Saturday, November 18, 2017

A farewell symphony

Last week I saw a poster near our subway stop informing me that the Prague Symphony was playing Mahler’s 9th symphony. A heavy piece like that was not what Kate was looking for so soon after getting back from a trip to the States, but our friend Ewan was interested, so he and I went on Thursday.

It was the third time I’ve heard the piece live. I know the piece from recordings, though a recording rarely gets the same kind of focused attention as a live performance.

The nice thing about hearing performances of a piece multiple times over several years is that you hear different things in it each time. Part of that is simply that each performance is literally different, but think about how you find new things when you re-read a book. The book is literally the same, yet you can find in it connections or meanings you’d missed. The same thing happens with a piece of music.

My first hearing of this symphony was also here in Prague, six-and-a-half years ago, as I wrote about here, when I happened to see a poster on a lamppost advertising an upcoming performance by my old youth orchestra.

The second was in July, 2016, with the Boston Symphony, at Tanglewood, with my father, as well as my aunt and a friend of hers. It was the last concert I went to with Dad.

Sometime after Kate and I moved to upstate New York in 2002, we started meeting up with my parents at Tanglewood. It’s just about halfway between our house and theirs. In the earlier versions of this tradition, they would come back to Oneonta with us after our Tanglewood time. Later, after we started going to a family camp on the Maine coast, our Tanglewood meeting would usually be on our way to Maine.

Sometimes we’d all go to a concert.

In later summers we would typically find a play that the boys would like, and Kate and my mom would take them to that while Dad and I joined Rita and Judy for the classical music.

Dad and I shared many musical tastes, but Mahler was a strong part of that, and I was pleased that everybody’s schedules for the 2016 Tanglewood rendezvous worked out to hear the 9th.

My father had stayed in remarkable health into his 80’s. At 82 he was still hiking and taking long walks. But in 2015 he was experiencing an unaccustomed tiredness. In January, 2016, shortly before his 84th birthday, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. By the summer, the treatment seemed to have him in better shape than in January, but he was still tiring easily. Because his health had held up so long, his heart’s new inability to keep up was deeply frustrating to him. Similarly, I’d been allowed to make it almost to 50 treating his mortality as an abstraction. It now felt more real.

The piece starts with a halting gesture split between cellos and French horn, that has been likened to a halting breath; it comes back throughout the movement, sometimes quite forcefully in the brass. At times the sparse texture feels like you’re wandering through the outer reaches of space.
from here
The second and third movements have a raucous energy, as if fighting to hold on, refusing to accept what’s coming (the third movement is even marked “sehr trotzig” – very defiantly).

The last movement is an adagio, a slow, contemplative piece. By the end, out of this orchestra of close to 100 musicians, the sound has turned into wisps, mostly in the upper register. The notes have slowed down, like a weak heart. Sometimes the sound just evaporates in the middle of a phrase, leaving a few seconds of silence, before tentatively picking up again.

At the very end, the oboe is holding onto a note one step above the tonic, the “home” pitch of the movement. Everything is telling you that this note will eventually fall that last step to the tonic, to where it belongs.

But when the tonic finally comes, it’s a couple octaves higher, and in different instruments (violin and piccolo?). It’s as if the soul has finally passed and has miraculously reappeared “up there,” on “the other side.”

It’s a hell of a piece to have as your last shared musical experience with your father.


  1. I was glad to be your guest for a concert of this. Next time I hear it I will pay more attention to the tentative beating.

    1. Thank you for joining me. A ještě musíme do divadla!

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