MAHLER CYCLE 2011
WILL THE REAL GUSTAV MAHLER PLEASE STAND UP?
“The difference between Beethoven and Mahler is the difference between watching a great man walk down the street and watching a great actor play the part of a great man walking down the street.” Aaron Copland, 1941
Copland's statement may shock devotees of Mahler's music. It seems to belittle Mahler's achievement and to cast doubt on his sincerity - where Beethoven was truly great, Mahler merely imitates the outward signs of greatness. But I take Copland to mean something else - that Mahler's world was quite different to Beethoven's and that, in a later age, it was no longer possible to write music without a counterpoint of self-doubt. Certainly, Mahler's music suggests as much. Interspersed with the triumphal endings of the first three symphonies, the Fifth and the Eighth, are the quiet and resigned withdrawals that conclude the Fourth, the Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde, to say nothing of the nihilism of the Sixth or the hypothetical air of the Seventh. Mahler's music makes some overwhelmingly affirmative statements that sweep us up in their powerful current. 'Believe,' the music seems to demand at such moments, 'this is so!'. Yet at other times his music speaks in a more conditional, less emphatic tone. 'What if this were the case?', it ventures: 'Might this not, after all, be so?'. Or even, as Adorno said of the Fourth Symphony, 'none of what you hear now is true.'
A century after Mahler's death, this unique mix of passionate avowal and terrifying doubt, heroic striving and ascetic withdrawal, still resonates powerfully with contemporary audiences. But Copland's comment serves to remind us that it was not always so, and that the very aspects of Mahler we value were those most fiercely attacked by critics in his own lifetime. Mahler was accused of many grave musical errors - over-orchestrating, formlessness, theatricality, unoriginality, arbitrary juxtapositions of mood and material - but perhaps the most serious was that his music was insincere. That might seem an odd charge to us, for whom uncompromising honesty seems like a touchstone of Mahler's art. Yet the Berlin critic, Paul Moos, writing in 1897, described the composer as 'a musical comedian, a practical joker of the worst kind, a man who imitates and pretends feelings', and Robert Hirschfeld complained to his Viennese readers in 1904 that Mahler's 'self-complacent music keeps posturing as if in front of a mirror, this pose for sublimity, that for passion, this for renunciation, that for remorse.'
We might recoil from such views, but we should be cautious about rejecting them out of hand. However far from our own, they express a dominant view of Mahler's music at the time, and one repeated regularly by many critics. Mahler's music perplexed his contemporaries, not least because of its eclectic mix of materials and its rapid changes of musical voice from one moment to the next. As Max Loewengard put in, in 1905, 'one suspects inauthenticity in an art that appears simultaneously naïve and profound.' Some of the contrasts of Mahler's music were no doubt heard as more extreme in his own time, and their capacity to shock or bewilder audiences has certainly ameliorated over time. We are less disturbed, for example, by the mix of dances in Mahler's scherzos, because we are far less sensitive to the different 'accents' implied by his odd assortment of Austrian Ländler and Viennese waltzes. After a century of montage and collage in the arts, and with channel-hopping now the default mode of cultural experience, Mahler's sudden changes of tone might seem inoffensive rather than 'inauthentic'.
So we should read Mahler's early critics with interest, because they alert us to contours of his music that the passing of time has smoothed out and filled in. It is not that these commentators were necessarily ignorant or insensitive, but that the attributes they heard in Maher's music were valued negatively. What was one to make of a modern young composer, a contemporary of Richard Strauss, who for nearly 15 years wrote songs to texts drawn exclusively from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, an old volume of folk poetry published nearly a century earlier? Its carnivalesque collection of characters seemed to allow Mahler to speak in a myriad of voices, but not one of them his own. Instead, we hear the voices of children, angels, saints, fools, soldiers and their lovers, birds and animals. The naïveté of the poems seemed to be reproduced in Mahler's settings, with simple two-part textures and melodic lines drawn from the world of old rustic dances, yet framed by an orchestral and harmonic style that suggested the commentary of a distanced, modern onlooker.
Worse still, this raggle-taggle world invaded Mahler's symphonies. The Austro-German symphony was the most prestigious public form of instrumental music; in Vienna, it was defined by the constant presence of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The ferocity with which this conservative culture was policed is evident from the fate of Anton Bruckner, a composer whose self-confidence as a composer was all but destroyed by the Viennese press. Mahler's offence was that his desire 'to include the whole world' in his symphonies manifested itself as a heterogeneous mix of musical styles and genres that seemed to threaten the supposed purity of the form. One moment abstract, the next programmatic, listeners were bewildered by the profusion of characters and different musical voices, and the sense of never knowing quite how a Mahler symphony would proceed. Though taking place under the generic heading of 'Symphony', Mahler's music often seemed to behave more like opera, with sudden reversals of fate that were hard to follow in the absence of words or clear programmes. Where programmatic guides were provided, they seemed to confuse things further; when Mahler later removed them, frustrated that they were being read too literally, listeners resented the sense that a story was being told but that the composer was withholding the key to its understanding.
It is certainly true that Mahler's music deploys a bewildering variety of voices. The singer in the Rückert-Lieder speaks with an intimacy that implies you are the only other person present, while the symphonic music often seems to speak to the entire world. At times, musical stories are related with the wide-eyed wonder of a child who wakes to find the world transfigured, or as if recounting a dream. At its most sentimental it echoes the fairy-tale world of children's picture books, yet in the next moment it marches with gritted teeth and unleashes terrifying violence. In the course of a single symphony, Mahler's tone moves between the deliberately naïve and the sophisticated, the heartfelt and the ironic, the sublime and the banal, the sentimental and the brutal, the catatonic and the loquacious, the collective and the solitary, the rustic and the urban, the grotesque and the paradisial. It evokes the music of street bands and Bach cantatas, country dances and military marches, the gentle clanking of cowbells and the sound of distant fanfares. It can speak with the accent of the Austro-German symphony or the dialect of Bohemian folk music. It can withdraw into utter solitude, or resound with a universal voice. It is no wonder that his symphonies have been likened to huge novels, containing within them all the diverse characters of a work by Dostoyevsky or Balzac's La comédie humaine. (The second half of the First Symphony was originally sub-titled 'commedia humana', an apt label for Mahler's work as a whole.)
We should remember that Mahler was a man of the theatre who, for the 30 years of his professional life, spent most of his time and energy conducting in the opera house. He knew how to create an effect, to stage a scene and to pace a drama. But, like anyone who has worked in the theatre, he had an acute sense that all art is ultimately artifice and make-believe. His favourite writers were those whose works underline their own fictionality - from the play of illusion and reality in Cervantes's Don Quixote and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, to the fantastical tales of ETA Hoffmann and Jean Paul. He had no sympathy for the move towards realism in late 19th-century literature, and always felt more at home in art that played at the borders between the real and the imaginary (he rated Humperdinck's fairytale opera Hänsel und Gretel far higher than the latest verismo works he conducted by Mascagni and Charpentier). There is a quality to Mahler's music, after the dust of the drama has settled, that recalls the enchanted forest of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The 'theatrical' element that so incensed his critics, and which they judged as 'insincerity', stems from the same self-conscious insight as Shakespeare's masterpiece - that more truth is told in fiction than in all manner of realism.
Centenary years are often a time to reappraise a composer's work - to rehabilitate previously lost or neglected pieces, to reconsider how we place their music - as well as to celebrate. Nobody could imagine, even before Mahler's double anniversary of 2010 and 2011, that he was a neglected composer in need of special pleading. But 2011 might give us pause for thought, inviting us to think not so much about a single moment in history (Mahler's death, aged 50, on 18 May 1911) so much as the course of the century since. It may be Mahler's centenary, but we are the ones celebrating it, which means the real focus is our Mahler. And what is striking, looking back across those years, is how we have made Mahler quite differently at different times - literally, in terms of how his music has been performed, but also in terms of the sense we have made of it, the way we have heard it and thought about it. It should be clear, from my consideration of some of Mahler's early critics, that the elements of his music that they castigated we now hear in positive terms.
The history of recording, which was so instrumental in bringing Mahler's music to a wider public, gives us plenty of evidence of how our Mahler may be quite different to that of earlier generations. A single example will suffice: recordings of the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, made by Mahler's close associates Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter, take around seven and eight minutes respectively; according to markings on orchestral parts used in a performance conducted by Mahler, the composer's own performance lasted around seven and a half minutes. Yet more recent performances often take considerably longer, with Bernstein around 11 minutes, Karajan nearly 12 and Haitink approaching 15. There is considerable evidence, as Roger Norrington has recently advanced, that Mahler would have expected to hear a completely different sound from an orchestra in his time than we expect today. Irrespective of any questions of historical authenticity, of right and wrong, the point is that our Mahler probably sounds significantly different to that heard by his critics around 1900.
One can certainly exaggerate the neglect of Mahler in the decades after his death, but it is true that his musical world was out of step with the mood of the times after 1918 as much as after 1945. In both cases, the prevailing aesthetic of detachment and ascetic objectivity proved inimical to Mahler's romantic world. Why that began to change in the late 1950s and early 1960s has more to do with social history than Mahler's music. It certainly had to do with the availability of commercial recordings of his music, pioneered by conductors like Dimitri Mitropoulos, Jascha Horenstein and Sir John Barbirolli. Frustrated by the misunderstanding of listeners, Mahler once lamented to his wife Alma: 'Would that I could perform my symphonies for the first time 50 years after my death.' With the Mahler 'renaissance' of the 1960s, his wish seems to have been fulfilled, in a decade that saw the recording of the first complete Mahler cycles by Bernstein, Solti, Haitink and Kubelik.
Fifty years on, Mahler has become central repertoire for every major symphony orchestra around the world and a significant proportion of conductors. Few classical composers enjoy greater popularity. For better or worse, Mahler sounds familiar even to those coming to it for the first time, because his musical vocabulary was, for decades, a staple resource of film composers. For some, this is a source of regret, because it brings with it a tendency to make Mahler a 'soft focus' sentimental composer that he never was, evident in a performance style that accentuates the richness of sound and romantic lyricism at the expense of the formal disjunctions and ironic tone. But what makes Mahler's music so distinctive is precisely that he does both - that his music is effusive, passionate, searingly lyrical and, at the same time, fragmented, satirical and self-conscious. It is testimony to the richness of his music that he has been such a significant figure to so many composers of the 20th century, from Schoenberg (to whom he gave his close personal support), Berg and Webern (who both worshipped him), to a surprisingly diverse group of composers since, including Shostakovich, Britten, Berio and Ligeti.
Perhaps it is this many-sided character to the music that fuels our obsession with Mahler the man. Our interest in his biography seems to grow unabated and by far the majority of words written about Mahler are about his life rather than his music. The monumental and unsurpassable biography of the composer, by Henry-Louis de La Grange, runs to nearly 5,000 pages. Of course, this fascination was fuelled by Mahler himself. He subscribed fully to the romantic idea that art is made from the life of the artist and, in comments to friends, letters and annotations on his scores, he encouraged listening to his music as a kind of autobiography, as Berlioz had before him. 'I have written into them everything that I have experienced and endured', he said of his first two symphonies, to his confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner. And of course, Mahler's life lends itself to the telling. From very humble origins as one of 14 children, born to German-speaking Jewish Czech parents, in an outlying province of the old Habsburg empire, this shy child grew up to become, in the face of constant opposition, much of it anti-Semitic, one of the most distinguished musicians in Europe. He was Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the age of 37, and, after transforming that institution, ten years later took on a similar role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Shortly before his death he had bought a plot of land in Semmering in the hills south of Vienna, suggesting he had no intention of making a permanent home in New York. What might have been his future, or what music he might have written had he lived another ten or 20 years, we will never know.
Which brings us back to Copland's comment, to the suspicion of Mahler's early critics that he was being somehow insincere, and the implication of my title, that faced with the plural voices of the music itself, 100 years of reception history, changing performance styles and contexts for hearing his music, any sense of a 'real' Mahler is rather elusive. The music is not likely to settle the matter either, precisely because it is less concerned with expressing identities than forging them anew. Reading his biography or his letters, the impressions of colleagues or critics, locates him in the material world, in a real time and place. It reminds us that he lived, like any one of us (almost). But it also reminds us that his music, though related to that life in countless ways, is at the same time quite different. Art sparks across the gap between the two, but it transforms the materials of life rather than reproduces them. In this centenary year, Mahler will be played in concert halls around the world. At the end of his monumental works, with their tales of heroism, sorrow, struggle and triumph, the momentary vacuum will be filled by torrents of applause. Hundreds of miles and 100 years away, in a small wooden hut in the woods, sits a diminutive man, 'thin, pale, slight of stature, the steep forehead of his long face framed in jet-black hair, his eyes full of meaning behind his glasses, lines of sadness and humour furrowing his countenance' (Bruno Walter). Between the commotion of one and the loneliness of the other, stretches an infinite chasm of silence.
© Julian Johnson