Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mid-morning thoughts on listening to Mahler's 4th Symphony

I've been spending the past few days researching and writing about Mahler's 4th Symphony for an upcoming Oregon Symphony concert (it's in May, in case you want to check it out, or, if you're like some of my friends, avoid it like plague). 

I understand those who groan when they hear the name Mahler. He's not an easy listening experience. I would never take someone unfamiliar with classical music to a Mahler concert, for several reasons: the shortest Mahler symphony is just under an hour, so it's a lot of music to throw at neophyte ears; his music is complex, with many layers of meaning and subtext; sometimes it's relentlessly dark or ominous (Mahler was tortured, with justification, about a lot of stuff). Listening to Mahler without knowing much about him or his music can be like taking a first-time museum visitor to a Mark Rothko exhibit. (If you're not familiar with Mark Rothko, here are a couple of his paintings):

You look at the paintings, know you're supposed to "understand" them but don't, feel like an uneducated Philistine and give up. This is also some people's experience with Mahler. I get it.

All of Mahler's symphonies are distinct worlds. Listening to them is to enter into a soundscape, to take a journey without necessarily knowing the final destination. But Mahler's 4th Symphony is a complete departure from what we think of as "the Mahler sound." It's one of his shorter symphonies (still close to an hour, though), and its soundscape, its journey, is an exploration of childhood. Not a post-modernist self-consciously ironic portrait of childhood, either. It's cheerful and sunny and graceful, nostalgic without being maudlin.

If you've noticed the labels for this post, you are probably wondering at this point what the (insert favorite expletive here) Mahler's 4th Symphony has to do with gardening, of all things. The last movement of the symphony is a setting of a poem, originally titled "Heaven is hung with violins." (Mahler renamed it "The Heavenly Life" when he set it to music.) It's a child's concept of Heaven, which is a place full of music, dancing and other innocent pleasures. Heaven also offers a variety of delicious foods. What struck me about the poem is the specificity of the foods mentioned: 

"Good greens of all sorts
Grow in the heavenly garden.
Good asparagus, string beans,
And anything we want!...
Good apples, good pears, and good grapes,
And the gardener who permits us everything!"

Kids who love vegetables so much they dream of them in heaven. My kinda place. Of course, I know the poem itself was written by an adult, and perhaps this childish yearning for good asparagus and string beans is simply projected wishful thinking on the author's part, but it still made me smile. Perhaps it only exists in literature, but at least somewhere there are kids who don't balk at eating vegetables.

As for gardening, my sweetie and I are expanding our vegetable patch (more about that in another post), and as I listen to the soprano sing about the delicious veggies I am imagining all the great food we're going to grow this year.


Barry in Portland said...

Mahler's 4th is one of my all-time favorites, but, I confess, I never thought about gardening when listening to the final movement.

From now on, though, asparagus will never be far from my mind, when I think about Heaven.

Is it lunch-time yet?

Liz said...

Funny, I thought you hated Mahler...

As for asparagus, I confess to garden envy when I read that you had put in an asparagus bed. Hope to do that myself someday...

moraht said...

What a great post! I do believe that children dreamed of asparagus and apples and pears once upon a time before high fructose corn syrup was invented!

Barry in Portland said...

Surprise: Mahler 1 and 4 are faves, as well as a couple of other selections (i.e. that adagio theme they used in the 'Death in Venice' movie).

Grilled asparagus with balsamic vinegar - mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

beth h said...

I don't feel like a Philistine for not "getting" Rothko's paintings. In fact, I don't feel like a Philistine for MOST of what goes on in my head. And I don't consider myself all that, um, advanced.

On the plus side, I actually like a great deal of what Mahler wrote; it's just that I can't sit still long enough to enjoy it in one fell swoop. Listening to it in bits and pieces seems to work for me.

Incidentally, this is one of the coolest posts I've read here.