You are here

Log in or register to post comments
ohfourohnine
ohfourohnine's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Sep 1 2005 - 7:41pm
"Explaining" Mahler

It appears that Benjamin Zander, who I acknowledge is a fine Mahler conductor (though not up to Bernstein), is convinced that commentaries - explanations of the music, if you will - are necessary to make complex music like the Mahler symphonies attractive to the layman. His recent Telarc releases of Mahler symphonies include companion CD's which provide his "explanations".

When I learned this, I couldn't help but recall a film I saw years ago which showed Robert Frost saying a newly written poem to a group of prep school students. When he had finished the poem, one of the kids, eager for attention, asked what the poem meant. After a short pause, Frost said the poem again from the beginning.

With all due respect to Benjamin Zander, I think Frost's response was the right one. His poetry stands on its own, and means whatever the reader or listener thinks it means and nothing more. I insist that the same is true of Mahler's music. Of course, I'm speaking as a layman.

Logan
Logan's picture
Offline
Last seen: 4 years 5 days ago
Joined: Sep 1 2005 - 7:22pm
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

Someone once said that writing (talking) about music was as useful as dancing about architecture.

Mahler's music may constitute an exception, since much of it is cast at such a personal level, and a historical perspective can be helpful. Likewise guides to the structure of the symphonies in particular. But a discourse on the "meaning" of the music? Listen and develop your own ideas.

Anthony Tam
Anthony Tam's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Oct 6 2005 - 2:06pm
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

I believe artistic works of this complexity and sophistication require a level of understanding that might very well be above the "layperson". I, for one, welcome a bit of guidance and explanation/interpretation from someone who has spent a lifetime in classical musical- be it as an composer, conductor or soloist. One can be a virtuoso but utterly lack the gift of translation and teaching. Zander made the effort and in the process, may have even made Mahler's music more accessible.

IMO, one of the reasons why the best pieces of classical music (like other great artistic works) are timeless is their ability to be discovered and rediscovered, interpreted and reinterpreted- endlessly. This discovery and interpretation can be wholly personal . Or it can be experienced through others.

ohfourohnine
ohfourohnine's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Sep 1 2005 - 7:41pm
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

Do I misunderstand you, or are you suggesting, for instance that one cannot fully enjoy the music Mozart provided for "The Magic Flute" without familiarity with the narrative which it supports? Is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" improved by Disney's cartoon "explanation"?

What does the importance of the reinterpretation of great classical compositions owe to anyone other than the musicians involved? Where does verbalization contribute to musical interpretation? Do we need explanations of the differences between the Beethoven Violin Concerto as played by Heifetz, Stern, and Perlman?

When you hear Bonfa or Gilberto sing one of their compositions in Portugese, do you ignore the beautiful sounds of that language and seek out a translation of the lyrics to your native tongue?

Anthony Tam
Anthony Tam's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Oct 6 2005 - 2:06pm
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

I don't believe I said one would be restricted in enjoyment. I merely said there are different levels and aspects of enjoyment and appreciation.

If interpretation is meaningless, why have reviewers of any sort at all?

If music and composition are just sounds to you then that's fine, but I would seek to understand deeper the meaning behind the what the composer/performer is communicatiing. So yes, I would endeavor to either learn enough Portugese to understand the particular piece or find a translation.

Buddha
Buddha's picture
Offline
Last seen: 3 years 1 month ago
Joined: Sep 8 2005 - 10:24am
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

I gotta disagree with Cheapskate.

Mark Twain once said, "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

Exactly right!

To the unitiated not knowing that each character's motif would play when that character was on stage and that the motif would be played in a manner which reflected the character's emotions (or at least, that's how I learned it)would make Wagner potentially less enjoyable. Knowing that could change cacophony into rapture.

That bit of insight could be hard to figure out while staring at one's CD player!

Same goes for Mahler, heck, anybody!

I wouldn't care if the conductor explained standard classical symphony formats if it helped a listener dig the groove better.

Not everybody sat through music appreciation in college. Remember the "symphony for young listeners" films we used to see in school? They don't show those any more. Someone's gotta 'splain this stuff, why not the conductor?

Further, if a conductor wanted to discuss the variations in his interpretation of the score, great! It may help afficiandos listen, as well!

Cheapskate, I think your approach may be too reflective of one of the reasons for the "hot hot" sales of classical discs these days. No one is helping make it accessible.

If the conductor wants to make this type of music more readily enjoyed by new listeners, then I say GREAT!

If Robert Frost wanted to make a preppie look bad instead of offering a possible introduction to an art form, then that's to his detriment. I get your point, but the world has plenty of off putting dick head poets to begin with. No need for Robert to pile on.

Showing a little enthusiasm for beginners can go a long way.

stereophillips
stereophillips's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Sep 13 2005 - 10:55am
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

I'm in agreement with Buddha here, especially since the discussion discs are freebie extras that the listener can choose to or not to listen to at his/her discretion. I loved those "Young People's Concerts" because I thought Lennie was superb at communicating his love of music and at making me care, too. I've also attended many seminars with composers explaining their new compositions and have liked many of them.

That's mostly been when they have talked about how they came to write the music -- when they talk about what it means, I'm not always so attentive. It means what I think it means. Of course, that doesn't mean that it doesn't mean what they think it means, just that I don't necessarily have to care,

Which may, of course, have been what Cheapskate was saying all along.

ohfourohnine
ohfourohnine's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Sep 1 2005 - 7:41pm
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

That was, indeed, what I was saying. I'm not, on the other hand, surprized to find disagreement. You go to your church, and I'll go to mine. I found Fritz Reiner and the members of the CSO were able to make classical music so "accessable" - even to us in the gallery seats - that I've collected tons of it over the years. I thought Andres Segovia, a guitar, a chair, and a stool spoke volumes in an hour or so, though he never actually spoke a word - just played and bowed. As was the case between me and my sixth grade teacher who insisted that each particular poem she introduced to us had one correct "meaning", we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

Given the force of your arguments, I suppose I need to find someone whose explanations can make free jazz more accessable to me.

Anthony Tam
Anthony Tam's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Oct 6 2005 - 2:06pm
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

You might want to start here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_jazz

Whatever your personal journey is with your listening to your music, I respect it and wish you much enjoyment. Through this discourse, I have taken a step back to reevaluate my relationship the music I enjoy. I see this as a good thing.

Cheers.

Buddha
Buddha's picture
Offline
Last seen: 3 years 1 month ago
Joined: Sep 8 2005 - 10:24am
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

Audio Cheapskate, I apologize if I was too abrupt or gruff.

My wife strolled in and looked at my post and said I was being a bit of a peckerhead.

I think I was aiming for iconoclasm, but again, completely my bad if it sounded aimed at you in a negative personal way.

There are lots of things I appreciate more with some explanation.

A flawed wine that someone told me they were trying a new process with becomes more enjoyable when I know what they were trying to do. It's still flawed, but I can appreciate it given that extra context.

If Jazzfan took me to a free jazz show and explained how certain things worked and what artists were going to do, I admit that I'd probably like it better.

So, even if a certain conductor created something I didn't "get" at first, but then he pointed out that his motif in a given section was inspired by something from musical history that I didn't know, I may actually come to appreciate what he did given the context he established.

That was reason number two for being down with the idea of conductor-talk.

The main reason is that I worry that the only classical music the next generation will hear will be at the movies when the bad guy is sneaking up behind the good guy.

Another example: some people enjoy those extra DVD discs with movies. Like you, probably, I don't, but if they generate interest and sales and make it so a favorite director is allowed to make another film, or if a favorite conductor/composer/piece is aided by the production of commentary discs, then I say I hope it becomes a booming success!

Once again, sorry if I created negativity between us.

OK, me shut up now.

stereophillips
stereophillips's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Sep 13 2005 - 10:55am
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

Hi guys:

This kind of relates to our discussion of the "burden of connoisseurship" elsewhere on the forum. Buddha talks about how understanding the process might help one enjoy the product, using a failed wine as an example. That reminds me of Robert Baird's love of Sauternes, even "off" Sauternes, which, back in the day, were all he could afford. It probably gives him more appreciation of a really great Chateau Yquem than I'll ever have.

Tacking back to the music of Mahler, which is where we started, I'm pretty sure my first acquaintance with it was the Leinsdorf shaded dog of the first symphony, back when I had a band student's appreciation of classical music rather than an informed love of it. As I recall, what principally impressed me was the variations on "Frere Jacques" -- and that mostly because I could sing along with it. Years of listening to the first led me to an appreciation of its structure and it evocations of living in a material world.

Could I have shortened that journey by knowing more about the work? Possibly not. That love needed to exist before I could discover the depth of the third symphony, the seventh, and the eighth. Then I began to think of the first as a "young man's symphony," mistaking my youthful appreciation of it with a quality inherent in the work. In the last concert in the old (pre-renovation) Carnegie Hall, Barenboim led the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of the first that put that idea to rest once and for all -- they stretched the melodic thread of the final movement into such a taut suspension of time and mortality that its release in the climax was physical. I've never heard an entire hall hold its breath for that long before or since.

Cheapskate is right -- you can't teach that. I feel privileged to have experienced it. OTOH, the amount I had learned about Mahler in the 15 years or so between discovering him and experiencing that concert probably did make it more profound for me. Obviously, I can't know for sure, experience being a one-way affair.

I also suspect that Cheapskate is correct in suggesting that old-school conductors such as Leinsdorf, Reiner, Szell, Walter, and the Kleibers, both Erich and Carlos, did produce more profound emotional responses to music than do many contemporary conductors. We seem to have a lot of virtuoso instrumentalists these days, but great conductors seem to be scarcer.

I seem to have strayed off the point, which was that you can't be informed into loving great music, but information can deepen your love.

ohfourohnine
ohfourohnine's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Sep 1 2005 - 7:41pm
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

No apology needed, Buddha. I didn't think any offense was meant, nor was any taken. What I liked best about this exchange was that we were offering opinions on music and taking equipment for granted. Kinda nice for a change, don't you think?

Buddha
Buddha's picture
Offline
Last seen: 3 years 1 month ago
Joined: Sep 8 2005 - 10:24am
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

Dang! I forgot to toss is an equipment reference!

OK, here's my new plan...

You know how you're supposed to add "...between the sheets" after you read a fortune cookie fortune? Well, from now on, just tack "...when played back on the proper equipment" to any musical opinion of mine. That should cover me for keeping it relevant to equipment.

_______________________

After I thought about that, I started to drift off topic, but it kind of relates...

I worry about keeping classical music as a viable part of the music scene.

I was 'accidentally' listening to 'that left wing' NPR the other day and they had a segment about classical music.

More and more, it seems, conductors are being chosen for their fund raising ability as much as they are for their specific musical abilities. Classical music and symphonies have had to work ever harder to fund their existence and this is one of the results of that modern day pressure.

So, perhaps the notion that conductors of old had more musical chops may have some merit.

Then again, if you listen to current popular music, you might say, "Well, none of it is as good as the music from my day..." Which could seem true looking back through the crap filter of time. The only good stuff that persists is the good stuff of its day; the crap has been filtered.

For every Brittany Spears that gets airplay now, we forget the Debbie Boone of our own day.

Selective memory can be a good thing, but it may incline us to favor the past inappropriately.

I'm sure there were crap conductors back in the day that we just don't listen to any more.

Also, with symphonies having shorter seasons (I think) and thereby having to keep doing the same material year after year...the ticket holders want "top 40," not "college radio," if you know what I mean. Fine, I guess, but there are only so many ways Haydn's Surprise Symphony can surprise me before I start to tune out.

So, from fundraising conductors to overly repetitious repertoires, we got trouble at the symphony hall.

____________________________

My plan to save classical music:

1) Allow in-hall recording, like the Greatful Dead and Phish used to do. Just imagine the quality gear some guy who can afford a Dunhill tux would bring to the recording table!

We could have websites dedicated to sharing these recordings and really liven up the classical discussions...

"Dude, Mahler's Eighth ROCKED that night! Zander freakin' killed! That transition between the first and second movements was gnarly! The Wednesday night show is superlative. I feel sorry for the poor dudes at the Thursday show..."

2) Sell CD's of the night's show to the attendees immediately after the show. Put the discs in ostentatious packages so the ticket holders can display them prominently in their libraries and create peer pressure so their friends feel compelled to go, too.

That way, people can keep a visual record of the shows they have seen...like displaying your complete set of leather bound classic books for all to see and admire.

Sell

stereophillips
stereophillips's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Sep 13 2005 - 10:55am
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

More cow bell!

Editor
Editor's picture
Offline
Last seen: 4 years 4 days ago
Joined: Sep 1 2005 - 8:56am
Re: "Explaining" Mahler


Quote:
We seem to have a lot of virtuoso instrumentalists these days, but great conductors seem to be scarcer.

A thought-provoking post, Wes. With respect to your point above, I believe that the overall level of technical competence of conductors is much higher than it was in the past, but the ability to bring off that special magic performance has lessened. But it can still happen: a youthful Simon Rattle conducting Mahler 6 with an amateur orchestra (the Salomon) in the UK 20 years ago; Marin Alsop conducting Beethoven in DC 10 years ago; Colin Davis conducting Elgar's "Gerontius" at Avery Fisher 2 years ago; all were up there with the "greats," I felt.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Jim Tavegia
Jim Tavegia's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Sep 1 2005 - 4:27pm
Re: "Explaining" Mahler

9) Two words..."All Nude. Tastefully done, but definitely all nude.

dcrowe
dcrowe's picture
Offline
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Sep 1 2005 - 9:39am
Re: "Explaining" Mahler


Quote:

I also suspect that Cheapskate is correct in suggesting that old-school conductors such as Leinsdorf, Reiner, Szell, Walter, and the Kleibers, both Erich and Carlos, did produce more profound emotional responses to music than do many contemporary conductors.

I have the impression that we have more conductors with high technical competence than we did a few decades ago. But we are also a few decades even further removed from the time when classical music was popular contemporary music. The audiences may have changed in a fundamental way, and so the obviousness of the emotional reaction may be less evident. Combined with changes in our own subjective memories over time, the performances of the past become romanticized. We do have recordings that support the contention that the oldies were the goodies, and there is no doubt they were good. But in my personal opinion, these are the good old days. I would not trade the richness of today's musical culture for the often mannered performances of the past, which were available at a high quality in far fewer cities than they are now. There does seem to be an absence of such legendary controversies as Horowitz versus Rubenstein. There is less personality and more technique. This is both a loss and a gain. To some, it is all gain, to others it is all loss. I personally still prefer to think these are the good old days. I am sure many disagree.

  • X
    Enter your Stereophile.com username.
    Enter the password that accompanies your username.
    Loading