Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler…

For once, I’m not writing about writing. A couple of things that happened over the last fortnight have made me want to write about that most perilously indefinable subject: music. And classical music at that.

First off, I experienced a sudden reawakening of my desire to spend some time with Gustav Mahler, a composer whose universe I’ve inhabited, off and on, for the last 25 years.

You’ve all done the same: you suddenly get a taste for a certain album or artist out of the blue, and only they will do, and you blow the dust off that old album and play it on a loop for a fortnight and then just as suddenly file it back (alphabetically, if you’re male), not to grace your eardrums for another year or two.

Well this fortnight it’s been Mahler and most of his symphonies for me.

Secondly, I noticed a big feature in the Observer by a former rock journalist espousing his new found love of classical music. I always hate those things (you’ll see why in a minute), but I gave it a read and yes, it was one of those disappointing experiences where you find yourself shouting ‘What!? We did all that yonks ago! Come on! Catch up!’

Now, I grew up reading Sean O’Hagan in the NME and I have nothing but respect for him, and the way he talks about only finding meaning in music through the classical route following the death  of his brother is genuinely moving.

It’s just that I’ve never understood this view that classical music is something you mature into and can only appreciate once your first grey hairs start sprouting.

As a working-class kid, growing up on the streets of Rochdale and then Birmingham, there wasn’t much in the way of classical music. No one listened to it. Our school in Rochdale did have an orchestra but the classical repertoire was a little bit beyond them. So the only experience you had of it was through movies.

But I remember at the age of 11 announcing that I liked Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz when I heard it on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even at that age I obviously enjoyed going against the grain and standing out from the crowd by liking stuff that no one else would say they liked (a pattern that continued throughout my adult life).

But it was as a teenager that I first started seriously listening to classical music. Like most of the teenagers I knew back then I was an avid member of the ‘alternative’ scene: I knew all the words to Joy Division songs, listened to John Peel every night, had a second-hand overcoat three sizes too big, and showed my musical maturity by delving into old bands like The Doors and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Then Richard Jobson got me into the films (and books) of Dirk Bogarde and Death in Venice got me into Mahler. I remember the first time I walked up to the Birmingham Central Library’s third floor music library and nervously looked through the classical section hoping no one I knew would see me.

I took out Mahler’s fifth symphony and, sure enough, bumped into one of my (much cooler than me) ‘alternative’ mates. When he asked me what record I’d got out and I stammered the response he just shrugged and said ‘Oh yeah, Mahler. Wicked.’ I took it home grinning to myself. Mahler was cool.

So I spent my teenage years listening to symphonies as well as three-minute songs (actually five minutes was the average for ‘alternative’ bands). I bought the complete Marshall Cavendish Great Composers partworks set and discovered Beethoven and Bach and the beauty of baroque.

I even got my working class family to appreciate it and, in no time at all, we all thought nothing of having Mahler’s Fifth on in the house. (This was a big thing for a kid from Kirkholt, Rochdale, believe me).

That’s why I don’t get this whole classical music as some kind of bar mitzvah  for fortysomethings. It has always existed side by side with rock and pop for me. Mozart with Madonna, Bach with Bowie, Prokofiev with the Pogues.

Which is a roundabout way of saying there are only two kinds of music:  music that moves something inside you and music that doesn’t.


Bach to Basics : a few suggestions for the classical virgin

Gustav Mahler’s symphonies
Forget Sean O’Hagan’s suggestion of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. Mawkish meaningless scales rushing up and down. They suck big time. Mahler is where it’s at. No other composer speaks to our modern condition of knee-jerk irony and tragedy sitting side by side with comedy. These are the best ones to try out:
Symphony no 1: Full of infectious, youthful joy (and a child’s funeral march. It’s what he does).
Symphony no 4: Simple. child-like, innocent, but of course with a few shadows cast.
Symphony no 5: Monumental, epic struggle that emerges from despair to end in a blaze of glory.
Symphony no 6: His only truly ‘tragic’ symphony. Brutal, cruel, sardonic but strangely energising and ironically contains his most beautiful slow movement.
Symphony no 9: A constant wrestling with despair that ends in calm repose.
Symphony no 10: His unfinished (but in my mind has greater validity as a finished item than, say, Mozart’s Requiem) and my own favourite. More utter despair, of course, but the final movement is one of the most beautiful expressions of love in music ever written.

Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa and Henryk Górecki’s Symphony no 3: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
O’Hagan is bang on with these two. I listened to them both pretty much constantly throughout my uni years (where I also discovered Tom Waits). From the modern school of ‘holy minimalism’. Tabula Rasa is a stunning piece for two violins and ‘prepared’ piano. Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs takes Polish poems about the Holocaust and sets them them to divinely simple canons. It became my mother’s favourite CD and the piece of music I buried her to last year.

JS Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier
Beautiful and serene piano configurations that represent some of the greatest architecture in human history.

Mozart’s late piano concertos 14-27
Written at a time when court ‘servants’ like Mozart were starting to realise they were the movers and shakers, not their masters, the counterpoint of piano and orchestra represents the relationship of the individual and society. The emphasis may be on the individual, but the theme is still unity. When I listen to these everything seems right with the world.

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana
Everyone knows this. A high energy romp through a set of medieaval songs that’s as exhilerating as any rock band. And it’s all about a group of monks trying to break into a convent to shag the nuns… apparently.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ symphonies
The greatest of the English composers who composed a series of amazing symphonies: the second (London) evokes the sounds of a modern city, the third (Pastoral) explores the landscape of the Somme, the fifth is a beautiful meditation on nature, but it’s the war-like fourth and sixth that really kick it. Stunning. His almost-a-symphony, Job: A Masque for Dancing, is Vaughan Williams in miniature. It’s all there: the soaring pastoral anthems, the catchy folk dances, the sublime slow movements, the outbursts of brutality. A great piece of music.

Dallapiccola’s Tartiniana Seconda
A rarity by a modern composer whose output is largely on the atonal side. But this is a lovely suite for piano and violin full of life and wit and warmth. (Tracks 24-27 on the link).


Sean O’Hagan’s article From Iggy to Gigli: my journey to the Proms is available on the Observer website.