Rambling along on the "canterelle trail" in Sleepy Giant Park the other Day, I found myself besieged by a group of Mahleresque tunes which had invaded my head. I wondered why this would be. Maybe its the sylvan setting? The pastorale? The futility of looking for chanterelles so late in the season (or the irony, which could accord with the Mahler ditties.)
Actually my son had reawakened my affinity with old Gus, as the other day we were driving and he insisted on playing the Symphony No 1, in the car, and l when we got back to the house he put on a record (yes, an LP) of the Sixth, which I must confess is one of my favorites--the slow movement being desert island material. I used to think the Third's slow movement without parallel, but lately I've thought it a bit too indulgent, somewhat over the top in reiterating those achingly longing long lines of desire. (A colleague of mine after a performance of the Third at Woolsey Hall in NH was heard to complain loudly in the lobby about this music's treacly sentimentality--"it's like a bunch of drunks at a high school reunion singing the alma mater over and over again).
Among other things, what kills me in the Sixth is the use of the almglocken (see picture above)
They appear very subtly (in most recordings) and are quite random in rhythm and pitch--Mahler wanted this "aleatoric" texture to conjure up an alpine pastoral setting. (although truth to be told, had a bunch of cows with their clanking bells wandered into the vicinity of one of his alpine composing huts, he'd have had a fit--he demanded silence from Nature when working.)
Another composer who has used cow bells to great affect is John Adams--in his"Naive and Sentimental Music" among others. And having brought Adams and Mahler together here, I ought to mention the book review in last Sunday's NY Times wherein a new biography of Mahler gives John the excuse to write a short essay on his take on the greatest symphonist since Bruckner.