August 2, 2021
Gustav Mahler is the Prince of Bombastic Music.
He has stiff competition from Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Berlioz, and especially Richard Wagner, who wrote endless operas, including a series of four related operas that, when performed together, lasts for more than 20 hours. Thus, Wagner is the King of Bombastic music, with Mahler nipping at his heels, for each of Mahler’s symphonies lasts at least one hour and requires large numbers of skilled musicians to perform these bombastic behemoths effectively. The results range from exhausting to triumphant, often simultaneously.
Then there’s Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a mix of sleighbells and transparent sounds, which culminates in a child’s view of heaven. I was assigned to play the triangle for a performance of this work during my senior year of college.
After finding someone to dictate the part so I could write it out using braille music, I memorized it with the assistance of a recording with the triangle part clearly audible. During rehearsals, I experimented with metal beaters of varying thicknesses to figure out which beater would work best for each passage.
By far, the easiest decision took place toward the end of the third movement, when Mahler’s bombast shines forth, with the triangle as part of the racket. So I selected the thickest beater, and banged the beater against two sides of the triangle as quickly and loudly as possible.
A nearly perfect moment for a testosterone-filled young male percussionist.
Then came the dress rehearsal, and when my big moment arrived, I grabbed that thickest beater and prepared to bash that triangle, except that it disappeared within one second after the bombast started. As the rest of the orchestra blasted the place in sound, I stood there forlornly holding that beater wondering what the hell had happened to that triangle.
As the bombast subsided, another percussionist tapped me on the shoulder, and explained in a voice that sounded like a smiling while panting Golden Retriever that the triangle had flown across the stage, distracting everyone but the conductor who yelled out measure numbers to keep the orchestra together. We never quite figured out what caused the triangle to disappear, but the concert performance went well.
We percussionists are a rowdy bunch, and are worth watching when attending a live concert, especially if the music was written after 1900. A smoothly functioning percussion section can mirror a ballet ensemble as we rush about playing one instrument and gliding to play another while not crashing into our peers who are performing similar maneuvers. Watching the timpanist often foreshadows what’s about to happen musically.
So watch us percussionists do our thing … but beware of flying triangles.