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Mahler the Modern


by Henry-Louis de La Grange
Doubleday, 982 pp., $17.50


by Kurt Blaukopf
Praeger, 272 pp., $10.00

The two books entitled Mahler, by Henry-Louis de La Grange1 and Kurt Blaukopf2 respectively, represent decades of research. One question, then, in the minds of those who read both, is how it can be possible for so much dedicated scholarship to yield so many conflicting facts. According to Blaukopf, the composer was one of twelve children, five of whom died in infancy, while a sixth committed suicide at the age of twenty-five. But La Grange provides vital statistics for fourteen children, showing that seven of them died in infancy and that the suicide was in his twenty-first year. Blaukopf further states that the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were inspired by “an actress,” although La Grange positively identifies the woman as the singer Johanna Richter. And where Blaukopf accepts a merely approximate dating for Mahler’s discovery of the Knaben Wunderhorn anthology, La Grange verifies both the year, 1887, and the circumstances, the home of Carl Maria von Weber’s grandson, during the period of Mahler’s infatuation with that gentleman’s wife.

But these discrepancies are too numerous to tabulate here. Sufficient to say that La Grange’s sources are more abundant, that he has read deeply in them, that his documentation and detail are encyclopedic, and that, thanks to him, a full image of Mahler’s personality has been drawn for the first time. On the strength of this mammoth volume one—the second is promised in two years, the time most readers will need to finish the first—the completed work is assured a place on the small shelf of permanently valuable biographies of composers.

All the same, it is unfair to compare the two books. Blaukopf’s is a brief survey of the whole life and works; La Grange’s, what we now have of it—and this first installment takes the story only as far as Mahler’s marriage—is a very long one, primarily of the life. An introduction by Karlheinz Stockhausen tells the reader that La Grange “has refrained from interpreting Mahler’s music.” Unless technical analysis is meant, however, this is misleading. La Grange offers valuable musical insights in passing but relegates his programnote musical discussions to an appendix, as if to emphasize that the symphonies and songs should be allowed to play and sing for themselves. As for the book’s length, this is due in part to extensive quotations of correspondence of a nearly extinct species—and a greatly-to-be-regretted one, for biography in the electronic age, compiled from tape-recorded and eyewitnessed “recollections,” will be a lot less literate, whatever else.

Blaukopf, for his part, bravely tries to meet the music head on, and with such novel suggestions as that the architecture of the concert halls of the 1870s and 1880s “demanded” blendings of sound in space on the Mahler scale; that the differences in texture and orchestral style between the first four symphonies and the later ones are attributable in some degree to Mahler’s renunciation of his habit of composing at the piano. “Rid yourself of the pianist,” he advised another composer, in 1896; “[your orchestral music] is conceived for the keyboard.” Mahler later maintained that certain “bold passages and figures” in his own Fifth Symphony had come to him “just because I do know the orchestra and its instruments so well.” Blaukopf’s or anyone else’s “new approaches” are welcome, it should be said; despite popularity polls, certain passages in the Sixth and Seventh symphonies are still formidably difficult for even the most acute ear to grasp and retain.

Since Mahler gave far more of his time to conducting than to composing, his career as a conductor inevitably occupies the larger part of both books. But this disproportion is frustrating, his place in today’s pantheon resting on his compositions, not at all on his concert life. Furthermore, since no written account can conjure more than an illusion of his performances (one of the better attempts, surprisingly enough, is by Mallarmé’s friend, Catulle Mendès), the biographer is obliged to devote a great deal of space to such peripheral subjects as the conductor’s repertory. Fortunately in Mahler’s case this brims with curiosities. He was inordinately fond of Rienzi (twenty-seven performances during his reign at the Vienna Opera!), and of Cornelius’s Barber and Humperdinck’s Hansel, while at one time his admiration for L’Amico Fritz (“there are many affinities between Mascagni and myself”) was practically boundless.

Mahler’s philosophy and technique of conducting are analyzed, his rehearsals and performances are described, the curtain calls counted and durations and decibels of applause measured. But as one concert or opera follows another, the story becomes repetitious. What does stand out is the contrast between the vast amount of experience and the slow recognition of a conductor in Mahler’s time and ours, when it is not unusual for a “music director” still in his twenties to have at least two major orchestras a continent or ocean apart, and to lead his first performance of a Mozart opera in Salzburg, his first of a Wagner in Bayreuth. Before attaining a fraction of such eminence, Mahler, in his mid-thirties, conducted fifty-four different operas in a single season, a hundred and thirty-five opera performances in a year, and twenty-one in a single month, all of these in addition to his concerts.

Throughout his book La Grange compares reviews of Mahler’s performances with the composer’s own reports of them in letters and in conversations. Condemned at first for his “exterior show of passion,” he is criticized first to last for his exaggerated nuances and eccentric and unsteady tempi. (That his tempi would have been highly flexible is obvious from the frequency of the verbal directions in his own music and the infrequency—nonexistence after the earliest works—of metronomes.) In Leonore No. 3, for instance, “Mahler always stated the first theme of the Allegro slowly and did not reach the main tempo until the forte repetition.” (That even so specific a comment as this fails to evoke a concrete impression of what the actual effect may have been proves that no performance can be truly “described.” Therefore the wisest explanation for Mahler’s phenomenal success as a conductor may be that of his last great witness: “You felt it couldn’t be otherwise.”3 )

One thing seems certain, however: Mahler’s own conducting would probably have displeased today’s audiences, and this notwithstanding the vogue for many of his interpretative licenses. To mention only one objection, he totally disregarded the historically correct. Treating the classics as sacred but far from sacrosanct, he had no qualms about revising their instrumentation according to

…the intentions of the composer as revealed by the score [allowing] not only for the changed construction and techniques of certain instruments but also for the historical growth of the orchestra. [Blaukopf]

In practice this meant that he would arrange Mozart’s secco-recitatives for strings and add a piccolo clarinet to the woodwinds in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (to strengthen a line rather than to change the sonority, except that the one result is inseparable from the other). But the argument is weak, the “intentions of the composer as revealed by the score” being sufficiently difficult to determine in the written notes, to say nothing of the unwritten. (Viz. the dotted rhythms in the Andante of Beethoven’s First Symphony: these should be played neither “as written,” nor mechanically double-dotted, nor exactly between the two, nor even in the same way in all sections of the movement; they are played according to some vaguely “instinctive”criteria of rhythmic feeling.)

Like Wagner, Mahler used chromatic brass in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony because

…the…brass instruments in [Beethoven’s] time precluded certain tone sequences necessary to the melody. This very shortcoming ultimately led to the perfecting of these instruments, and it would seem outrageous not to use them now….

But this is dubious logic, and again, in practice, the losses often outweigh the gains. (Thus in an ascending line of the same Andante, the flute doubles the violins until they go beyond its register, rejoining them on their descent. Some new editions continue the doubling on the grounds that Beethoven would have done so too if he had had the larger-range modern flute. But this obliterates an antiphonal effect from the change in color, for Beethoven used the instrument that he did have with unimprovable art, being unaware of its limitations as such.) The Mahler thesis, tenable for him, perhaps, because he was a composer himself, has been partly responsible for many latter-day abominations in the name of Bach. (Whether Bach would have “used the resources of the symphony orchestra” is irrelevant since he would have done so in his own way.) So far from “keeping up” with the “historical growth of the orchestra” by renovations of the Mahler-type, we should cultivate the varieties of ensembles from all periods.

How much more engrossing is Mahler’s biography when it turns from the conductor to the composer! Here, first of all, we feel a power of self-analysis rare if not unparalleled among musicians. He observes, for instance, that “the artist represents the feminine element opposing the genius that fertilizes him”—which sounds like Tantrism and at the same time makes one regret that Mahler’s August, 1910, meeting with Freud was not “taped,” in the lamentable manner of contemporary election politics.

As in the case of other composers, Mahler sometimes had ideas for music that could not be used in the opus on which he was then engaged. Thus, “Instead of ideas in quadruple time, which I need for my finale, I now have only ideas in triple time.” He also speaks of having composed a sketch that would not “fit in,” then of recognizing it as the “most important passage of all.” Once “a voice in the night,” thought to be that of Beethoven (!) or Wagner (!), advises him to “bring the horns in three bars later,” which, the next day, he sees as the right solution. Statements such as these bring the reader close to the working composer, and, for anyone seeking to understand the processes of the creative musical imagination, few sources are as rich as Mahler.

Mahler, with his genius for parody and the grotesque, is already a modern as compared with Wolf.” “Modern,” in Mahler’s case, must be defined by its qualities, which, in addition to the two that La Grange names, include several noted by the composer himself: “the farcical and tragic at the same time,” for one, and “humor that inspires fear rather than laughter.” In a more comprehensive sense, a “modern” is almost automatically an explorer, innovator, expander-of-means. And of course Mahler qualifies here, too, having discarded all conventional concepts of symphonic structures, materials, lengths, while at the same time enlarging the dimensions of his art—increasing volumes as well as intensifying colors and stretching tessituras. (He raised the ceiling of the orchestra in pitch, a probable consequence of having raised the roof.)

But Mahler considered himself a “modern.” In a letter that reads like a manifesto, he declared that “we moderns are in need of a large musical system to express our thoughts”; that a modern must possess not only as much art as an ancient, but “even finer, more subtle senses,” since his “eyes are learning to discover…an increasing number of colors and more and more beautiful and delicate modulations”; that the modern composer’s instrument is the orchestra. Furthermore, modern composers “are obliged to make a louder noise in order to make themselves heard by larger audiences”—i.e., his “Symphony of a Thousand” played for Woodstock-Watkins Glen multitudes—a statement that reveals some of the composer’s social as well as musical philosophy. Finally, implying that “the whole spiritual history of humanity” stands behind him, he reminds his correspondent: “We are what we are, we ‘moderns.’ ”

  1. 1

    Translated from the French by Herbert Weinstock, Mrs. Rudolf Bunzl, and the author.

  2. 2

    Translated from the German (not without solecisms: “In 1897 the journalists were not on the ball”) by Inge Goodwin.

  3. 3

    Conversations with Klemperer, edited by Peter Heyworth (Gollancz, 1973).

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