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