ON THE BEAUTY OF HAVING FUN. I learn a huge amount from music — not only from composing and performing it but also from listening to it. One of my greatest teachers through listening to music has been the composer, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). From his symphonies (nine completed and one unfinished, in which he proposed to catalogue “the whole of life”) I have learned so much about joy, angst, heartache, irony, ecstasy, tragedy, beauty, hope, horror, love, death, oblivion, life-force, demons and angels — not to mention how much he has taught me about counterpoint, harmony, melody, orchestration and conveying philosophy through music. But there is one of his works which I had, in a sense, avoided throughout the many decades during which I have listened to his music. His 7th Symphony. Decades ago, I had heard some of the last movement and had recoiled at what seemed like the enforced crassness of it. It seemed so uncharacteristic of his depth that I counted it as an aberration in an otherwise amazing repertoire. That is, until I found out a couple of months ago that it was going to be performed by the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra (one of the best in Spain) on June 19th, in a concert hall less than an hour away from where I am living. So, since that discovery, I thought I would revisit this music and see if it had something new to tell me. What a journey that has been!
Hardly a day has gone by when I haven’t listened to it (or parts of it) in the mindblowing version conducted in 2005 at the Lucerne Festival by Claudio Abbado (which is on YouTube here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdxvC7NNSLQ). I then discovered the secrets of this extraordinary symphony. The first is that because of the nature of the work it must be conducted by someone special enough to handle it. The second is that the orchestra must be virtuosic enough to play it. (Another little secret is that you can even hear the original theme from the music of Star Trek” in the first movement of the symphony, which must surely have influenced the composer of the score, Alexander Courage!). It’s not so much that Mahler’s 7th is a difficult symphony to play (there are others of his which are even more technically challenging) but because it is, firstly, Mahler’s “problem child” in a special category of its own and, secondly, because it has many abrupt tempo changes and structural dynamics to which both conductor and orchestra need to be sensitive.
For me, the most astonishing movement of this five-movement work is the third movement, the central Scherzo. Traditionally in 3/4 tempo, Mahler generally transforms his scherzos into parodies portraying the decadence of the late 19th/early 20th century Viennese high life. He does this so savagely and wonderfully that I am always on the edge of my seat. But in the Scherzo of his 7th, a new dimension is added: spookiness! Honestly, in this part of the symphony you could imagine ghosts and ghouls waltzing round a long-decayed ballroom, complete with cobwebs and frayed costumes. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I get goose-bumps all over. It is masterfully written and needs a totally committed orchestra to pull it off. It is one of the most interesting pieces of music you could ever hear and was way ahead of its time when it was written in 1905. The bizarre nightmare quality of this Scherzo implies that, despite any other more triumphal music in the symphony, Mahler has not fully shaken off the tragedy of the symphony before — the devastating 6th. However, it was when I recently compared the 7th to the 6th that I realised what I had always missed before when I dismissed the 7th as lacking in depth. For the 7th was fulfilling Mahler’s need to expunge the horror of the 6th from his heart. It was cathartic — the artist purging himself of darkness.
Now I understood the “crass glory” — the seemingly faux victory — of the final movement of the 7th. It is, quite simply, Mahler having lots of fun! Sure, the nightmare vision is still there; but in a spooky yet playful Scherzo which makes you want to laugh (Abbado has great fun conducting it, as you can see in the smiles on his face). In the end, the final movement says “In spite of everything — including the lingering scent of horror — I still know how to have fun!” No wonder he labelled it amusingly as “Allegro Ordinario”. Now I get it! It’s just good old down-to-earth ordinary fun! Mahler being ordinary for a change. (We see this idea of catharsis also in the two delicate (and love-filled) movements in the symphony on each side of the Scherzo, labelled as Nachtmusik (Night Music) 1 and 2 — the 2nd Nachtmusik in particular, with it’s lovely guitar and mandolin parts, which he even artlessly labels as “Andante Amoroso”).
And so this is one of the principal lessons I have learned from studying Mahler’s 7th Symphony for these last weeks: The beauty of having fun. Not the kind of “fun” in which one gets drunk and falls into a ditch. Nor the kind of fun which relies on crude props, empty trivialities or practical jokes at the expense of others. But the kind of fun which the creator of this universe must have had when everything was being made. The kind of fun which Starlings have when they engage in mass murmuration. The kind of fun which triumphantly giggling toddlers have when they put the right pieces in the right slots in their “post-the-shape” game. The kind of fun which a grieving widow has when she finally sloughs off the cruel hammerblow of death and discovers she can smile again. The kind of fun which angels must have when they play marbles in a thunderstorm 😉 . The kind of in-the-moment fun that baby elephants have in a waterhole. The fun and playfulness in the serious business of life. That is the discovery: That one can be playful and serious all at the same time. Seriously funny. 😀
So now I feel a continual lightness in my steps which wasn’t there before and which provides a backdrop to the upanddown-bittersweetness of the symphony of existence. I now see the filigree counterpoint of my life… and smile, come rain or shine. Thank you, Gustav! Frankly, I can hardly wait till I both see and hear this serious, spooky, love-drenched, playful, exultant, problem-child of a symphony performed by the sea in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, next month. Maybe I’ll see you there! I wish you all a playful day and life…
© Alan Morrison, 2015