making an argument for what used to be called “program music.” I don’t mean that the composer meant to tell a story simply by substituting notes for words. Yes, many 19th century composers published or announced “programs” for their works, but many of them also privately or later publicly disavowed those programs. And there are many cases of music writers proposing programs that are prima facie ridiculous. We now use those excesses to bludgeon the entire century of musical purpose.

But I am saying that the music we take most seriously, and hold to the longest in our lives, speaks to us of more than musical ingredients. We should not be embarrassed to be brought to tears or to elation by the Beethoven Ninth or the Verdi Requiem. That’s what those composers intended to happen. They weren’t entertaining us, they were speaking to us.

There are two aspects to this problem that I worry the most about.

The first is the assertion by some (including all those tedious French Post-Structuralists) that thoughts and words are identical. There is a good deal of thinking — perhaps the overwhelming majority — that is not verbal. We can think spatially, we can think mathematically, we can think emotionally, we can think visually. When we do something as simple as pass a car while driving, we don’t think in words about the speed of our car, the speed of the car in front of us, the speed of the car coming at us in the other lane and how far off it is. We think in temporal-spatial terms, completely without words, knowing whether there is opportunity to overtake the bumpkin in the pickup truck in front of us who is going 25 in a 45 mph zone. No words, but thought nonetheless.

And when Richard Strauss takes on the afflatus of idealistic aspiration in his Don Juan, we recognize the affliction in our own body-reaction — the heightened pulse or the rise of gorge in our goozle. I don’t have to put in words to know it. It is the perfect musical metaphor for the non-musical experience.

If one objects that the music can never be as precise, or that it is always ambiguous, I can only respond that words themselves are always ambiguous and imprecise. Their supposed precision is an optical illusion. (It is why we have lawyers). To contain largeness requires ambiguity: The more precise a word is, the less it defines, until the ultimate precise word has no more meaning than the name of a dog. Here, Spot.

(I mean, for instance, that genus is more narrow than phylum, species more precise than genus, breed yet more precise than species, and when you slice it down to an individual dog by name, you have narrowed the scope so much that whatever observation you make no longer has any wide application.)

If we think about this issue of precision, it is obvious: What is the white whale in Moby Dick? The very ambiguity is essential to its power. So, this can be no argument against metaphor in music.

And secondly, if you say music is not “universal” and is culturally inflected — as so many intellectuals do these days — then I scratch my head. Is not language culturally inflected? Do you not have to learn English to understand Steinbeck? So how is it different having to learn the tradition of European classical music to understand Mahler? Mahler is (albeit idiosyncratic) something to learn, just as you have to learn by reading Faulkner or Joyce to get past the parts that at first don’t make sense.

The Mahler Third arguably makes no sense understood merely musically. It took me years to begin to fathom what was going on in that vast ocean of music and orchestration, but now that I understand it metaphorically, it is the greatest of Mahler’s symphonies (or maybe shares that with the Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde — “Ewig, Ewig.”

The other big problem I have is the prejudice of Modernism.

I have lived through the century of Modernism, and was infected with it from my earliest years. I am only recently cured. I grew up loving abstract art and stream-of-consciousness novels. The party trick that is Modernism is to understand the means of expression as the subject of the art itself: color, form, shape, contrast: These carry meaning in themselves.

(I know Modernism has other aims as well, but this part of it is what ruins classical music for me.)

And you can see the effect of Modernism in the history of classical music recordings. The old style of performance, exemplified by Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Casals and Walter, by mid-century, gives way to Toscanini, Weingartner and eventually Szell, Solti and now, John Eliot Gardner. These are the “just-the-facts-ma’am” conductors, following Toscanini’s dictum: “To some, the Eroica may be about heroism and nobility, but to me it is just Allegro con brio.”

A century of musicians have disparaged the very idea that music can be about anything but music. “Music can express nothing,” said Stravinsky, whose music is profoundly expressive despite himself.

What is lost when this Modernist esthetic is applied to music — and 19th century music in particular — is the core of what the music is about. If a Leonard Slatkin doesn’t believe that the first movement of the Eroica strives for something and achieves it in the coda, then he is only making noise. I read reviews over and over where the critic complains that the conductor is “interpreting” the music instead of just letting it speak for itself, and what he means, of course, is that he wants the music to shut up about life, death, the universe and everything, and just scratch the familiar tickles and amuse me. As if you could play Hamlet and just speak the words clearly without all that “acting.”

The century of Modernism is over, although the effects linger on. And what we call Postmodernism isn’t all that much better (it being merely a kind of Mannerism to the Renaissance of Modernism), but you can find a number of musicians and conductors seeking to find other ways of dealing with the real issues of the music. Yes, there are the Roger Norringtons out there, mucking things up with their idiocy, but there are also the Mikhail Pletnevs and Daniel Barenboims, seeking to understand why there should be a ritardando here, or a sforzato there, even when not called for in the score. The same as a Gielgud applies a pause in “To be or not to be,” to maximize the rhetorical understanding of the content. Shakespeare did not indicate such in his text, but an intelligent actor knows where they work and why.

I also have to laugh at the way Modernism once thought of itself as the natural conclusion of a historical process, having finally gotten to the point of esthetic “purity” that all art previously only aspired to. Got a giggle out of that.

Along with Pablo Neruda, I am in favor of the impure in art.

And in favor, not of a simple-minded return to an elusive “golden age” of the past — such an age never existed, and the old recordings prove that musicians now play in better tune and with better intonation than they ever played for Mengelberg — but for some new way to explore the metaphor inherent in the music, and not to ignore the music’s meaning for the sake of keeping alive a dying flame of Modernism.