My mother was a professional musician. In that capacity, through one of her countless connections, she received a small shipment of LPs stamped in important gold embossing “Promotional Copy”. There was a Hungarian orchestra playing Richard Strauss, Istoman playing Tchaikovsky 1, Entremont playing Rachmaninoff 4th piano concerto, Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony (Previn), and finally, Mahler’s 7th with Haitink. Each of these recordings, made lasting grooves on my brain and my spirit. I loved them. When he first arrived at the DSO, Alan Jordan asked me for my ‘wish list’ of works. Among them are the pieces from these records. As yet unplayed by the DSO—and me—are Turangalila, Rachmaninoff 4th Piano Concerto, and Mahler 7. That is, of course, about to change in May when we play Mahler 7 for the first time in DSO’s 111 year history (the symphony was written right around the time of the founding of the Tankopanicum Orchestra).
The 7th was the first Mahler symphony I heard, and I felt it inscrutable. It was long, complex, and unpredictable. But it is not a piece for a kid. It is both violent and tender; manufactured and natural; purposeful and lost. It is a work of extremes. (NC-17: mood swings, adult content, overt passion, psychological instability)
Called ‘Song of the Night’, though not by Mahler, it unfolds in a dream-like, associative way. The large-scale structure is chiastic, with the first and fifth movements, and the second and fourth, providing a symmetrical frame around the central scherzo which, though brief, holds much of the dark, mysterious energy that I must have found hard to digest as a kid. But as a teen, then adult, the piece began to speak clearly to me. Being willing, as a listener, to let the piece take control was key. No longer did I need to feel constantly tethered to formal rationalism. On the contrary, being pushed and pulled by the tides of the piece is the joy of listening to it. Relinquishing intellectual control, and being sucked in to Mahler’s world is a terrifying, tender, joyful journey. Mahler’s symphonies are not a respite from the world, but an encapsulation of it. Mahler is not the kind of music that washes over a listener. Instead, it is the kind of music that engulfs a listener, and inhabits them. The piece eventually became part of me. Evidence of this is that when I am quiet, and the noise and clutter of my brain clears out, what is left is the horn calls at the opening of the second movement of Mahler 7, which is both wonderful and annoying like only a dear, close friend can be. It is in me. It will be in you too. It is a remarkable, moving, and startlingly affecting work that will continue to reverberate well after the end of the performance. Mahler said ‘the symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything’. And the 7th does.