For my birthday last month I was given a turntable and can now revisit some of those old gramophone records in the attic. Amongst the survivors of several moves around three countries is a complete set of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies conducted by Bernard Haitink.
Completed in 1896 but years ahead of its time, Mahler’s Third Symphony would be my ultimate desert island disc. Composed in a modest hut overlooking an Austrian lake during his summer breaks from conducting at the Vienna Opera, its six movements were initially given programmatic titles, such as “What the flowers of the field tell me”, “What the angels tell me” and “What Love tells me” which Mahler later dropped, letting the music speak for itself. Yet the source of its inspiration remains apparent. When the conductor, Bruno Walter, arrived at Mahler’s summer retreat he was told, “Don’t bother admiring the landscape, it’s all in my music!”
Listening to the symphony again recently, I wondered how someone could compose something so monumentally beautiful: from the sometimes dissonant terrors of the opening movement to the exquisite Romanticism of the long finale, it seems too complex, too other-wordly, to have been written by one man in a shed. Mahler seems more like a conduit for the mystical power of Nature itself and hearing it is, to me, approaching a spiritual experience.
“Today I became horribly aware that the first movement will last half a hour, perhaps longer,” he wrote, “What are people going to say to that? They won’t leave a hair on my head. This work is truly concise, even brief, though it lasts two hours…It is though the torrent of creation has proved to be an irrisitable force, having been pent up for years; there is no escape!”
My drawing shows the composer sifting some of the elements that went into this mighty symphony. I wanted to do something to celebrate Mahler, and it would either have to be a drawing like this or some wall-high painting that would take about a year to complete. Until I have the time and ability to produce the latter, this will have to do.