Monday, September 13, 2010

Route 1, Symphony 8

This September, Mahler's Eighth Symphony—the Symphony of a Thousand, the sprawling work that starts out with an exultant "Veni Creator Spiritus" and ends with Mahler's version of Goethe's Faust—turned 100 years old. I find this notable because in no way does that music feel old to me ... no matter how often I listen to it, I find something new and revelatory.

The Bard Music Festival introduced me to this music, when I sang in the chorus the summer that Mahler was the featured composer. Amid the swelter and confusion, the bugs in the outdoor tent we were singing in, the impossibility of seeing the conductor (Leon Botstein), the profanities coming from the podium during rehearsals, the sweat everywhere, nevertheless I knew this music was something important. It does sprawl. Yes. The structure is not tightly knit, the way it is with some composers (Bach, Schönberg) who tend to foreground their structure, so that you notice it and it comforts you as you listen. You do, in the Mahler, hear the "Veni Creator" theme and others return occasionally as leitmotifs, but you also feel like you have taken a long journey between the clear structural markers. This journey has many colors and many delicious moments, and you can't pin all of them to the structural map the way you could if it were Bach. But that's okay; sometimes one really should take the scenic route. And if the scenic route is also a solid road, it will take you where you need to go in the end.

I would like to be a composer of whom one could say what I have said about Mahler above. In an NPR piece (, Michael Tilson Thomas is quoted, and I think what he says is a fine roadmap to what a good composer should aim for in large-scale pieces:

"In this kind of classical music," Thomas says, "the shape of the music, the structure of the music, the architecture of the music is in a way the most powerful emotional aspect. Because you have the beautiful melodies, you have the moving harmonies, you have the amazing orchestration — all these things — but then you have what happens to these things, how they are transformed, how they are brought back."

May we all find the right transformations to make our music sing: Veni Creator Spiritus, Come, Spirit-Creator!

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