Some of you with literary memories back to the 1980's can mentally fill in the ... part of this SNLC's title with the words "Mahler's Ninth Symphony". The full (and in retrospect, rather portentous) title was from an essay by Dr. Lewis Thomas, an MD and noted popular medicine and science writer. You can read that essay here. At the time of that essay, fears about nuclear annihilation were very much in the air, if you remember the era of SDI and The Day After. That spirit very much informs Thomas' essay, particularly his stressful thoughts about the mass death that would have ensued had it come to pass.
Fortunately, as of 2011, this hasn't happened (yet). We're still here, as is the music. I had a chance to hear the symphony live recently, and my own reaction to it now, after years of absorption of Mahler, varies in emphasis from Thomas. Yet a similar queasiness is present, if for different reasons. More below the flip.....
First, though, I have to warn you that if you're expecting here a Dumbo-like quality of discussion of sonata form in his terrific series of classical music diaries, you've come to the wrong place :) . I don't have his grasp of sonata form and musical structure, and I thus won't expostulate on that. My discussion is more "visceral", if thus more difficult to put into words as a result.
Thomas emphasized Mahler 9's last movement, the Adagio, in his comments on his fears of nuclear carnage and mass death, because the Adagio movement is celebrated and often commented on as a "sonic presentation of Death itself", in the words of one of Mahler 9's most noted interpreters, Leonard Bernstein. However, for me, the stress about the big end comes not in the 4th movement, but the 1st, the Andante comodo. To use as aural and visual source material (before it gets taken down from YT), I refer you to this very nice video of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra with conductor Claudio Abbado (August 2010):
Listen at 00:13 of the video for the 4-note motive in the harp. That rhythm recurs throughout the 1st movement, in various timbres and volumes. Where, as I've gotten older, I start cringing with respect to that movement is at a moment like 7:15, with that 4-note rhythm being sounded on the timpani.
It turns out that, perhaps without realizing it when I was younger, I had reason to cringe. The composer Alban Berg commented on the 1st movement of Mahler 9, in a letter to his wife, that this movement features as its emotional undercurrent:
".....a premonition of death...that registers itself again and again. Everything earthly that has been dreamt away culminates in it (hence the climaxes breaking forth like new ebullitions after the sweetest passages) - strongest, naturally, at the uncanny place where this premonition of death becomes certainty, where in the midst of the deepest, most painful lust for life, mit höchster Gewalt [#] Death announces his arrival."
Citation: Alban Berg, Briefe an seine Frau (Letters to his wife), quoted in The Mahler Companion, Chapter 20, "The Ninth Symphony", by Stephen E. Helfing (ed. Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson). Oxford University Press, p. 470 (1999).
[#] "With the greatest force"
The other times where the climaxes that Berg refers to occur in the video are at 11:35 (with the buildup to that beforehand, of course), but the big moment that Berg refers to, the mit höchster Gewalt moment (at least to my understanding - I don't have a score in front of me) is at 3:17 in the next part of the performance, this video link:
It's again the moment when the timpani bangs out the four-note rhythm that really gets to me. I sort of have the feeling that this rhythm may well be what a heart attack would be like, expressed in the language of music. Plus, the use of relatively "soft" timpani sticks gives that motive a sort of "heavy" quality that I'm finding tougher emotionally to deal with, with age.
One contrasting sound, if you're a Mahler nerd (especially a Mahler 9 nerd), is in the famous (or perhaps infamous, for one moment in the last movement) recording of Leonard Bernstein leading the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in his one and only appearance with that orchestra, on October 4, 1979. At the mit höchster Gewalt movement in that recording, it sounds to me as though the timpanist uses hard sticks rather than soft ones that you see in the video. In addition, from that recording, whereas the video version above sort of "softpedals" the timpani motive after the trombone roar before hand, Bernstein has the timpanist really let loose and bang it out. It's almost as if the feeling, again with reference to the heart attack idea, is "if it must happen, then let it be quick".
So, you may wonder, if this moment so stresses out 3CM the loser, why would he subject himself to a live performance of Mahler 9? Well, there are several reasons:
(1) It's a great symphony (well, duh).
(2) Live performances of it aren't that frequent, certainly not around here.
The last local performance was back in November 2008 (where I understand that Olympia Dukakis attended one concert, while in town for a theater performance at another venue - but 3CM digresses, as usual), and from the notes, you'll see that the most recent prior local performance was almost 16 years before. The recent performance that I heard was 300 miles north by northeast, where you can read the concert liner notes here. Given that Bernard Haitink is probably the leading Mahler conductor in the world currently, I wasn't going to miss this, emotional stresses or otherwise. Reviews of that concert are here and here.
So with 3CM back to his usual theme of nerdy musical esoterica (always good for limiting the # of comments), 'tis time for the usual SNLC protocol, namely your loser stories of the week. To compound 3CM's loserness, this is yet another "absentee landlord" posting, so I won't be replying to comments right away. However, the inimitable cfk (of Bookflurries fame) has graciously offered to mind the fort in my absence, so be nice to her :) .