As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com
At the back of a stage dense with seated bodies, a man in fancy dress wanders sheepishly, paper in hand. He has made his move slightly early and must pause, lean on steps nonchalantly, check music, wait, put music on stand, insert earplugs. Wait. His presence sparks a wave of surreptitious earplug fortification amongst the concerned and surely a-tensing and a-clenching of muscle and buttock amongst the unprotected. Despite being fixed to cushion, the entire orchestra bends and sways in turbulent response to the music’s climbing intensity, clarinets aroused to the horizontal, trombones punching and jabbing, strings wrestling, scrum-like, for a victory so desperately sought.
Behind this orgy of stationary movement, our man ascends three steps with great deliberation and subtle theatricality to face a giant block of wood, a proto-instrument, primordial in its simplicity. With a gentle roll of the wrists he contemplates the enormous wooden hammer that lies upon the block, and like Arthur claiming Excalibur (ahem…Thor is probably a better reference… Ed.), he takes fate into his grasp. Slow and ominously, the hammerhead is brought high, held teasingly and then sent crashing down, a dull-timbred violence to crush our hope and excite our adrenal gland.
And excited I was. My body thrummed, my mind whooped and a smile assaulted its way across my face when I witnessed this exact scene last Thursday night, at a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Whether it was adrenalin or dopamine or an addiction-worthy cocktail of pleasure chemicals that was released I cannot say, but after experiencing this highly effective theatrical device for a second time later in the fourth movement, a life-destroying habit was well on its way to formation.
You may never have heard of Mahler nor heard any of his music and thus be utterly mystified by those three paragraphs, and somewhat concerned for my mental state if I really thought I saw a man hit a block of wood with a hammer on a concert hall stage (GIANT block and hammer, if you please). And all this talk of hands grasping fate, pugilistic trombones and missed Thor references may have you questioning how I could possibly think I’m qualified to write about music (I’m not. No more than you, in any case. I’m just an egotist with a weakness for parentheses). But such is Mahler and his musical world. A world of myth and superstition, of genre-breaking dimensions, fate, tragedy, and heroes felled like trees (that’s the whole hammer thing…get it?).
Or so we’re told anyway. Mythology is a powerful force and it winds its beguiling way through the lives and music of many composers, obscuring truth, bestowing unintended significance or just generally being a drama king. And we love it. It’s in our human nature to create narratives, to give meaning to the unexplained and mysterious, to order the disordered into that to which we can relate. The personal mythologies of our heroes can bring them closer to us, can allow us to feel like we know them, even just a little bit, so that the stories they are telling can reach us deeper.
Mahler’s personal mythology is especially rich. We think he personifies the “curse of the Ninth”, a superstition that a ninth symphony will be a composer’s last. This because he: disguised his actual ninth symphony as the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, numbered his next work as the ninth symphony, believed he had overcome fate, began composing a tenth symphony but died before completing it. To spoil a good story: Mahler is not known to have referred to this curse; it was Schoenberg, in an essay on Mahler, who wrote: “It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away”.
In regard to the Symphony No.6, most of the extra-musical aspects of the surrounding mythology come from Alma Mahler, Gustav’s wife and a source now deemed so unreliable amongst Mahler scholars that gleaning truth from her anecdotes is referred to as the “Alma Problem”. The most captivating of these myths, for me, concerns those hammer blows. Mahler stipulates in the score that they should sound like the blow of an axe (“wie ein Axthieb”). Alma said they were three hammer blows of fate, the last of which “fells the hero like a tree”. So far, so believable. She also identified them with three momentous events in Mahler’s life which befell him after the composition of this symphony: the death of their eldest daughter Maria Anna, his forced resignation from the Vienna Court Opera and his diagnosis of rheumatic heart disease, at that time a death sentence, execution date unknown.
This is of the ilk of the curse of the ninth, superstitious, death-fixated, highly captivating and yet very far-fetched. Does it really matter? If a personal mythology brings a listener closer to a composer such that their music becomes more moving or powerful, so what? For me, intellectually, the notion that Mahler somehow predestined those three calamities by composing a symphony is just too fanciful; it requires a level of superstition that my mind simply does not possess. But my heart? Oh yes, my heart.
My noisy, whooshing, dishwasher heart. So has it been named when a lover’s head, seeking repose, has laid itself upon my chest and heard – like a handful of cars going the wrong way down a highway at peak hour – the cacophony of regurgitation, as blood which should be jetting out of my dodgy aortic valve attempts to return. Yours may go ba-dum, ba-dum (here’s hoping. If not…maybe get that checked out?), mine goes b-whooooosh-dum, b-whoooosh-dum. And in that stuttering instant, I can reach back through the veil of a hundred years and connect directly to an Austrian whose music I adore.
Huh? How’s that? Because in amongst all that mythology, of Mahler the tyrannical conductor, Mahler the creative genius, Mahler the controlling husband, I find Mahler the terrified, with a ruined valve and a heart murmur. Mine has a whoosh and his had a whistle, with Alma saying “for years I had been frightened by the whistling sound that could be heard very loudly on the second beat” (the opening gesture of his Symphony no.9 is a rendering of this murmur). A diseased heart valve, with its damaged wall and compromised blood flow, is at risk of infection in a way that a healthy valve is not. I was brought up to be terrified of a visit to the dentist because of this risk, to take antibiotics beforehand as prophylaxis and to be on high alert for two or three days after, looking out for any flu-like symptoms that may have indicated my valve was infected (catch it too late and your chances are grim). In Mahler’s time, I can only imagine that this fear would have been ever-present, and it did eventually get him. Four years after his diagnosis, two months shy of his 51st birthday, he was dead.
But that’s just it. I can actually imagine this. And it brings him – a man of another era, another culture, and of abilities I cannot relate to – right inside me, to my own most terrified moments. Moments that are hard to explain to even my closest loved ones, he experienced too. And it’s because of the mythology of his life that I know this, that his already powerful music can affect me like no other. As a result, when that hammer fell, my body felt it as though it were the hammer blow of his diagnosis, as if the mythology my head can’t believe was true. And what a rush it was. Now I’ll have to search out more performances of this symphony. I need another hit.