Thursday, September 2, 2010

John Gardner on Mahler 5

John Gardner (1933-1982) wrote about music as an insider. He experienced first-hand the powerful sense of community created through performance of music in common circumstances. Musicians and musical thought permeate his work, and are used with currency and force in the webs of interlinked and associated ideas that invigorate so much of his fiction. These musical encounters and meditations are consistent and powerful, poetic and vast.

The first story in his collection called "The Art of Living," is called "Nimram." In it, a conductor named Benjamin Nimram is sitting next to a sixteen-year-old girl who is terminally ill. They are flying into O'Hare airport and the following night Nimram will conduct the Chicago Symphony. The girl and her parents buy tickets at the last minute and drive in from La Grange. Because they arrive late, "after the Water music, with which he had opened the program." Gardner intensifies the experience in a single, long paragraph, cutting across it to end the story with three short gestures like staccato tapping:

"She had never before seen a Mahler orchestra—nine French horns, wave on wave of violins and cellos, a whole long row of gleaming trumpets, brighter than welders’ lights, another of trombones, two rows of basses, four harps. It was awesome, almost frightening. It filled the vast stage from wingtip to wingtip like some monstrous black creature too enormous to fly, guarding the ground with its head thrust forward—the light-drenched, empty podium. When the last of the enlarged orchestra was assembled and the newcomers had tuned, the houselights dimmed, and as if at some signal invisible to commoners, the people below her began to clap, then the people all around her. Now she too was clapping, her mother and father clapping loudly beside her, the roar of applause growing louder and deeper, drawing the conductor toward the light. He came like a panther, dignified yet jubilant, flashing his teeth in a smile, waving at the orchestra with both long arms. He shook hands with the concertmaster, bounded to the podium—-light shot off his hair—-turned to the audience and bowed with his arms stretched wide, then straightened, chin high, as if revelling in their pleasure and miraculous faith in him. Then he turned, threw open the score—-the applause sank away—-and for a moment studied it like a man reading dials and gauges of infinite complexity. He picked up his baton; they lifted their instruments. He threw back his shoulders and raised both hands till they were level with his shoulders, where he held them still, as if casting a spell on his army of musicians, all motionless as a crowd in suspended animation, the breathless dead of the whole world’s history, awaiting the impossible. And then his right hand moved—-nothing much, almost playful—-and the trumpet-call began, a kind of warning both to the auditorium, tier on tier of shadowy white faces rising in the dark, and to the still orchestra bathed in light. Now his left hand moved and the orchestra stirred, tentative at first, but presaging such an awakening as she’d never before dreamed of. Then something new began, all that wide valley of orchestra playing, calm, serene, a vast sweep of music as smooth and sharp edged as an enormous scythe—-she had never in her life heard a sound so broad, as if all of humanity, living and dead, had come together for one grand onslaught. The sound ran, gathering its strength, along the ground, building in intensity, full of doubt, even terror, but also fury, and then—amazingly, quite easily—lifted. She pressed her father’s hand as Benjamin Nimram, last night, had pressed hers.

Her mother leaned toward her, tilting like a tree in high wind. 'Are you sure that’s him? she asked.

'Of course it is,' she said.

Sternly, the man behind them cleared his throat."


Sir George Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, 1986.

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