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So often when we speak or write about music – when we practice, when we listen or perform – the focus of our attention is on the notes being played. These notes, their pitches and rhythmic accuracy, the articulation and tone with which they are produced, how fast or slow they come one after another, how they blend with those being played by others if we are playing in an ensemble: these notes and the attention we pay to them form the basis of so much of our work as musicians.
Yet there is another element to music making that is just as essential as the notes: silence. Silence is there before the music begins and continues after it ends. Silence punctuates the spaces between the notes and exists even as the notes are sounding, buoying the notes up like foam on the crests of waves on the surface of the ocean. Silence isn’t just the absence of sound. It is what gives music perspective and depth, and the power to penetrate deep into the psyche of the listener.
Without silence, there is no music.
Austrian composer and organist Anton Bruckner is primarily known today for his symphonies – his music is often paired with that of Gustav Mahler as the apotheosis of the late Romantic Austro-German symphonic tradition. Although Bruckner and Mahler symphonies share many characteristics – a common musical heritage and language, the robust late nineteenth century orchestra, sprawling scales and harmonies in which the symphony seems to encompass an entire world of expression – in many ways their music also differs. Mahler was 36 years younger than Bruckner, whom Mahler admired and considered his forerunner – at 17 years old, Mahler was present at the premiere of Bruckner’s Third Symphony in 1877. Mahler famously said “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” and his symphonies contain myriad references to themes, experiences, and objects from life. Many of Mahler’s symphonies incorporate vocal soloists and chorus – and hence text – whereas Bruckner’s symphonies are without exception purely instrumental works (which is interesting to note as Bruckner also composed many sacred choral works in addition to his symphonic output). Bruckner’s symphonies inhabit a more abstract, elemental “tone world” than Mahler’s – every bit as overwhelming, inspiring, and at times terrifying as Mahler’s, but for the most part at more of a remove from direct references to the world we live in. The Romantic Fourth Symphony is an exception.
When I was 17 my family moved to Claremont, California, and I had the good fortune to meet and study piano with Gary Davenport, a Juilliard graduate who had recently returned home after many years in New York. Gary at 30 was a brilliant and accomplished pianist, a tall thin guy with a droopy mustache who chain-smoked tall thin More cigarettes through my lessons, which I played on one of two seven-foot pianos in his living room. One morning after a lesson, Gary invited me to stay after for coffee. This was not an unusual event – often we would hang around in his kitchen and talk about music or the dissertation he was writing after we finished in the living room.
On this particular morning while the coffee grounds were steeping in the French press, Gary told me he had something he wanted me to hear (again, this was not unusual) and put a record on the turntable. It was the Chicago Symphony’s recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, and it was my first acquaintance with Mahler’s music. I was studying pretty standard piano fare with Gary: Bach preludes and fugues, Beethoven sonatas, etc. – but this was something completely new. I will never forget standing on the floor of his tiny kitchen as I listened to the opening bars of the Ninth for the first time, spellbound as the pointillist orchestration coalesced into the first theme and built to the climax at m. 46. Gary looked at me at that moment – when Guilini (characteristically) pushes the ritardando on that bar to the point where it becomes a fermata – and then, after the a tempo, he took the needle off the record, packed it back into the album’s sleeve, and put it in my hands. “Take this home and listen to it.” he said, “When it comes to the symphonic repertoire, Bruckner and Mahler are where it’s at.”
Thus began my relationship with the music of Gustav Mahler.