So, just back home from a week in New York… I’ve had two important American songwriters stuck in my head all week. The first is George Gershwin. The second, mostly because he was on the radio pretty much ubiquitously throughout the week, is Billy Joel.
This is a clip of that quintessential New Yorker, Leonard Bernstein, playing and conducting Gershwin’sRhapsody in Blue.
My friend, The Hinz, let me pillage his classical collection so that I could get a nice sampling of alternative recordings to my own classical collection. But now I’m trying to reorganize some of the files in my iTunes. I HATE iTunes. It’s nearly impossible to force it into the organizational structure that I would like it to have.
Has come? Had come, rather; was there all along, even as each bar of each symphony was being penned in that special psychic fluid of his. If ever there was a composer of his time it was Mahler, prophetic only in the sense that he already knew what the world would come to know and admit half a century later.
Basically, of course, all of Mahler’s music is about Mahler – which means simply that it is about conflict. Think of it: Mahler the Creator vs. Mahler the Performer; the Jew vs. the Christian; the Believer vs. the Doubter; the Naïf vs. the Sophisticate; the provincial Bohemian vs. the Viennese homme du monde; the Faustian Philosopher vs. the Oriental Mystic the Operatic Symphonist who never wrote an opera. But mainly the battle rages between Western Man at the turn of the century and the life of the spirit. Out of this opposition proceeds the endless list of antitheses – the whole roster of Yang and Yin – that inhabit Mahler’s music.
What was this duple vision of Mahler’s? A vision of his world, crumbling in corruption beneath its smug surface, fulsome, hypocritical, prosperous, sure of its terrestrial immortality, yet bereft of its faith in spiritual immortality. The music is almost cruel in its revelations: it is like a camera that has caught Western society in the moment of its incipient decay. But to Mahler’s own audiences none of this was apparent: they refused (or were unable) to see themselves mirrored in these grotesque symphonies. They heard only exaggeration, extravagance, bombast, obsessive length – failing to recognize these as symptoms of their own decline and fall. They heard what seemed like the history of German-Austrian music, recapitulated in ironic or distorted terms – and they called it shameful eclecticism. They heard endless, brutal, maniacal marches – but failed to see the imperial insignia, the Swastika (make your own list) on the uniforms of the marchers. They heard mighty Chorales, overwhelming brass hymns – but failed to see them tottering at an abyss of tonal deterioration. They heard extended, romantic love songs – but failed to understand that these Liebesträume were nightmares, as were those mad, degenerate Ländler.
But what makes the heartbreaking duplicity is that all these anxiety-ridden images were set up alongside images of the life of the spirit, Mahler’s anima, which surrounds, permeates, and floodlights these cruel pictures with the tantalizing radiance of how life could be. The intense longing for serenity is inevitably coupled with the sinister doubt that it can be achieved. Obversely, the innate violence of the music, the excesses of sentiment, the arrogance of establishment, the vulgarity of power-postures, the disturbing rumble of status-non-quo are all the more agonizing for being linked with memories of innocence, with the aching nostalgia of youthful dreams, with aspirations towards the Empyrean, noble proclamations of redemption, or with the bittersweet tease of some Nirvana or other, just barely out of reach. It is thus a conflict between an intense love of life and a disgust with life, between a fierce longing for Himmel and the fear of death.
This dual vision of Mahler’s, which tore him apart all his life, is the vision we have finally come to perceive in his music. This is what Mahler meant when he said, “My time will come.” It is only after fifty, sixty, seventy years of world holocausts, of the simultaneous advance of democracy with our increasing inability to stop making war, of the simultaneous magnification of national pieties with intensification of our active resistance to social equality – only after we have experienced all this through the smoking ovens of Auschwitz, the frantically bombed jungles of Vietnam, through Hungary, Suez, the Bay of Pigs, the farce-trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel, the refueling of the Nazi machine, the murder in Dallas, the arrogance of South Africa, the Hiss-Chambers travesty, the Trotzkyite purges, Black Power, Red Guards, the Arab encirclement of Israel, the plague of McCarthyism, the Tweedledum armament race – only after all this can we finally listen to Mahler’s music and understand that it foretold all. And in the foretelling it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equaled since.
Now that the world of music has begun to understand the dualistic energy-source of Mahler’s music, the very key to its meaning, it is easier to understand this phenomenon in specific Mahlerian terms. For the doubleness of the music is the doubleness of the man. Mahler was split right down the middle, with the curious result that whatever quality is perceptible and definable in his music, the diametrically opposite quality is equally so. Of what other composer can this be said? Can we think of Beethoven as both roughhewn and epicene? Is Debussy both subtle and blatant? Mozart both refined and raw? Stravinsky both objective and maudlin? Unthinkable. But Mahler, uniquely, is all of these – roughhewn and epicene, subtle and blatant, refined, raw, objective, maudlin, brash, shy, grandiose, self-annihilating, confident, insecure, adjective, opposite, adjective, opposite.
The first spontaneous image that springs to my mind at the mention of the word “Mahler” is of a colossus straddling the magic dateline “1900.” There he stands, his left foot (closer to the heart!) firmly planted in the rich, beloved nineteenth century, and his right, rather less firmly, seeking solid ground in the twentieth. Some say he never found this foothold; others (and I agree with them) insist that twentieth-century music could not exist as we know it if that right foot had not landed there with a commanding thud. Whichever assessment is right, the image remains: he straddled. Along with Strauss, Sibelius and, yes, Schoenberg, Mahler sang the last rueful songs of nineteenth-century romanticism. But Strauss’s extraordinary gifts went the route of a not very subjective virtuosity; Sibelius and Schoenberg found their own extremely different but personal routes into the new century. Mahler was left straddling; his destiny was to sum up, package, and lay to ultimate rest the fantastic treasure that was German-Austrian music from Bach to Wagner.
It was a terrible and dangerous heritage. Whether he saw himself as the last symphonist in the long line started by Mozart, or the last Heilige Deutsche Künstler in the line started by Bach, he was in the same rocky boat. To recapitulate the line, bring it to climax, show it all in one, soldered and smelted together by his own fires – this was a function assigned him by history and destiny, a function that meant years of ridicule, rejection, and bitterness.
But he had no choice, compulsive manic creature that he was. He took all (all!) the basic elements of German music, including the clichés, and drove them to their ultimate limits. He turned rests into shuddering silences; upbeats into volcanic preparations as for a death blow. Luftpausen became gasps of shock or terrified suspense; accents grew into titanic stresses to be achieved by every conceivable means, both sonic and tonic. Ritardandi were stretched into near-motionlessness; accelerandi became tornadoes; dynamics were refined and exaggerated to a point of neurasthenic sensibility. Mahler’s marches are like heart attacks, his chorales like all Christendom gone mad. The old conventional four-bar phrases are delineated in steel; his most traditional cadences bless like the moment of remission from pain. Mahler is German music multiplied by n.
The result of all this exaggeration is, of course, that neurotic intensity which for so many years was rejected as unendurable, and in which we now find ourselves mirrored. And there are concomitant results: an irony almost too bitter to comprehend; excesses of sentimentality that still make some listeners wince; moments of utter despair, often the despair of not being able to drive all this material even further, into some kind of paramusic that might at last cleanse us. But we are cleansed, when all is said and done; no person of sensibility can come away from the Ninth Symphony without being exhausted and purified. And that is the triumphant result of all this purgatory, justifying all excesses: we do ultimately encounter an apocalyptic radiance, a glimmer of what peace must be like.
So much for the left foot: what of the right, tentatively scratching at the new soil of the twentieth century, testing it for solidity, fertility, roots? Yes, it was found fertile; there were roots there, but they had sprung from the other side. All of Mahler’s testing, experiments, incursions were made in terms of the past. His breaking-up of rhythms, his post-Wagnerian stretching of tonality to its very snapping point (but not beyond it!), his probings into a new thinness of texture, into bare linear motion, into transparent chamber-music-like orchestral manipulation – all these adumbrated what was to become twentieth-century common practice; but they all emanated from those nineteenth-century notes he loved so well. Similarly, in his straining after new forms – a two-movement symphony (#8), a six-movement symphony (#3), symphonies with voices, not only in the Finales (#3, #8, Das Lied), movements which are interludes, interruptions, movements deliberately malformed through arbitrary abridgment or obsessive repetition or fragmentation – all these attempts at new formal structures abide in the shadow of Beethoven’s Ninth, the last Sonatas and string quartets. Even the angular melodic motions, the unexpected intervals, the infinitely wide skips, the search for “endless” melody, the harmonic ambiguities – all of which have deeply influenced many a twentieth-century composer – are nevertheless ultimately traceable back to Beethoven and Wagner.
I think that this is probably why I doubt that I shall ever come to terms with the so-called Tenth Symphony. I have never been convinced of those rhythmic experiments in the Scherzo, of the flirtation with atonality. I often wonder what would have happened had Mahler not died so young. Would he have finished that Tenth Symphony, more or less as the current “versions” have it? Would he have scrapped it? Were there signs there that he was about to go over the hill, and encamp with Schoenberg? It is one of the more fascinating Ifs of history. Somehow I think he was unable to live through that crisis, because there was no solution for him; he had to die with that symphony unfinished. After all, a man’s destiny is nothing more or less than precisely what happened to him in life. Mahler’s destiny was to complete the great German symphonic line and then depart, without it being granted him to start a new one. This may be clear to us now; but for Mahler, while he lived, his destiny was anything but clear. In his own mind he was at least as much part of the new century as of the old. He was a tormented, divided man, with his eyes on the future and his heart in the past.
But his destiny did permit him to bestow much beauty, and to occupy a unique place in musical history. In this position of Amen-sayer to symphonic music, through exaggeration and distortion, through squeezing the last drops of juice out of that glorious fruit, through his desperate and insistent reexamination and reevaluation of his materials, through pushing tonal music to its uttermost boundaries, Mahler was granted the honor of having the last word, uttering the final sigh, letting fall the last living tear, saying the final good-by. To what? To life as he knew it and wanted to remember it, to unspoiled nature, to faith in redemption; but also to music as he knew it and remembered it, to the unspoiled nature of tonal beauty, to faith in its future – good-by to all that. The last C major chord of Das Lied von der Erde was for him the last resolution of all Faustian history. For him?
It seems silly not to have post #2001 be a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is the famous “space waltz” sequence set to Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube. God, what a movie! - RH
There are many famous recordings of the Liebestod, the conclusion of Tristan und Isolde, but of all of them this particular performance is my favorite. It’s an extraordinary series of pairings! A visibly declining Herbert von Karajan conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker in Salzburg alongside Jessye Norman. Please think about this for a second. One of Nazi Germany’s most celebrated musical stars chose, in his dying days, to lead the premiere Austrian orchestra in a performance of Wagner while being accompanied by a black American woman with gospel roots. What a titanic shift in the human rights and values required to bring such a confluence of people and ideas together to perform this music! What a moment of reappropriation! And whatever Karajan’s artistic, commercial, or personal motivations were for bridging such a massive cultural divide, the moment does the musical selection justice. The Liebestod is one of the great examples of emotional and spiritual transcendence ever written for music. It is intended to be nothing less than the representation of love and death at the moment of the soul’s transfiguration into immortality. If ever that sentiment could be interpreted by one performance, I think this one does it.
There are times when art and life intersect in the ugliest of ways imaginable. One needs to look no further than the Nazi patronage of Wagner’s music for just such an example of aesthetic horror. This performance, however, is neither an apology nor a valediction for either Herbert von Karajan, Richard Wagner, or Nazism. They were all participants to the Nazi bastardization of aesthetics. But may be a moment which grants contemporary audiences permission to move beyond the old prejudices in order to rediscover the spirit of the music. Perhaps the effect of this performance is to “free” the listener so that they might hear something of Wagner’s that speaks to the human character in ways that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism, tyranny, or genocide. But however well-intentioned this effort may be, it is not a rehabilitation. Nothing can fully rehabilitate this music and that era from the heavy legacy of history. Nevertheless, it may be a reminder that the power of art rests in the ability of its creators and interpreters to find some way to move beyond human failing and misery in order to give flight to the very notion of human aspiration. Derived from the brilliant but blackened mind of Richard Wagner, the necrotic but wizardly hands of Herbert von Karajan, and the liberated soul and voice of Jessye Norman, this music gave something inherently equal and wonderful to all human beings present that night in Salzburg. Let us be witnesses together.
Watched There Will Be Blood tonight while I was doing all of my Paris hotel booking research. It’s one of my very favorite films. I especially love how the ultra-crazy moments are punctuated by the 3rd movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. This is the recording used in the movie. -RH
Because in my childhood I had to suffer through one bad Southern Baptist choir after the next singing crappy versions of Handel’s Messiah on Easter Sunday, I’ve decided to remind myself that there is such a thing as really great Easter music. This is J.S. Bach’s lovely, exultant Easter Oratorio. Enjoy! - RH
Well, seeing as though it’s Easter weekend, how about the greatest piece of music ever composed about the glory of Resurrection? Even if one is not a Christian, Mahler’s Second Symphony has the potential to connect and say something important to everyone. This is because of the fact that Mahler’s conception of resurrection is as much about the overarching capacity of love as a pathway to redemption as it is any kind of commentary on spirituality. In my books, that’s what makes this a transcendent piece of music.
This is Gustavo Dudamel leading the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in a terrific, slow performance of the finale of Mahler’s Second Symphony: “The Resurrection”. It’s incredible music, and I find it to be a very emotional experience listening to this work in its entirety. - RH
So, http://cultured-fuck.tumblr.com/ has just described his love of Dvořák in nothing short of orgasmic terms. This got me to thinking about which pieces of what we call “classical music” I would describe in equally orgasmic terms. Sibelius made the mental checklist. The finale to Sibelius’ 5th symphony top among a myriad of possibilities! So here it is, as performed by that ex-Nazi prick Herbert von Karajan (who remains a favorite conductor in spite of his asshole status) and the Philharmonia Orchestra (1960). - RH
This is a really charming introduction to Gustav Mahler. Leonard Bernstein was a great champion of Mahler; in fact, Lenny may be responsible for Mahler’s contemporary stature as one of the great composers. Lenny was also one of the great proponents of popularizing classical music. In this “Young People’s Concert” Lenny’s popularization of Mahler is on full display. I highly recommend watching if you don’t know much about Mahler, or if you don’t know much about classical music. And even if you already know everything there is to know about Mahler, this is still a really enjoyable celebration of some great music. - RH