How do non-musicians hear music? First movement

The hut in Toblach in which Gustav Mahler composed his Ninth Symphony

The hut in Toblach in which Gustav Mahler composed his Ninth Symphony

A long time ago, before I really learned how to read it, I remember listening to music and not hearing individual notes. I cannot recall what I did hear, except that I can remember that the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony conjured up dream-like images of a journey through a strange flat landscape (I am not sure that it was on Earth) with craggy pillars or trees, large shallow pools of water, and areas covered in slow-moving mist. This may not seem a likely description of the movement to you if you know the work. But for me there are certainly parts of it that could be described as foggy. For those who want to know which parts, bars 130-147 and 239-266 (which is marked Schattenhaft — Shadowy), which do seem to represent Mahler trying to decide what comes next.

Mahler: Symphony No. 9, first movement, bars 257-262

Mahler: Symphony No. 9, first movement, bars 257-262

This is wandering music. Another section is the beautiful, extraordinary, and truly unique cadenza for flute, french horn and basses in bars 381-390, which is trying to get somewhere but seems not to know where.

Mahler: Symphony No.9, first movement, bars 381-390

Mahler: Symphony No.9, first movement, bars 381-390

In fact the whole of the movement is a journey. One is reminded of the profound statement attributed to Martin Buber, though I have never been able to find the exact source: “All journeys have a hidden destination which the traveller doesnt realize.” (“Alle Reisen haben eine heimliche Bestimmung, die der Reisende nicht ahnt.”) In this sense I consider that my extra-musical characterisation of this movement was accurate.

What Mahler could see from his composing hut

What Mahler could see from his composing hut

But now I can read music and I hear notes when I do so: I also hear notes when I listen to music in performance. This is a distinct advantage to me as a performing musician for whom notes are the practical interface to music-making; but I also consider it a disadvantage, since I am rarely able to switch off this mode of listening, and I would love to know how non-musicians hear music all the time. Those who support us in the concert hall without being able to read musical notation must hear it in some way that makes sense to them, and it would probably surprise me to know how. Perhaps music communicates more to them than it does to me; perhaps I cannot hear the wood for the trees. But most music-lovers are too embarassed to discuss this; they always say something like, “No, I couldnt possibly say. You know so much more about music than I do. You are the expert!” But this is not true.

Why do I consider it important to know how others hear music? Because then I might acquire the ability to talk about it sensibly, explain it in their terms, in the writing and pre-concert talks that I do. There is far too much talk and writing about music which delves into technical terms and talks about first and second subjects, dominants and tonics and invertible counterpoint. This is musical shop talk. What does it mean to the customers?

I shall return to this subject soon. If, in the meantime, you have any insights to share, I would love to hear them.

Second movement…

I have written more about Mahler here.

The above photos are © David Pickett. The recorded extracts are included here as “fair use”, for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only.

© David Pickett and davidpickett, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Pickett and davidpickett with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the first “wandering” section sound as sinister as Giulini makes it. And yet, not soon after, all is sweetness and light and we’re back to Andante Comodo, a comfortable walking pace. It defies belief that Mahler was able to envision all of this without ever hearing it. Must be that Toblach air. Thank you for posting these thoughts on the 9th, first movement, as well as your other observations.

    BTW, why, with all the recordings available, did you choose Giulini’s? Was there a specific reason?

    • Hi Mitch!

      Of the several recordings that I auditioned the day I wrote this, Giulini’s expresses best what I feel about that passage.

      You have to visit Toblach. There is no question for me that Mahler’s late music is in the air. When I look out from his composing hut and see the hills on the other side of the valley, with little huts on them (as in the photo above), I hear parts of the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde.


  2. Great experience to read your website and blog!
    Just the themes I like and the kind of seeing it. (How do non-musicians hear to music: My problem still after 35 years work in the radio).
    Jan Reichow

    • Well, I wish I could come up with the unequivocal answer to how non-musicians hear. I keep trying and missing! Thanks for your kind comments, Jan

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