Walter Bitner

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Our Friend Sebastian

Anna Magdalena Bach's autograph of Menuet in G, 1725

Anna Magdalena Bach’s autograph of Menuet in G, 1725

Today is the 330th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Like so many of us, I first encountered his music as a child.  I don’t actually remember the first time I heard it – it might have been at church, it might have been in a piano lesson.  I am pretty certain that the first piece that I became aware of and associated with his name was Menuet in G.  It was only years later that I learned that scholars actually now believe this piece was written by Christian Petzold (1677-1733), but no matter.  Sebastian is still credited as the composer in most piano books one will encounter, and if it was good enough for his children…

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Leitmotif in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

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The Nashville Symphony warms up before a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, February 27, 2015.


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.

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