Most of my practice time lately has been spent prepping the forty-odd-page viola part to Mahler 6. I've listened to the piece once a day since I learned I'd be playing it, and I'm now wrestling with a very basic question: do I, or do I not, like this music? I listen again and again, trying to discern some kind of narrative in this ninety-minute mass.
Okay, kids. Gather round.
The first movement begins with a march. It seems to presage the Great War with its grandiose character of pomp, brass, and militaristic pageantry. The grandiosity, however, intimidates more than it inspires. The melodies seep a kind of brave, romantic defiance. They are beautiful at first listen, unnerving at second, and terrifying by twentieth. A strange, listless chorale comes and goes. After five long minutes, just when the thirst for musical violence finally seems to have been quenched, the brutal opening is...repeated. And not just partially so: it is completely, totally, turn-the-score-back-to-the-beginning repeated, with all the strength and savagery of the first go-through. Eventually, a full ten minutes after starting off, we finally move on, but even then the same vicious mood persists for quite a while. After a long protest the music slides into a kind of dreamy moonscape, lit by high tremolo, soft woodwinds, magical celesta. But the dream's seductive beauty never feels quite right; the memory of that march is always lurking. When the dreamer is awoken, abruptly and without mercy, the militaristic sounds returns, apparently inescapable, inevitable. Things come to a terrifying head at 16:50, when one of the majestic primary themes is twisted in the grandest, most terrifying manner imaginable. As the movement comes to a close, the moods wildly seesaw between heavenly and hellish, wrapping up with a manic, wild-eyed sprint to the end.
At this point, twenty-five minutes into the symphony, an emotional respite would be more than welcome. (Hint, hint, Mr. Mahler.) Chances are, however, you're not getting one; many conductors opt to move on to the weighty mid-tempo scherzo instead. (I questioned this decision when I first listened to this piece. Surely the slow movement should be put here, I thought, so I can take a breather from that massive introduction! But then when I found out - spoiler alert! - that the last movement was even bigger than the first, I quickly changed my mind.) At first glance the score looks relatively simple...until you realize that every line contains a new rhythmic pitfall with the capability to derail your whole performance. The emphasis hops from first beats to third beats; fourth beats are sprinkled throughout; the tempo yanks back and forth. The only way I've found to keep it all halfaight is by screaming "ONE!!! two three ONE!!! two three" in my head in an attempt to ignore that frequently off-balance third (or fourth) beat. Mahler's wife Alma famously compared the rhythm of this movement to children playing. As you listen, the metaphor seems apt, even charming...until the orchestra's bows begin playing a spooky col legno passage, conjuring up the image of little clattering skeletons.
Well, you might say. Bleak ambiguity only goes so far. Things have to start feeling a little more optimistic in the third movement (at 39:30). Right? Wrong. Here we get a theme that is neither major nor minor, neither happy nor sad, neither hopeless nor hopeful, neither yearning nor satisfied...neither black nor white. The only indisputable thing about it is that it is achingly, impossibly beautiful.
So. Apparently Mahler was waiting until the last movement - roughly an hour into the symphony - to express the inevitable heroism, certitude, catharsis, that we've come to expect from our monumental symphonic music post-Beethoven.
It certainly seems that way when, at the beginning of the final movement, an emphatic line rises from a misty tremolo (55:00). The stage seems set for a grand resolution indeed. However, before long we realize there will be no straightforward Beethovenian triumph. Instead we find ourselves skidding down the rails on a fast, frantic, frenetic ride, clearly uncontrollable (59:00). This is music determined to charge the gates of hell...regardless of the futility of the task.
Then the terrifying militaristic percussion from the first movement comes back...as well as the creepy celesta-laced dreamscapes. There are some uncomfortable moments of deja vu. We've tread a lot of water in the past ninety minutes, but you have to wonder: have we really gotten anywhere?
Then, if you were delusional enough to think you had any idea where this was all going, a percussionist raises a person-sized hammer above their head, and you realize, well, clearly all bets are off. At this point absolutely anything could happen and it wouldn't be surprising.
In case you haven't heard how Mahler 6 wraps up, I'll save you the surprise and stop there. Next time you have ninety minutes to spare, look it up. Just make sure you're not suicidal at the time.
I've read so many conflicting opinions about this symphony. Some feel it's Mahler's masterpiece. Others see it as seriously flawed: maybe fatally so. Some find it to be fatally flawed...and yet cite it as their favorite anyway. It is said that Mahler cried at the first rehearsals for it, unable to come to terms with what he'd unleashed. Alma alleged that the hammer blows prophesied the catastrophes that would later shake their marriage. Heck, even now, a hundred plus years after its composition, we can't even agree about something as fundamental as what order to put the movements in. I imagine I'll get a dozen comments on this post sharply disagreeing with my opinions, and with everybody else's. Because that's just the kind of conflicted reaction this massive music seems to engender.
Personally, I go from loving it to loathing it back to loving it again...sometimes within the span of a few measures. Nothing about it is clear. Everything is difficult. A forceful ambiguity reigns supreme. Mahler assembles us in the concert hall, asks humanity's most important questions, raises an envelope, announces all the answers are within, takes out a sharpened knife, carefully slits open the flap...
And then throws the envelope into a raging bonfire.
What to think?
Yesterday I said to my mother, impulsively, "I haven't felt well lately."
"In what way?" she asked.
"Mm," I said.
"How don't you feel well?" she pressed.
I thought for a moment. "I don't know," I said, and I didn't. I wished I hadn't even mentioned it.
A moment passed.
"Maybe it's all the Mahler I've been playing," I finally said.
I'd said it as a joke. But as soon as the words were out, I realized they had an uncomfortable ring of truth to them, and I frowned.
I thought she'd laugh at me, but she didn't. "That could very well be," she said, and we both fell quiet for a while.
Classical musicians are a unique bunch. Think for a moment about what is required to acquire even a basic competency in the art: a passion for a kind of music that has (at least in certain ways) slipped underground. Perfectionism. Obsessive tendencies. A willingness to be locked in a practice room for hours every day. An ability to postpone gratification. A love of beauty and intellectual rigor. As I was thinking about writing on the subject of why classical music is special, I knew I ought to talk about the music itself...but for whatever reason, I couldn't stop thinking about the people behind the music.
There is the professional string-player who has the same ridiculously rare health problems I have. We went to lunch together once and compared notes. I don't cry about my illnesses very often, but I wept in that restaurant...with sadness, relief, hopelessness, hopefulness.
There is the energetic young conductor who was forced out of town by politics and budget cuts. Before he left, my youth symphony would do anything for him - even take on a Beethoven symphony. I still feel sadness over what our community lost upon his departure.
There is the stand partner who always had some hilarious quip that would make me laugh at the most wildly inappropriate times.
There is the double amputee who learned how to repair violins so that he could help his wife, a violin teacher, run her shop. He always gave off an aura of quiet, humble determination.
There is the globe-trotting soloist who drops into the upper Midwest every year or so, always smiling, never tired, fingers spinning out note after note of sheer perfection.
There is the hipster composer who is very possibly the most intelligent man I've ever met. The afternoon of the premiere of his first big orchestral work with a major American orchestra, he took time out to chat with me at a Minneapolis Starbucks about Midwestern opera houses, blogs, and Youtube comments, among other things.
There is the concert pianist who leapt into my open car window at a stoplight.
There is the violinist who was very badly burned in his teens, who defied all sorts of odds and went on to become one of the star players of his generation.
There is the violinist who I originally contacted through this site who is one of my best friends. Over the last ten years we've talked about music, illnesses, families, boys, money, lack of money: everything. We've never actually met. But we will, someday.
There is the spitfire of a violinist who, after her first professional orchestral audition, was named concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra.
There is the cellist who saw a real need for a local beginners' orchestra. Despite being terrified by the prospect, she started one. (And five years later, it's not just a beginners' orchestra anymore!) Now her joy and passion for music is infecting a whole community of players.
There is the public radio host who was so amused by the fan letter an awkward eighth-grade girl sent him that he entered into an earnest decade-long correspondence with her.
There is the collection of people I met through a violin discussion board. They put up with me for years! (And they argued with me for days about Bruckner.)
There is the wily violin dealer, who knows exactly what to do and say to make a very poor family commit to a very expensive instrument.
There is the young couple who taught at my summer camp: weird, wacky, and oh-so-wonderful. He would stop our groups suddenly and ask each of us in turn, very seriously, if we wore glasses, contacts, or had perfect vision. After we gave our answer, we would be free to continue playing. She told me, "It's okay to sound like sh*t just as long as you're trying not to sound like sh*t." Together they made the summer of my seventeenth birthday full of music and magic, and reinforced the idea that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in music in some capacity.
There's the violist who liked my writing here on v.com, who, the first time we met, didn't mind my sudden burst of emotion, and let me cry a little on his shoulder. "Crying is okay," he said.
There is the violin maker from Cremona who made my beloved violin. I found his email address online and told him how much I loved what he'd made. "dear Emily," he wrote back, "thank you verry mutch for your mail, he make me verry happy..."
And this is only a tiny, tiny sampling of the people I've met. There have been many more. So many more.
Music by itself is cool, I guess. Fun. Entertaining. Diverting. I'd still play even if I was stranded on a desert island, if only for the intellectual exercise. But, in my experience, music only fulfills its highest potential when intellectual exercise is paired with a sense of human connection. When there's a duet partner across the room. When you're debating the nuances of a performance with an educated friend. When your teacher is leaning over the stand erasing some marks and singing to himself. When someone on stage is speaking, only she's not using any words. When you're in an orchestra and the horns are blaring and there's a big scale bubbling up from beneath you in the cellos and violas and you're furiously following the notes on the stand and scrubbing away with your bow and oh my God page turn coming up quick quick hurry and it's impossible to make eye contact with anyone else...yet you just know everyone is feeling just as electrified as you are.
I think that's why I find classical music so fulfilling: because the field attracts the most diverse, the most fascinating, the most interesting group of people. And I love making connections with diverse, fascinating, interesting people. I refuse to think about what a husk of a thing my life would be without classical music, and by extension, them.
Sometimes you can get rich without having any money at all.
Well, my visit to Violaland has officially come to an end.
I'm moving there.
Or at the least, buying a second house there and commuting back and forth between Violaland and Violinland.
Or whatever the metaphorical equivalent to taking an audition on viola and then winning it is.
Yes, I've just won a seat in northwest Wisconsin's best symphony orchestra. (And no, there aren't a lot of symphony orchestras in northwest Wisconsin, so no, there isn't a lot of competition for that label, but sshh. Ssshhhhh.)
This October we play Mahler 6.
Well, that's one way to learn alto clef.
And so on and so forth. For forty pages.
So here's to the beginning of a new series of blogs called, simply, "Emily in Violaland."
Now, if you don't mind, I should probably go.
Because I really need to practice.
My last blog entry was about the Minnesota Orchestra and the general awesomeness of their new concertmaster, Erin Keefe. You can hear the Beethoven program that I wrote about at 8pm CST tonight on Minnesota Public Radio (try the classical stream at minnesotapublicradio.org). On tap is the Coriolan Overture, the Eroica, and the violin concerto, with Ms. Keefe in her concerto debut with the Orchestra. Trust me, this is a concert not to be missed...it's one of the greatest orchestras in America in some of the repertoire they play best. If you do catch it, let me know what you thought in the comments. I love comparing impressions of performances with other listeners.
As I mentioned in my last blog, if you feel moved to do so, visit and like the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra Facebook page.
More entries: July 2012
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