Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Never-Ending Project

Either the symphony or the opera is arguably the greatest musical form or genre ever created. Lots would argue for the opera because it has all the instrumental resources of the symphony plus voices and a narrative. For me that complicates things rather too much. My personal taste leans toward the symphony and away from the opera. Hence my symphony listening project, that I refer to fairly regularly here.

I thought I was coming to a conclusion yesterday as I finally got around to re-listening to the Symphony No. 9 of Mahler, but suddenly today I realize that there are quite a few gaps I need to fill in. I never intended to listen to every symphony, just the ones that mattered. But there are quite a few that "matter" in the 20th century that I am barely aware of! For example, at this very moment I am listening to the Symphony No. 4, subtitled "Los Angeles" of Arvo Pärt:

Until five minutes ago, I didn't even realize this piece existed (it was premiered in 2010). Very interesting music. Also just ran across the name of Eduard Tubin (1905 - 1982), an Estonian composer transplanted to Sweden, who wrote eleven symphonies. Then there is, of course, Shostakovich's Polish friend, Mieczysław Weinberg, whom I have mentioned a few times on this blog, but I certainly haven't listened to his symphonies in any systematic way. I may be a ways from being done (if ever)!

As I said, yesterday I got around to a re-listen to the Mahler Symphony No. 9. I'm sorry, but I just don't like Mahler very much. At the risk of offending some, I find his music somehow neurotic, insincere and false. I don't know how I would go about showing exactly why I think this, and I apologize to Mahler lovers for that omission! But it is an impression that I have whenever I listen to the symphonies. The gestures always seem too much, too protracted and without real foundation. Then I put on the Symphony No. 7 of Bruckner for confirmation and, as before, I prefer Bruckner. He may have been a simple, eccentric soul, too enamored of Wagner, but his music does seem to have the sincerity and authenticity (sorry to have to use that much-maligned word) that Mahler lacks. By "authenticity" I just mean that Bruckner's gestures don't seem calibrated just to punch certain buttons in the audience's response, but just flow from his emotional makeup. I don't quite know how to go about evaluating and substantiating this response. But it is the one I have.

While I have you here, let me just put up a couple of those symphonies that I have got to get around to. First, here is the Symphony No. 4 of Eduard Tubin:

Almost reminds you of Vaughan Williams, doesn't it? And here is the Lento from the Symphony No. 21 of Mieczysław Weinberg:

UPDATE: I think the word that correctly describes how I perceive the symphonies of Mahler is that I sense that they are "contrived". Too much effect for what supports it. 


Maury said...

I think "contrived" is probably a pretty good term. The problem is bigger than Mahler of course since inflation was endemic to Romanticism as seen even in the Beethoven and Schubert Sym 9s. If the Mahler symphonies were all 2/3 their length they would be better for it. Like you I went from sort of Mahlerite to mostly not except for the late works Sym 9, 10 and Das Lied where at least the resignation and anger seem genuine. Mahler is also excessively pictorial as seen most clearly in the first 4 symphonies - he would have made an excellent film composer. I have no idea what music he would have composed during/ after WW1 if he had lived. His reputation was probably helped by his premature death.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Maury, and welcome to the Music Salon! Very astute comment and not just because you agree with me. Yes, I am quite fond of Das Lied von der Erde as well, for the reason you mention.