The 60th Anniversary Season concludes this weekend with Symphony of a Thousand: Mahler Eight. Calgary Philharmonic Bassist Matthew Heller shares his thoughts on this monumental work penned by an epic composer.
Calgarians love mountains, and you might call Gustav Mahler the most mountainous of composers. He didn’t write the Alpine Symphony (that was Richard Strauss), but the nine he did write are a range of towering summits, awesome precipices, and stunning vistas.
A famous story has Mahler telling his friend and protégé Bruno Walter, who was marveling at a mountain range in the Alps, “No need to look there any more — that’s all been used up and set to music by me.”* That story gives an idea of Mahler’s grandiosity and ego, but also his playful and ironic nature. He was engaged with the otherworldly, but he was also of this world enough to realize his symphonies would not replace the Alps.
As we swoon over those ecstatic peaks, the moments of sheer joy, passion, and exuberance that leap out so prominently, it’s also worth considering the valleys of yearning, contemplation, and despair that separate them. For all his grandiosity, Mahler also plumbed the depths of human feeling. The Eighth Symphony opens with a chorus of transcendent power, instantly earning its “Symphony of a Thousand” nickname; yet it’s rather astonishing how quickly Mahler scales back those forces, draws inward with music of quiet, intense longing.
The second movement begins in that same mood, expanding into an aria of despair. In fact, this second movement is an extended study in offering and then withholding consolation. Each massive swell seems only to succumb to disappointment and dissolution – as Mahler said of another symphony, “One is clubbed to the ground, only to be lifted again by angels’ wings to the most exalted heights.” Those heights, when finally reached, are awesome in the truest sense of the word. But it’s those depths which allow me to trust him when he scales the heights and soars to the heavens. They signal that he’s seen and imagined all extremes of experience, natural and human, and still comes down on the side of hope.
I find these are the moods and moments that bring me back again and again, with continual wonder and recognition, to Mahler’s music.
* I’ve quoted here from Bruno Walter’s illuminating biographical sketch Gustav Mahler, written 30 years after Mahler’s death. It was translated by James Galston and published by Dover in 2013.