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Mahler for Dummies – by Oxford’s choir of idiots

I have just heard a Mahler track that made me want to throw up.

Believe me, I have heard a lot of rotten performances and am not often queasy that way, but the opening track of Decca’s Illumina: Music of Light – a curate’s breakfast of an Easter egg – turned me green and puce in that order, physically ill.

The project takes the Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony and sets it to the words of Ave Maria.

Why? No earthly reason; the words don’t even fit.

Mahler wrote the piece as a love letter to his fiancée, Alma. It is wordless, troubling and full of contradictions. Turning it into a Christian prayer distorts art and perverts religion.

My advance copy of this seasonal release has no credits. If it did I would name and shame every single stupid one of them.

The choir is that of New College Oxford. The director should be sent back to school.

UPDATE: Various sensitive souls in Oxford have protested that this post was abrupt and discourteous. Abrupt, perhaps. There is no point in offering sensible discussion of a recording that violates everything the composer intended. Mahler’s ideas for the Adagietto are summarised in my book Why Mahler? pp. 138-9.

The work has no religious connotation whatsoever. To overlay it with the words of ‘Ave Maria’ is foolish, arrogant and culturally offensive.  It verges on cultural vandalism. I feel no need to be polite about that. If the sensitive scholars of New College feel insulted by my comments, let them do a little homework in future. Oxford purports, after all, to offer an education.

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  1. A Student says:

    The director is Prof. Edward Higginbottom, arguably one of the best choral directors in the world, and the choir has arguably some of the best choral singers in the world. I think you should be directing your venom at Decca, not these outstanding jobbing musicians.

    • Thank you for the comment. Prof Higginbottom is presumably a grown-up. He should know how to say, No. Is it possible he had his name taken off the cover?

  2. Modest Martins says:

    A snooty piece of hackery.

  3. Ronald Schneider says:

    Has anybody heard Montserrat Caballé sing the Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony? It is on a CD “Von ganzem Herzen” BMG 74321 62975 2 and can be found on youtube. The CD includes other Caballé treasures such as J.S.Bach’s famous Air, the Papageno-Papagena duet with Thomas Quasthoff, Lippen schweigen, Divinités du Styx, Saint-Saens’ “Le Cygne” as a vocalise………

  4. paul myers says:

    When I joined the record industry, more the fifty years ago, the company (Kapp) that I joined was predominately pop. One of the popular sayings at the time was the sardonic “It must be good, it sells!” Unfortunately, this seems to be the motto of the classical industry these days, in search of anything that will bring in income.
    Let’s hope that all these ill-informed crossover discs will help to pay for some real ones.

  5. Jacob Urner says:

    I agree it’s in questionable taste. But ‘choir of idiots’ is deeply unfair and wrong – good choirs do what their director tells them to.

  6. Cambridge Student says:

    1) Cambridge > Oxford

    2) For a review of music, this doesn’t really mention the music!

  7. Sounds sickening.. maybe whoever arranged it had Barber’s Adagio / ‘Agnus Dei’ version in mind? Obviously entirely different… incidentally could I ask how true is it to the original in terms of voicing/harmony, and also what the duration is? I’d like to see a choir try to sustain Mahlerian tension at Haitink/Scherchen (13-15mins) tempi!!
    I think it’s a bit mean calling them ‘idiots’ though!

    • I believe that the choral arrangement of Barber’s Adagio was actually written by Barber himself – and the famous string orchestra version is in fact an arrangement itself of the original composition, written for string quartet.

  8. Terry van Vliet says:

    Enough of “seasonal music”—whatever that is, or “music for relaxation,” for that matter. Ave valium.

  9. Dr. Scott Giles says:

    The director, Prof. Edward Higginbottom had the opportunity, I am sure, to say NO. Certainly, choir members had the opportunity to say NO. They’re musicians, not soldiers … there’s no begging off by saying “I was only following orders.”

    The record industry is turning out more garbage than it seems to have ever turned out in its whole history. This includes Pop, Classical and Jazz. The labels are always pointing the finger at piracy to excuse their poor fiscal performance but… we know better!

    • Do as Dr. Scott Giles says says:

      ‘Certainly, choir members had the opportunity to say NO. They’re musicians, not soldiers … there’s no begging off by saying “I was only following orders.”’

      It’s pretty clear you’ve never been a professional musician, Dr Giles. No gig, no fee.

    • Alexander Learmonth says:

      ‘Do as’ is right of course. In the case of this choir (unlike most professional choirs), it has permanent members, contracted for a year at a time, and broadly speaking all are expected to participate in everything the choir does. So they do not have a chance to say no, not really. And if they did, they would not be involved in its more praiseworthy projects such as the stunning recording of Couperin motets just released (BBC radio 3′s CD of the week), including pieces reconstructed for the first time:

  10. Stanley Hanks says:

    There’s a beautiful choir transcription of Mahler’s Adagietto by French composer Gérard Pesson, recorded by the French chamber choir Accentus (conducted by Laurence Equilbey).
    The text used by Pesson is a poem by the 19th-century German author August von Platen. I don’t have the text in front of me right now, but I remember reading it on a friend’s CD booklet and it seemed entirely appropriate. Here’s the audio track if you want to listen to it:

    • Peter Young says:

      The Platen text is about Venice so it draws on the “Death in Venice” connection with the Adagietto. It is very beautiful but the words aren’t really to the forefront in the arrangement.

  11. There is also an arrangement by Clytus Gottwald, using a poem by Eichendorff: – As his delightful choir arrangement of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” is highly appreciated in good choirs we should divide between rubbish and arrangements which broaden our horizon concerning Mahler.

  12. Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    Gounod did the same thing to the C-major prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. I doubt if the Lutheran Bach would have had much use for the “Ave Maria” text or for the treacly melody Gounod superimposed over the famous broken chords. Its definitive performance is perhaps that of Alessandro Moreschi, the “last castrato,” who recorded it in 1902.

    • Pardon me, Beckmesser, but Bach wrote 4 missae breve, a magnificat and the B minor mass in Latin. The B minor mass was intended as an application for a job in then-catholic Dresden, so I don’t think Bach was terribly particular about what denomination his music had.

  13. Another student says:

    You don’t speak for Mahler, Norman. Nice harmonies go well with nice words, they also work on their own. Does this music work? Have you even listened to it?

    • But if Mahler had wanted it to be choral, he’d have written it that way. Listening to the video posted above of another choral arrangement, for me it is just incomparable to the original – the typical thick choral texture does not do the original string sound justice – the unique timbres of the individual instruments are lost, especially the harp’s, and detail from the original is inevitably lost.
      Taking a single movement out of its symphonic context and taking away its distinctive texture (strings and harp) completely goes against what Mahler wanted…
      Also, if this were broadcast to a wide audience, then some would come away thinking that this IS Mahler – when it’s in fact so far from it!

      • Another student says:

        This really doesn’t claim to be what Mahler wanted, though.

      • Oh do stop being such a scrooge, Ebenezer. While I may agree that it is somewhat tasteless to just stick the words “Ave Maria” to a famous symphonic movement by Mahler, the fact is that the music is out of copyright. Since this condition is due to the fact that Mr. Mahler has been dead for more than 70 years, we can’t really speculate what he would or would not have wanted, and at what price he might have wanted something if offered a sufficiently large fee. Maybe he would have liked the Plesson transcription because he hadn’t thought of writing the piece that way, just as Bach might like Gounod’s melody over his broken chordsif he had a chance to hear it. Bach was pretty pragmatic about reusing music, as his superimposition of a chorus to one of the movements from the Brandenburg Concerti for use in a cantata proves.We’ll find out when we go into the afterlife and meet them there someday, I suppose (unless such a condition doesn’t exist).

        • fair enough – I just think it’s an extremely tasteless idea and completely ruins the spirit of the piece. And the Gounod Ave Maria is different as it’s creatively adding a line – similar to variations and people using themes as a basis for new works. Arranging Mahler for choir does nothing other than take away one of the vital factors that contributes to any work by Mahler – his textures are distinctive, as are his melodies and harmonies, and this has taken away his texture. It leaves the piece 4/5 Mahler but lacks one of the most important ingredients. Just don’t see why people feel the need to do it..

          • Bob Burns says:

            Norman / Ebenezer….This kind for thing has been going on for years. Remember the “Disco Beethoven 5th?” Remember all those insipid lyrics put to various Chopin melodies (“I’m always chasing rainbows…” to the slow section of the Fantasie-Impromptu)?

            All we can do is not buy it; not support it. Railing against it isn’t going to change anything. After all, it must be good if it sell!

      • Alexander Learmonth says:

        The arrangement retains the harp.

  14. student 3 says:

    Do you also throw up every time you hear a Missa L’homme arme?

  15. Laurence Glavin says:

    In the US, Presidential candidate Rick Santorum claimed that then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s statement about separation of church-and-state made him (Santorum, that is) want to throw up. Now Mr. Lebrecht. Sales of Syrup of ipecac must rerally be hurting.

  16. Michael J Stewart says:

    It’s treacle for the masses. I’m pretty sure Mahler would have felt very quesy about this too.

  17. Anne Smith says:

    Whatever your view of the Mahler, there are other pieces on this CD as well. It is unclear whether you object as vehemently to them too, and if so why. If not, your blanket criticism of the choir as ‘idiots’ seems excessive to say the least. And as far as refusing to sing one of the pieces on the CD is concerned, most of the choir are children, some of them quite young, and not adult professionals.

  18. A Student says:
  19. Using Mahler’s music with an Ave Maria text obviously offends you, as a Mahler scholar, on both historical and aesthetic grounds. Though I understand your feeling. please remember the history of Western music advanced through such borrowings and co-minglings of religious and secular music, from the earliest polyphony and throughout the centuries. I think Mahler, and music in general, is strong enough to survive what you perceive (I think incorrectly) as a grand and ignorant offense on the part of the Oxford choir.

  20. Carl Rosman says:

    I have already posted this information at the choir’s website…

    You seem particularly indignant that the choir have set the Adagietto (“a love letter to his fiancée, Alma”) to “a Christian prayer”. Higginbottom rightly points out that Mahler himself set the Veni Creator Spiritus in the Eighth Symphony. The Eighth Symphony is also dedicated to Alma, by then of course Mahler’s wife. Perhaps you know the story of Mahler’s consultations with Freud, especially Freud’s famous quotation:

    “I take it that your mother was called Marie. I should surmise it from various hints in your conversation. How comes it that you married someone with another name, Alma, since your mother evidently played a dominating part in your life?”

    …to which Mahler is said to have replied that his wife’s name was Alma Maria, but he called her Marie.

    Mahler explicitly dedicated the Eighth Symphony to “meiner lieben Frau, Alma Maria”. Whether or not the choir intended this reference in choosing the Ave Maria text, on a biographical level it seems eminently defensible.

  21. Randolph Magri-Overend says:

    Oh dear what a tangled discourse of controversy you’ve weaved Norman!

  22. Jonathan says:

    Whilst sympathetic to Mr Lebrecht’s basic position (and also unconnected with New College) I take very great exception to comments blaming the choir members for what’s happened and sweepingly labelling them all as idiots – and calling them sensitive for taking exception themselves.

    New College Choir consists mainly of children and young adults of student status, who would not be and would not expect to be consulted over choir repertoire, and who would naturally assume that their boss knows what he’s doing. Even the mature professionals amongst them are ultimately under contract to sing whatever the Director decides they’re singing. And even if they have the right to voice concerns, they have just as much right to keep their heads below the proverbial parapet.

  23. Iran is developing nuclear weapons, bees are dying threatening food supplies, climate change will almost certainly bring disaster upon many, the UK economy is in recession. Is this CD something we should really spend our time and effort worrying about? I am not quite as addicted to Mahler as Norman but almost, this concerns me not in the slightest. If you don’t like it don’t buy it. I know we have increasingly authoritarian government but we still have that choice.

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