I KNOW MOST OF YOU PROBABLY DO NOT HAVE THE TIME to listen to a complete Mahler symphony (lasting between 1 and 1½ hours!). You are far too busy and important people to be wasting your life infusing yourselves with divine musical nectar from one of the most deep and spiritual composers to have graced this planet. 😉 But could I tempt you to set aside your super-busy-ness to spend just 12 minutes of your life listening to one little part of his 9th Symphony? Actually, this particular part (or “movement” as it’s called) is especially relevant to “super-busy-ness”. Shockingly so. Let me explain:
The extraordinary 12-minute piece to which I’d like you to listen is the 3rd movement in Mahler’s 4-movement 9th Symphony. He titled this movement “Rondo Burleske” (the German way of spelling burlesque) and it occurs in a special context. This whole symphony is about death, which he treats in different aspects. At the age of 49, Mahler had been diagnosed with endocarditis — a heart condition which would kill him two years later in 1911. His beloved daughter, Putzi, had died (suffocating to death over days with diphtheria) a couple of years earlier at age 4. So as he wrote his 9th Symphony in 1908-1909), he was not only coming to terms with accepting death itself but also depicting its ferocity and seeming incongruity in the face of life, love, passion and the extravagance of nature. Thus, the first movement is like a vast outbreak of the passion of life and nature against the outward absurdity of death. The second movement depicts the musical decadence and impending doom of contemporary Vienna in bizarre, even grotesque, parodies of the waltz, dying away to nothingness. The fourth movement hurls wave after mighty wave of the power of love into the face of death, only to ebb away at the end into a calm acceptance of passing over to the unknown. But this 12-minute third movement, the Rondo Burleske, is a mysterious blaze of what I can only call “musical violence”. The very first time I heard this piece, the image which popped into my head was of endless hordes of hard-faced city-based men and women marching obliviously headlong over an edge to their death into a bottomless pit. The death depicted in this movement is that of those who live their lives solely on a material level, rushing about to make their moolah, endlessly preening themselves, strutting around in their pride, forever attending one diversionary entertainment after another, never caring about anyone but themselves, lost in the furore of their urban worldliness — only to be struck down by sudden destruction in the prime of their illusory lives. It is a devastating piece of very modern music, with the most complex overlapping and underlapping counterpoint imaginable. Yet, astonishingly, it was written just over a decade after the death of Johannes Brahms! In the middle of the movement, it suddenly changes to a slow gorgeous melody (which would be used as a main theme in the last movement of love). But that heavenly music is cut short by two shrilly mocking outbursts from the clarinet — a depiction of the way that beauty is negated and despised by the materialism of the abovementioned urban lemmings. In a stroke of genius, that mocking clarinet theme becomes the main “waves of love” theme in the last movement — true alchemy, the kind of transformation necessary in this mad world. In the last minute of the Rondo Burleske movement, the tempo is cranked up to a crazy high-speed presto romp which is as suddenly cut off as the lives of those who dig no further than the top-soil of their empty gardens.
The composer, Arnold Schoenberg, said of this symphony: “The author hardly speaks as an individual any longer. It almost seems as though this work must have a concealed author who used Mahler merely as his spokesman, as his mouthpiece”. Frankly, this is the impression that I have of all of Mahler’s music — that the composer is merely the instrument through which a mighty power composes in order to convey to us prophetic messages from ‘the great beyond’ about the primary importance of love, beauty, spirit, the battle between good and evil and the ever-present might of God. The outspoken madness of this Rondo Burleske movement is just a tiny part of the power of Mahler’s vision, which can be angelic, demonic, glorious, mundane, noble, devastating and infinitely uplifting.
This 12-minute video is an extract from a performance by the Korean Symphony Orchestra. Their playing is superb at this breakneck speed. I find it fascinating that in oriental countries Mahler’s music is revered. The national musical genre there is pentatonic, delicate and very different from Western classical music. But they have a natural affinity for music of passion and power, with Mahler often receiving standing ovations in concert halls in Korea and Japan. It is interesting that Mahler was fascinated by oriental philosophy and music and often incorporated touches of it in his works (most notably in his symphonic tone-poem, “Das Lied von der Erde” — “Song of the Earth”). It has also often been observed that the closing pages of this 9th symphony have a “Zenlike stillness” infusing the acceptance of death.
If, after listening to this 12-minute sample movement, you want to hear the complete symphony (the rest of which is very different from the Rondo Burleske, though just as powerful), you can find a superb version by clicking on the link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brJxhCkWodk , conducted by Roger Norrington (a specialist in genuine period performance) with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (now no longer in existence, as in 2016 it was merged with the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra) in a 2011 Proms concert in the Albert Hall, in a manner which is close to how it would have been played in Mahler’s day, with much less vibrato in the strings, giving the music a purity and power rarely heard, and played in a far less schmaltzy manner than it is often played nowadays. I really hope you will listen to the entire symphony. It is utterly moving music and will bring you in touch with parts of yourself you never even realised existed. Outstandingly interpreted and performed.
Anyway, enjoy… and be amazed…