On a Personal Note

Color and Character

Episode Summary

Bassoonist Jonathan Sherwin discusses the existential meaning behind Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony - Resurrection; “Why am I here, what am I doing, and what gives my life meaning…”

Episode Notes

Bassoonist Jonathan Sherwin discusses the existential meaning behind Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony - Resurrection; “Why am I here, what am I doing, and what gives my life meaning…”

Featured Music:

MAHLER – Symphony no. 2 (Resurrection)
5. Im Tempo des Scherzos (In the tempo of the scherzo)

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Episode Transcription


Welcome to The Cleveland Orchestra’s On a Personal Note, where we explore the many ways music shapes our lives.  In difficult situations or moments of sheer joy, music connects us with our humanity.

Jonathan Sherwin:

My name is Jonathan Sherwin.  I play the bassoon and the contrabassoon for The Cleveland Orchestra.  And I’d like to talk about Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.  Bassoon and the contrabassoon are the lower voices of the woodwind section.  Many people are familiar with the bassoon through Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf that portrays the grandfather.  The double-reed nature of the bassoon and the contrabassoon, make it sort of its blending quality to enhancing really other sections of the orchestra.  The role that it plays often, people see the bassoon as being the clown of the orchestra, but it also can be the melancholy and the soul.

The contrabassoon is really unique in that because of its low tone it has occupied sort of various personalities in the orchestra; it can certainly be humorous, it also has a nobility, especially when it’s paired with low brass, with double basses.  Brahms used the contrabassoon beautifully and Mahler, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, all composers used the contrabassoon to portray really sort of offbeat characters and unique, low rumbling sounds.

Mahler 2, I first experienced when I was a student at the Eastman School of Music.  I was assigned to play the contrabassoon part in Mahler’s Second Symphony, and from the rehearsal at that time, I realized I had sort of stumbled onto something that I had experienced rarely in my young musical life.  It was a piece that was so eventful, scaled such heights and plunged to such depths, that I was drawn to it and found it almost like a door opening and a unique experience that I really hadn’t had up to that point.

It starts, it grabs your attention right from the get go.  Certainly my instrument, the contrabassoon and the bassoon section and the low strings, all participate in what is beginning of this inevitable death march that Mahler so expertly, really constructs.  It is the sort of sharp rhythmic of sixteenth node, dotted eights, which I know gets sort of technical, but it’s a jagged relentless theme that gets this symphony started.  And it has this magnificent effect of drawing both the orchestra together with a single purpose, but also draws the audience in.

I was probably 19 years old when I was playing this; I love Beethoven symphonies and Mozart symphonies, and certainly Brahms, but this was different.  This was my first experience playing the symphony, that it really had an effect on me and that the story it was trying to tell and the emotional ride that it would take me on.

Mahler was a character, to say the least, and he was also somewhat probably religiously ambivalent or even perhaps confused — a Jewish man who was talking about resurrection.  And the moments that take sort of crazy musical terms of a death march, but yet also a very focused section in middle movements that has a more classical kind of approach, one that you can follow and even relate back to Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn.

The last movement starts out with really terror, and all these various musical themes that Mahler is bringing back from earlier in the symphony that eventually calms down really almost to a stop.  Usually when you’re on stage you can be somewhat aware of the audience — there are sounds that they make or there might be a slight rustling, but in this case, every time, it is absolute dead silence.  What I love about this moment, a chorale foreshadowing the choruses entrance that happens a few minutes later, this beautiful sort of solemn religious chorale, in our case because it’s the low brass and the contrabassoon that play this.  You have to hear it, you have to be in the audience and it’s great to hear it on a recording, but live music is best because you never know what's going to happen — it’s like walking on a tight rope without a net.

I know and I’ve always sensed this — that the audience is really drawn in at that particular moment.  The low notes in this chorale that set up these beautiful, beautiful chords just bring the movement into the thought for I think the human condition, which is, Why am I here?  What am I doing?  What have I done?  And surely, What gives my life meaning?

The first time playing this piece it was in a way an epiphany.  I’d never really experienced writing like that.  Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to play this symphony before I came to The Cleveland Orchestra.  I actually did it with a man who was an investment banker — has a recording of this piece that he did with the London Philharmonic, Gilbert Kaplan — and I had the opportunity of doing it with him.  And he almost embodied to a degree parts of the symphony because he would conduct this piece, not a trained musician, he would do it as almost like a favor to symphony orchestras.  He would come and not take a fee; he did everything gratis and obviously it had meaning to him and I could relate to that meaning.  As years go by and your life experience changes, you go from a young person to a middle-aged person, to an older person; it does evolve, it does change.  I discover new things about the symphony, things in a way that I hadn’t heard before, or even hadn’t been cognizant of in certainly the number of times that I had listened to recordings of it.

Our life experiences, we start out, sort of the hopes and aspirations we have starting our journey in life.  And then sort of the middle section where you’re not a youngster anymore, you’re not really quite yet focused on what life as an older person is going to be.  I’ve got to get my kids to school on time, do they have their lunches made?  Middle life.  And sort of the playful nature of episodes in all of Mahler’s symphonies, but certainly the Second Symphony, are reminiscent of moments in midlife with children.  But then also in more recent years, as I’ve played in symphony orchestras for many years now, it is a little bit more reflective; what my life has been, where I am now and how much longer do I have of both getting to traipse on this planet but also in my career playing in a symphony orchestra, which I love.

As time has gone by, I think that I take this symphony and when I hear it and when I’ve played it as a way to, in a way, look back, but also to have to face what is in my future.  It’s resonated with me through my whole life, it resonates with me now as I have many years in the rearview mirror to look back on my life and to take note and take account of what I’ve done.

The symphony, I think, means so many things to so many different people, and that’s part of, I think, the magic of music and the magic of Mahler’s compositions.  They’re so relatable.  There’s so many different kinds of moods and the kinds of music, both sort of militaristic, but also ethnic.  Mahler was influenced by the various things that he heard and saw as a youth and incorporated these things.  And I think that it’s imminently relatable to just about anybody in any walk of life.

Mahler was great at being able to write music that would take you into sort of a nostalgic place in the listener’s life.  That it was a way of looking back and relating to what you hear and reminding you of earlier life experiences that somehow evolve into how they related to then and how they relate to you in their current incarnation.

Music is an amazing phenomenon, I think, that it expresses emotions and can tell a story.  Both using no words at all but also incorporating words not in a spoken dialogue, but in a melody that doesn’t diminish but rather enhances the narrative and the story.  Because, really, every piece tells a story, relates a human experience.  And that one, a story that has to be told, has to be shared.  And really, a lot of us in the Orchestra, I think, we get asked, “How did you find music?  How did you find symphony orchestras?”  And our answer, and mine certainly is, it found me.


Jonathan Sherwin chose Mahler’s Second Symphony, the Resurrection, about life, death, and ultimately redemption.  You can contemplate your purpose with the first movement, coming up in just a moment.  It was recorded in Miami in 2019.  And if you’re enjoying, On a Personal Note, click subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.  And, of course, you can find us at clevelandorchestra.com/podcast.