Sunday, June 29, 2014

Another Look at Mahler

As part of my symphony project, I have been listening to a lot of symphonies. The nine (or ten?) symphonies by Mahler I have been familiar with since the 1970s, though I probably know the first, fifth and ninth better than the others. But in the interest of doing a thorough examination of the repertoire I have been listening to the Mahler symphonies through in order--yes, even the interminable Symphony No. 3:

which is well over an hour and a half in duration. I am only up to the Symphony No. 6, but I wanted to share some thoughts on the way as I think my current opinion has firmed up.

Yes, my views on composers, pieces, instruments, styles and just about everything else connected with music change over time. I won't say "evolve" because I think that is a faulty metaphor. I do think that my views are sounder as I age, though.

In the 70s, as I was becoming familiar with Mahler, I greatly enjoyed listening to his music. I didn't know anyone in my circles that was not a big Mahler fan and I had a trumpet-playing roommate that was mad about him. I went through a long period where, while I did a prodigious amount of playing, I did much less listening than in my earlier years and so, for many years, I hardly listened to Mahler. Then, recently, whenever I put him on, I developed a bit of an antipathy to the music. I wasn't a Mahler fan anymore.

So I was curious to see what would happen when I sat down to listen to the symphonies systematically. They are, of course, stunning pieces of music: powerful, colorful masterpieces of orchestration and symphonic drama. So is there a problem? Well, yes. These pieces are undoubtedly a pinnacle of the symphonic repertoire, but at the same time, they are historic in that they are of a time and that time is past. What do I mean?

The problem for me is that they no longer sound, to me, authentic, in the sense of genuine, direct human expression. They sound, artificial, contrived, excessive as if someone is trying just too hard to convince you of something and, in the interests of doing so, keeps throwing more and more and more stuff at you. As I got halfway through the last movement of the Symphony No. 6 last night I found myself uttering derisive guffaws at the sheer absurdity of the piled-up monstrosities of theme and orchestration:

Listen to part of the movement from around the 14 minute mark. I found myself muttering "sure, throw another cymbal crash, even more screeching from the violins, reinforced by the piccolos and you just can't have too much rumbling in the cellos and double basses." At some point the music seemed to pass over any reasonable proportion or sense and become mere wild frenzy. Sure, we run into this in the symphonies of Pettersson as well, but in his case, it seems to come from some real inner suffering. With Mahler, he seems to be doing it just because he can.

Mind you, I want to hasten to say that this may be partly because of our, or mine at least, perspective. I said that this music was of a time and I think that the horrors of the 20th century, especially as they have been captured in the symphonic music of, for example, Shostakovich and Pettersson, makes Mahler harder to accept. The egoism of the music starts to grate on one: who else would seriously nickname their first symphony the "Titan"?

Another curious thing, after I stopped the finale of the Symphony No. 6 halfway through, I decided to check on a couple of other symphonies, just for perspective. I put on the Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius. This comes out of the grand 19th century tradition as well, does it share the failings of Mahler? Well, no, not to my ears. It sounds wonderfully original and fresh and has a great finale that does not seem to need to descend to throwing the kitchen sink into the mix to make a point:

Then I listened to the first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 to confirm:

I have to say that, great as Mahler is, I'm afraid that Shostakovich has spoiled me: he is an even greater symphonic composer (well, if we set aside nos 2 and 3). And, without digging too deep into the details, there is some way in which the later symphonies of Shostakovich make, again to my ears, the earlier ones of Mahler sound unconvincing, somehow. It seems clear that Mahler wanted us to believe something very strongly with his symphonies; the suppressed programs seem to show that. The problem is that I am unconvinced by what he wanted us to believe, vague as it was. The sheer grandiosity of these funeral marches leaves me cold. From World War I on, there were far too many senseless funerals and this is the wrong kind of music for them.

I will stop here in case I am getting too far from the point. My re-listening to Mahler shows me the amazing fertility of his imagination and astounding ability to command orchestral color and texture. But, apart from the occasional truly beautiful movement, I am not much in love with the music.

Let's end with possibly Mahler's most beautiful movement, the adagietto from the Symphony No. 5:


Maury said...

The discussion about Mahler and analysis provoked me to listen to a Bernstein DVD I have of him conducting the first 3 symphonies. BTW the Titan reference of Sym 1 is not to the Greek gods but a novel by Jean Paul. I have included a link to the wiki article on it as it is rather interesting.

Anyway listening to the Sym 1 after a number of years was interesting. Per your comment on the Sym 6 finale, that is close to what I heard. Every gesture and musical punch is telegraphed either by repetition or by stretching it out in almost cartoonish ways. Also the tunes are mostly light operetta in the first 3 movements. The suppressed Blumine movement was even more operetta like. Then Mahler remembers the novel and tacks on the sturm und drang finale.

But even as late as the 9th Sym the second movement is the same light song material with repeated telegraphing of every aspect with more and more orchestral coloring. In the last adagio the repetition is telegraphed as weltschmerz and resignation with the endless varied orchestrations of that melodic 4 note turn.

That this was an intentional aspect of Mahler's music in indicated by its sudden dropping out in Das Lied von der Erde and to a large extent in the Symphony 10. But thanks for pushing me to figure out what was turning me off his music. I don't think I can listen to Sym 1 ever again. BTW this aspect is probably why many people like it because they find it easier to follow once they get used to the style.

Bryan Townsend said...

Interesting, Maury. This is an old, old post, but re-reading it, I don´t think I would change anything. Most of my commentators disagree with me regarding Mahler.

Maury said...

I went on and listened to the Sym 2 on the DVD. Yes there are good things that Mahler does in that the music moves forward and much of the time has a clear direction. Where it is going off the rails has to do more with higher level aspects and rather subjective issues of taste and balance instead of chord progression or harmonies.

This is likely what Mahler's contemporaries were bothered by with comments about tastelessness or no talent. For example in the Sym 2 there are seemingly endless sequences of cymbal crashes. One outburst occurs at the beginning section of the first movement! and another after Urlicht. Also Mahler's use of trumpets would have seemed vulgar and excessive for contemporaries. He uses them both for traditional maestosos but also for what are close to mariachi croonings as in the Sym 2 scherzo movement.

Audiences today have lost much historical tradition due to the two Wars. The rise of popular music means that vulgar excess is rather a feature than a bug. But yes I don't think these aspects plus the constant "mugging" at every musical punchline bother contemporary audiences in a pop music age. It is people out of step with the current culture that find it tiresome and amusical. I just found it interesting analytically because this gets at areas of composition that are almost opaque to typical musicology.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, the details of aesthetic taste tend to be neglected in the current world of musicology. I think this was something I was trying to get at in this post: