Gavin Plumley Q+A


We caught up with Gavin Plumley, music writer, cultural historian, and self-confessed Austrophile, prior to his pre-concert talk introducing Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 on Thursday 25 April.

Gavin Plumley. Credit: Theresa Pewal, 2017.
Gavin Plumley. Credit: Theresa Pewal, 2017.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is about many different things, particularly Mahler’s own life and death. It’s also about love. How do you plan the pre-concert talk of 30 minutes when there is so much to say?

You have to tell a story. You have to evoke a mood, a time, a place. Of course, I can’t cover everything, particularly with a work as rich as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. But I try and ask myself questions like: what might the audience have heard recently? And what is like to hear this Symphony for the first time? Or what if you know it backwards? Give them images. Give them a frame on which to hang their own responses. Knowing the CBSO has recently performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is rather interesting. That’s helping me form ideas about what Mahler does in his Ninth. After all, it’s a kind of response – it’s in the same key – albeit an inversion. And even if people haven’t heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony complete, at least recently, most know the ‘Ode to Joy’. So that, in some ways, has been my starting point.

You also lecture about art; please tell us more about these lectures and some of the venues.

I read music at university and the classical repertoire remains my point of orbit, but I’m a cultural historian, so I look at history through an artistic prism… whether that’s a symphony, a painting or a novel. I lecture a lot about art and architecture, particularly that created in Vienna around the time Mahler was writing his symphonies, as well as during the Weimar Republic. Recently, I’ve given art talks for the National Gallery, the Royal Academy of Arts and at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, but I also lecture every week for The Arts Society (formerly NADFAS), with hundreds of societies up and down the country, as well as abroad. I love my work, particularly when I look at connections between people, like Mahler and Klimt or Schoenberg and Kandinsky.

Do you like listening to music when relaxing? If so, what type of music?

I listen to music all the time. Unsurprisingly, given the topic I’m speaking about for the CBSO, I adore Mahler. He’s my number one. I also love Alban Berg and, although his music can be challenging – in fact, because it’s so challenging – I’m often found listening to him. My first musical love, however, was Tchaikovsky, so he’s always on the car stereo. And Elgar is, for me, the greatest Brit ever – perhaps second to Shakespeare. But I’m not limited to classical music. I love musical theatre and am addicted to the new National Theatre recording of Sondheim’s Follies. Jazz is also important, especially pianist Bill Evans, and I love folk bands like Dreamers’ Circus from Denmark and Alma from Austria. But my favourite song ever is ‘Lost in Music’ by Sister Sledge; it’s a masterpiece.


In the future you are planning talks about Weimar Germany, looking at the music, cinema, art and architecture between 1919 and 1933. What’s so intriguing about this particular period?

The Weimar Republic was an extraordinary time and I love the project I’m currently doing for the Philharmonia Orchestra. Politically, Weimar Germany was a mess – and that feels familiar! Economically, it wasn’t much better. But culturally it was so, so rich. Arguably, that’s because the socio-political situation was so tricky – good art rarely emerges from a position of comfort. Everywhere you look in Weimar Germany, there were new experiments, new ideas, new ways of applying art to life. Like the Bauhaus, the amazing art school that was founded exactly 100 years ago. And in music, it was also a time of wild change. But what is most captivating is the cross-pollination of ideas… how the emergence of cabaret changed music which changed cinema which changed theatre which changed literature. It’s a period that demands that I take a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary approach to how I think, write and talk about the music, art and history. No man is an island and all that… 

Gavin's talk is part of the free CBSO+ pre-concert talk series.

General admission from 6.15pm at Symphony Hall, prior to the CBSO's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 on Thursday 25 April 2019.