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Mahler Now

How long it took for Mahler to emerge, not from the shadows but from purgatory. A tenacious purgatory, which for a thousand reasons would not let go of him. He was too much of a conductor and not enough of a composer; moreover, even as a composer Mahler could not disengage himself from his role as conductor: he had too much dexterity and not enough mastery. What is more, he mixed it all up. While his work shows no direct traces of the operas he directed with such passion, he nonetheless abused the noble symphonic domain by casting on it bad theatrical seed: sentimentality, vulgarity, and an insolent and unbearable disorder intrude noisily and heavily into this well-guarded territory.

Nevertheless, a handful of devotees have kept watch during Mahler’s posthumous exile and they can be easily divided into two camps: progressives and conservatives. The latter pride themselves on being the real defenders of Mahler’s work, which, they believe, the progressives have betrayed.

Mahler had the misfortune to be a Jew in a period of intense nationalism. Totally silenced in his own country, this outcast faded from memory and almost disappeared. Further, there is the myth in which Mahler and Bruckner appear as the Castor and Pollux of the symphony. It was thought impossible, after Beethoven, to go beyond Nine: the symphonic dynasty would be cursed by destiny should it attempt to advance beyond that fateful number. (In the meantime, however, some less gifted composers have accomplished this feat.) What could possibly be left after all this?

What is left is the memory, for one thing, of a conductor who was both wonderful and difficult, exact and eccentric. Some of Mahler’s scores—the shorter ones—which are easy to grasp and to accept. For a long time these had to suffice, while the traditional symphonic appetite was satisfied by other less complex and less demanding pieces. Since performances of Mahler’s works were rare, it was almost impossible for them to create much of a following. Many went so far as to doubt not only the intrinsic value but even the sincerity of Mahler’s project. For their part, the moderns felt they had gone beyond Mahler, and relegated him to an outmoded romanticism, altogether lacking in contemporary interest, which they viewed with a certain pity.

The excessive, abundant quality of this fin de siècle music went against the grain of modern composers who were more and more interested in economy. The reckless extension of time, the surplus of instruments, the supercharged feelings and gestures…form had to break down under these excesses! What could be the value of music in which the relation of idea to form is lost in the swamps of expressivity? We seem to confront the end of a world which sickens through its wealth, chokes on its abundance. Both the best and the worst that can befall it is infatuation, a sentimental apoplexy. Goodbye to this obese and degenerate romanticism!


If the works insist on surviving, they cannot be banished. You dismiss them? Abruptly? They nevertheless remain.

Now that the period of cleansing is over we see that it has left some skeletons behind. After a period of inattention that which is authentic emerges once more, forces us to reconsider our views, and insistently questions our negligence. Were we guilty or were we superficial? Can we justify ourselves? This work was preserved by pious but fanatically greedy hands (I mean hands without the generosity that paves the way to the future by means of the past), monopolized by fidelity (at what point does loyalty become treason?). Presented in this manner, Mahler’s work could inspire great distrust, a distrust that even made us suspect that the composers of the Vienna school had succumbed to a sentimental, provincial attachment in admiring Mahler. At first glance the link between them and Mahler was not obvious while the antinomies were flagrantly clear.

But the moderns turned from asceticism to exuberance. Armed with this new perspective, they began to explore the past. They were informed by their recent experience which made them vigilant and careful. Tired of crude sensations, one-dimensional meanings, they dreamed of ambiguities—of a world where the categories were not so simple.

Order? Who needs this constraining notion?

All right. Let’s forget about all such restrictive ideas as order, the homogeneousness of ideas and style, and the clarity of musical structures. But is it so simple? Certainly not. Especially if one does not want to be influenced by external circumstances. How difficult it is, in the case of Mahler, to steer free of the legend which stubbornly mingles his life and his work—the melodrama and the agony. Let us give the enthusiastic exegesis of his work its due and go on to confront directly the uneven monuments he left behind.

Mahler’s work makes us uneasy, in part because it seems to waver between sentimentality and irony, nostalgia and criticism. There is no real contradiction here: it is rather like the swing of a pendulum, a sudden change of light in which certain musical ideas that might otherwise be considered banal and superfluous become, under this exacting prism, indispensable revelations. Does Mahler still seem so banal (a view which was carried to the point of seeing his work as lacking in imagination) or is this banality not based on a sense of Mahler’s popular appeal? At first Mahler’s music would seem to depend on comfortable clichés, mawkish repetitions, and an entire landscape and a past that are remembered in vignettes. Some are delighted by this, while others find it irritating, but neither group can get beyond their first impression of Mahler’s work. This is merely an antechamber…

Yes, this “banal” material exists in Mahler’s work. Sometimes it may seem limited and excessively predictable: the source hardly changes from one work to the next. Once we have cited the march and all the military or funereal music that derives from it, the dances in 3/4 time (Ländler, waltzes, or minuets), the whole provincial repertory of folklore, we have just about covered all of Mahler’s “borrowed” and easily identified thematic sources. From his first work to his last, there is one constant: the clichés Mahler inherited from either “elevated” or “low brow” musical history.

In contrast to this reservoir of clichés, we find an array of grand theatrical gestures—a heroic and sublime music of the spheres and of infinity. The worst that can be said of this element of Mahler’s work is that some of its intensity has faded. But how can one account for the fact that gestures which seem dead in the work of other composers retain their power to move us in Mahler’s work? Could it be that, despite their triumphal appearance, these gestures cover an enormous insecurity? How far we are, when we listen to Mahler, from self-assured romanticism—proud and heroic. And how far we are from the naïveté of romanticism’s first approaches to folklore. No one can fail to hear the nostalgia in the world of Mahler; but in his music, for better or worse, nostalgia is modified by criticism, even sarcasm. Sarcasm? Isn’t that the ultimate example of an unmusical characteristic? We know that music likes undisguised meanings and lends itself badly to the interplay of irony and sincerity. One can never tell: Is this true, is that a caricature? If there is a libretto, one can orient oneself without too much difficulty. But what about pieces of “pure” music?

Ambiguity or banter can only really be understood against the background of a text based on well-recognized conventions. Mahler often needs to do little else than distort these conventions (through exaggerated or misplaced emphases, condensed or stretched-out tempos or unusual, prismatic, or fragmented instrumentation) to play his game of see-saw. The aggressive humor of such music envelops everything in an unreal, ghostly color, as if the subject had been X-rayed and now appeared to us as a sooty jumble of boughs and branches which both alarms and defeats us: a world of fleshless, rattling bones, realistically evoked by the bizarre, even grotesque combinations of sounds; a world born of a nightmare and ready at any time to return to it; a world of shadows—colorless, without substance, of ashes. How sharply and rigorously this world is captured, this spectral universe where the memory falls apart.

Are we drawn to Mahler’s music only because he knew how to convey accurately certain sentimental, bizarre reflections on a damned world? Would that be enough to retain and enthrall us? The reason for the current fascination with Mahler surely lies in the hypnotic force of a vision which passionately embraced the end of an age—an age that had to die so that another could arise from its ashes. Mahler’s music describes the myth of the Phoenix almost too literally.

But, beyond this vision of dusk, a more surprising upheaval in symphonic music is brought about by Mahler’s work. With determination, sometimes even with savagery, he attacked the hierarchy of forms which had been fluid before his time but which were now congealed in rigid and decorative conventions. Was it the theater that drove him toward this dramatic destruction of constricting forms? Just as Wagner overthrew the artificial form of the opera in order to create a drama of demiurgical proportions, so too Mahler revolutionized the symphony, devastated that all too orderly terrain, and imbued that most logical of forms with his demons. Isn’t one in fact reminded of Beethoven—the barbarian who in his time sowed disorder and chaos, and who, for the first time, pushed the musical forms in which he was trained beyond their “reasonable” possibilities.

Can we speak of an extra-musical dimension to Mahler’s work? Some have done so and here the “programs” Mahler wrote for his music—and which he later repudiated—have led to much misunderstanding about the descriptive intentions of his work. For such intentions would have been neither an innovation of Mahler’s nor something peculiar to him. On the contrary they were typical of an era which (following Berlioz and Liszt) hoped to excite the musical imagination through images which were mainly borrowed from literature but were also derived from the visual arts, from an unequal competition with painting.

Mahler’s extra-musical dimension abandoned these borderline pursuits and affected the very substance of music, its organization, its structure, and its power. His vision and his technique possess the epic dimension of narrative, and Mahler is like a novelist in his methods and his use of material. He still called his pieces symphonies; he retained the nomenclature of the movements (scherzo, slow movement, finale) though their number and order vary from work to work. The occasional intrusion of vocal elements at various points in the symphony, the use of such theatrical effects as placing instruments off-stage, were two of Mahler’s innovations which ate away at the notion of distinct musical genres. Only the novelist works in a form elastic enough to permit him to play such games with his material. Released from the visual theater (his professional obsession), Mahler surrendered himself almost frenetically to this freedom to mix the genres. He refused to distinguish between materials of differing quality and mixed all the basic material at his disposal in a carefully controlled construction that was nonetheless detached from irrelevant formal limitations. Homogeneity, hierarchy—absurd notions in his case—are disregarded; he transmits his vision to us with all the elements of nobility, triviality, tension, and relaxation that it entails. He makes no choices, for to choose would be treason: he would betray his fundamental plan.

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