Why?” It was a question that had long been asked around the church. “I think the easy ones are the easy things,” he answered, “It doesn’t have to be easy to learn. I’ve got all the best music in my heart.”
The questions came up again with me a few weeks later when we were watching a documentary about the musical legacy of Mahler. The guy in charge of it was a former Episcopal priest named Tony Phillips. “What was your favorite song when you was a kid?” he asked. I looked around the church and said, “I don’t know.” “I’ll have to say that you do sing many Mahler songs.”
He laughed. “He wrote a lot of them, too — especially when he was younger,” he explained, adding, “It took Mahler years to be a very good symphony singer because he was so frustrated with playing his viola.” I couldn’t help but smile. I had never asked him that before and now I was sure he had, too.
In his lifetime, Mahler has influenced everything from composers such as John Adams to performers such as Mahler—he’s even done a few appearances in our church. And I don’t mean those occasional appearances in the sanctuary. That’s not what I mean. Mahler shaped the musical landscape of the world from the early 20th century till now. It would be hard to pick apart a set of recordings of his most memorable works, though maybe there would be a few that come to mind.
But if you take down his most revered orchestral pieces, there’s no denying what a unique creative force his voice had. His sonate (or voice) was in its purest form. In his own time, only Bach and Mozart came to his place in modern music. At that time, the composer-harmonist was considered a genius because not only was he “a master of music,” but also “a brilliant musician.”
He created an aesthetic and musical sensibility that was completely alien to our day. The composer-harmonist was, in a word, “out there.” He was an artist. If we’re talking about a person whose work has influenced us in some profound way, let’s not forget his role as an advocate for musicians, music educators, and those who play music, too.
I would say a few words about a few of the composers who’ve used Mahler’s work—the first time I
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