To mark LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari asked its contributors to recall a song that had an impact on their own stories.
‘Urlicht’ – Mahler
by Rupert Smith
I’ve noticed that when you post anything on Facebook about pop music, you get a flurry of responses, both positive and negative. When you post something about classical music, you get almost complete silence. I don’t really understand this. The only explanation I can come up with is that pop music is what we love when we’re young, and it’s associated with things like unrequited love, going out to clubs, first sexual experiences and so on, that remain so vivid in memory.
But as I get older, classical music is the only stuff that really moves and inspires and uplifts me in the way that popular music used to. Of course I still love the glam and disco and electro I grew up on, but my needs have changed. I’ve been bashed around a bit by life, I have a different understanding of things than I did at the age of 20, and instead of spending my evenings on dancefloors or being treated like cattle at a gig, these days you’ll find me at the Royal Festival Hall listening to orchestras.
Mahler’s Symphony No 2, the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, is the piece of music that marked the turning point for me. I first listened to it in the ’90s, when I was in my early 30s, and it was a revelation. This may sound cod, but I sat in my flat with tears rolling down my face; I’d forgotten that music could be as profound as this. It was a time of great change in my life – in anyone’s life, I suppose. I’d split up with my first proper long-term partner, I was on the brink of starting a new relationship that turned out, thank God, to be the enduring one, I was in my first proper salaried job after years of dillying around being artsy, and I suppose I felt, at long last, like an adult.
The fourth movement, a song called ‘Urlicht’ (Primeval Light) is the bit that grabbed me then, and still works now. It starts very slow and quiet with a single sung phrase giving way to solemn horns. Over the next five minutes it expresses everything you need to know about life, pain, the fear of death, the hope of resurrection, the longing to believe in God. By the end it’s worked itself into an incredible passion, paving the way for the triumphant fifth movement, the ‘resurrection’ itself. If you can get hold of it, listen to the 1987 recording by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. Janet Baker sings ‘Urlicht’, and it doesn’t get any better than that.
Over the years, the Resurrection Symphony and much of Mahler’s other work has taken on depths of meaning for me far too personal to share on the internet. Listening to it live in the concert hall is the most exciting form of entertainment I can think of. But a lot of people remain at best baffled, at worst sniffy, about classical music in general. By the time you read this far, some twit will have posted (quoting Educating Rita) ‘Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?’ as a Facebook comment. It’s a shame in a way, but on the other hand it means it’s easier for me to get tickets to concerts at a sensible price. People think classical music is stuffy, dull and somehow conservative. I suspect they are also still obsessing about their teenage record collection and finding it difficult to get used to a world in which being gay no longer means that you’re a rather exciting sort of outlaw. I’ll take Mahler, and a life in the mainstream, every time.