Mahler revisited

Three books on Mahler, one reprint of an old one and two new studies, have seen the light:

Gustav Mahler

by Bruno Walter, with a biographical essay by Ernst Křenek, and an introduction by Erik Ryding

Dover, 236 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Gustav Mahler’s Symphonic Landscapes

by Thomas Peattie

Cambridge University Press, 220 pp., $99.99

Mahler’s Symphonic Sonatas

by Seth Monahan

Oxford University Press, 278 pp., $45.00

A review can be found at:

The Meaning of Mahler

Mahler is often depicted as either one of the two last Germanic / symphonic composers (together with Richard Strauss) or the progenitor of atonal modernism in Schoenberg, or a combination of both, while in reality he was a category of his own, his music a combination of very diverse material from very different sources. There is much to admire in his music, as there is much to criticize, but in all respects this impressive body of work is a great wealth of musical experience and a stimulating challenge for conductors.

Had he only composed ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, his stature as an important composer in the classical repertoire would be entirely assured, and we are lucky to have the 1st, 4th symphony, the ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’, and a number of movements from the symphonies which are pieces of genius in themselves, like the Adagietto from the 5th, the Scherzo from the 2nd, and – above all – the incredible 1st mvts from the 9th and the 10th. In comparison with music from an earlier time, Mahler’s works suffer from the uneven quality of their material, the long-windedness, the often incoherent structure, and hollow grandiloquence, but the beauty of so many moments and the effectiveness of the scoring are redeeming features. Interestingly, this music expresses the anxiety of the 20th century as a whole much better than the music this age produced in terms of modernism, because it always wants to ‘say’ things in a communicative manner, which was discarded in the later modernism which strove after ‘objective sound’. Even people, not very well educated in classical music but with some appetite in its ‘messages’, immediately feel in Mahler’s works that they are addressing the inner experience of modern times. In this sense, Mahler is much more a 20C composer than, for instance, Webern, Boulez or Stockhausen.

Mahler enthusiasts defend his banalities often with the assertion that these rather embarrassing passages are meant as irony, a bit of music in inverted commas. But irony in music is very tricky: it heavily depends upon context and with the context of grave seriousness characterizing the majority of Mahler’s symhonies, these ‘ironies’ do not quite work. They stem from the wish to include the ‘fullness of life’, which indeed holds a lot of things we would not normally place on the altar of High Art.

It is regrettable that Mahler felt he had to continue his conducting career when it was no longer really necessary from a financial point of view. After his retirement from  the Vienna State Opera he could have withdrawn into a composing career, instead of exerting himself again in the struggle to produce exemplary performances of other people’s music. This was his undoing: an ignored serious throat infection eventually did him in. Both Mahler and Strauss were brilliant conductors, but the work of both suffers from a certain lack of reflection: in a situation of serious self-criticism, they could have detected and overcome the trivialities which are not ironies but blemishes of otherwise brilliant works. They produce that disappointing perfume of mediocrity, which can be amply found in other, so much less good music. “It is better for the commonplace to be definitely segregated into a separate genre, as in the case of Sibelius, than for it to be a subtle but all-pervading aroma, as in the case of Richard Strauss” (Constant Lambert in ‘Music Ho!’ – Faber & Faber 1934).


© John Borstlap / 2015

2 Responses to Mahler revisited

  1. barry guerrero says:

    Yes, I’m sure that John Borstlap will someday prove to be a far less flawed composer than Gustav Mahler. No doubt.

    • John says:

      Opinions and observations can stand on their own, and compared with one’s own experiences, and agreed or disagreed with, that’s all.

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