Mirror of Zen Blog

[ 1 ] Bernstein/Abbado::: Two Views of the Second Half of the Fourth Movement of Mahler’s First Symphony

I have written many times before about the strange fact of my love for classical music (leaning strongly to the Austro-Germanic tradition), and yet the concurrent (and mutually exclusive, it would seem) fact that I do not listen to it much except for relatively rare occasions. This is due to the fact that I spend so much time in silent meditation (or struggling to get there), and find that even the beautiful dust of a symphony recently absorbed is an expendable experience when fragments and phrases of it appear later as random remembered dust-motes of sound. In the profoundest sessions of meditative clarity and calm, it’s not like something to have during hours of sitting. There is not really strong occurrence, but it is junk food appearing automatically for the endless maw of the monkey-mind. Even the most sublime piece of musical experience, when it floats and wafts here and there during the vacuum-sealed bliss of meditation, feels empty and beyond useless. “Even one hundred pictures of a banana cannot satisfy a hungry person.” The infinite depth of meditation is so much more awesome to behold than even the greatest symphonies could ever envision, even from their exalted position and view into human expression. There is nothing in Mahler or Beethoven or any of the infinite musical oeuvre that can match the indescribably borderless experience of mind silently returning to its vastness: meditation. It’s what music leads to, with sound: and then we must enter the silence. Zen.

So, I’ve got to save symphony listening for some selected periods when there is time and space to fully enjoy, even despite its known after-effects. One of my meditation students is a highly-regarded personal trainer who coaches professional major-sport and Olympic athletes. He espouses a regimen of intensive workouts and healthy eating which literally transforms and sculpts bodies, and primes them for high-performance athletics. And yet, once in a while, he enjoys the rare treat of a well-rolled Cuban cigar. Maybe this week some deep, dark Nicaraguan. This deeply considered delectation — and its invisible dangers and risks — applies also to my relationship with music and books. A rarely-tasted treat along with my meditation flow, but it makes the mind-clothing smell like stogey on the meditation cushion during sitting. Wafting fragments of disconnected music heard recently. Appearing and disappearing. But… appearing. There is no “control”. It needs to wear off, which it does after 3-4, sometimes 5 days after the hearing.

It goes without saying that whenever I do smoke the stogey of music, it is never as background music to food-prep, or house-cleaning, or the pounding out of emails. I listen to the full development of the themes and ideas, the transitions, the secondary thematic developments, and the resolutions and questions. I listen to where the musician is “taking” me. Really, this is, by accident, just one really OK life-habit I’ve had so far: Leaving other activities aside, if I choose to listen to one of these Greats, I listen with as much undistracted attention to that wordless space that the interrelated sounds of the music are pointing to. (An exception is sometimes made, in this regard, for the music of Philip Glass, for reasons too subtle to go into here.) The point is, I try only to listen to a symphony or sonata or concerto (or a string quartet, for god’s sakes — I fantasise about having some weeks of retreat to spend with Beethoven’s late string quartets and only that. And daily meditation. But that would be a deliberate mixing of the elements of music and meditation.

So, when there is a break from the work and correspondence, it is a very rare happening that I might listen to any single movement of symphony music separated from the other movements. Unless there is some deliberate study of some section, I don’t believe that any movement of a symphony should ever be treated to listening on its own, cut off from the rest. I notice even a subtle scorn appearing in the mind on seeing CD’s at peoples’ homes that are collections of random “symphonic greatest-hits” — compilations of various popular single movements and phrases from this Big Guy and that Big Guy in the classical music back-catalogue. It would be like seeing some 10 or 15 minutes ripped out of a movie performance, and expecting the same enjoyment or understanding of the whole movie or even the character being portrayed. It feels like it would be to read a single chapter or section of a great book, and expect to know anything substantial about the meaning of the book, or the skill or intelligence or vision of the author. I don’t have deep knowledge or insight to be a snob about this, either. There are just a few that I connect with, viscerally. In savouring classical music, there just has to be attention to the whole picture. This is philosophical and spiritual instruction at the highest level before don’t-know, these symphonies and concertos and string quartets and Lieder. So it’s kind of strange to post this granular zoom-in on just one movement of a Mahler symphony, the resolution-piece — the Fourth Movement. Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch (Stormily agitated – Energetic)

For some reason this morning after meditation practice, I fell into a deeper study of the last movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. And just that. I didn’t have the emotional reservoirs to shoulder the entire path through the wilds of this symphony: just a reflection on one part. The need to listen closely to just this one section was itself notable to me, because it is such a strangely rare occurrence. But I have heard this symphony countless times, and I have been fortunate enough to attend performances of it three or four times. So I am already familiar with the opening themes and developments. There was just this unexplainable wish to encounter, deeply, Mahler’s efforts at “resolution” in this profoundly stirring concluding movement.

And along the way, I have now experienced these two excellent “closer” excerpts for how these two great Mahlerians expressed their rank Dionysian possession: Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado.

Bernstein’s championing and even self-conscious embodiment of Mahler have always made him someone who always “gives” the music further insight, reveals it more dramatically. I notice that any hearings of other conductors are sometimes coloured from what I have learned from Bernstein’s very personalised interpretations.

Here is how he closes the very last portion of the last movement: This little section is a full recapitulation of everything that has been said, from the very first D minor strings to this resolution section. I admire the way Bernstein pulls together the entire reflection into its fiery, decisive close:

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 1 -  Bernstein · Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Yet here is something new to me: The vigor and ecstatic madness of the final movement of Mahler’s First I have seldom felt so perfectly conveyed as in this Deutsche Grammophon film of Claudio Abbado’s Inaugural Concert as Director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989. Truly a great artefact of one of the great Mahlerians driven stark over the edge, in his first choice of music to present publicly his directorship of one of the great world orchestras. It is a very recent discovery.

Mahler’s First ending anew.

The opening of the Fourth Movement:

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 / Abbado · Berliner Philharmoniker (1989)

And here is the concluding section of this movement:

Claudio Abbado with the Berliner Philharmoniker - Symphony No. 1 in D Major, "Titan" - Mahler

Unfortunately, these two snippets are all that can be found on the Internet. The full concert is only available through subscription to the website of the Berlin Phil. (I joined it to get the rest of my fix, activated the email confirmation, chose a password, paid the 10 EUR to have a one-month all-access pass.) These are the things that will need to suffice until we can all hear this great music in the concert hall again.

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