Mahler Now

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler; drawing by David Levine

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…

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