Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mahler's Ninth

STANLEY FISH, I read somewhere online today, has announced the end of the humanities. I thought we were through with that sort of thing, that The End Of History had pretty well put paid to such business. I guess not. Were there any doubt, a pretty decent performance of Mahler's Ninth on television tonight, with Simon Rattle beaming his way through it with the Berlin Phil,

     and afterward, a short documentary on the amazing goings-on in Venezuela, where we were told a quarter of a million young people are playing in orchestras, more than play sports; and where a young conductor in his mid-twenties, Gustavo Dudamel, is said (by Sir Simon) to be likely to be the most important conductor of the twenty-first century.

We watched him lead the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra in the last two movements of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, and we were pretty well persuaded. What must it be like to be a youth in Venezuela, to be aware of the looming power of the United States, and to hear that music is not taught in our schools, music, which does so much to civilize the human spirit?

It was the first time I've heard the Mahler Ninth in many years, twenty at least. Fifty years ago it was a favorite; Bruno Walter's Columbia Masterworks recording was the first stereo recording I owned. Hearing it afresh tonight I was startled by the modernity of the first movement, so nearly incoherent at times; delighted by the fond Ländler; disturbed by the Scherzo, which so rarely really works; convinced, once again, by the rightness of the Finale.

Fifty years ago I learned most of what I then new about symphonies from the Penguin Book of the Symphony, edited by Ralph Hill. I'm startled to see you can still buy copies used online. As I recall he was pretty dismissive of Mahler, whose music was apparently still thought in 1949 to be infra dig. Now, of course, I listen to the piece thinking of the Nineteenth Century that had just died, and the Twentieth that was about to burst forth; marveling at Mahler's nostalgia and prescience in his Ninth. Will my grandson's children listen thus, I wonder, to Atlas Eclipticalis?

(If the Humanities will not, indeed, have ended...)

1 comment:

John Whiting said...

Dudamel conducted his youth orchestra in a BBC Prom concert last summer. They opened with a sublime Shostakovitch 10th as it might be heard in Plato's heaven. Having presented their credentials, they donned colorful bomber jackets and gave themselves and their audience a whoop-it-up party of Latin-American music. There must be at least two human races occupying this planet simultaneously.