What I said back then:
I have, I feel, shown great forbearance through all of this. I have wanted to write this one since I started, but I knew it ought to be left until last. It is two of my most powerful musical memories - in fact, it's probably my two most powerful memories of all. Now, I know it's possible to get overly pretentious about music such as this ( see here for details [link now defunct]), so I'll try to remain calm but convincing. And let's get the other bit out of the way, too - I love much of the rest of Mahler's work, too - but this isn't about the power and majesty of the 8th, or the strange resonances of the 7th, or - but I said I wouldn't do this...
One of the conditions for Zoë accompanying me to those early Proms was that there had to be one with singing in it. Lots of big, choral singing. So I searched the Proms list for something - no 'Carmina Burana' that year - and settled on a Mahler symphony, because if there's one thing we all know about Mahler, it's the singing. And it was Abbado and the Berlin Phil, so it would be impressively played, too. Now, at this point in my life I knew only the bit of Mahler that everyone knows - the 'Death in Venice' bit from the 5th. (and, I discovered later, the Castrol GTX music, but I didn't know that at the time). So I did worry a little that a 90 minute symphony by someone with a reputation for being loud and intense might be a bit much for either of us. But there was going to be singing. We were sitting in the gallery, which can be a little disconcerting; you feel a long way up, and falling out on to the heads of the promenaders seems a real possibility. The hall was packed, and there was a definite edge to the atmosphere wahich I hadn't noticed at previous Proms. The hush before it began seemed somehow deeper, and there was an audible intake of breath as the baton was raised. The instant I heard the opening phrases - the big first chord, the menacing pulses of the low strings, barely audible, building to that first colossal explosion of melody - I knew this was going to be alright - more than alright. I sat there, barely moving for the first four movements, drinking in this music; it seemed inconcievable that I could have lived this long without it. My only concern was that there seemed to be very little singing as yet, and I wondered how Zoë was coping. I daren't look round, because if she was bored, or worse, asleep, it would have destroyed the magic. And then, as the fifth movement surged and flowed on, it happened. If you don't know this work, as I didn't at the time, you can have no concept of the impression the entrance of the choir makes. Everything gradually dies away; the last post is sounded, offstage, and the tumult of the orchestra is finally silenced. Then, seemingly from everywhere and nowhere at once, this faint breath can be heard. Only after several moments does it become apparent that this is the whole, massed, choir - the control is magnificent, rising slowly but steadily in volume, until the hall is filled with 'Aufersteh'n!' Then the whole orchestra and the soloists join in, and it is as if the whole world is singing to you. The ovation at the end was ecstatic, although I was still too caught up in this sound world to even take it in properly. We left the hall, and had walked most of the way back to the car before I felt able to speak. I tentatively asked Zoë what she thought, fearing that I might have subjected her to an hour and a half of torture:
"Wasn't that magnificent?"
I know that few people will have the opportunity to be introduced to this awe inspiring music in that fashion, but I really do recommend it. Of course, I had to own a copy, and of course, I had to listen to it as often as possible until I felt I knew it - I can hum, or whistle, great chunks of it now, much to people's bemusement. And I knew I had to see it performed again. The opportunity presented itself in 1999 - Sir Simon Rattle, and the Vienna Phil - this is going to be even better, I thought, as I planned to spend the whole day queuing if necessary. That summer proved to be a traumatic one, as Zoë's mum died suddenly whilst visiting us, and I don't think I had even begun to recover from the shock by the time I took my day off work to sit on the pavement in Kensington Gore. I did have high expectations of the evening, but I wasn't really prepared for the emotional power of it all. The whole symphony is predicated upon the idea of resurrection; of life going on, even renewing in the face of tragedy, and that evening, the whole performance seemed to be directed only at me. There were several moments where the hairs on the back of my neck really did stand up, and several more when I felt close to tears. Which, of course were finally produced by that choral entrance; joyful, defiant and overpowering.
I have never experienced anything like it, and I don't suppose I ever will again. There really was only ever going to be one final entry in this list.
What I think now:
Clarification: the “see here for details” link was to a wildly over the top website of people’s mystical reactions to Mahler’s music. It was a wonder of its time, but nowhere to be found these days.
Otherwise, what I think now is that this was always going to be the final entry, even ten years later. Nothing I have heard has ever come close to inspiring in me what Mahler does, and I doubt anything ever will. And I’m just fine with that; Stephen Fry would have me believe that the operas of Richard Wagner are even better, but I have reservations about Wagner which are purely personal; I try to set aside the person from his music, but it’s hard, and I find that the opera form for me can sometimes get in the way of the music – opera and symphony are different things, but I’ll always prefer the symphonic form.
I hope that in ten years time, something else will have even more effect on me than this wondrous symphony, because I don’t like the idea that nothing better could ever be achieved. But if it’s not achieved in my lifetime, I’ll lose no sleep over it.
My aim hasn’t been to encourage anyone to like the things I’ve presented here; simply to write a memoir of sorts using music as a structure. I can’t insist that you go out and listen to Mahler, far less enjoy or even like his music. But, trust me – if you can give yourself over to the Second Symphony, you’ll hear things you’ve never heard before, and that can’t be a bad thing.
I have another recording of it, by Gergiev and the LSO, which I bought at the Royal Festival Hall music store on my way home after my mother’s funeral. It’s not my favourite recording (nothing I’ve heard yet beats Rattle and the CBSO), but it’s a third strong memory of this symphony. Yet it doesn’t change the way I feel about it; I have memories of the music, but the music doesn’t necessarily conjure up those memories – when I listen to it, it is usually with a clean slate; ready each time to find something new.
And that, in the end, is what this journey has been about. I can take comfort in my memories, and enjoy the nostalgia as much as anyone, but every day, I’m hoping to hear something else, something new; ready to start the journey to the next ten years’ memories.