Sunday, June 27, 2010

Norman Lebrecht, Mahler and Big-Hearted Charlie

In an article that appeared yesterday in the Telegraph, Norman Lebrecht wrote of how Gareth Davies, principal flute of the LSO, found catharsis during a performance of Mahler's tenth symphony. “Why Mahler?” is both the question that Lebrecht asks in the article and the title of his new book published by Faber & Faber.

Lebrecht described Davies on the edge of despair. Then, in the finale of Mahler 10, Davies said: “There was a low thud of a drum...I closed my eyes and just played this tune. At that moment, everything came flooding back. Something connected. The music of Mahler had flicked a switch somewhere in my brain. I knew I could carry on.”

That gorgeous flute solo, in a performance by the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt, can be heard rising from almost nothing during the opening minute and twenty seconds of this excerpt from YouTube:

What cannot be heard is the "low thud of a drum." This is because the duration of a typical performance of the finale of Mahler 10 is about 24 minutes, and since YouTube allows only 10 minutes per segment, the host decided to split the track into two segments and start about four minutes in--seconds before the flute solo---and to cut the opening music. Technology giveth; technology taketh away.

But that was no ordinary thud.

The drums that are heard are echos of the "thud" that closes the fourth movement and they are essential to the structural and narrative context. Alma Mahler's "Memories and Letters" detailed an occurrence in 1908 when a funeral procession stopped below the window of the Mahler apartment on Central Park West:

"Hearing a confused noise, we leaned out the window and saw a long procession...alongside Central Park. It was the funeral procession of a fireman about whose heroic death we had read about in the newspaper. [...] There was a brief pause, then a stroke on a muffled drum, then dead silence. [...] [Mahler] too was leaning out, and tears were streaming down his face. That brief drum stroke impressed him so deeply that he used it in his tenth symphony."

The funeral procession was for Charles W. Kruger. Kruger was known to his colleagues as "Big-Hearted Charlie." He had thirty-six years of service before leading his men into a sub-cellar on 215 Canal Street.

The original Times story that the Mahler's read is available here.

The article includes a vivid description of the events. Kruger had "plunged into a stone cellar filled with eight feet of water, with slimy walls, and no ladder or steps to the floor above." Andy and several other guys fought to get a grip on him and pull him out to no avail. "I'm going, boys," whispered Kruger who "splashed back into the pit and was gone."

The original Times story about the funeral procession that stopped in front of the Mahler house, which includes references to the music that was played during the funeral service, is available here.

Lebrecht meditates on the significance of Mahler's music for the 21st century: "Once we grasp the possibility of multiple meanings," he writes, "[Mahler's] music combines intellectual challenge with emotional catharsis."

These multiple meanings include a sound captured during the funeral procession for Big-Hearted Charlie. The sound was the gateway for a flute solo by Gareth Davies.


  1. Thank you…
    for reminding me about this magical work. It's been several years since I heard this Symphony but I had the pleasure of hearing a live performance. While I can't hear the melodies or wonderful timbres in my head, I can remember how powerfully moving it was. I'm inspired to search it out and have a listen. The history behind the creation of the section you have pointed out is intriguing.

  2. Dear Craig,

    Thanks for stopping by the labyrinth!


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