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“Thirstier for life than ever”

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The following is a guest blog from Gilbert Busch, braille music specialist in the Music Section. Although active on the piano and organ, he has a strong interest in symphonic music, especially that of Mahler.  


On Thursday, May 14th, I travelled to Boulder, Colorado, for MahlerFest XXVIII, an annual event devoted to the music of Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860–May 18, 1911).  This was the second time that I have attended the festival. I was present at Friday’s rehearsal, as well as the Saturday and Sunday performances of his Symphony No. 9, composed in 1909.

This symphony has often been described as offering nothing but despair.  True, one of Mahler’s children had just died, and doctors had discovered his serious heart ailment.  Nevertheless, Mahler accepted the new challenges of conducting opera and orchestra concerts in America. He also composed “The Song of the Earth,” his Ninth Symphony, and most of the Tenth, while also preparing and conducting the premiere of his Eighth Symphony, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand.” To the conductor Bruno Walter he wrote, “I am thirstier for life than ever, and find the ‘habits of existence’ sweeter than ever.”

At Saturday’s symposium, scholars offered various interpretations of the Ninth.  Robert Olson, who conducted the orchestra, allowed the players to express the emotional extremes: from gentle nostalgia, to nearly atonal vistas (compositional realms that his friends Schoenberg and Berg were exploring).

From the NLS collections I brought “Mahler Remembered” by Lebrecht (RC 36308), “Mahler Symphonies and Songs” by Barford (a Christmas present from my wife), and “Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to his Music” by Deryck Cooke (BRM29690).  This last was a great help, as it contains German and English texts for all of Mahler’s vocal music.  (The German text contains German braille contractions, which are about as familiar to me as UEB [the new United English Braille].)

One of these texts helped during Jason Starr’s film, “Everywhere and Forever: Mahler’s Song of the Earth,” shown Saturday afternoon. Friday’s offering was Mr. Starr’s “For the Love of Mahler: The Inspired Life of Henri-Louis de la Grange,” concerning this 90-year-old author of a four-volume biography of Mahler.

Arriving at the Denver Airport on Monday, May 18th, and learning that the plane I was to take had mechanical problems, I wondered if flying on the date of Mahler’s death was unwise.  Fortunately, another plane was brought in from Las Vegas, the airline provided lunch vouchers, and soon we were en route to Washington, DC.

A final note: Although Mahler sometimes calls for unusual instruments in his scores, such as cowbells, nowhere does he ask for what we heard at Sunday’s concert: a solo iPhone!




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