Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Symphony Guide: Mahler, Symphony No. 6

I'm grateful to Tom Service's weekly symphony guide at the Guardian, not just because of the pieces he chooses that I am unfamiliar with, but also because it usually gives me something to write about on Tuesdays. This week the piece is the Symphony No. 6 by Mahler which certainly gives Tom lots of room for his brand of "purple prose". Tom begins by citing some of the myths and controversies surrounding the piece:
Mahler’s A-minor Sixth Symphony is a mythical piece. Mahler may or may not have subtitled it “Tragic” at some stage of its composition, and it could, possibly, contain music that consecrates and depicts his wife Alma. It may be “the first nihilist work in the history of music”, as conductor Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler described it. Conductor and friend of Mahler’s Bruno Walter found the piece too expressively dark for him to conduct, since it “ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul”. Most significantly, it’s a work you are always told is dangerously, prophetically autobiographical, above all in its final fourth movement, that half-hour-long hallucinogenic, emotional nightmare-scape. When he revised the piece in 1906, Mahler deleted the third of the movement’shammer-blows – a literal thumping of a gigantic box with a wooden sledge-hammer, as you can see in the Vienna Philharmonic's performance! – supposedly because he was trying to avoid a three-fold jinx of fate. His revisions were futile – the next year in 1907, Mahler had to cope with the death of his daughter, the end of his relationship with the Vienna State Opera, and the diagnosis of the fatal heart condition that would kill him four years later.
I always find this sort of thing oppressive and misleading, both the accretion of the myths and misunderstandings and the effort that goes into trying to correct them. I reference this post I put up on the Quartet No. 11 by Shostakovich which is prone to attract comments like "In this quartet, Shostakovich portrays his fears with dark and grim moods." Ironically, that is exactly the kind of statement that the Mahler symphony attracts:
this symphony has a cathartic and even life-affirming power, precisely because it confronts us with the limits of musical and symphonic existence, and creates sonic extremities that are still, more than a century on, unique to this score.
What I did in my post on the Shostakovich quartet was to simply ignore all the emotive metaphors and just look at the music. I would like to do something like this with the Mahler symphony and perhaps one day I will, but it is so huge that it would take an inordinate amount of time just to do a rather superficial examination so I won't take that task up today.

But what I would like to do is set aside those parts of Tom's essay that just deal with debunking the myths surrounding the symphony and pull out those other parts that talk about the symphony directly. Here are some of the comments he makes:
there’s no other symphony in Mahler’s canon like the Sixth that is so much about a direct negotiation with, rather than an obliteration or sublimation of, the conventions of symphonic form. Yes, it’s conceived on a gigantic scale, but this piece is the first four-movement, purely instrumental symphony that Mahler had composed since his First
What does this mean, exactly? I think that all he is saying here, mind you with the jargon of "cultural theory" such as the use of confusing terms like "negotiation with",  "obliteration" and "sublimation", is that Mahler moves toward a more traditional concept of symphony than he had since his First Symphony. Why didn't he just say that? It obliterates meaning to talk about a symphony "negotiating", "obliterating" or "sublimating" anything. A symphony does not have agency. Composers do, however, but if you say it is the composer who is "negotiating" something then people like me are going to say, "where is the evidence?" And, of course, there isn't any. These are just the twisted tropes of cultural theory and lead to nothing but confusion. Here is another description:
if you hear the piece thinking only of the implacable darkness with which it ends, you miss the true drama, which is that a completely different emotional outcome is possible until the final few minutes. Everything is at stake right until the end of this music, and it’s the fact that this symphony consistently strives for a victory that it doesn’t ultimately win that makes it so emotionally devastating; in that sense, this symphony is the exact opposite of “nihilistic”.)
All this is really just metaphor and largely meaningless metaphor at that. Yes, you can say that a piece of music is "dark", but when you go much beyond that simple level of metaphor you are just spinning whimsy out of nothing. What could it possibly mean to say that "everything is at stake" with this music? I honestly haven't the faintest idea what he could be talking about and of course he references nothing in the music to support it. How can a piece of orchestral music "strive for victory"? Over whom? And how? In this passage he does actually reference something in the music:
in this piece, it’s how Mahler maintains an abstract musical momentum over the whole structure, even while, moment by moment, his music lurches from the emotional abyss to the mountaintop, and in some passages, can even contain music that sounds like it’s happening outside the frame of the rest of the piece. That’s literally true in the cowbells at the still centre of the first movement; a vision of a world of unsullied nature brought into the concert hall, a prelapsarian pastoralism Mahler then wrenches back into the symphonic present tense of the desperate struggle of the rest of the movement.
What is an "abstract musical momentum"? I understand momentum, but how could it be abstract? And how do you depict an emotional abyss, or mountaintop, in music? Is it all about the crescendo? What makes writing for cowbells "outside the frame of the rest of the piece"? Especially as they return a couple of times? After all, the pastoral has long been found in symphonic writing, not least in Beethoven's Symphony No. 6. Here is one of the most gibberish-filled statements:
it’s in the finale in which the alchemy of the musical micro- and macro-structures is most vivid, and in which all of the major moments of this huge movement’s architecture are experienced as a twist of the symphonic knife in your very being.
I don't understand one bit of this unless he is simply trying to say that Mahler manages to write a finale that nicely sums up the whole piece.

My problem with this whole approach, endemic in most music criticism and a lot of writing on Mahler, is that it is so remote from the music and so taken with its own over-heated metaphors that it is mostly useless in trying to understand the music. I think the real irony here is that, just as with some of the symphonies by Shostakovich, which had a "socialist realist" ideology imposed on them, so current cultural theory and the demands of journalism tend to impose another kind of ideology on some music. Heroic struggle, especially if it is really our heroic struggle, is just the thing to make the music more appealing to our narcissistic generation. As Tom says, "I think the piece should feel as if it’s us in the audience who are the heroes and heroines who are not just depicted but implicated in the symphony’s drama."

Someday I will have to sit down with the score and have a look at this piece, though its very length makes that a rather arduous task! Until then, I will just have to go with my impressions of the piece from listening to it a couple of times: it has a lot of marvelous music, but goes on entirely too long and often seems hysterical and overbearing.


2 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

Sounds like Tom is going too far with his metaphors. It's been a while since I've listened to this symphony (or most other Mahler symphonies really). I don't know what it is that makes Mahler not as interesting to me as lets say Shostakovich. It might be that his music doesn't keep me interested for such lengthy periods of time. However, I haven't really listened to each symphony more than 1-2 times so listening to the symphonies more times would probably be needed in making a more accurate judgement. Needless to say I don't remember most of the content in the symphonies.

Bryan Townsend said...

The problem of how to write about music for the general public is a really difficult one. I obviously solve it by not even trying. If I need to use technical terms, I just do. I read one spectacular essay recently that gave a stunning description of the music without using one technical term. It was the liner notes to the CD of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto. Brilliant writing. But it made me uneasy, nonetheless, because it was, of course, all metaphor. Just well-chosen ones. But you still don't actually know anything about the music.