White Sheet – ‘Mahler and Katrine’

A white sheet from five-year-old Katrine

“Ben Zander — Thank you for the Mahler Ninth — I loved it”


Mahler and Katrine

From The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander 

Courtesy of Penguin Books


A member of my orchestra demonstrated the miracles that can happen when you drop all your limiting assumptions about a child’s interests and understanding, without applying expectations of any kind.


The Boston Philharmonic had scheduled a fall performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and because of the extraordinary difficulty of the music, I decided to send a cassette tape of the piece out to every member of the orchestra, so they could get to know it over the summer. One of our violinists, Anne Hooper, took the tape with her to an island off the coast of Maine, where she was visiting with her family, and played it on her boom-box. Her five-year-old niece, Katrine, stopped to listen for a while, and then asked, “Auntie Anne, what is this music about?” Anne set out to weave a wondrous tale for the little girl, telling her a story about a wild and fearsome dragon and a beautiful princess who is locked up in a castle. For the duration of the ninety-minute symphony, Anne spun her tale of the princess and her handsome prince.


The following day, little Katrine asked to hear the music about the beautiful princess again. So once again Anne put on the tape and let it run its course, only occasionally reminding Katrine of her invented story line. When the piece was playing for the third time at her request, about halfway through, Katrine asked, “Auntie Anne, what is this music really about?” Anne regarded her five-year-old niece with astonishment, and then began to tell her the true story of Mahler — how sad his life was, how he’d lost eight brothers and sisters from sickness during his own childhood, such that the coffin became a regular piece of furniture in his house. She told Katrine how cruel his alcoholic father had been to him, and how frightened his invalid mother. She told her that Mahler’s little daughter had died at the age of four, that he never really got over that loss, and that he’d been forced to quit his important job at the famous Opera House in Vienna because he was Jewish. “And then, just before he wrote this symphony,” Anne said, “Mahler was told by his doctor that he had a weak heart and only a very short time to live. So now, Mahler was really saying good-bye to everything and looking back over his life. That is why so much of the music is so sad and why at the end of the piece it dies out completely to nothing — it’s a description of his actual death as he imagined it, his final breath.”


Anne went on to explain that Mahler wasn’t sad all the time. He was a great lover of nature and a powerful swimmer and he loved to walk. He had a magnificent laugh and a huge love of life, and all this is in the music too, as well as his sadness and anger about his illness and the brutality of his father and the vulnerability of his invalid mother. In fact, Mahler thought that he should put everything in life in his symphonies — so anything that can be imagined can be heard in them, if you listen carefully enough.


The next day, Katrine came running up to her aunt and said, “Auntie Anne, Auntie Anne, can we listen to that music about the man again today?” Well they did, and again the next day, and in fact Katrine’s parents told me that she listened to it nearly one hundred times. The following October, the entire family made the four-hour drive from upstate New York to Boston to hear our performance in Jordan Hall. Katrine sat wide-eyed through the whole piece. Later, she wrote me a thank-you note.




I carry this note with me everywhere I go. It reminds me how seldom we pay attention to, or even look for, the passionate and the extraordinary in children — how seldom we give children an A.