I’ve begun reading the massive tome that is the Mahler biography by Henry-Louis De La Grange. The first volume is roughly 1000 pages, so there is quite a bit of gold in there. First off, the prose style is great. I was a history major in college, and so became acquainted with quite a few historical books that had a tendency to drone on. Luckily, this book does not.
I’ve always been a huge Mahler fan. Mahler’s 1st Symphony was actually the 2nd CD I ever bought, after Chopin’s Nocturnes. Both purchases were inspired by my copy of the 1996 Edition of the Encarta Encyclopedia that came with Windows back in the day. In fact, most of my knowledge of music history came from this encyclopedia. The main benefit was being able to read about a composer, and then hear short examples of their work. The things you can accomplish without the internet…
Because of my mini-obsession with Mahler, I’ve decided on a few things. First, I have begun real serious study of his music. This study is not based in reading theoretical papers about his music (not yet at least) but instead is based in the music first. I am undertaking the monumental task of copying by hand much of his work. I am not making any promises to how far i’ll get, or if I will go straight through, but there is something incredible about slowing down, and taking the time to really get to know the music.
Beyond this though, I thought I would really get to know the man, what makes his head tick (and sometimes explode… he had a tendency to be a little bit over the top sometimes). The best way I know how is to read biographies. This was inspired by a podcast I listened to by Dane Maxwell called Starting From Nothing. It was basically an impassioned plea to read the biographies of great men (and women, but specifically, this focused on Rockefeller). Dane has a way of really getting you excited about stuff, and this was no different. So I went to the library and found this biography. I figured one book would be great, but four are better, and so I chose this one. If music theory (too me at least) is the self-help genre for composers, biographies and the music are the way to really bring home the lessons.
Insight is useless without connecting it to reality. It is also fleeting. What may strike you as genius when you read it in a theory book, may be forgotten in a few hours… if you don’t secure it in the reality of your own inner composer. Hence reading biographies and copying music.
Mahler the Child
Mahler, if you didn’t know, had quite a tragic childhood. The most striking thing is his loss of 7 brothers before the age of 10. This definitely lead Mahler to focusing somewhat on death. The first thing he ever wrote was a Polka with Introductory Funeral March.
What struck me when reading about his childhood, are the things that I believe really made a difference later in his career, and which we as composers should be doing ourselves.
Using Your Ears
All those who came into contact with Gustav noticed the speed with which he could reproduce everything he heard. ~p. 14
Mahler, much like Mozart, and many other famous composers, was well known in his town for being about to listen to complex music and play it back by ear on the piano. Now I am sure, he mess things up, skipped sections, left out notes and countermelodies… but that’s not the point. No one cared that he did that. And it didn’t matter. What is clear, is that he had a great ability to transcribe quickly, and mentally, without needing to write it out. This meant that he could internalize music rather quickly.
This is a skill quite often cultivated by jazz musicians, and is a great way to learn music in a deep way. I attribute my early successes in music, and my apparent strengths in my college music theory classes mostly to having transcribed quite a bit of music when I was a teenager. It probably seemed like a strange thing to my parents. But I wanted to know what the notes were that I was hearing. So I sat down and figured them out. What I didn’t know, is that I was creating an internal map of music, that would serve me for a very long time.
Find the Joy of Reading Scores
Mahler was somewhat lucky to have had a music school locally that he was able to check out scores as a child.
I was just as insatiable, if not more so, in my passion for music a little later on. Every week I came back from the library, where we had taken out a subscription, with a brief case full of symphonies, opera arrangements, and salon pieces. All of them filled me with indescribable joy, though I was unable to say which I preferred: at that time I was peculiarly and utterly devoid of judgement. My imagination undoubtedly filled the most junky pieces with all sorts of imaginary beauties, transforming them and perfecting them in my mind. ~p 17
He would just check them out, and read through them. This is part of the reason why I am diving back into copying scores. “Qui scribit, bis legit.” (He who writes, reads twice). If I am to be serious about a career of composing, which I am, then I have to be serious about learning. A inch wide and a mile deep is much better than a mile wide and an inch deep. I would rather truly and deeply know just a handful of scores, than know a lot of scores superficially.
I also have to be serious about internalizing that which truly moves me. There is so much great music in the world it is almost impossible to know where to start. I’ve struggled with the concept of identity in the past – how should I identify my music? Is it classical? Modern? Post-modern? Romantic? I find that I don’t really fit into any of those categories. Regardless of whether you believe labels are good or bad, they exist, and you will be labeled eventually. So even if I can’t label myself, I can identify what I love, and so, instead of choosing a label and working into it, I am choosing music, and working out from it. This gives me freedom from the responsibility of labeling myself.
He Never Finished Anything
Now, this is a little bit of an exaggeration. He finished a few things. But as a young child, and a young man in the conservatory in Vienna, Mahler had a tendency to abandon his works before finishing. At least, finishing his stated goals. It sounds like he would write 1 or 2 movements of a work, and then abandon it. So I don’t believe he would necessarily abandon his piece mid-sentence.
I have spotted this tendency in myself as well. Heck, my First Piano Sonata has two movements.
Sometimes, you have to just keep moving. I’ve written a lot of music since I wrote this, but it has always been a nagging concern in the back of my mind. Should I be worried about it? Maybe – maybe not. Mahler’s stated reason for not finishing his works is that he had learned what he needed to learn from them, and so felt he could abandon them.
Mahler told her that he did not complete a single work while at the conservatory, having always abandoned them after the first or second movement or, in rare cases, after the third. “It was not only that I was impatient to begin a new piece, but rather that before I finished my work it no longer challenged or interested me.” ~p. 35
This is the important thing, Mahler wasn’t too concerned about finishing his works as a student – but he definitely finished his masterworks.
And right now, I still consider myself a student – a master in the making. So I should probably give myself a break.
I also find it interesting that Mahler didn’t really like his early works, saying they lacked all originality, and always came to him “from another source”. I find this interesting, and part of what drives amateur composers to greatness. Everyone feels this. It is why we strive to be original. But it is also important to realize great composers like Mahler, too, felt they were just copying older composers. It takes time to find your own voice. That’s what Steven Pressfield believes the 10,000 hour rule is really about. It’s about finding your own voice.
Mahler Could Play the Piano
Mahler was an excellent piano player. Not to the point of being considered one of the greats, but he was no slouch, and it wasn’t till after a few years in conservatory did it become clear that he wouldn’t be a full time concert pianist. Piano, is a great tool for composers, not just because you can hear harmonies and melodies played against each other, but also because there is such a vast wealth of great music written for piano. If you can play it, you are opening yourself to yet another way of truly internalizing great music. More so than just plinking it out, it must be memorized and understood.
I am myself, not a great pianist. I can work stuff out. A few years ago, I really took the time to memorize and be able to really play, Bach’s Two Part Invention in C major. It was hard work, but it was also very enjoyable, and being able to really knock out a great piece of music is very satisfying.
So I am planning on starting piano lessons in the near future to improve my playing, and reading.
Back to the Basics
It is so easy in the modern world to get distracted. Heck, I was distracted earlier this morning and ended up not copying like I planned. But if you have a point of reference, something to which you can re-cage your internal gyros so to speak, then you will eventually make progress in your art.
So who is your point of reference?