Mar 2011 Journal

previous article:Art notes (review)
next article:Letters to the Editor

Letter from Israel

Last year the world marked the anniversary of Mahler’s birth and death, so that we were able to attend more performances of his music than is usually the case. I was therefore not surprised to find that at the first concert of the season the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra played his First Symphony.

The first half of the concert this year consisted of a specially-commissioned work by an Israeli composer, Oded Zehavi. His Flute Concerto was a trifle cacophonous to begin with, but ended with a tuneful third movement which called to mind many Israeli songs of yesteryear.

But the music that everyone was waiting for came after the interval. The opening notes of Mahler’s First Symphony, evoking the awakening countryside combined with the composer’s unique evocations of birdsong, military fanfares and orchestral elaborations, wove a rich tapestry of associations and allusions, sweeping the audience along on a stream of collective consciousness.

For me, it was a trip back to my childhood, calling to mind Sunday afternoons in the front room when my father would play the 45 rpm records of the symphony on the wind-up gramophone that was his pride and joy, explaining the movements to me as he changed the records. To my six-year-old ears the third movement, with its theme of a well-known children’s song played at a funereal pace encountering a gay wedding procession, and the interaction between the two, was a perennial source of delight. It is no longer accepted as a fact that that was Mahler’s intention, but that is the story my father told me, and it certainly served its purpose at the time.

The memory of those Sunday afternoons beside the gramophone must have stuck in my mind because a seminal moment in my teenage life was reading Alma Mahler’s autobiography, with its account of their life together. I found the book so fascinating that I couldn’t stop reading it even during lessons at school. I still remember the moment of horror when Miss MacAdie, my beloved English teacher, took me by surprise by bearing down on me as I sat at the back of the classroom and confiscating the book I was reading under the desk. I also remember her sympathetic expression when she handed it back to me at the end of the lesson.

Recently I happened to read Stuart Feder’s biography of Mahler. The author, who is both a psychologist and a musicologist, has produced a fascinating account of Mahler’s life and work. His book, A Life in Crisis, contains many illuminating insights into the composer’s oeuvre.

Among other occupations, in retirement I have returned to the piano, which I played in my youth, and am struggling to get my fingers to obey the commands my brain sends them as it endeavours to decipher the notes on the page. In my search for something new to play, I went through the stack of sheet music my parents brought out of Germany when they left after Kristallnacht. You can imagine my joy when I came across ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’. This was topped by elation when I saw that in far-away Hamburg my grandfather, whom I never met, had inscribed his name, Hugo van Son, and the date, 16 February 1925, in a neat hand on the cover. Now, as I struggle to master the notes of those sad songs, I feel a connection with my missing past, and realise that my love for Mahler’s music must be in my genes.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

previous article:Art notes (review)
next article:Letters to the Editor