Tag Archives: Mahler

Optimism and Belief

Cloud-line

In my life, there have been two things standing as constants: optimism and belief. I have embraced these two guiding principles, and striven in due course to live a better life as a part of the wider human community through them. For me, my faith as a Catholic and as a Christian is an inherently positive one; it is a faith in Resurrection, in Union with the Divine Essence, in the fulfilment of the circle and restoration of humanity to paradise.

Yet to allow this faith to persist I have found myself inherently optimistic, always expecting the best from people, and looking at even the darkest of situations with the hope that is required to believe in something greater than Reality. True, this is blind faith, something entirely counter to the principles of our scientific age, yet in the end is not blind faith equally necessary in a scientific setting? After all, we have yet to learn all that there is to know about nature, our sciences are as of yet unfinished in amassing the totality of reality. Therefore, if we are to accept science as an effective and prosperous measure of nature, then we must also accept that that measure is man-made and limited in its scope.

I see those things measured by science each and every day, and I am in awe of their wonder. I see how the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, how the stars circle in the sky as the year passes. I hear the wind bristling through the leaves of the trees, and across the tall grass prairies. I have known what it means to be caught on the beach at high tide, and to be at the mercy of the awesome tempestuous power of lightning. Past generations might well have worshiped these forces of nature, seen them as gods like Zeus, Taranis, or Ukko, yet I see them as terrestrial, as natural, as real. The true force, the veritable essence to be worshiped is far greater than even the rolling thunder or bristling lightning.

In these circumstances I am reminded of the American hymn How Great Thou Art, yet in the smallest of moments too I am reminded of God’s coming to Elijah on the softest breath of wind in the cave. Divinity and the essence that made all that we know and love is so far beyond our own understanding, yet in that realisation I find my peace.

Often it can be said that I find my belief renewed through music, through that purest, most mellifluous of sound. Some of the most sacred moments of my life, the most moving moments in the story of my belief have come in moments of music, from operas like Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte to the Pilgrim’s Chorus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser to great orchestral outbursts of emotion as in Stravinsky’s Firebird and most all of Mahler’s symphonies; yet equally spiritually potent for me are the more recently composed naturalistic Mass settings that I sang with the Rockhurst University Chorus while an undergraduate student there from 2011 to 2015. Music has long been said to be the Voice of the Heavens, and certainly it has appeared to be so to me.

Yet what I find the most fulfilling to my belief in the Divine is humanity. In the Christian tradition we believe that humanity was “Created in the Image and Likeness of God.” For me, this means that our souls particularly were made in the Divine Image, but that our bodies also have Divine inspiration. When I see humanity, with all our faults, all our problems, all our pain and anguish, I can’t help but be swept off my feet in grief. Yet at the end of the day I always remember the old adage echoed by Little Orphan Annie, “Tomorrow will be a brighter day.”

I believe that one day that will come true, that one day all will be sorted out in our capitals, our courts, our executive palaces. I believe that one day we will march through our cities, not in protest or in anger, not out of anguish or to alleviate our suffering, but because we are celebrating that most essential characteristic of our humanity: liberty. I believe that someday all humanity will walk together, singing in unison, a multitude of voices, of languages, of cultures and creeds making one song. I believe in optimism, and I am optimistic about my belief.

American Classical Music

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Courtesy of WGBY television.

Kansas City – I can’t think of a better way of spending my last night at my parents’ house before returning to my townhouse tomorrow at Rockhurst than watching the Boston Pops’ 75th Anniversary concert at Tanglewood on PBS. So far, they’ve played Copland and Bernstein, two of this country’s greatest composers. Right now, they’re playing a suite from Bernstein’s On the Town.

George Gershwin, my favourite American composer.The odd thing is that when it comes to American classical music, I tend to think more of the various orchestras about the country, the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Pops, and of course our fantastic Kansas City Symphony, just to name a few, than the composers who called this country home, or at least their birthplace. Quite honestly, there isn’t a single American composer in my top five list. That elite group consists of an Austrian, a few Frenchmen, and an Italian: Gustav Mahler (Austria), Giuseppe Verdi (Italy), Gabriel Fauré, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Claude Deubssy (France). Even in the top ten, the Americans probably would only come in the bottom of those: W. A. Mozart (Austria), Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner (Germany), Sergei Rachmanioff (Russia), and George Gershwin (USA). Below Gershwin however do come a number of American composers; numbers 11-13 being Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, and Philip Glass.

So, why exactly then, being a classical music lover who has lived the majority of my nearly 21 years in the States, do I, along with many others, tend to prefer European composers over our home-grown cast of colourful characters? I think it could very well go back to the fact that this country, along with the rest of the Americas, were once colonies of Europe, and therefore surely not on par with Europe’s high culture! Also, the American Revolution certainly didn’t help win the hearts of my fellow monarchist music lovers back in Europe. There is a general disdain for all things American in regards to high culture. Just look at the luxury status of a Mercedes or my favourite, a Jaguar, compared to their price tag equals from Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln among others. Another area that this can be seen is in Formula One, my favourite of all motor sports, which features a largely European cast of drivers (go Lotus!)

Kimi Räiikkönen and Romain Grosjean, the 2013 Lotus F1 drivers

Kimi Räiikkönen and Romain Grosjean, the 2013 Lotus F1 drivers. Courtesy of grandprix247.com

"Satyagraha", my favourite Philip Glass opera

“Satyagraha”, my favourite Philip Glass opera. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

In this country we truly do have a great classical music tradition, with its own uniquely American flavour. I’d argue Broadway holds a similar place in American classical music that Gilbert and Sullivan holds in Britain. We don’t necessarily need to have grand operas of the same flavour as those that came out of Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia. Our opera has a different flavour, a more, at least presently, popular flavour. Our opera buffa could be said to be Broadway, whilst our opera seria could be said to be works like those of John Adams, Philip Glass, and of course Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Bernstein’s West Side Story. Just like how in many a Verdi opera you can hear an all-too Italian flavour, for example the brass scales during the “Gran nuova! Gran nuova!” chorus in Rigoletto have always sounded quite Italian to my ears, so too West Side Story and most, if not all, of Gershwin’s major work has a distinctly American tone and texture to it. At the same time, because we are a nation of exiles, refugees, and immigrants, our composers have the flair and ability to write in the styles of many far distant lands, like Philip Glass in his Gandhi opera Satyagraha.

Tonight on PBS’ Great Performances, this testament to the power and uniqueness of American classical music stands firm, as both high art and popular art pieces are being performed side by side. When I started writing this entry, music that premiered on Broadway filled my parents’ living room, now it has been succeeded by the quietude of a Haydn Piano Concerto.

Until next time, tá!

My Redemption Song

Kansas City – One of my favourite songs on the Chieftains’ 40th Anniversary album Wide World Over is the Redemption Song by Ziggy Marley. It’s a song that has stuck with me since the so named Kings of Irish Music released it 11 years ago, as has the concept that music can redeem. My personal redemption song isn’t your average 4 minute 30 second piece, nor is it something written in the past 50 years. It’s Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.

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I first heard Mahler’s music on NPR’s Weekend Edition early one Saturday morning sometime in about 2009 or 2010. The San Francisco Symphony was making a series of recordings of all of the great Austrian composer’s symphonies. They played excerpts from his Symphony No. 6 on the air, but I avoided Mahler for years, despite my liking what I had heard on the air, because I was told that his music was “quite depressing.” It wasn’t until Summer 2011 that I bought my first Mahler album, the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein recording of the Symphony No. 1 and the Adagio from Symphony No. 10. I bought it specifically to take out into the fields on my iPod so I could have something to listen to whilst painting fences in the pastures. From then on, any chance I got to listen to some Mahler, I took it, attending every Mahler concert performed by the Kansas City Symphony since. It is a blessing of sorts to be living in Kansas City right now, because the KCS’ conductor Michael Stern is certainly one of this country’s great living Mahlerians.

Mahler’s 8th, demotically known as the Symphony of a Thousand is just that, a symphonic work in which my favourite of the Germanophonic composers pulls out all the stops and lets his very heart and soul sing. It begins with the Veni Creator Spiritus, a prayer commonly chanted around Pentecost in the Roman Catholic Church, my sort of spiritual lifelong home.

However, the real redemption comes in the second part (Movements 3 and 4). It is here that Mahler’s music takes on the story of the Redemption of Dr Faust. Contrary to M. Gonoud’s famous grand opera about the aforementioned doctor, in Mahler’s version, it could be said Faust is redeemed rather than falling back into sin. Whenever I listen to Mahler’s 8th, I always come out on the other end feeling empowered and eased, like I do when leaving the confessional or after spending time in the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s a calming sort of thing, which is rather odd considering the symphony ends with a very loud and quite triumphant sound. This is one piece that, if I ever were to get into conducting, I’d love to conduct. And yet, it takes quite a bit more to conduct than your average piece of music.

So, on days when you’re not feeling quite up to your normal, when you’re stuck in that bunker on the bottom nine, why not find a good recording of Mahler’s 8th, or really any of his works (except perhaps the 6th, which is rather sad), and have a listen. It’s as close as you’ll ever get to hearing a man’s soul cry out in joy and peace.

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My personal favourite version is the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas recording. It’s on iTunes.