Conductor Semyon Bychkov talks to us about the equally complex life and music of Gustav Mahler, the intricacies of conducting and his first encounter with the music of this great composer.
Introduction to Mahler
Semyon Bychkov was born in St. Petersburg and studied at the Glinka Choir School as a child. The Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra held their rehearsals in the same building, and as a young boy, Semyon would go and watch them play between classes. One day, he heard something incredible.
“I must have been ten or 12. I arrived, it was quiet, and then suddenly, I heard the most mesmerising sounds. I had no idea what was being played, who composed it, but I was so fascinated by it and so touched, that I forgot to go back to class. Later that day, I was walking down the street and I saw a poster announcing the performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony. I didn’t know much about who Mahler was, I didn’t know a single note of his music, but I suddenly realised that this was what I had heard earlier.”
“Later, I found out that it was actually the beginning of the last movement of his Third Symphony and as I started learning about it and listening to it, I discovered that there was a program to each of the movements and in the last movement, the little subtitle says “What Love Tells Me”, and so it was a shock to the nervous system which I never got over.”
Having had his journey with Mahler begin in this way, Semyon always advises people to start with the final movement of the Third Symphony if they want to get into Mahler. “I think when we come in contact with music that we’re not familiar with, the most important thing is to be introduced to something that will touch you. And after that, of course, you will want to hear more, you will want to hear it again and you will want to hear other music by that composer and Mahler is one of those".
Between life and music
Mahler was a very complex man and his life was much shorter than one thinks—he lived for only 51 years. He was married once; very happily in the beginning—but things turned sour in the end between him and his wife Alma, who had a tremendous gift for composing herself. Many of Mahler’s personal stories and events were weaved into his music.
“In the First Symphony, there’s a story that happened when he was growing up as a child. He was born in a small town in what today is the Czech Republic. His father had been occasionally quite violent with his mother. And one day, there was this big fight between his parents and he ran out to the street in pain, and just at that moment, there was a street band passing by, playing the most loud and ridiculous music. And somehow, later on, he found a way to depict that in his music. Once you know the little story, you recognise it in the music.”
"What he loved, he expressed"
“There is also a very beautiful episode connected to the Adagietto of his Fifth Symphony. It’s in five movements and the Adagietto is in the fourth movement. The reason it’s called "Adagietto" is that it’s like a small Adagio, it’s really tiny. For many years, we associated it with the film Death in Venice by Visconti which was made in the 1950s which featured a recording of it. I don’t even remember whose recording he used, but in that recording, the tempo is excruciatingly slow."
"Therefore, the music still sounds tremendously beautiful, but its spirit has absolutely nothing to do with Death in Venice in Mahler’s original design. In fact, it’s a love song that he wrote for Alma when he fell in love with her—he was composing the Fifth Symphony at the time. So you see, what he loved, he expressed. “
Semyon claims that all of Mahler’s symphonies are difficult; there’s not one note of his music that’s easy—and there’s proof.
“There’s a recording that he made as a pianist. Believe it or not, but in the beginning of the 20th century, people were already able to record sound. He recorded the first two movements of the Fifth Symphony and a movement of the Fourth Symphony, and we’re still able to listen to it today—it still exists. When you listen to it and look at the score, you see that the expression with which he plays is impossible to notate in phrasing. Phrasing is when we say something, and we can say the same thing in many different ways—it’s exactly the same in music.”
“Every musical sentence can be expressed in a number of different ways, but the composer has very limited ways of notating the expressions simply because the note will have a value but the same note that will have the same value—when it’s printed—should not necessarily have the same time to it as another, and the composer cannot notate that. So notation is rather approximate. And when one listens to Mahler and the expression with which he plays, one realises just how difficult it is.
A masterful conductor
Not only was Mahler a great composer, but he was also a tremendous conductor.
“When you look at the scores he wrote, the amount of information that he gives to us, those who have to conduct his works, is overwhelming. Only a conductor who knew what he wanted and how to achieve it could write it that way. In Beethoven’s time, the composers would give us very little information. Though Beethoven gave us a lot more information than the composers who preceded him, it was still much more limited, compared to the amount that someone like Mahler gives us. Only a conductor could have done it.”
Handwritten score to the Tenth Symphony
What kind of information does he mean? “He would give you directions about dynamics, phrasing, orchestration, all of which are incredibly complex. The kind of colours that he brings out in an orchestra is just tremendous. And you know, practically all his life, when he would compose something, he would come back to it and change the orchestration because as he would conduct his own works, he would hear certain things not the way he wanted them to be and so he would change them in order to achieve the kind of sound he wanted.”
The only other composer who was also an extraordinary conductor, according to Semyon, was Richard Strauss, who happened to be a close friend of Mahler's.
The art of conducting
“Conducting requires total obsession. You can compare studying a score to studying a human being. You meet someone you become passionate about and then discover more and more about the person and the more complex they are, the more you’re passionate about them and the more you want to discover."
Semyon Bychkov. Image via Musacchio & Ianniello
"Sure, people change, they don’t stay the same throughout their whole life—the values will remain but the temperament and the way of being will be changing throughout life, and so the music remains the same but since we change, the way we connect to it and the way we find it is always different. The greater the work the more different angles of it that we discover.”
“It’s a never-ending process of discovery. And you have to be obsessed with that piece to the point that you can convey it with the same conviction and obsession to your colleagues who make music, and then that, in turn, will communicate itself to the audience. It's a process that never stops.”
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