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Voices of the Dead - The MusiCurmudgeon Looks at Music
of the Deadly Departed - Part One - REALLY DEAD

logo To paraphrase the oft-repeated Santayana quote - without knowing the past you are condemned always to repeat it. In other words - without listening to the music of your forefathers - you are cast into a narrow bandwidth of radio hell - where you are led to believe that the current flavor of the month is somehow important and original. In order to dissuade you of these misconceptions - and to celebrate the festive holiday of All Hallow's Eve - where the dead rise in all their gory to haunt the living - your MusiCurmudgeon has dusted off the Ouija Board and held a sèance in order to rob the grooves of the decomposing composers of yesterday and bring their essences to bear on the present day.

Gustav Mahler I never said I was the RocKurmudgeon, did I? (Besides the spelling would offend my old grammar teacher - Mrs. Carpenter - and she might punish me by making me milk goats on her farm or something). But it is my firm belief that any well-rounded world citizen - especially those Americans of European descent - should have some familiarity with the great classical masters. If you don't know your own culture... And who better to start off our Halloween treats - than that old king of pain himself - Gustav Mahler.

If you don't know the masked Mahler - and he is sadly quite neglected - unmask him at once. The last of the great romantic composers - Mahler followed in the footsteps of Beethoven, Wagner and Bruckner in creating huge symphonies of immense feeling and power. And Death. For Mahler - perhaps more apparently than most great artists - was haunted by the spectre of his (and indeed all humankind's) mortality. Many elements contributed to his dark vision: growing up as a Jew in a tumultuous pre-war Europe - he was raised near an army barracks (later incorporating the martial trumpets and drums he heard as a child into his compositions) and witnessed firsthand death, rape and suicide within his family; treated with hostility as an outsider during his terms as conductor for the Vienna and New York Philharmonic - his symphonies were ignored and derided as long and incomprehensible; finally, he suffered from ill-health, guilt over a forced conversion to Catholicism (necessary to further his career), his beautiful wife Alma's famous affair with the architect Walter Gropius, and the death of his beloved oldest daughter of scarlet fever just a few painfully short years after he had composed his "Songs on the Deaths of Children."

Whew - no wonder the poor guy was so paranoid. Ah, but the music itself! Mahler expanded the size and the range of the orchestra - especially utilizing the woodwinds and percussion in new and unexpected directions. His writing - although extremely layered is clear and linear - following in the tradition of Mozart, Haydn and Bach; and his themes - although not as easy to discern as those of earlier Romantic composers - are strong and interesting. All of the symphonies are different in intent and scale, but bear the unmistakable Mahler touch in that the battle Mahler fought with himself (and God) over the inexplicable shortness of time allowed on this mortal coil (while still expressing the joyous wonderment that life even exists) is laid bare in the sonic expression of his compositions - where consonance and dissonance alternate (especially in the later darkest periods) as a musical yin and yang - or the primal dominant (resolving to) tonic pull that drives most of western music. As the last true Romantic composer, Mahler held the threads together as the world seemed to be disintegrating before his eyes (and ears). Soon enough - the cold and precise Stravinsky and the serial (music) killer Schoenberg would lead classical music to the brink.

This is music that nearly everyone who loves music will love. The ominous sonorities should please those who dig a bit of Goth, and the pounding rhythms (including coffin slams on the tympani) and dissonant changes may tempt the Heavy Metal crew, but it is in the end music for music lovers who enjoy depth and emotion in their music. I personally prefer his bleaker later work, including perhaps his most difficult the 7th, but his glorious 2nd Symphony - "The Resurrection" - gave me chills the first time I heard it. The 1st Symphony (despite its radical nature at the time) is probably the most accessible; although the 5th may be a strong second. There are numerous recordings available - and not being a music snob myself - won't recommend any specifically; although I was turned onto Mahler through a vinyl recording of the 5th with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I know a lot of critics bash Lenny for wearing his heart on his sleeve, but I find his emotive style touches me - even if the purists find fault with technicalities (I have heard his later recording with the Vienna Philharmonic may be the best 5th on record, but I haven't heard it yet). In any case - I hope I can Trick you into giving long dead gloomy Gustav a place in your musical collection and that his turbulent music will give you a well deserved Treat this Halloween.

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