Mahler Plays with Lego

 Despite the cold and the rain of the January night, Jerusalem’s principal concert hall, Binyanei HaUma was packed to almost full capacity (over 3,000 seats) for the performance by the world-renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra of Gustav Mahler’s seventh symphony, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski.

The programme notes informed us that Mahler was suffering from what could be called ‘composer’s block’ in the summer of 1905, when he retreated to the country to compose, as was his wont, after the rigors of the working year serving as conductor of the Vienna Opera. It was only when boating on a nearby lake that the plash of the oars suddenly gave him the inspiration to compose.

To be quite honest, at last night’s performance I failed to pick up any plash of oars or any watery allusion whatsoever. Mahler’s seventh symphony is generally acknowledged to be more difficult to understand and interpret than his previous ones, and last night’s performance bore this conclusion out, despite some stellar playing by the orchestra’s virtuoso members, almost one hundred of whom sat crowded on the stage.

What most distinguishes this symphony, in my opinion, is the absence of any identifiable, continuous melodic thread. Three of its five movements bears a descriptive heading, such as ‘Night Music’ and Shadlow-like,’ alongside the more mundane Adagio-Allegro of the first movement and Rondo-Finale of the last, but these titles do not really explain what is going on in the music.

From the introductory passage played by the horn to the grand finale, where all the instruments are playing fortissimo, with percussion galore and two (yes, two!) sets of tubular bells all giving of their utmost, the symphony is replete with all the familiar elements that we have come to know and love in Mahler’s other symphonies. And so we hear the familiar rise and fall of the strings, the echoing notes of the woodwinds and brass, the interplay between the various brass instruments, the melodious notes of the two harps, and the inimical sounds of the different kinds of drums. In his childhood Mahler lived close to a military barracks, and the sounds he heard then resound through his music and thus come to our ears, too.

But it’s the absence of any continuous melodic thread that I find most disturbing in this symphony, which nonetheless bears all the hallmarks of Mahler’s music. Snippets of other, more accessible symphonies of his appear and recur throughout the performance, and at times one thinks that one is able to recognize where a theme is going, but then it disappears and a different one emerges. The symphony as a whole seemed to me to be comprised of innumerable component parts of something that could be considered akin to the pieces of the game known as Lego.

On reflection, it seems to me that Mahler took snatches of music he had composed in the past, and wove them into a new fabric, a kaleidoscopic invention based on existing elements and reassembled in a different form, Last night’s performance lasted for almost an hour and a half, and every note, every chord, every passage was unmistakably Mahler. But although the individual parts did not seem quite to cohere into a consistent whole, the eruption of sound at the end drew a roar of appreciation and applause from the audience. And so we went out into the cold, wet night warmed and uplifted by Mahler’s inimitable genius.