Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mahler: The Man Who Saw It Coming

This is from a mcmanweb article I wrote in 2004. My appreciation for Mahler has only deepened since then. Enjoy ...

Gustav Mahler described himself as three times homeless, a Bohemian in Austria, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew throughout the world. He might have added being highly temperamental in a time and place of rigid social conventions. But those days were rapidly coming to a close, even if all of Europe at the time remained blissfully unaware. Only Mahler seemed to possess second sight.

Mahler composed and conducted at a time when Europe was supposed to be entering a golden century. The previous hundred years had closed with Queen Victoria celebrating her diamond jubilee. At the time, England had a quarter of the world under her dominion, while the other European nations willingly shouldered their fair share of the white man's bounty, uh burden.

A rapidly expanding middle class and rising living standards in the working class promised social stability, notwithstanding the ravings of assorted communists and social malcontents, and democracy was enfranchising ever greater populations. Planck and Einstein and the Curries challenged Newton's gravity, Freud had made his first installment on his famous couch, medical practice was saving more patients than it was killing, visual art was breaking out of its strictly representational straightjacket, and Charlie Chaplin was setting out for America. Technology held out the promise of a new heaven on earth, and the White Star Line had an unsinkable boat on its drawing board.

Mahler was in full expression while Europe was in full denial. Even today, to the untrained ear, despite adhering to Romantic conventions, almost all his music still comes across as inaccessible. It is at once profound and silly, morose and jubilant, ironic and gay, mocking and heart-wrenching, boisterous and sobbing, bombastic and subdued, optimistic, and despairing.

True, Beethoven started the trend by marching a Turkish band straight through his "Ode to Joy," but Mahler pulled out all the stops by turning loose cuckoo birds, Alpine cows, mobs at country fairs, high society swells, runaway drummer boys, mournful sopranos, buglers, fiddlers, light cavalry, and dancing Germans in leather shorts on nine symphonic scores heaped with mock Wagner taken to new levels of absurdity.

If Mahler’s music were food, it would be tomato ice cream topped with anchovies and chocolate and chili peppers sprinkled with dry rub and served up on burnt pumpernickel.

No wonder his contemporaries couldn’t comprehend his music. Make no mistake, this was the soundtrack of a decadent age in its later stages of unraveling, even as unsuspecting Europe celebrated itself as a beacon of civilization, blissfully ignorant of the horrific calamities about to be unleashed, totally unaware that a whole way of life was about to end.

These are no idle musings. No less a writer than Thomas Mann used Mahler as his model for the dying lead character in "Death in Venice," an allegory of Mother Earth turning against her children (though the homo-eroticism is Mann's own invention). The film version's primary claim to fame is as a showcase for the slow movement of Mahler's Fifth. The same symphony (this time the opening movement) was also used to stunning effect as the opening theme to BBC's 1974 13-part dramatic series, "Fall of Eagles," set in Mahler's time, fittingly chronicling the last days of Czarist Russia, Kaiser Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Back to the music. Amazingly, Mahler's odd assortment of sound bites binds into transcendent coherency, transforming what was grossly unpalatable at first and even tenth listening into an out of body experience. Call it a Mahler moment. Anyone vaguely familiar with the composer knows there is no such thing as a casual Mahler fan. People are either passionate about him or they hate him.

Or they are like me, aware that true musical appreciation is a lifetime journey. In my early twenties, I set out on my path of musical discovery in earnest. I heard new composers for the first time and listened to old ones with new ears. Some of them turned out to be acquired tastes, and others, I realized, needed further time. That’s the beauty of music, I kept thinking. One day I will even like Mahler.

Decades passed. Then, back in 2004, a voice in my head told me I was ready. Vaguely recalling both "Death in Venice" and "Fall of Eagles," I went to Amazon and ordered Mahler’s Fifth. I popped in the CD, and with the opening bars of the solo trumpet I was hooked. A hundred other members of the orchestra still had their instruments on their laps (actually this would be rather awkward for the timpanist), but I was already a Mahler fan.

On a hunch I also ordered the Sixth, which could very well be to music what Joyce’s "Ulysses" is to literature. Where have you been all my life, Mahler? I could only wonder, as I kept playing and replaying the double CD in rapt fascination. Well, ignoring him, actually, just as I am still ignoring Joyce.

I have faith that one day with Joyce I will be able to penetrate the impenetrable, just as I am doing with Mahler. And the reward? Once you have broken through, you are never the same. You experience the world with new senses, as well as a world beyond sense. There are no limits. Buddhahood awaits.

Kay Jamison in "Touched with Fire" describes Mahler as cyclothymic, with a strong family history of mental illness - a brother who committed suicide, a sister with death hallucinations, and another brother with grandiose tendencies. He was treated by none other than Freud. A stormy marriage to a woman 19 years younger, the death of his daughter, a tumultuous tenure as artistic director of the Vienna Opera, living life as three times homeless, and a bad heart that kept him in death’s shadow ensured that he would feel far deeper and wider than his contemporaries.

But it is in his music that we find his bipolar smoking gun. Yes, others may have written sadder or more exalted compositions, but no one leads us down the strange and disturbing and contradictory byways of the human psyche as does Mahler. Even as he boasts we shall live forever in one symphony he sounds his own death knell in another. It was not the kind of stuff for simpler minds in a simpler time.

Soon after the birth of his first child, Maria Anna, Mahler completed his song cycle, "Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children)." His wife, Alma, was alarmed, begging him not to tempt fate. The girl died five years later. Mahler’s symphonies are a "Kindertotenlieder" of a different sort, the premonition of the end of an age. By the time he died in 1911 at age 50 of a weak heart complicated by a blood infection, he had taken Romanticism as far as it could go. That same year, the Ballet Russe premiered Stravinsky’s "Petrouchka," in Paris. Two years later, Stravinsky would cause a riot with "Rite of Spring." Music would never be the same. There was no place for Mahler’s music in this new world order.

Then came 1914 and Europe’s collective madness. Future historians may well look upon the period from this time onward to the fall of the Soviet empire as the 80 Years War. Those innocent fools never saw it coming. Yet it was right there in Mahler’s music.

For fifty years, Mahler was largely ignored, though he did have a profound influence on the pioneering film composer Erich Korngold, who in turn influenced his contemporaries and those who came after. Mahler was championed by two of his protégés, the legendary conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, but it was Leonard Bernstein in the fifties and sixties who made him famous.

Bernstein set the scene for a 1973 Time magazine piece, but with George Solti as the cover boy and magazine's unequivocal verdict of Solti's Chicago Symphony as "sine qua non." The litmus test? Mahler, of course, the ultimate challenge for a conductor, a "stunningly powerful" performance of his Fifth in Carnegie Hall that resulted in a 20-minute ovation that only ended when Solti escorted the concertmaster off the stage. Clearly, Solti was the winner of an imaginary battle of the bands. These days, conductors routinely use Mahler as their calling card.

We who live in a jaded and cynical age can appreciate Mahler in a way that the poor wretched souls of the early twentieth century never could. It is tempting to say our new wisdom will serve us well, but in our collective arrogance we threaten to repeat the mistakes of the past. Undoubtedly, there is a Mahler in our midst, penning strange and incomprehensible music at this very moment, with a disturbing foretaste of things that may eventuate. This time, it may behoove us wake up and listen.

Bernstein conducting the opening to Mahler's Fifth


Tony the cretin said...

I really liked this. Mahler has grown on me to the point of just loving his music. It is all over the place, a bit like my mind. You can hear the birth of movie music, though not much of movie music can compare to Mahler. I recently purchased the complete set of symphonies (with some of his lieder) conducted by Bernstein. It was so awesome that I spent over an hour downloading it on my iPod. Now I can listen to it anywhere. Mahler is awesome.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Tony. A bit like my mind, too. Definitely the birth of movie music is in there, too, which is a real paradox to me, seeing how Mahler was marginalized for such a long time, yet you see his influence in the classic movie scores from the 30s, 40s, and 50s where everyone was exposed. Re iPod - I've taken Mahler with me on many a long country walk. :)

Addy Bell said...

OK, I'll have to give Mahler another listen. I wrote him off when I was 19 or 20, and heard his ... second? ... symphony performed by the Minnesota Orchestra. I think I described the experience as "histrionically German". I remember it as someone who was trying to out-Wagner Wagner. If his music was meant to parody Wagner's, it makes perfect sense.

Addy Bell said...

OK, I misread your description of Mahler's music as being "mock Wagner" to mean that it was a deliberate parody. I'd forgotten that he was a preeminent interpreter of Wagner. And also that satirizing Wagner would not be a good career move for an ethnically Jewish conductor of the Vienna Opera.

That doesn't stop the first movement of the 5th from sounding like Wagner on acid. It's 19th century nationalsim taken to its inevitable psychotic conclusion. Holy crap.

I couldn't make it through the whole symphony; I had to get up and move around by the last movement (though I kept the music playing as I started dinner). When it was over I felt like I'd eaten a quart of dark chocolate mousse and chased it down with a pint of absinthe.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Addy. Yep, thoroughly indigestible Mahler. It took me about 35 years for me to learn to stomach him, and I wouldn't inflict 35 years of punishment on anyone. I totally appreciate where you're coming from. :)