It’s not about the music

Last night we were in Cologne, one of my favourite German cities, with its beautiful cathedral and fabulous concert hall where we get free beer after the performance – I think I’ve told you about that before. We played the Widmann violin concerto with Christian Tetzlaff – a great performance and the composer, who was there was very happy! The second half was Mahler’s 10th symphony. He only ever finished the first movement which is often played on its own and the rest of the piece was left in sketches and short score and was finally pieced together in the 60s by Deryck Cooke. I find it a doom laden work with some huge climaxes and some of the most sparsely textured, intimate music written for orchestra, its cumulative effect is quite overwhelming. Daniel performed this piece with us about four years ago and it was a performance which has stayed with me ever since. Without wishing to overdramatise, that night back in 2004 was a life changing experience for me.

I have been writing this blog now for two years, it is sometimes serious, sometimes amusing, but it is often very difficult to explain in words which I simply don’t have, how music feels when you are sat on the platform. I would like to share a very personal experience with you, if you don’t mind.

In July 2004 I was fortunate enough to be blessed with a daughter who was adored by her two older brothers when she arrived. Two weeks later, I was in the same hospital in a CT scanner and being diagnosed with testicular cancer. I’m sure there are many of you out there who have been through a similar experience. I went from the highest of highs to depths of despair in a short space of time, the only good thing was that I had an excuse to sit down cuddling my daughter. This isn’t the time and place for details, this is a music blog (it will be in a minute, bear with me!), but I’m sure you can imagine, it wasn’t a time in my life I’d want to go through again. In any case, after an operation and chemotherapy, I returned to work, a little battered and bruised and groggy from the drugs which weirdly often left me trailing off in mid sentence having lost my way at some point during a paragraph – finally I was lost for words, something my friends were eternally grateful for I’m sure. As it turned out, I had managed to be ill in the summer holiday so hadn’t actually missed much work – oh yes, I may be artistic, but boy am I organised. I can remember vividly playing again in the orchestra was exhausting mentally and physically, partly due the nature of the operation and partly due to the hustle and bustle of simply getting to work.

The first piece I played was Beethoven 9, a suitably life affirming celebration that felt right to play for my first concert back. We were performing in the City of London Festival at St Paul’s Cathedral with Sir Colin and I can’t tell you how happy I was to be sitting back in that chair. But something had changed inside me and I didn’t know what to do about it. I had always been an instinctive player rather than an analytical one. This has its advantages, but when something goes wrong, usually technically, it’s not always easy to know how to fix it. You know how it feels when the music surges forward and you feel excitement, and at huge emotional moments, a shiver goes up your spine? Well those are the moments that are intensified beyond belief when you are actually involved in playing the piece. Those are the moments that make this job the best job in the world. That night, Sharon kindly drove me to Waterloo station, she could see that I was exhausted; I got on the train and felt very down indeed, something wasn’t quite the same as it had been, I simply didn’t feel anything during the concert, it felt like I was going through the motions, I mean, I’m sure it sounded fine but I just didn’t really enjoy it. Simple as that.

This continued for a few weeks, it was always the same story, I was sitting in one of the best seats in the house at the centre of one of the greatest orchestras in the world, and I felt nothing. I can remember speaking to friends about it and they always reassured me that it sounded ok, but I spoke to my wife and seriously thought about putting my flute in its box and walking away. Then one night before Christmas after a couple of days of rehearsal, we came to the performance of Mahler 10 with Daniel. It was not a piece I knew well, but you don’t need to read the programme notes to realise that Mahler’s obsession with death or more importantly, his own death, is never far below the surface. There is a particularly poignant moment at the start of the last movement where the texture changes so dramatically that it is as if the orchestra is inhabiting a different world altogether.

The dull thud of a bass drum, possibly a slowing heartbeat, or a drum announcing a funeral procession, and then the deep threatening rising scale on the tuba.

Another dull thud.

And silence.

This continues until we reach a strange chordal procession and then a simple flute solo. In the score it is marked piano semplice – quietly and simply, that’s it. It is a beautiful tune that winds its way around a quiet string section who change to chords which never quite go exactly where you expect them to. It is deeply unsettling and eerily beautiful and heartbreaking moment at the same time. I’ve written recently about the loneliness of playing stuff like this, but this solo is possibly one of the most stunning pieces of music for the orchestral flautist in the repertoire. Anyway, in the concert, we worked our way through the piece until that first funereal thud and my heartbeat increased as the solo grew closer, but this time it felt different to the preceding weeks. As the tuba plodded away and the drum became more insistant, I could sense something in the music which exactly mirrored my state of mind, this doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it is all consuming and intoxicating. Daniel looked across the orchestra, cued me in, I closed my eyes and played. I can’t describe how it felt, but time seemed to stop, a wave swept across me, something which I had not felt in a concert for months, and suddenly something about that night and that piece changed something in me. I opened my eyes again towards the end to make sure we were all in the same place and it was over. I really have no idea whether anybody else heard anything different that night and that really isn’t the point, this was something very very personal to me. The music of Mahler flicked a switch somewhere in my brain. I have spoken to Dan about it over a year later and explained to him how I had felt, and we were both aware of it in last night’s performance; he just smiled and we both knew what each other was thinking. But four years on I find it terrifying, painful and wonderful to play the piece, all at the same time.

I fortunately am now in good health, but another of our orchestral family is unwell, he won’t be playing with us for a while. I hope and pray that he will be back soon because I miss his camaraderie and his musicianship.

It does at times feel that we work, play and tour together in this orchestra that we are like a big family. I am so lucky to have a job like this and the opportunity to express something that words cannot describe. But we all have to remember from time to time, that its not always just about the music.

About LSO

The London Symphony Orchestra is one of the world's top orchestras. Our home is at the Barbican Centre in the City of London where we play over 80 concerts every year, but we also spend quite a bit of time out on the road, touring all over the world. Recently we have toured to Germany, France, Russia, New York, Japan, Holland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Lithuania; and coming up this year are China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Spain, Portugal, Florida, Romania and a return visit to New York, where we are resident at the Lincoln Center.
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20 Responses to It’s not about the music

  1. maggie says:

    thank you for putting this very private and emotional time in your life into words and most of all for sharing it here. I too hope for the best for your fellow musician and hope he cn return to perform again soon. Life is strange and unpredictable, but mostly not boring…sounding cliche maybe but ‘thank you for the music’ and I wish you all the best. ….hope you keep blogging and performing and living life as best as you can.


  2. LSO says:

    I don’t care if it is a cliche, it’s my favourite Abba song.

  3. Simon says:

    Your blog is always amazing to read – yes all of the emotions you mention and now you’ve surpassed yourself. I think the solo in the last movement is possibly the poignant moment in all Mahler, possibly more than the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde when the mezzo dies away sing ewig, ewig. As a horn player I’m deeply envious!! Thank you for sharing such a personal moment in your life and your reconnection with music. I hope your colleague is soon back to good health.

    Did you ever see the documentary on the first performance by the Philharmonia – there too is a haunting moment when Gareth Morris first played that solo and floored everyone.

  4. Helen says:

    Found this beautifully written and very moving. Thank you from a fellow musician. x

  5. Gareth

    That’s about the most impressive account of Mahler from the inside that I have ever read. Thank you.


  6. klari says:

    What a beautiful and touching story. Thank you for sharing. I hope your colleague gets better soon.

    (From what i read here and on the LSO website, there seems to be a very warm and friendly atmosphere in the orchestra. I’ve known so many orchestras – both amateur and professional, where the ambiance is really sh***y (no other word is appropriate))

  7. Ashley says:

    Gareth, this is some lovely emotional writing- thanks for sharing ! I hope your comrade is better soon. Knowing you all, your ill comrade will have plenty of support and encouragement to get through this tough time.


  8. LSO says:

    Thanks very much Norman, that’s very kind of you!


  9. Keith says:

    Just home from the Barbican performance of Mahler 10 tonight and came to this blog via the piece on The Guardian website.

    I’ve always loved Mahler 10 (and can never understand why some people are so sniffy about it!) I knew nothing of your story Gareth when I attended the concert tonight , but now realise why Daniel went over and spoke to you during the applause.

    It was a wonderful performance. I hope you all thought so too. The strings in particular sounded marvelous and there was splendid 1st horn playing too.

    As for the last 2 or 3 minutes of this wonderful symphony … well, gulp! 30 secs or so of stunned total silence at the end of tonight’s performance seemed perfectly appropriate in the circumstances.

  10. David Bean says:

    Mr. Davies, I read your blog the other day on the solo in Mahler’s Tenth and I wandered around in a daze for hours, your account was so wonderful. My wife even had to ask me what was wrong with me. I decided on the spur of the moment to travel from Lincoln to London last night and hear you play it (although we had recently heard the Tenth at the Proms). What a concert. As you wrote, time stands still during that flute solo. Last night was indescribable. Thank you for a tremendous enrichment to my life. David

  11. LSO says:

    Thanks Keith and I’m glad you enjoyed the concert. Ultimately, the story I told is just that and not relevant to your appreciation of the music, it was just something that I thought people might enjoy reading. Evrybody did enjoy the concert especially the very long silence at the end, which is often spoiled by some know it all.
    I had a message from Daniel last night funnily enough. He had only just been shown my blog. When he came over to me at the end of the show, on this occasion, it was just about the music!

  12. LSO says:

    Thanks Ashley.

  13. LSO says:

    Apologies to your wife David! Thank you for your very generous words and I’m so glad you decided to come down from Lincoln to see the concert. I hope you make it a habit!

  14. LSO says:

    Thank you. I can assure you we have our moments, but I am lucky that I have some truly great friends to work with.

  15. Nick D says:

    Dearest Gareth,
    I just wanted to say Thank You for being so open about this. I know it can be cathartic to write but it’s also very exposing. But probably only half as exposing as playing that solo!!!
    I know your thoughts are with K, mine are too, and I look forward to seeing you soon of you are on on the 8th.

  16. LSO says:

    Thanks Nick. I will see you on the 8th at last!! Look forward to it.

  17. Dear Gareth, Having just finished “Why Mahler?” it’s only now, via Norman LeB, that I’ve come across your deeply moving blog. Thank you so much! We know about the emotional power of music. When my wife was dying, she played the Bach cello suites, for as long as she could. Your/our experience is surely what Norman is getting at: how Mahler will touch our innermost, inexplicably.
    I paint music in performance, finding colours from a deep intuitive reaction to the essence of the music. (check My aim is to share something with audience at the level you have shared with us. Please keep sharing! Norman P.

  18. Johan Herrenberg says:

    Dear Gareth Davies, I too stumbled upon your amazing piece through Twitter and Norman Lebrecht. Yes, that flute solo is quite something. I have always regarded the final movement of Mahler’s Tenth as the most moving music ever. Your description of actually bringing this music to life demonstrates that a great performance mirrors the creative process itself. I’m a writer and I recognise that feeling you describe very well. Thank you. Musical greetings from Delft, the Netherlands!

  19. LSO says:

    Thank you for your kind comment Johan. It is always nice to have a writer enjoy my writing! Best wishes from Shanghai.

  20. LSO says:

    Dear Norman

    Thank you for your words. I had no idea when I wrote the piece that it would appear in a book and I am so glad you have found it online now as well. Thank you also for sharing the story about your late wife.
    I really enjoyed looking at your website. I would love to see a concert of yours sometime, it looks amazing!

    Best wishes


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