The Meaning of Mahler

Gustav Mahler

by Bruno Walter, with a biographical essay by Ernst Křenek, and an introduction by Erik Ryding
Dover, 236 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Gustav Mahler, drawn by William Kentridge as Count Casti-Piani for his production of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, 2013. It is on view in Kentridge’s exhibition ‘Drawings for Lulu,’ at the Marian Goodman Gallery, New York City, until December 19, and collected in his limited-edition book The Lulu Plays, just published by Arion Press.
William Kentridge
Gustav Mahler, drawn by William Kentridge as Count Casti-Piani for his production of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, 2013. It is on view in Kentridge’s exhibition ‘Drawings for Lulu,’ at the Marian Goodman Gallery, New York City, until December 19, and collected in his limited-edition book The Lulu Plays, just published by Arion Press.

In May 1911, Gustav Mahler, the most famous conductor in the world and an important but controversial composer, was dying of a bacterial infection of the heart. As he passed in and out of consciousness, he was heard to murmur “Mozartl”—an affectionate diminutive of the composer’s name—and “Who’ll take care of Schoenberg now?”

The words encapsulate Mahler’s Janus-like position, perched at the turn of the last century. His essential sound is unmistakably nineteenth-century and places him at the end of the great line of Viennese symphonists—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner. At the same time, his sensibility and his determination to push the symphonic form to its breaking point make him a kind of proto-modernist. The seminal atonal works of the following Viennese generation—Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern—sound nothing like Mahler’s, but these composers worshiped him and were deeply influenced by his example. He in turn worked hard to encourage them, in Schoenberg’s case providing significant financial assistance.

Still, in the decades after his death, Mahler’s music was overshadowed by the flourishing of modernism as well as by his much-longer-lived contemporary Richard Strauss. The story of Mahler’s neglect and rediscovery has become an unavoidable part of any discussion of his work. The symphonies were dismissed as Kapellmeistermusik, the kind of music that conductors often produce—deftly orchestrated but lacking a voice of its own. It didn’t help that Mahler was Jewish; an anti-Semitic strain in criticism of his work was already well established in his lifetime and under the Nazis his work became unperformable in Germany and Austria.

But around 1960, things started to change. Conductors championed him, notably Leonard Bernstein, and the advent of the LP record enabled listeners to assimilate these gargantuan pieces through repeated listening. Then, too, in the postwar era, the music came to speak for a vanished Europe. Theodor Adorno even claimed that it was possible to hear that “the Jew Mahler scented Fascism decades ahead.” Adorno’s monograph on Mahler, published in 1960, was vastly influential. Before it, critics could be divided into those who saw Mahler as squarely carrying on the symphonic tradition and those who found his music blemished by trite material, overblown handling, and a neurotic vacillation between irony and sentimentality. Adorno, ingeniously, played the two views off against each other. He claimed that Mahler was subverting tradition from the inside, deliberately showing up the limitations of the materials and procedures he had inherited. Mahler, like a good Marxist, was heightening the contradictions. (Mahler did in fact harbor lifelong sympathy for socialism but was not politically active.)

After Adorno’s essay, Mahler’s overreaching maximalism and his fondness for banal melodies stopped being an embarrassment and became instead his core achievement. He emerged as a far more sophisticated artist: the works, tuneful enough to please the average concertgoer, were now also difficult and ambiguous enough to absorb the cognoscenti.

Mahler advocates before Adorno had to adopt a proselytizing tone. A recently republished volume contains two works of this kind: a reverent appreciation from 1936 by the conductor Bruno Walter, an acolyte of Mahler’s, who premiered the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony after his death; and an essay from 1941 by the composer Ernst Křenek. Křenek was briefly married to Mahler’s daughter Anna, and worked on completing two movements from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, left unfinished at his death. His essay is brilliantly perceptive and anticipates Adorno. Mahler’s symphonic edifices are old-fashioned, he writes, but “the cracks in the structure herald the future.”

Today Mahler is no longer a cause and critics must seek out unexplored aspects of a composer who has become a fixture of the musical landscape. Two recent academic studies, by Thomas Peattie and Seth Monahan, are complementary opposites: Peattie focuses on evocative moments of orchestral writing, Monahan on the long-range narratives created by Mahler’s use of sonata form.

Among composers, Mahler was never fully eclipsed: Britten’s Spring Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony show an obvious debt to the way he grafted the cantata and the song cycle onto the symphony. And his example was particularly important to composers of the postwar avant-garde. Karlheinz Stockhausen, in a preface to the first volume of Henry-Louis de la Grange’s mammoth Mahler biography in 1973, expressed the mystical view that “should a higher being from a distant star wish to investigate the nature of earthlings in a most concentrated moment, he could not afford to bypass Mahler’s music.” The famous third movement of Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” (1968–1969) takes the entire scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony and fills it with a cacophonous array of spoken text and musical quotations from Bach to Boulez. The collage-like homage is apt, because Mahler’s works are themselves so compulsively capacious. “The symphony must be like the world,” Mahler told Sibelius in 1907. “It must be all-embracing.”

Contemplating the popularity of Richard Strauss in 1902, Mahler wrote, “My time will come.” Because he was right in the long run the words now sound quietly confident, but at the time his self-belief was compromised by doubt and by frustration with the course his career had taken. His outlook was closer to that of the imagined protagonist of his First Symphony who, he said, “as often as he lifts his head above the billows of life, is again and again dealt a blow by fate and sinks down anew.” Mahler’s anxiety about his reputation and legacy is written into the music, which—in its extremes of emotion, volume, and sheer duration—is determined to assert itself in spite of everything.

Born in 1860, Mahler grew up about halfway between Prague and Brno, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a distiller and innkeeper, and Mahler grew up loving the sound of village bands and other popular music. His talent was recognized early. At four, he could play on the accordion folk songs he heard Czech servants singing. At six he composed a polka that had a funeral march as an introduction, a foretaste of incongruities to come. Synagogue chants and other Jewish music quite probably left a mark too, though specific influences are elusive. Adorno argued that “what is Jewish in Mahler does not participate directly in the folk element, but speaks through all its mediation as an intellectual voice”—a sense of instability and otherness permeating the work.

At fifteen, Mahler went to Vienna, entering the conservatory—his teachers included Bruckner—and taking an eclectic variety of courses at the university. Like just about every other young man of the era, he read Schopenhauer, became obsessed with Wagner, and thought he might become a poet. His friends included the composer Hugo Wolf but the pair fell out over an opera they both wanted to write. Another friend was Hans Rott, a composer who is one of the great what-ifs of music history. He died insane at twenty-six—he had tuberculosis and probably syphilis—leaving a single remarkably Mahlerian symphony that predates all of Mahler’s and that contains several themes that later appeared in Mahler’s Second Symphony.

As a student, Mahler was known mostly as a song composer. Friends called him “another Schubert.” But his ambitions went beyond small forms and he looked for ways to turn this talent to greater account. It’s no accident that songs provide fodder for his first four symphonies—that is, for the first two decades of his composing career. The First Symphony is largely built around the early song cycle Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), and songs constitute entire movements of the next three symphonies.

Given Mahler’s interest in narrative and in vocal writing, it’s surprising that he never attempted an opera—the more so since opera became the focus of his conducting career. In his mid-thirties, with three symphonies written, he told a friend that “we are now standing—I am sure of it—at the great crossroads that will soon separate forever the two diverging paths of symphonic and dramatic music.” His ambition, he explained, was to enrich symphonies with the innovations of Wagner, just as Wagner had enriched opera with “the means of expression of symphonic music.”

But this is a retrospective rationalization, and the early years reveal him struggling to decide what combination of the vocal and symphonic would suit him best. In its astounding intensity the third song of Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen is effectively a Wagner opera condensed into three short minutes. Parts of the first two symphonies were performed as tone poems and, before them, his first piece of note was a dramatic cantata, Das Klagende Lied (Song of Lamentation), completed when he was twenty. The cantata, a revenge story with a fairy-tale setting, is full of undigested influences but extremely impressive. Mahler’s voice is already completely distinctive—with pulverizing climaxes, passages of otherworldly softness, and dizzying contrasts of earnestness and kitsch.

Pleased with Das Klagende Lied, Mahler entered it for a prestigious award presented by Vienna’s leading music association. The jury was conservative—Brahms was a member—and the piece didn’t win. Mahler took the setback better than Rott had done in the same circumstances a year before; Rott had been committed to an asylum after brandishing a gun on a train and saying that Brahms had packed the carriages with dynamite. Still, Mahler was deeply marked by the failure and later claimed that, had he won, “my whole life would have taken a different turn.” Winning, he believed, might have let him devote himself exclusively to composing instead of to conducting. This isn’t strictly true. Mahler had embarked on his conducting path before the great disappointment; after years as an impoverished student, he knew he had to earn a living. But the sense of a missed opportunity haunted him.

Mahler began his conducting career in a series of provincial opera houses. The musicians were so bad that he preferred to conduct music he disliked, rather than defile masterworks. But his perfectionism got results and he quickly progressed to larger cities—Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, and Hamburg. His ambition was the directorship of the Vienna State Opera, the most important musical post in Europe. He eventually got this job in 1897 and stayed for a decade amid ever-escalating political and administrative squabbles. (Taking up the post required baptism, which doesn’t particularly seem to have bothered him.)

Mahler was known for his physical conducting style and unerring theatrical sense. Count Albert Apponyi, a crucial ally at the Budapest Opera who had been a friend of Liszt, noted, “His eye ranges over the whole production, the decor, the machinery, the lighting.” Bruno Walter recalls that Mahler never “hesitated…to subordinate the musical to the dramatic point of view.” He was also a forceful administrator, just as likely to upbraid an usher who let in latecomers as a singer who disobeyed his directions. Small but very strong, he was a completely commanding figure. Walter writes that he had never dreamed that a mere word or gesture “could frighten and alarm others and force them into blind obedience.” The composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth recalled that dealing with Mahler was “like handling a bomb cased in razor-edges.”

Gustav Mahler in the foyer of the Vienna State Opera, 1907
Moritz Nähr
Gustav Mahler in the foyer of the Vienna State Opera, 1907

Mahler’s schedule in these years was punishing—260 performances in two seasons in Kassel—and his determination to keep progressing as a composer required superhuman exertion. In 1895, he prepared the premiere of his Second Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic while maintaining his day job at the Hamburg opera. Each evening, after the curtain fell in Hamburg, he would board a night train to Berlin. There he would direct a morning rehearsal of the symphony, lay down his baton, and get the train back to Hamburg for that evening’s performance. Composing his own work had to be squeezed into tiny gaps in his daunting schedule. From 1893 he established a pattern of a month’s summer vacation in a series of mountain and lakeside retreats—Steinbach am Attersee, Maiernigg, Toblach—which he would spend locked away in a little cabin sketching the next work at high speed. The rest of the year was left for working out orchestration and other details. He called himself der Sommerkomponist—the summer composer.

Biographical readings of Mahler’s music are popular and probably justified. Most of these relate to his later years: his marriage to Alma in 1902; the birth of their children and the death of their first-born daughter; Alma’s affair with the architect Walter Gropius; the diagnosis of a life-threatening heart condition. Thus we have the famous hammer blows in the last movement of the Sixth Symphony, which, according to the always unreliable Alma, show him felled “as a tree is felled.” Thus the halting rhythm at the start of the Ninth Symphony that Leonard Bernstein—persuasively but on no basis at all—said recorded the irregular beats of Mahler’s weakened heart. But although Mahler clearly sought to cram his life into his music, the vicissitudes of his later years merely provided him with material and deepened his perspective. They didn’t form his aims and technique as a composer in the way that earlier, less melodramatic struggles did.

Mahler, above all, is music’s first true workaholic. Earlier composers may have worked just as hard, but—Bach’s Kapellmeister duties notwithstanding—they chiefly worked at composition. Mahler, however, had a job. It kept him from the work he felt he should really be doing but he made no effort to quit. (Leaving the Vienna opera, in 1907, heralded a more relaxed schedule, but he soon found a way to overexert himself in the next phase of his career, in New York.) Křenek shrewdly writes, “It is quite obvious that Mahler immensely enjoyed his theatrical work no matter how often he claimed to loathe it” and that “he needed ever renewed proof of the limitations of this world in order to retain the feeling of terrific tension which is so characteristic of his music.”

At times, Mahler told himself something similar. “In art as in life I am at the mercy of spontaneity,” he wrote. “If I had to compose, not a note would come.” While he might not be able to produce as much as “the current matadors of the concert hall” (he surely meant Strauss), a man with so little time had one advantage: “His inner experience concentrates in one work.” He might have added that, though his conducting career limited productiveness, the scale of his symphonies was the natural counterpart of his careerist will to power.

Mahler sometimes longed for a completely different existence. “There are times when I am disheartened and feel like giving up music completely, thinking of ultimate happiness as an obscure and tranquil existence in some quiet corner of this earth,” he wrote. “How free and happy man becomes as soon as he leaves the unnatural restless bustle of city life and returns to the tranquility of nature.” The joy that he experienced in rural surroundings, especially on solitary hikes during his summer retreats, is manifest in his music from the very beginning of the First Symphony, with its clarinet cuckoo calls and quotation of a song about walking across dewy fields in the morning.

But one of the most arresting points in Thomas Peattie’s new study is that even Mahler’s bucolic idylls were conditioned by his busy life. The resorts where he went were fashionable and increasingly crowded. Good rail connections linked them to the major centers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, making them “microcosms of the very cities from which the composer so often claimed to take refuge.” The experience was more like Davos than Caspar David Friedrich. Mahler’s love of nature was predicated on his separation from it.

There’s a history to this situation. The first movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony bears the heading “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside”: evidently the implied protagonist is an urban creature. But the contradictions are particularly acute in Mahler’s case. Peattie quotes letters that he wrote to Alma as he admired picturesque landscapes on trains: “What a shame that one can’t get out and wander outside.”

Once you start looking, almost nothing in Mahler’s scenic writing is quite what it seems. A good example is the inclusion of cowbells in the Sixth Symphony. When Strauss uses cowbells, in his Alpensinfonie, there is no mystery: Alps, ergo cowbells. But Mahler’s Sixth, known as the “Tragic,” isn’t really alpine; it’s one of his most classical and least pictorial works. The sense of something alpine materializes only briefly and is then subsumed into other, unconnected impressions. The oddness of this was not lost on contemporary reviewers. “How should these offstage cowbells be taken in music that is neither programmatic nor operatic?” asked one. Another joked, “The many cows in this ‘tragic’ symphony have been the cause of particular amusement.”

The cowbells are typical of the way Mahler uses effects that hint at meanings but whose significance remains unfixed. Peattie emphasizes Mahler’s frequent use of offstage instruments. This had almost no precedent in symphonic music, though it was a commonplace in opera—an approaching military band in Così fan Tutte, receding hunting horns in Tristan und Isolde, and so on. Mahler used the effect right at the start of his First Symphony, in a sequence of offstage trumpet calls; these come first from two trumpets placed, according to the score, “at a very great distance away,” then from a third placed merely “in the distance.” The moment recalls the offstage trumpet in Fidelio that tells us help is approaching for the unjustly imprisoned hero Florestan. But in Mahler’s symphony there is no clear narrative logic. Why is one trumpet closer than the other two, and what are these instruments doing offstage in the first place?

Peattie thinks we should hear such effects not programmatically but “as sonic events in their own right.” Seen this way, the episodes foreshadow the more extreme spatial experiments of later composers, such as the three separate orchestras of Stockhausen’s Gruppen (a piece that, as it happens, was written during a very Mahlerian alpine retreat). But Mahler’s sound worlds are not purely abstract. They carry connotations that are clear often to the point of cliché: there are horn calls, gay waltzes, funeral marches. Křenek writes that Mahler, by creating assemblages of music ripe with associations, “anticipates the basic principle of surrealism to an amazing extent.” Adorno, more famously, saw Mahler as music’s answer to the realist novel: “Pedestrian the musical material, sublime the execution.”

Mahler’s juxtaposition of disparate sound worlds made him a master of heightened, transfixing moments—the guitar-and-mandolin serenade in the Seventh Symphony; the colossal brass fanfare that tears apart the first movement of the First; the posthorn solo in the Third that seems to reach us from the other side of a valley. The inevitable problem, though, was how to make heterogeneous worlds speak with concerted, cumulative force. Seth Monahan’s new study argues that Mahler does so by engaging with classical structures—in contrast to the many critics who assume that he saw them either as mere conveniences or else as archaisms to be subverted. Monahan’s formal analyses, though necessarily very technical, are persuasive, but it’s worth noting that one of Mahler’s most radical innovations in the establishment of long-range unity was surprisingly simple: putting the slow movement last.

It’s a solution he approached in the choral finale of the Second Symphony but which achieved full expression in the Third. This symphony was his longest and the most various; he envisaged it as encompassing “the world, nature in its entirety.” Perhaps for this reason, it was the one that he had most trouble bringing to its final shape. He spent years playing with several versions, first with seven movements then with six, during which process the slow movement gradually slid from a conventional position in the middle of the work to the end.

There was almost no precedent for this (Tchaikovsky’s near-contemporaneous “Pathétique” is the one great exception) and Mahler evinced surprise at where he’d ended up, writing that he had done it “without at the moment knowing why, and contrary to custom.” He later reused the idea of a slow finale to stunning effect in Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony and he seems to have been planning something similar for the unfinished Tenth.

In a sense, Mahler’s symphonies are questions about coherence—about how much experience a piece of music can contain before it bursts apart. The finale of the Third is a slow D-major chorale that seems to take stock of the five disparate movements that have gone before. It proves to be an inexhaustible font of melody and counterpoint, never exactly repeating itself and always disclosing new inner parts and descants. “In the Adagio everything is resolved in the calm of existence,” Mahler wrote. The culmination of the symphony comes not with an active climax, as in the classical symphony, but in the discovery of a new mode, passive and contemplative. The discovery of this mode, a triumph of instinct over technique, is the key to Mahler’s nature as a composer.