Where are the Dancing Elephants?

I have a love-hate relationship with Gustav Mahler.

I love dark Mahler. When Mahler’s music is in the depths of despair, I am right there with him, my eviscerated soul laid bare writhing in agony. There is no milk chocolate in Mahler’s world. That dark music is a gourmet flourless 80% cacao chocolate torte, so rich the flavor lasts for hours. But other times Mahler, as I like to put it, “goes Disney” – you know, the happiest place on earth. Sickeningly sweet. Like an overloaded ice cream sundae with caramel, hot fudge, peanut butter sauce and marshmallow, finished off with the obligatory whipped cream, walnuts, jimmies, and of course, cherry.

I don’t have a sweet tooth.

It’s the syrupy music of Mahler that disqualifies him from being my favorite composer, even though his somber, haunting music leaves me “deep into that darkness peering…wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” to quote Edgar Allan Poe, a fitting pairing.

But despite the fact that I cannot bear listening to Mahler’s “Disney” music, I think I understand what he was doing. First, if music isn’t emotional, what’s the point? Second, the music must be what it is. Mahler doesn’t hold back. He allows the music and the emotion to achieve maximum fullness. It is incredibly intense, like the colors in a Fauvist painting. This is what I admire most about Mahler’s work, and I aim to emulate the courage to write passionate music regardless of the potential embarrassment of being too much.

A few months ago, I was commissioned to write a Christmas piece for the Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. As I finished it up over the weekend, I asked my husband to listen to it. I was concerned about it being “corny.” While my husband is not a composer, he is a musician with good taste and I implicitly trust his judgment. He listened, turned to me and said, “No, it’s not corny. But…it seems like something’s missing. Your ending needs more.” As I asked for more details, he sighed and replied, “I’m afraid you’re going to have go Mahler on this one.” I knew what he meant: Disney Mahler.

I revised the ending by giving the sopranos some higher notes and making the harmony more complex, then brought it back to him for another listen. In his best Edna Mole imitation, he said, “No, no, no, no, no! Dahlin’, where’s the BIG? Where are the dancing elephants?” Mahlering this up really meant working hard to pull out all the stops. Suddenly, I understood why only a touch of happiness wasn’t enough. There was still something missing, stifling the impact. I had to figure out what it was.

It finally came to me – I was missing percussion. I didn’t have the option to add timpani to the piece, but I had a piano which, in one light, is a percussion instrument. I made the left hand fill in for timpani and the right hand fill in for chimes. I gave the trumpet part more flourish and higher notes. Finally, it was finished – as over-the-top as it could be. I imagined Mahler coaching me, “That’s it. You’ve got to be all in. Go big, or go home.” I must have done it right because the director loved the piece and called it “magnificent.”

Am I falling in love with Disney Mahler?