This post originally appeared on WETA, 4.28.09, as the introduction to the Mahler Survey
The Mahler Survey at a quick glance:
Perhaps this has to do with his music: intensely personal—like Bruckner’s—these symphonies (and here they differ from other, also intensely personal musical works) often stand and fall by the performer’s accentuation or interpretation of these personal aspects. Beethoven can be glorious if only the score is being followed in detail (although I suppose great performances of any music always do more than that); just following Mahler’s score produces something like re-creating a Jackson Pollock by the paint-by-number™ system. Leonard Bernstein, for example, seemed to re-live Mahler when conducting his symphonies… ‘composing’ them himself in the moment, rather than just executing commands printed in ink.
What leads to an appreciation, perhaps even comprehension, of Mahler is in ways similar to that which leads to Bruckner: An understanding of his eschatology or—very roughly—his struggle with the questions that arise from it. Bruckner’s self-contained, solemn and confident music (despite Bruckner’s own distinct lack of any self-confidence) does not seek answers but lives in the happy knowledge of eschatological certainty as I have tried to describe elsewhere. Mahler himself was more confident as a person when it came to his position as a conductor or composer. But where he exceeded Bruckner in ‘professional confidence’, he lacked utterly the latter’s spiritual confidence. Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1897, although that likely means less about his attitude towards either Judaism or Christianity than his attitude towards getting the right job in the "Jewish-influence-cautious" (not to say anti-Semitic, outright) Vienna of his time. Pragmatic conversions were common back then—and surely less remarkable in every way than they might seem from our post- Third Reich perspective.
Still, we need not rely on biographers to tell us that Mahler was constantly in search of answers he never found (not even with Siegmund Freud whom he visited after his wife, Alma, had had more fun with Walter Gropius than is generally considered appropriate for a married woman)—we only need listen to his music. Mahler, as Bernhard Haitink puts it, "had a real talent for suffering." As in Wagner, there is much constant tension and anticipation of resolution in Mahler’s long-stranded music. But unlike Wagner, who simply continues in this way to one, final goal, Mahler really has no such goal, has no such determination in his music. That might not be obvious because his symphonies not only have a beginning and an end but tell stories as well, in addition to often having a very discernable, clear and down-right classical (if bloated) structure. The "Titan" of the First symphony or the hero of the Sixth or the story of the Second—"Resurrection"—Symphony are all told from beginning to end with a general arch guiding the musical action. But listen to the music itself. Like yarn that opens and untwines from both ends; like Will-O-the-Wisps erring about the night; like sparks from a bonfire; there is no determination or direction in the actual music. ‘Determination’ in Mahler is like a hammer hitting a pool of mercury. Hundreds of little mini-climaxes and relaxations ripple through the music in a fashion that makes Mahler’s symphonies so prone to the label "Angst-ridden" or Anxiety-riddled. And there are moments in his symphonies where the music seems more disoriented than a butterfly with ADD. In Bruckner’s music, there isn’t a single question mark. In Mahler, plenty.
One last time in classical music, Mahler raises the ‘grand musical statement’ to its full height– as Beethoven and Wagner (and Bruckner, nearly unknown to the wider music-loving world) had done before him. And then he proceeds to smash it. If Nietzsche, a child of these times, philosophizes with the mallet ("mit dem Holzhammer philosophieren"), Mahler, in a very similar way, composes with a mallet. (Literally, as it were, in the Sixth symphony.) Nowadays we might consider Mahler’s way of treating musical materials and traditions as "deconstructivism". But although there is a deliberate element of satirizing the material in his symphonies with banalities, non-sequiturs, irony, sarcasm, trivialisms—all amidst some of the most glorious and beautiful music and grandiloquent statements—he was probably less ‘deconstructing’ but instead ‘forced to take apart’. If he tip-toes on the line between satire and sincerity in his most romantic or jovial moments, it is not because he analyzed a certain popular mood or pointed to inherent ironies in society (in the way Shostakovich would approximate Mahler’s music thirty years later) but more likely because he did not trust these feelings himself. He was forced to expose the hollowness of the ‘great statement’, expose the implausibility and untenability of the very idea. Forced by an invisible drive towards the void… Mahler—as so often in his life—also in music vis-à-vis de rien.
He seems to mock in his music (mocking of love, of beauty, of tradition, and most of all: mocking of joy and lightheartedness) not as a jester with a mirror would, but a someone who cannot do otherwise, who is compelled for reasons perhaps not even entirely known to himself. He was very much a man of his time: less consciously visionary than sometimes assumed; never, however, a reactionary. A child of a time that was saturated with that ‘great nothingness’ (or ‘empty greatness’)—as exemplified in the great novels from about that time—especially Robert Musil’s (appropriately unfinished) Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften but also Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, James Joyce’s Ulysses and, later, Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg. A great nothingness that eventually accumulated—only three years after Mahler’s premature death—in the grandest empty statement of them all, World War I.