Traveller's tales

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Mahler needs a jumbo!

This was the intriguing title to a documentary I had seen chronicling the arduous task of transporting an orchestra big enough to perform Mahler's 8th Symphony, to an auditorium big enough to hold all the performers in this biggest of his massive ouput.

It was the impresario Gutmann who first gave the 8th the name, 'Symphony of a Thousand'; it was later given wider currency by Paul Stefan, author of the first book on Mahler.
How could he have known the efforts impresarios would go through to have his music performed.

On a warm summer's evening in August, I was walking up Lothian Road in the heart of Edinburgh. My destination was the huge Usher Hall, a superb Victorian building, which on this particular night was the venue for a performance of the 8th.

As I was walking up towards the Hall I started to think about the composer, Mahler, who had been a hugely successful conductor in Vienna many years earlier, before his untimely death. He must, I thought, have walked to many such magnificent halls in Vienna on just such lovely evenings as this one.

Thinking about Mahler, and the music I was about to hear, I began to whistle the opening bars of the symphony as my pace quickened.

I whistled away, oblivious to the noise of the traffic, and perhaps my whistling grew louder in response to the hooting of car horns and the revving of engines. Suddenly, I heard a voice, a woman's voice at my side.
"He's whistling our tune," she said to someone behind me. I looked round to discover that I was surrounded by women in long gowns.
"Your tune?" I enquired.
"Yes" said another to my left, "we're singing here tonight," she said, pointing at the grand building in front of us; the Usher Hall.

These were some of the thousand performers about to take part in the musical evening.
They had surrounded me, and they told me that they had all come down from the Granite City, Aberdeen. I asked them if they had rehearsed it up there, the thousand performers.
"Oh no," another woman said, "we rehearsed our bit of it, and other groups in other cities, Perth, Dundee and Glasgow, they did the same, and last night we all rehearsed it together for the first time."

The performance I was about to hear was only the second time that they had all sung and played together under one roof. They laughed gaily, and told me how nice it had been to meet the other performers for the first time last night, and they laughed again when I asked them how on Earth they had managed to rehearse only their own part of something so vast, so grand and so long. They couldn't really answer, but one of the women said, "You'll see."

They said they had all thoroughly enjoyed taking part in something which had to be built up bit by bit, and put together in one live performance. They asked me where I came from, and I told them that I had traveled two hundred miles to hear the piece. They had traveled down from all over Scotland. We had come from all over Britain to be there, to take part in one glorious evening of live musical entertainment. Music really does bring people together, doesn't it?

Shortly afterwards, looking at the packed auditorium, the huge orchestra, choirs of robust looking men and handsome women, at the children's choir high up above the percussion section, and the soloists sitting impassively waiting for their key, it was easy to see where this name came from.

These days, it rarely requires a thousand performers. That wasn't the point. The name was coined, most probably, because of the impression of there being that many musicians - row upon row of florid faces, eight soloists, male and female choirs, a children's choir, a full orchestra and an organist, no less - no wonder it appeared that there were a thousand people on the platform that first night in Munich in September, 1910.

And then it started, the organ bellowing the 'Veni, Creator, Spiritus' hymn to the very rafters of this great hall. And right up to the final triumphant, long held chord, this total music experience held us all in its grip. The applause was tumultuous.

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