Mahler, Bernstein and Me

Mahler, Bernstein and Me

By C. C. Yager

Music is a door to memory, and I will happily sail through that door the first weekend of November when the Minnesota Orchestra performs Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. That particular music reminds me of a time in my life when music offered a wonderful adventure if I kept my ears and heart open—my first concert in Vienna!

I was a college student, a music major, studying in Vienna, Austria, for my junior year. My first concert that fall was at the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein! We didn’t know what the program was when we arrived 75 minutes before the Musikverein opened its doors and found a line had already formed. As we waited more people arrived. When the doors finally opened, we sprinted with everyone else to find an usher who sold us the standing-room-only tickets. We had a fantastic view of the stage, the gold and red decor, and the golden Greek statues along the walls in the Golden Hall, but we had to stand for another hour before the concert began. I slipped out to buy programs while my friend held our spot. That’s when we learned what Bernstein would be conducting that evening.

Only one piece on the program: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E minor. Mahler! I could hear my parents groaning that Mahler’s music was just noise, wasn’t music at all, not like Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or even Sibelius. My friend and I discussed leaving, but we’d already invested an awful lot of time and money into this little adventure so we decided to stay and see what happened.

The hall filled, every seat taken, and soon the crystal chandeliers dimmed. When Bernstein strode onstage, his short height shocked me. I’d expected him to tower over the orchestra, but there was no mistaking that profile or mane of graying hair. His downbeat came even as the applause died away.

The symphony’s first notes surprised me. They were quiet, a dirge-like rhythm played in the strings. Where was the loud bombast, the dissonance, the noise? A horn I’d never seen before played a melody of descending notes unlike any I’d ever heard. I doubt my parents would have called it a melody, but to me it sang, laying the dramatic musical groundwork for the symphony. This music defied night’s darkness with flashes of defiant light from the brass, and strings bursting out in a manic tempo, and the entire orchestra engaged in a struggle among its sections. A conversation had begun.

The second movement reminded me of a music hall march with a definite Austrian lilt, followed by a funny little hitch to the rhythm before the strings contributed some schmalz. Its title is “Nachtmusik,” German for “serenade.” This serenade was like watching a drunk romantic couple dancing a little off beat. A subdued Bernstein guided the musicians and us through the dance, at times bouncing on his feet to the rhythm, precise and clear in his stick technique, and thrilling to watch. Gone were the flamboyance and physicality of his youth.

The third movement, the scherzo, was my music. I fell madly in love with it as I listened. Restless and spooky, the sound reminded me of dead leaves rustled by a Halloween breeze. Its direction from the composer, “schattenhaft,” means “shadowy.” I thought this music must have represented the shadows of a neurotic mind. Not devilish or evil, just restless and dark, and by the end, I was imagining the couple from the second movement sidling in and out of the shadows along a Viennese street.

The fourth movement returned to the serenade with a solo violin followed by mandolin. Mandolin. In a symphony! Well, that was different. This movement was much slower than the first serenade, more lyrical in nature, sweeter in its harmonies, like a lullaby for that couple who finally made it home and were talking about their evening. I started thinking about what “night” meant to me, all the different activities that could occur at night, and realized Mahler had thought of night not in a sinister way but as another part of human experience.

The final movement burst out of the darkness with a blaze of timpani and brass. The music was triumphant, celebratory and joyous. Then Mahler tiptoed down the hall with the music so as not to disturb the slumbering drunken couple. But he didn’t remain quiet for long. This movement became a tug of war between the triumphant music and the quiet lilting music, but Triumph prevails in the symphony’s final notes.

Mahler: music or noise? Audience members were the only people making noise that night with loud clapping and foot-stomping, calling Bernstein back on stage five times until he stepped back onto the podium and conducted the entire final movement again. We stayed for every note.

The Vienna Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein had introduced to me that night a new person with an interesting mind and way of expressing himself. Mahler had been dead for 63 years, but I felt as if he were very much alive and I’d listened to him speak all that evening. I felt full and was flying high from the new sounds, rhythms and orchestral colors I’d heard.

Wow, were my parents ever wrong.


C. C. Yager is a writer who has worked for the Minnesota Orchestra in the Marketing Department and in Ticketing Services. She has a BA in Music and often combines her knowledge of music with her writing as in her first novel, Perceval’s Secret. Her blog “Anatomy of Perceval” can be found at ccyager.wordpress.com.

Hear the Minnesota Orchestra and Music Director Osmo Vänskä perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 at Orchestra Hall on November 2 and 3.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff