How Gustav Mahler saved my life, and other reflections on the composer’s 150th birthday

Clef Notes: How Gustav Mahler saved my life, and other reflections on the composer's 150th birthday - The Baltimore Sun’s classical music critic Tim Smith blogs about the sonic art, local and beyond - baltimoresun.com.

Happy Birthday Mahler.

Though I was already in music school at Peabody Conservatory, the first time I heard Mahler's 4th symphony changed and focused my love of music. I realized there was music out there as emotional (and neurotic!) as I often felt. Mahler's exalting scale, the incredible detail, the wild emotions and depth of character, all spoke to me.

Here is an excerpt from the excellent personal story of Baltimore Sun music writer Tim Smith, who switched majors from Political Science to music after hearing Mahler:

I happened to see "Death in Venice," the film by Luchino Visconti based on the Thomas Mann novella. I frequently bore people by describing the extraordinary sensation I felt as the movie opened. There was no discernable image on the screen at first, only the sound of harp and strings playing the Adagietto (as I subsequently learned) from Mahler's Symphony No. 5. Gradually, the sight of gentle waves appeared and, as the music swelled, I felt myself drawn as forcibly into that sound-world as into the gorgeous film.

When I read Mahler’s name in the credits, I set out to learn more about him. I found a recording of that Adagietto, then decided I had to hear all of the Fifth Symphony. I was blown away. I did not know music could do that, could go where Mahler took it, could hit me in some deep emotional place that hadn’t been awakened before.

I had barely begun to digest that symphony when, by coincidence, I tuned to a classical music station in DC on my car radio one evening on the way home and heard a wildly dramatic bit of music that I sensed must be by Mahler. When I got home, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the car, lest I miss a note, so I stayed outside listening (and wearing down the battery) for more than an hour, until the shattering conclusion of what I found out was the Sixth Symphony. That did it.

But, to this day, Mahler simply touches me in a different way. I feel as if he’s talking to me, living my life, not just his. I feel like I can see what he sees, the darkest and brightest elements of this life, the glimmers and shadows and promises of the next one.

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9 comments for “How Gustav Mahler saved my life, and other reflections on the composer’s 150th birthday

  1. December 4, 2010 at

    Mahler changed my LIfe about 14 years ago. I listened to Mahler’s symphony #4 when at Tanglewood. I decided to go into a deep meditation to see if that would enhance my experience of my listening. What this did was to bring me to healing and to dance with the spiritual rainbow of my sons aura at the end of the movement. It opened up the gates of heaven so I could feel my child once again. My child had died of Leukemia at the age of 6 two years before my experience. Because of this experience of my healing I was able to go home and reconnect and feel the love of my 2 year old son. Thank you Mahler for your magic. I have also written about this experience incorporating the music; instruments; and how it brought me to this healing.

    • December 6, 2010 at

      That’s a beautiful story Amy. Thank you for sharing it. D

  2. thomas
    August 10, 2010 at

    Those that love the Adagietto from the 5th symphony would be interested in hearing the piano transcription by pianist John Bell Young.
    Young explains:"Frustrated that Mahler wrote nothing for the piano,I indulged a fantasy (some may say shamefully! )in penning this transcription."
    This transcription remains faithful to the original score.
    A delight for those who love classical piano.

    • August 10, 2010 at

      Very interesting Thomas. I've never heard of that transcription. It's hard to imagine!

    • August 10, 2010 at

      Very interesting Thomas. I've never heard of that transcription. It's hard to imagine!

    • August 10, 2010 at

      Very interesting Thomas. I've never heard of that transcription. It's hard to imagine!

      • thomas
        February 3, 2011 at

        Visit you tube-John Bell Young plays Mahler

  3. July 11, 2010 at

    Marvelous thoughts, David. Mahler's music is grandest of all in scale, both huge and minute, passionate and emotional to an almost disturbing point. I can see your line of thinking about it being therapy for neurosis, sort of like a homeopathic treatment. The thing is, most music could be seen to fit in that category, connecting with emotions we were not aware of, or could not express.

  4. July 10, 2010 at

    I was discussing Mahler last evening with a music professor and long time friend/oboist Dr.Ted Perkins at my son's wedding reception at a lakeside hall. Wild Canadian geese were drifting by as we stood outside discussing the shrinking audiences and budgets of classical music venues. I mentioned Mahler, whose musical architecture has the greatest breadth of any composer, and how challenging it can be to follow his long phrases often leading to a different mood in a different key. Mahler has always seemed a challenging composer, since he so effectively commits to one mood before pulling one in the opposite direction. His music is worth the challenge. Like some types of jazz and other improvisational forms, it is the sort of music that helps cure neurotic thinking; the listener learns to anticipate, endure and trust his/her ability to navigate life's constant challenges and changes. Mahler is, in that regard the supreme music therapist!

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