The cult of Mahler

Bayan North­cott sheds light on how the Aus­trian com­poser’s unique voice has be­come so revered

BBC Music Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Gus­tav Mahler was brood­ing on the worldly suc­cess of his great rival and friend Richard Strauss when he wrote to his young fi­ancée Alma in Jan­uary 1902 that ‘my time will come when his is over’. Though four years the younger, Strauss was by then widely re­garded as the Mas­ter of the Age. As a young prodigy he had long since daz­zled the con­cert pub­lic with the out­ra­geous bril­liance of his early tone po­ems and was ad­vanc­ing to­wards sen­sa­tional suc­cess as an opera com­poser. He was also har­mon­i­cally dar­ing, push­ing the bound­aries enough to im­press the young mod­ernists while si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­tain­ing the loy­alty of the Ro­man­tic tra­di­tion­al­ists with the lyri­cism of his songs. And he was ev­ery­where, con­duct­ing con­certs and op­eras and ac­com­pa­ny­ing his so­prano wife all over Europe, gen­er­ously en­cour­ag­ing strug­gling young com­posers and fight­ing the good fight for copy­right pro­tec­tion – the very model of a pro­gres­sive com­poser for the new cen­tury.

By 1902, of course, Mahler had his own for­mi­da­ble rep­u­ta­tion. Out­stand­ingly tal­ented as a con­duc­tor, fiercely driven and un­de­terred by his un­happy fam­ily back­ground or by the ris­ing tide of Euro­pean anti-semitism, he had con­trived by the age of 37 to se­cure the supreme po­si­tion of direc­tor of the Vi­enna Opera. He was to gal­vanise this hide­bound in­sti­tu­tion with a ruth­less ide­al­ism for the next ten years, un­til the poi­sonous Vi­en­nese press drove him away to new bat­tles and glo­ries in New York. But the stand­ing of his mu­sic was another mat­ter. Com­pared with Strauss, he seemed a slow starter. Though his can­tata Das kla­gende Lied, com­pleted in 1880, is al­ready full of Mahle­rian tex­tures, it was not heard un­til 1901, while early per­for­mances of his First Sym­phony (1888) were greeted by puz­zle­ment and laugh­ter, the vet­eran critic Ed­uard Hanslick pro­nounc­ing it ‘not mu­sic at all’. And when he played through some of his Se­cond Sym­phony (1894) to the con­duc­tor and pi­anist Hans von Bülow, Mahler was dis­mayed to spy the great man with his fin­gers in his ears – though the sub­se­quent Ber­lin pre­miere in 1895 at least put him on the map as a se­ri­ous com­poser.

Yet the crit­ics con­tin­ued to carp. How could ears sat­u­rated in the rich tex­tures of Wag­ner and Strauss come to terms with the open, edgy bril­liance of Mahler’s scor­ing? How could the guardians of good taste ac­cept all those par­ody folk dances and fan­fares from the bar­racks as wor­thy sym­phonic ma­te­ri­als? How could such sprawl­ing struc­tures for out­sized or­ches­tras as the Third Sym­phony (1897) be rec­on­ciled with the Clas­si­cal forms of Beethoven and Brahms? How was one to eval­u­ate a work such as the Fourth Sym­phony (1900) that veered be­tween the naïve and the so­phis­ti­cated, be­tween nos­tal­gia and irony? How could one re­gard a Fifth Sym­phony (1902) that opened with a fu­neral march and then pro­ceeded by way of a melo­dra­matic

Al­le­gro, a bu­colic Alpine scherzo and an amorous Adagi­etto to a jolly con­tra­pun­tal fi­nale romp as a sym­phonic unity?

In­deed, how could one dis­cern a co­her­ent style in mu­sic that seemed a col­lage of al­lu­sions to Bach, Beethoven, Schu­bert, We­ber, Wag­ner, even Massenet, thrown to­gether with chorales, mil­i­tary marches, café mu­sic, bird­song, cow­bells and heaven knows what? To such crit­i­cisms, Mahler might have re­torted, as he told Si­belius in 1907, that: ‘the sym­phony must be like the world. It must em­brace ev­ery­thing’. But it is not hard to see how the no­tion got around that this was all su­per­fi­cial ‘con­duc­tor’s mu­sic’, not quite the real thing – a view that was to per­sist in some quar­ters for decades: wit­ness Vaughan Wil­liams’s no­to­ri­ous put­down that, at best, Mahler was ‘a tol­er­a­ble im­i­ta­tion of a com­poser’. And be­hind all this lay in­sin­u­a­tions of the vi­cious slur, pro­mul­gated by Wag­ner, that, no mat­ter how they strove to in­te­grate, the Jews could never be part of Euro­pean cul­ture, only clev­erly im­i­tate it.

No doubt it riled Mahler’s conservative crit­ics still more that, by the early 1900s, his un­com­pro­mis­ing stance had be­gun to at­tract a band of fiercely par­ti­san young sup­port­ers, among them his pro­tégés Alexan­der Zem­lin­sky and Arnold Schoen­berg with his still younger pupils Al­ban Berg and An­ton We­bern, plus the ris­ing con­duc­tors Bruno Walter and Otto Klem­perer. At least the pub­lic was be­gin­ning to come round, too. The pre­mieres of the tragic Sixth Sym­phony (1904) and the strange, noc­tur­nal Sev­enth (1905) were treated as ma­jor mu­si­cal events, and with the launch of the colos­sal choral Eighth Sym­phony (1906) in Mu­nich in 1910, Mahler’s tri­umph at last seemed com­plete. Eight months later, he was dead at 50.

‘Mahler’s death has been a great shock for me,’ re­marked Strauss, adding, drily, ‘No doubt he will now be­come a great man in Vi­enna’. And, in­deed, the post­hu­mous pre­mieres of the ‘song-sym­phony’ Das Lied

von der Erde (1908) and the ap­par­ently vale­dic­tory Ninth (1909) un­der Bruno

Walter in 1911 and 1912 re­spec­tively were greeted with awe by Mahler’s ad­mir­ers. Strauss him­self lived on for another 38 years, and although his rep­u­ta­tion was to sag a bit be­tween the wars, much of his out­put re­mains in the or­ches­tral and op­er­atic reper­toire. To that ex­tent, Mahler was wrong about him; but he was right about him­self, even if it was to take 50 years be­fore he at­tained any­thing like the pop­u­lar­ity and es­ti­ma­tion he en­joys to­day.

Over those in­ter­ven­ing 50 years, he sur­vived essen­tially as a mu­si­cian’s com­poser, a com­poser’s com­poser, in that it was the con­duc­tors who be­lieved in his mu­sic and the com­posers who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally ac­cepted his inf lu­ence that kept him cur­rent rather than any ur­gent de­mand by a scep­ti­cal press or un­en­gaged pub­lic. Even dur­ing his life­time, his mu­sic had be­gun to at­tract in­ter­est in Eng­land, the US, Rus­sia. And, es­pe­cially, Hol­land, which Mahler him­self vis­ited three times to con­duct the Con­cert­ge­bouw Orches­tra at the in­vi­ta­tion of its long-term mu­sic direc­tor Willem Men­gel­berg – who car­ried on the tra­di­tion, pro­gram­ming an en­tire Mahler fes­ti­val in 1920 and even­tu­ally pass­ing his en­thu­si­asm on to his suc­ces­sors Ed­uard van Beinum and Bernard Haitink. In Eng­land, Henry Wood played an hon­ourable role, pro­gram­ming the First Sym­phony at the Proms in 1903 and go­ing on to give the Bri­tish pre­mieres of Das Lied von der Erde and the Fourth, Sev­enth and Eighth Sym­phonies. Per­haps more sur­pris­ingly, Adrian Boult proved an early en­thu­si­ast, con­duct­ing the Fourth Sym­phony and Das Lied von der Erde dur­ing his time with the City of Birm­ing­ham Orches­tra (1922-30) and giv­ing the Bri­tish pre­miere of the Third Sym­phony in a stu­dio broad­cast in 1947. And in cen­tral Europe, Bruno Walter and another Mahler pro­tégé, Os­car Fried, con­tin­ued to pro­mul­gate Mahler un­til the rise of Hitler drove them into ex­ile, Walter in the US, Fried in the Soviet Union. It was Fried who, in 1924, recorded the Se­cond Sym­phony – the first to ap­pear on disc.

Mean­while, a va­ri­ety of com­posers were fruit­fully as­sim­i­lat­ing Mahler’s char­ac­ter­is­tics and in­no­va­tions, in­clud­ing his ad­mirer Berg. If the third of Berg’s Three Or­ches­tral Pieces com­prises an apoc­a­lyp­tic am­pli­fi­ca­tion of a Mahle­rian march, the an­gu­lar lines and wrench­ing har­mony of the cul­mi­na­tion scene of his opera Lulu sound like a di­rect step on from the ada­gios of Mahler’s Ninth Sym­phony and un­fin­ished Tenth (1910). And it tells of the im­pact Mahler had al­ready made in un­likely places by the 1920s that Na­dia Boulanger – never a fan of Aus­tro-ger­man Ro­man­ti­cism – rec­om­mended his or­ches­tra­tion as a model to her first com­po­si­tion stu­dent Aaron Co­p­land, with au­di­ble ef­fect on the in­ci­sive, wide-open tex­tures of his ma­ture scores.

A decade on and the young Shostakovich seems to have drawn sim­i­lar con­clu­sions from the scores, with a height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to the fraught in­ten­sity of Mahler’s spare lin­ear coun­ter­point and the ironies of his dance rhythms – pas­sages of the scher­zos of Shostakovich’s Fourth and Fifth could al­most have been com­posed by Mahler. Around the same time, Ben­jamin Brit­ten, still a stu­dent,

Mahler once spied Hans von Bülow with his fin­gers in his ears

heard Mahler’s Fourth and was cap­ti­vated by the res­o­nant clar­ity of its scor­ing; soon he was swept away by the beauty and sad­ness of Das Lied von der Erde. It’s no sur­prise that he al­ways pre­ferred slen­der, sec­tional scor­ing, or that some of his ma­jor achieve­ments are or­ches­tral song-cy­cles; no sur­prise that his Sin­fo­nia da Re­quiem – a thor­oughly Mahle­rian con­cept with its fu­neral march and dance of death – cli­maxes in ra­di­ant string coun­ter­point, or that an ele­giac Mahler-like vi­olin line runs through the cul­mi­nat­ing song of his Noc­turne, a score he ac­tu­ally ded­i­cated to the by-then aged Alma Mahler.

In­deed, by the later 1940s and ’50s, some­thing Mahle­rian was in the air. Younger con­duc­tors, most no­tably Leonard Bern­stein, were tak­ing up the cause. One by one the sym­phonies and songs cy­cles were be­gin­ning to be recorded on the spa­cious new medium of the LP, soon to be en­hanced by the ad­vent of stereo. And a new gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars was re­search­ing the life and works: Kurt and Herta Blaukopf in Aus­tria, Henri-louis de la Grange in France, Don­ald Mitchell and Deryck Cooke in Eng­land. By the 1960s, Mahler per­for­mances were gen­er­at­ing pub­lic ex­cite­ment, as wit­nessed at the Proms pre­miere of the Third Sym­phony un­der Nor­man del Mar in 1962, the 1963 per­for­mance of the Se­cond by Stokowski, and the first hear­ing of Deryck Cooke’s per­form­ing ver­sion of the draft of the Tenth in 1964. Talk be­gan to be heard of how rel­e­vant Mahler’s teem­ing, multi-coloured col­lages seemed to the decade of pop art, ‘happenings’, stu­dent protest and ‘let it all hang out’. The eco­nomic crises of the 1970s put an end to that, but by then Mahler’s works were es­tab­lished at the cen­tre of the con­cert reper­toire where they have re­mained since – se­cond only, it seems, to Beethoven.

No doubt this seem­ing uni­ver­sal­ity re­flects the many lev­els on which the mu­sic can be lis­tened to, all the way from ex­cite­ments of its su­per-cin­ema sur­face down through its emo­tive mime­sis of na­ture, in­no­cence and ex­pe­ri­ence, love and loss, life and death, to the an­guished depths of ex­is­ten­tial phi­los­o­phy. But is its dom­i­nance jus­ti­fied, and will it last? One oc­ca­sion­ally meets lis­ten­ers who ob­ject, as his orig­i­nal hear­ers did, to the un­even­ness of the mu­sic and its ten­dency, un­der pres­sure, to re­sort to ba­nal­ity – some­thing Mahler told Freud he felt guilty about. And in­creas­ingly one en­coun­ters long-stand­ing Mahler fans who now avoid his mu­sic, fear­ing over­fa­mil­iar­ity and vul­gar in­ter­pre­ta­tive overkill is rob­bing it of its au­then­tic­ity, and power to move, chal­lenge and dis­turb.

It cer­tainly seems that ef­forts to re­cap­ture its im­pact by ratch­et­ing up dy­namic con­trasts and mak­ing still more of an ex­pres­sive meal of its ev­ery ges­ture have reached a limit. More in­dul­gent con­duc­tors these days take up to 12 min­utes to get through the Adagi­etto of the Fifth Sym­phony, yet Mahler, ac­cord­ing to Men­gel­berg, took a lit­tle over eight. Could a more for­ward-moving, con­tained, ‘Clas­si­cal’ per­for­mance style fo­cussing on the struc­tural co­gency of Mahler’s forms – the ‘pro­found logic’ that Si­belius told Mahler he most val­ued in sym­phonic com­po­si­tion – freshen their im­pact and re­veal new in­sights? Could a mo­ra­to­rium on pro­gram­ming Mahler so fre­quently help? Af­ter all, the in­clu­sion of three or four of his longer sym­phonies in an av­er­age or­ches­tral con­cert sea­son must mean the ex­clu­sion of other de­serv­ing reper­toire. Or will the in­creas­ing eco­nomic dif­fi­culty of sus­tain­ing pro­fes­sional or­ches­tras mean that Mahler sur­vives in­creas­ingly through record­ings? No doubt such is­sues will con­di­tion his stand­ing as we move ever fur­ther on from those years at the end of the 19th and be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­turies that brought forth his au­da­ciously as­pir­ing oeu­vre.

pro­gres­sive steps: Mahler strolls through Vi­enna in 1906; (top) his con­tem­po­rary Richard Strauss; (bot­tom) mu­si­cal ad­mirer Al­ban Berg

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