Roughly Speaking podcast: Halloween special: Best of horror movie music (episode 168)

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 .....

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