Muscles and Mahler

A short 'necessary' story: How one man listens to great symphonies while sweating it out at the gym.

Working out with music (photo credit: Aviv Katz)
Working out with music
(photo credit: Aviv Katz)
I WAS NOT AT ALL SURPRISED WHEN I NOTICED GUSTAV Mahler sweating on the elliptical machine next to me at Talpiot’s Body & Soul gym, although I’m not sure whether I should be proud or embarrassed that I’m probably the only patron of that middle-browridge establishment who would have recognized the gentleman with the high forehead, electric hair, and wire-rimmed glasses, especially since he was wearing a track suit rather than the usual three-piecer and bow tie. He strode at quite a brisk pace, his gaze directed intently at the vista of southwest Jerusalem visible through the gym’s large windows.
What I mean to say is not that I’m so familiar with the countenances of the great composers that I could pick any one of them out of a crowd of a thousand (although I could, I certainly could), but that I half-expected to see this particular late-Romantic Austrian- Bohemian-Jewish symphonist and conductor on this particular day, a fact that I remarked to him after removing my iPod’s left earphone.
He didn’t hear me at first, and then it seemed to take him three or four beats to tear himself away from the view of Bayit Vegan, Malha, and the hazy Vale of the Spirits that winds through the Jerusalem hills down to the House of the Sun.
“Not surprised? Why would that be?” he asked, looking me over with what I could best describe as a sharp critical eye. “I do not normally patronize this place, but the celestial health club is closed for repairs and they have sent us here in the meantime.”
I told him that I knew that his devotion to exercise was equal to my own. And he’d come to mind because just the previous night I had gone to the website of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra expressly to write an irate note complaining of the fact that in the current season, in which my country’s premier musical organization is marking the centennial of Mahler’s death by playing his second and fifth symphonies, as well as his “Kindertotenlieder,” they are not bringing any of these performances to Jerusalem.
“Elementary respect for one of the greatest musicians our nation has produced,” I wrote, “not to mention for the Philharmonic’s Jerusalem following, would dictate that in this year of all years his great works should be performed in the capital of the Jewish state.
As a music lover and Mahler aficionado, I can only presume that Zubin Mehta, the orchestra’s conductor and musical director, believes that my city’s listening public is too primitive to appreciate the complexities of this great man’s music and must be kept satisfied with a pabulum of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn. I must protest this policy of rendering the City of David Mahlerrein.”
Gustav stared at me with what seemed like a rather alarmed expression; I couldn’t help imagining that he may have been considering a move to a more distant aerobic device. He turned his eyes back to the window.
“Don’t bother looking at the view,” I advised him. “You’ve already composed it.” He ignored me. “That’s one of your great lines,” I reminded him. I followed his gaze as it landed on the Holyland complex.
“Perhaps your orchestra’s conductor is correct,” he said. “Can a city that allowed that monstrosity to be built appreciate my symphonies?” “I certainly do,” I reassured him.
“Then why in God’s name do you patronize a gymnasium that pipes this dreadful electronic trance music through a dozen speakers at high volume?” he shouted over the din.
“You know trance music?” I asked in surprise. “It’s been around long enough that some of its aficionados have arrived in my current abode.” He shivered.
“I have to put up with it. I need my daily dose of exercise.”
“As do I,” he said, speeding up his pace. “Although a rapid walk in the woods is more to my taste.”
“But I don’t listen to the trance music, Gustav,” I reassured him.
“I listen to your symphonies!” Mahler froze in place, his right leg
raised, his knee bent.
“You listen to my symphonies here? Dressed like that? Perspiring like a beer-bellied Bavarian on a beach?” “Your Second,” I said proudly, pointing to my iPod. “The ‘Resurrection.’ Which is why I wasn’t surprised to see you.”
The composer was more than a little annoyed. “Don’t you think it would be more appropriate,” he said, “to listen to a recording in a quiet room at some free moment?” I shrugged. “Gustav, the world’s changed. We have neither quiet rooms nor free moments anymore. And let’s not forget that you wrote at length [and I hope you have taken note that, inspired by you, I have traded my previously signature concise, direct sentences for late-Romantic run-ons with multiple phrasing that reflect the extended development sections of your symphonic movements].”
I paused to exhale and take a deep breath, and then proceeded with my thought. “A moment hardly suffices. Your symphonies are multi-moment in the extreme. In Symphony No. 2, it takes an hour and 20 minutes for your hero to die, be interred and discover eternal life. When else except at the gym is my mind free for that length of time?” “Well, I suppose if you put it that way.”
“You are not exactly famous for concision. My standard workout isn’t even long enough for your Third Symphony, the longest piece in the standard orchestral repertoire, which takes more than an hour and a half to perform. So I saved it for an afternoon when I had to take the 400 bus to Ramat Gan during rush hour. Even then I managed to get in only four of the five movements.”
Gustav shrugged. “Perhaps the symphonies are long, but there is not a single wasted note.”
I nodded enthusiastically. “I agree absolutely. Just as not a single instrument is wasted. Who could imagine your Fifth without the whip and the Sixth without the sledgehammer?” “Quite,” he said. He was staring out the window again. “But look at this city of yours. Below us an industrial slum of half-finished shoddy buildings, junkyards, vacant lots full of trash. At middle distance, apartment buildings that look as if they were built to last no more than a year and with deliberate intent to violate every tenet of good taste and artistic expression. And on the horizon that monstrosity that wreaks havoc on the contours of hill, valley, and sky so exquisitely wrought by nature. How can a person who lives, day by day, in such a repulsive place appreciate the subtle harmonies – and yes, disharmonies, but deliberately expressive ones – of my music?” I thought for a moment. “Life’s not a concert,” I said. “It’s not something you can plan so carefully from start to finish. It comes with unscheduled pleasures and unforeseeable tragedies. You have to take it as it happens. You, of all people, should know that.”
His pace slowed. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his towel. “Tragedies, in particular.”
“Beloved brothers and sisters who died, one after the other; the loss of a daughter; a beautiful wife who betrayed you because you could not serve both her and your art. I’m glad I need to feel it all only through your music,” I said.
Mahler looked hard at me and then surveyed the gym. Teenage boys worked on their abs; post-army women laughed at the video screens on their treadmills. Middle-aged women plodded and gyrated to make their waists smaller while young men downed protein shakes to make their biceps bigger. Alanky haredi father of five with a scraggly beard and dorky shorts stood at the bench press spotting a tank-topped tough-looking motorcyclist with tattoo-laden arms.
“Years ago,” I said, “maybe in my twenties, I bought a recording of “Das Lied Von Der Erde,” your song-symphony. Someone had told me it was great music but when I listened I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It was distended, disconnected, incomprehensible, and I figured that the guy who recommended it to me must have just been trying to impress me.”
“And then?” Gustav asked.
“Maybe a year ago I decided to try again. I did some reading, heard a few lectures, and started listening to the symphonies one by one. And they were revelations. It was like swimming in a sea of sound, feeling eddies of emotion and currents of thought here pushing, there beckoning. The piccolos were like flashes of inspiration and the voices like messages from another world.”
“And all this,” Mahler queried, “here in this room? In this city? It seems so unlikely.”
“But aren’t the people in this room in some way like the instruments in a symphony orchestra? Each one is distinct, each with his own sound, his own shape, tuned to her own special key, with her own distinct repertoire. Each one an atom of humanity, and yet, miraculously, all here, in the same room. And isn’t this city like a symphony of yours, built one laborious layer on top of another, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in dissonance? ‘A symphony must be like the world – it must contain everything,’ you once said.
Doesn’t that apply to this city of God and history, of scholars and messiahs, of poets and entrepreneurs, of Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians? Could you not compose music in a city like this?” We stepped off our elliptical machines.
“I’m half-inclined to say that you are totally out of your mind,” he smiled. “But then, like you with “Das Lied,” I need to be careful not to be misled by first impressions.”
“There’s something about listening to your music that makes me feel like I’ve known you for years,” I said. “But I don’t have music of my own that can make you feel the same way. At most, some inferior monthly jottings in a periodical you’ve probably never heard of.”
“I don’t suppose you mean to say that all these people are listening to my music as they exercise,” Mahler wondered.
“I’m probably the only Mahler fan in this gym,” I admitted. “I may be the only person anywhere in the world who listens to your symphonies with a 150 pulse. But what a way to experience them!” “You should try them in the concert hall,” Gustav advised. “You might just like it. I’ll have a word with Zubin. I sometimes appear to him in his dreams to offer advice. Perhaps we can get my music to Jerusalem after all.”
I shook his hand firmly. “Gustav,” I said, “it’s been a pleasure.” “It’s been,” he replied, “an experience. Even the afterlife has its odd surprises.”
Haim Watzman is the author of ‘Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel’ and ‘A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley.’ He blogs at