Last week, I performed Mahler’s 2nd symphony with the Springfield Symphony. Honestly, I’m still trying to work through all the thoughts and emotions stemming from that experience, but I’ve gotten to the point that I think I can write about it.
Approaching a Mahler symphony is a serious endeavor, even as a back row player only responsible for one part. There’s an incredible amount of information on each page, and every element adds to the overall performance.
For me, preparing to play Mahler 2 was a deeper exercise than simply learning the notes and translating the German language instructions. I wanted to know why he wrote each instruction and what he meant by each articulation symbol. I didn’t just want to play my part “right,” and I didn’t want the trombone section to just sound “good.” This performance was a rare opportunity for me to perform Mahler the way I think it should go, at least in the trombone section.
Here’s an example of the kinds of questions I considered. Throughout the score, Mahler often uses a carrot accent (^). In a jazz band, that would mean short; in Elgar, it would mean heavy. What did Mahler mean? Even the pianissimo chorale has these accents, so it can’t mean short or heavy. I thought back to the kinds of trombones he was writing for; these were large bore instruments with huge bell flares but no valves. Jay Friedman owns a (German) Kruspe built only a couple decades after Mahler wrote this symphony, and I had a chance to play on it a few years ago. The instrument has a very rich sound, but it takes a significant amount of time to respond. In the audience, this instrument would have lacked some of the clarity we expect from modern instruments. I believe that Mahler used the carrot accent to indicate that the articulation should be audible in the audience, as this would not have been the default performance practice of the time.
After the performance, I walked away feeling like I had learned about more than just Mahler’s 2nd symphony. I am a better trombonist because of this experience; but that’s not all. There’s something transcendent in that music, and it gripped me during the performance more powerfully than it ever had when I was just listening. As a participant in the work, I learned something about myself, and about humanity — but I still can’t articulate what that was. But maybe that itself is part of the point. As Mahler said, “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.”