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Gustav Mahler

The Concertgoer

By Chris Rochester

IT IS ONLY when speaking of great manifold spirit such as Gustav Mahler, Whose preoccupations so forcefully resonate through our own anxieties and reflections, that the music reviewer feels other than epiphenomenal. Only ten does the luckless effort of describing music with words seem somehow more than a vain habiliment of inevitable failure, more than the prose effulgence Reuben Brower meant when he said that "belief in nonsense depends only on suggestive repetition." Perhaps just a half dozen years ago most of us had never heard a note of Mahler's music; I remember my music teacher telling me at age fifteen that Mahler was "dark, tough to understand, an indisputable master," If we were fortunate we came to the First or Fourth Symphony first, and gradually realized tat, uniquely in this composer, all his works are mutually informing and illuminating, but none the easier for unprecedented unity.

Our prelapsarian receptivity was precious because it removed us from the somewhat distasteful contemporary situation with Mahler. America, in her inimitable megalomania, most recently exhibited for the world's amusement when man's (Americans) first sentence on the moon included the inevitable word "giant," fancies se as rediscovered Mahler, where in fact she only reestablished her own tanuous appreciation of great music. The best biography was written in 1913, two years after his death; the finest single essay was written in 1939 by the excellent English critic Donald Tovey; and all of the great Mahler conductors are either dead, such as Mengelberg, Furtwangler, and Walter, or, like Klemperer and Horenstein, extremely old. Since we live in a cultural ochlocracy, political beatitude aside, it is little wonder that this great nation should recognize Mahler's genius fifty years after that any, powerless ornament of the earth, Holland, Characteristically, the eruption of recent apologies have stressed him as a Bold Innovator or as a distraught mid-century man who is, like all of us course, pre-phoenix in spirit. Such descriptions might deeply engage the imagination of the creators on Easy Rider but are a ludicrous profanation of an extremely complex musician. No matter how hard harried annotators try, their exegeses are usually self-congratulation for the act of explanation. The result has been a sanctimonious exhumation which consists of a disfiguring serious of antinomies, most commonly Mahler as neurasthenic Demon and Poet. But more violent misconceptions are the persistent currency of Mahler criticism, Many people think of him as a charnel-house, a confusion of specters and fantasies, an artificer of self-pitying jeremiads, or as a fraudulent amateur celebrating merely the craft of symphonic composition. Others consider him, like all other "late-romantic" (i.e., decadent) composer, as imperishable for is aspirations but cruelly betrayed by the fragility of is introspective poeitc angelus. These views are of course critical abnegations; as Tovey said of the still-fashionable distaste for Liszt, belief in devils is so easy.

MAHLER is always referred to as a post-romantic composer, which provides a beneficial point of departures but constantly lead to distortions. The traditional image of this period, which corresponded almost exactly wit his lifetime (1860-1911), is of a lavishly talented collection of artists, aesthetically stranded in the shadows of their majestic predecessors-especially Beethoven and Wagner-struggling miserably with their grandiose inheritance but succeeding only in repeating the great men's first thoughts, and eventually making a cult of lamentation out of their own shortcomings. Thomas Mann described this period of apparent artistic desperation and extravagance as the miserable satyr play of a smaller time. This business of post-romantic it self is a continuously evolving, because imperishable, force in music. The post-romantic period was a continuation of the nineteenth-century attempts to fuse literature and music in the creation of a more ardent poeticism and evocative drama. The popular portrayal of this period also habitually refers to it as the death-knell of the symphony; in which traditional forms were dealt a stunning blow and collapsed from sheer exhaustion after the breathless and reckless creation of munificent musical cathedrals on the consumptive soil of weary nineteenth-century harmony. The post-romantic decades are viewed as the beginning of a still-unresolved crisis in which succeeding musicians have become crippled with a morbid obsession of emancipation from the past, resulting in the aberrations of serialism and the avant-garde. While it is undeniable that these years were apocalyptic. Mahler's compositions were sui generis, employing a musical language of the utmost originality and resilience. He was Schoenberg's closest friend and most powerful advocate, but unlike so many lesser composers, took refuge in neither self-indulgent derivativeness nor in the most modern romance of the despairing, artist. Everyone stresses Mahler's bitterness, his nervous, lachrymose nature; Yet he was one of the most disciplined, and magnanimous composer who ever lived, with the most sensitive ear for orchestral nuance since Mozart, and the most profound intuition of musical as drama since Beethoven. Regardless of the intensely personal nature of is musical thought, he composed as an act of prayer. He said, "All creation adorns itself continually for God." He was the sort of man who become despised because of his merciless ideals, but who relinquished all royalties on his works so that an edition of Bruckner could be published; a man who said just before his death that "poor Schoenberg will have no one left"; a man who spent all of his precious years perfecting his interoperations of Tristan, Fidelio, and The Magic Flute; a man who read Kant aloud to his wife during Children. The following tentative remarks are intended only to be suggestive, hopefully with minimum distortion, for to slightly alter Artur Schnabel's dictum, "Great composers are greater than they can be explained."


MAHLER comprehended life and therefore his music as spiritual dramaturgy. His genius resides in the incorporation of every conceivable human mood and impulse, short of mordancy, into an art of the highest technical integrity. Anguish and exultation resonate with equal energy throughout his entire symphonic cycle. His dramatic frescoes are now disconsolate, now ebullient, momentarily morose, exploding with dance, suddenly peaceful, dreaming. The First Symphony furnishers a splendid example of his multitudinous and mercurial temperament. It is a sepulchral, reflective, affirmative, anguished sunlit work composed of Waltz, song, marc, and chorale. The earliest critics heard in it only a concertinos, amorphous confusion, when in fact it is the employment of the disparate images simultaneously resident in man's psychological existence tat informs the work with the sophistication which, if misjudged, seems like chaos. The first movement portrays the awakening of nature, the Scherzo is a boisterous landler based on first movement themes, the slow movement is a generally cheerful sylvan cortege in which forest animals, according to Mahler's expressed program, playfully bear the body of a dead hunter to his long-prepared grave, and the last movement alternates between heaven and ell, using themes from the first movement once more. This complexity of image and response reappears in every succeeding symphony: the Resurrection, for example, is a vast poem of death, vision of refracted horrors, moments of vernal consolation, primeval light, and a personal belief in redemption. Each symphony is an agon, so to speak, involving malaise and piety, desolation and transfiguration, the spectral and the immaculate, almost always ending in the reassertion of the nobility of the human spirit and the inextinguishable beauty of nature. Mahler felt everything and felt in with an intensity forever incomprehensible to people like ourselves who stalk through a stupefyingly drab and insensate life. He wrote, after conducting the Scherzo of his Fifth Symphony, a wonderful movement which always makes me think of Falstaff, waldhorn in hand, dancing and rioting, stealing Apollo blind,

What are they to make of this chaos of which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble in ruin the moment after? What are they to say to this primeval, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breath-taking irridescent, and flashing breakers?

What they usually is that Mahler's music is flawed by self-parody and sentimentality. But the cry of self-parody is usually only disguised condescension, and the accusation of sentimentality is humorous in how it reveals the insular bathos of the critic. Mahler's art was really a plea for intensity, and compellingly recalls a similar plea by T.S. Eliot,

It is in fact the moments of moral and spiritual struggle...that men and women come nearest to being real. If you do away wit this struggle then you must expect human being to become more and more vaporous.

PARODY is at one irreverent and nostalgic; it cannot admit bitterness for it is essentially positive, calling attention to traduced ideals. When Mahler states a theme in the minor immediately after the major, or transforms a funeral march or song of anxiety into a waltz or scherzo, he is not saying, I believe, that life is little more than the distortion of the beautiful and pristine, but rather that irony is the tissue of man's life. His starkly juxtaposed Use of diatonicism and chromaticism prefigured the expressionists, especially Berg, who sought to express musically the complex of radically differentiated psychological impressions texturing the mind at any instant. The considerable length of some of Mahler's works was demanded by this immense fundament of response to a single idea or mood, although such length is accompanied by austere artistic control. Mahler's habit of multiple commentary on thematic materials helps to explain is romanticism, the fundamental tenet of which seems to have been the idea that beauty is the coaloescence of the diverse. As Schlegel wrote:

Romantic art's goal is less to depict fixed and formal qualities tan to dynamic fluctuations, the fluid reality of Nature.

Thus one of the few antitheses which as any applicability to Mahler is his disciplined, complex response to diversity while believing in an irreducible, if ultimately unvoiceable permanency in life. The milieu of is world may be suggested by the names Eichendorff, Haupmann, Strauss, Kant, Sclegel, Mozart, the Mass, and Goethe: a weird assemblage which yielded a mind disposed to mystical and ironical visions, but always wit a resilient core of innocent he is accused of innocent simplicity. And this is almost certainly the reason e is accused of parody. As Tovey wrote:

In the twentieth century it is impossible for an artist to indulge himself with simple forms and simple melodies without feeling conscious of dangers of affectation or caricature.

If bitterness assaults a superfine intelligence too long, it will cause either impenetrable cynicism or childlike idealism too devout for despair. And it is at this point that we must speak of Mahler's religion, bearing in mind his statement tat "there is always the danger of an exuberance of words in such infinitely delicate and unrational matters." His religion seems to have issued from a vivifying fusion of the Christian mystery of redemption and German transcendentalism. Mahler must have felt like D.H. Lawrence, who said, "Give me mystery and let the world live again for me." His religion was the imperishable struggle of life, indivisibly mingled with a passionate and mystical belief in the redemptive nurture of the creative act. Goethe and Christ were the well-springs of his faith, just as Jesus and Pan were the encompassing geniuses of his music. He apparently believed tat access to divinity meant the expression of man's own increased consciousness of nature's immanent order, hence is impossible ideal of an ontologically crystalline music. He was always asking those first questions of religion, questions which haunted him with punishing eschatalogical pertinacity. In writing to his wife about Faust e revealed his synthesis of romanticism and religion:

Only the transitory lends itself to description; but what we feel, surmise but will never reach, the intransitory behind all appearance, is indescribable. And what is it? Christ calls this "eternal blessedness," and I cannot do better than employ this beautiful and sufficient mythology-the most complete conception to which it is possible to attain.

GustavMaler felt incandescently what many of us dimly perceive: That man's life is usually neither tragic nor comic nor tragicomic, neither unbearably sad nor inordinately funny, nut a confluence of tiny outrages and satisfactio9ns ornamented by language spoken and language dreamed, which could be enriched only trough the articulate passion of art.

AT THE END of a lifetime afflicted by mockery, Mahler struggled toward the agonizing realization, perhaps attainable only through self-torture, that there is a divine harmony which dissolves strife in lucid order and makes the world intelligible. Schoenperg wrote him after heating the Second Symphony:

Your very soul was revealed to me a stretch of wild and secret country, with eerie chasms and abysses neighbored by sunlit, smiling meadows, haunts of idyllic repose...I saw good and evil wrestling with each other. I saw a man in torment struggling towards inward harmony; I divined a personality, a drama, and "truthfulness," the most uncompromising truthfulness.

Maler's interior drama of moral doubt and artistic self-sufficiency; is generosity and prophetic vision of the turbulent future of is art; his merciless self-criticism but genial kindness; is assimilation of nature's pulse as his own; his personal faith which will forever remain incomprehensible to us, which means we shall never be able to fashion him in our own image; his quintessential humanistic compassion, can all be felting a moving anecdote concerning him and the aged Brahms. Mahler and Brahms were walking at Bad Ischl. They came to a bridge and stood silently gazing at the foaming mountain stream. They had been heatedly debating the future of music, and Brahms had had harsh tings to say about the younger generation of musicians. Then they stood fascinated by the sight of water breaking in foam time after time over the stones. Mahler looked up and pointed to the endless procession of swirling eddies. "Which is the last?", he asked with a smile.

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