Mahler, Gustav


The symphony's great synthesist

Published: April 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm

‘My time will come.’ That’s probably the most famous of all the remarks attributed to Gustav Mahler. It seems to have come resoundingly true in our own time. Not only do Mahler’s symphonies and song cycles turn up regularly in concert programmes and record catalogues, but the use of the voluptuously beautiful Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony in the Visconti film Death in Venice has also brought Mahler to an audience that might never have thought of setting foot in a concert hall or the classical section of a record store.

Yet for most of his career Mahler was widely known, not as a composer, but as a great conductor who also happened to compose. His nine completed symphonies – the backbone of his output – were ridiculed in some circles. He was routinely accused of being absurdly extravagant, morbid, self-indulgent, unable to discriminate between the sublime and the ridiculous, and worst of all, derivative. When Mahler was conductor at the Vienna Opera, there was a standing joke among musicians. A messenger is seen delivering some scores to Mahler’s dressing room: Beethoven, Berlioz, Bruckner, Schumann, Tchaikovsky – ‘Aha,’ says the observer, ‘he’s composing again!’

Many Mahler-loving readers will find it baffling that one of the most original and distinctive composers of the 20th century could ever have been dismissed as a mere plagiarist. But the fact is, there is a grain of truth in the allegation. Play the very beginning of the slow (third) movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony followed by the orchestral introduction to the Quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ from Act I of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and you’ll discover the Mahler is virtually a copy. Only the metre is changed: four beats to a bar instead of three. It can’t be coincidence: Fidelio was one of the operas Mahler conducted most frequently.

In fact, Mahler is one of music’s great synthesisers. He brings together elements from a huge range of sources: folksongs, street-ditties, barrel-organ tunes, crude military marches, Biergarten waltzes rub shoulders with noble chorales and melodies whose grace and warm intensity recall Schubert or Schumann. This wild mixing process can also be felt at a deeper, structural level. Thus the Third Symphony combines stretches of self-evident symphonic logic with elements of oratorio, Lieder and even Viennese operetta; the Eighth progresses from a Herculean display of neo-Beethovenian counterpoint to something much closer to grand opera.

Attempts have been made to explain the bewildering range of Mahler’s sound-worlds in terms of his personal psychology. One incident is made much of by some commentators. In August 1910, Mahler met Sigmund Freud who, in a letter written 14 years later, described what the composer told him. ‘[Mahler’s] father, apparently a brutal person, treated his wife very badly, and when Mahler was a young boy there was a specially painful scene between them. It became quite unbearable to the boy, who rushed away from the house. At that moment, however, a hurdy-gurdy in the street was grinding out the popular Viennese air “O, du lieber Augustin”. In Mahler’s opinion the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind, and the one mood inevitably brought the other with it.’

Yet Mahler’s bringing together of incongruous elements is not in itself new. What is new is the way he exalts it into a musical philosophy. Even those derivations from other composers are part of it all. He isn’t simply stealing from them: he is invoking the great classical tradition in which he was raised. The terrifying climax of the Adagio first movement of the incomplete Tenth Symphony, for example, brings to mind both the Adagio final movement of the Ninth Symphony by Mahler’s teacher Bruckner and the climactic crescendo of the slow movement of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. It’s as though Mahler were telling us, ‘I belong with these people, and yet I don’t’; the kind of ironic stance one might expect of an artist who described himself as ‘three times homeless: a native of Bohemia in Austria; an Austrian among Germans; a Jew throughout the whole world.’

It is also what one might expect of a highly self-conscious 20th-century composer looking back on the 19th century. For although Mahler often seems to present himself in late-Romantic musical dress, his vision of a universe that is full of ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions is a thoroughly modern one, in line with the puzzles of Franz Kafka or the ‘impossible’ pictures of Max Escher. Not that Mahler always remains true to this ‘modern’ vision. When, at the end of the Fifth Symphony, he brings back the chorale theme from the second movement in brassy triumph, it seems he wants us to hear this as the culmination of a musical story-line that has run throughout the work. But in all his symphonies, the story-line is eventually disrupted by forces which seem to intrude from some other dimension.

Far from seeing everything in terms of one all-encompassing vision, he can see only the frightening diversity of things – a universe without the reassuring certainties of religious faith or Newtonian physics. Sometimes he himself is unequal to that vision. He tries to find faith, rational order in his cosmos. At other times he attempts escapism, as in the Fourth Symphony’s nostalgic portrayal of an imagined childhood paradise. But the attempts ultimately fail and then there is the possibility of the void to be faced – as in the singer’s unresolved falling phrases at the end of Das Lied von der Erde. Perhaps that is why it took so long for Mahler’s time to come. Yet his ability to confront a potentially godless universe can help us confront it. If we make the journey with him, we may find that we are the better for it.

Stephen Johnson


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