Commentary Magazine

Mahler for Moderns

Changes of fashion and public taste are often ephemeral and resistant to analysis, but they are among the more sensitive gauges of our collective internal weather. The “Mahler revival” has been one such occurrence, measurable in record sales, growing numbers of symphony performances, and large amounts of often impassioned discussion. Although the extent and the kind of popularity that Mahler enjoys at the moment may be a transient phenomenon, his music is not, and now that it has been rediscovered, it is rapidly being included in the roster of unassailable classics.

In the meantime, while Mahler is not yet completely relegated to that safe category, his cult seems to cut across all kinds of boundaries, and is not limited to faithful music lovers. People who do not listen to much other classical music do listen to Mahler. Moreover, many Mahler aficionados exhibit cultist behavior; if they run into another initiate, they assume that their common taste creates an immediate bond. Conversely, a person ignorant of or indifferent to Mahler's music is apt to get disqualified as a feeling human being. In other words, Mahler arouses more than ordinary emotions in his listeners, who form intimate relationships with his music and identify themselves by their allegiance to it.

All of this is an intensification of a process that has been unobtrusively going on for at least three decades. There have always been people who knew and savored the special beauty of Mahler's music. There were conductors—Bruno Walter, Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Mitropoulos—and organizations, such as the Bruckner-Mahler Society, that tried to disseminate information about Mahler and to make his music available to listeners. It was not until the milestone year of 1960, however, that their efforts met with an upwelling of response which is still riding to its crest. During that year, the hundredth anniversary of Mahler's birth, Leonard Bernstein initiated, arranged, and partly conducted a Mahler festival. All but the most obscure works of Mahler were performed by the New York Philharmonic, with guest appearances by Walter, Mitropoulos, and others. In the same year, a major exhibition called “Mahler and His Times” was held at the old Secession Building in Vienna, where Mahler once conducted a Beethoven concert. Vienna was honoring a man who was an integral part of its history, but the New York festival was spurred by Bernstein's sense that Mahler's music had not yet achieved wide recognition. His remarks introducing the festival still assume an implicitly defensive tone characteristic of the earlier statements about Mahler and quite unnecessary by now.

The efforts of musical taste-makers precipitated and encouraged the Mahler vogue, but they are not a sufficient explanation of it. After all, similar exertions were made on behalf of Bruckner, but he did not catch on to nearly the same degree. The magnitude and the intensity of reactions to Mahler suggest that more is involved than purely musical or aesthetic appreciation. The sources of the response ma; be both more profound and more superficial than that. In strictly practical terms, Kurt Blaukopf, one of Mahler's recent biographers,1 notes that stereophonic recordings do better justice to Mahler than most concert halls. His symphonic music requires contrapuntal clarity combined with thick orchestration, and stereo, for which voices can be recorded separately, can give a more accurate representation of that combination. Indeed, Mahler sometimes tried to create “stereophonic” effects by such devices as placing a small orchestra backstage, or by simulating through dynamics the illusion of varying distances between instruments and listeners.

Among the superficial reasons for popularity, perhaps one should not underestimate the snob appeal of Mahler. If no longer as controversial as he once was, he is still an “interesting” composer, with all that the word implies these days. He is more outré, more provocative, than the staple classics. He is associated with a period of intriguing artistic decadence and neurosis. In films Visconti has implied that he is the death-infatuated Aschenbach; now Ken Russell is adding him to his gallery of fascinating weirdos. Mahler is eccentric, difficult to place or explain. Still, one can gather interest points more easily in listening to Mahler than to the later composers whom educated musicians enjoin us to appreciate—Schoenberg, Berg, Webern; or Stockhausen, Boulez, or Feldman—even if it is our passing acquaintance with their harsher sounds which makes Mahler comparatively untroubling to hear.

But these are all extrinsic reasons. Finally, musical response in the larger sense depends on the internal worlds which the music creates, and it may be that the new interest in Mahler betokens a greater sympathy for the particular psychic stances which his music embodies. Those stances are primarily the creation of the composer, but they are also determined by the position which the music occupies on the continuum of musical development, on its relationship to the past tradition and its own time. Our interest in Mahler is part of a wider curiosity about art created around the turn of this century—a period whose outlines we are now beginning to trace, and which witnessed the emergence of modernism in its most exciting, seminal stage.


The recent biographies by Blaukopf and Louis de La Grange2 are responsible and judicious; the latter is voluminously detailed. But through all the accumulation of information, Mahler remains an enigmatic and essentially an uninterpreted figure. He was opaque, turned-in and inaccessible as a person; his statements about himself and his opinions about others were frequently inconsistent and do not add up to a clear picture. The element missing—until his last letters to his wife, Alma—is the quality of his personal sympathies, allegiances, feelings—but perhaps those were absorbed into the febrile energy and the music.

Although the biographers are understandably enthusiastic about their subject, even they do not succeed in making him a superficially attractive figure. Restlessness, “nervous will,” and the insistence on imposing that will on circumstances are the most prominent characteristics in all of his portraits. Music was the impetus and the goal of his existence, and it took precedence over all else, including people. It seemed impossible for him to make compromises where music was at stake, to restrain his temper or his opinions, or to make concessions to conventional politeness. There is a vignette of a younger musician hopefully playing a new composition for Herr Mahler only to have it greeted by stony silence.

Apart from his art, he was often uncomfortable, ill at ease, unsure how to behave. In her memoirs, Alma assures us that when she went into labor pains and appealed to Mahler for help, his response was to read from Kant's Prolegomena out loud for over an hour! She paints him as almost comically self-absorbed and socially awkward. He was barbed with eccentricities, tics, anxieties; was prone to migraine headaches which he relieved by walking at top speed, and had an irregular twitch in his leg which he tried to control unsuccessfully.

And yet, to people who understood him and his music, and with whom he was open and unembarrassed, he was a compelling person, unquestionably marked by greatness. In spite of his anxieties and ailments, he was dynamically energetic. His enthusiasms and loyalties were as strong as his antagonisms. He had an agile, curious, intuitively grasping mind, and away from social chatter could converse tirelessly. He seems to have been unpretentiously indifferent to mundane and monetary concerns, except as they impinged on his career. The tendency of his mind was to move toward religious and philosophical speculations, and he felt a romantic, pantheistic love of nature. But contemptus mundi did not bring him a repose of spirit. Bruno Walter talks about him as a person constantly in flux, reaching for new “spiritual gains” but doubting all of his affirmations, destroying whatever foundations he may have built.

The only given, the unshakable foundation in his life, was music and the need to create it. The sources of musical genius are mysterious, but in Mahler's case the springs must have been powerful and tenacious, for there was very little in his background to encourage or nurture his talent. His parents were Bohemian Jews who, from small beginnings, worked up to the position of successful merchants. Mahler's father was eager to understand and adapt to the imperial Austrian culture in which he lived, but he did not reach the degree of assimilation of some of his urban counterparts. His son, Gustav, even after conversion to Christianity and spectacular success, said that he felt “twice exiled”: as a Bohemian in the Austrian empire, as a Jew in a Christian country.

The father was resourceful and domineering. The mother was burdened by many childbirths and deaths, limped, and had a perpetually sorrowful face. Mahler was strongly attached to her, and later regretted that his wife's appearance was not more marked by suffering. The tic in his leg might have been another legacy of his sympathy for her. Frequent sibling deaths must have contributed to the morbid imaginative streak discernible in the surviving children. Mahler's sister, Justine, surrounded her bed with lit candles and pretended that she was dead in it. His brother, Otto, unstable and unhappy throughout his short life, committed suicide at the age of twenty-five. Mahler was sometimes visited by nightmarish fantasies while composing: visions of his double approaching him, or of his own body dead in a coffin. As a child he daydreamed and hid in attics for hours on end. During one of those trips in a relative's house, he discovered a piano, and from then on, the instrument became his life. At the age of six, Gustav composed a piece which he called a “Polka Introduced by a Funeral March.” It was a prophetic title.

Soon, Mahler became the local prodigy in the small town of Iglau, and impressed important musicians from other places as well. His father's attitude was what might be predicted from a solid burgher who wanted a similar life for his son. This was success, but not quite the right kind of success. In spite of ample discouragement, Mahler never hesitated about his vocation. He seems to have had complete faith in his instincts and abilities, and a stubborn will to follow their urgings, which is a large part of his genius. In his decision to enter the Vienna Conservatory, he exhibited for the first time that combination of utter conviction in himself and a diplomatic skill in getting his way which was to catapult him over many hurdles later in life. Since he knew that his father would raise strong objections, he enlisted the help of an influential friend in advance. The father was convinced, or perhaps had no choice but to submit.

Mahler's career at the Conservatory, which he entered in 1875, was spotty, at times distinguished, at others marred by his ornery rebelliousness. He probably took a course from the venerable Bruckner, and established a friendship with him which continued for many years. Like many other young musicians, he contracted a worshipful admiration of Wagner. He traveled long distances to Wagner performances, became a vegetarian socialist under his influence, and got thrown out of an apartment for playing the scores of his operas too loudly. His intellectual style, at least, was romantically effusive, and his non-musical writing always retained this conventional mold. It was his music, which, very early (he wrote the unorthodox Das klagende Lied at twenty), pushed him out onto more radical promontories, without, it seems, a premeditated program. But the conservative pull is evident in the music as well, especially in the larger structures, which are perhaps more amenable to conscious control than are the processes within them.

“The fiercest blaze of joyous vitality and an all-consuming longing for death both reign alternately in my heart, often changing within the hour—one thing I know, it cannot go on like this!” he wrote during his student days. But go on it did, much better than for some of his fellow musicians whom he knew at the Conservatory. Hugo Wolf, with whom Mahler tried to collaborate on a fairy-tale opera, Rülbezahl, went insane and committed suicide at an early age. Another intimate, Rott, whom Mahler held in high regard, also ended up in an asylum where he used his compositions for toilet paper to indicate his opinion of human works. Considering the marred lives and tragic endings of so many contemporary artists and thinkers, Mahler's renowned neuroses and eccentricities appear to be temperate responses to the imaginative conditions of that period.

In fact, Mahler seems to have had large reserves of sturdy resilience. He needed them in his tortuous, although always upwardly mobile, conducting career. His first engagements, obtained for him by an impresario, were as an opera conductor in small theaters at Hall and Laibach, and from then on he was cast, not very willingly, in that role. Directing opera is a task studded with difficulties, requiring the combined skills of an administrator, psychologist, dramatic producer, and musician—and the difficulties were compounded for a Jew of Mahler's temperament. He brought his explosive disposition and his uncompromising perfectionism to small provincial theaters as much as to the Royal Budapest Opera. He left singers in tears and orchestras in nasty humors. Everywhere, he provoked resentments, irritations, and downright antagonisms. Anti-Semitism was always an easy trump card in the hands of his detractors. Still, his contributions to every place he passed through were immense and were by and large recognized. Thus, he progressed to more prestigious posts by always seizing the most advantageous moment to get out, and on the strength of blatant merit.

During his lifetime, Mahler's reputation was based mostly on conducting. He often claimed that he hated “theater work,” that it was only a distraction from the more important task of composition. But contemporary witnesses—Bruno Walter, for one—testify to his unerring dramatic insight, the vitality and the originality of his conception. His interpretations were never prefabricated. He burrowed his way into the innards of each work, relived it as if for the first time. He had no patience with traditions of performance, but strove for an immediate, primary experience of each piece. Before obtaining the coveted position in Vienna, he conducted in all parts of the Empire—Budapest, Prague, Leipzig, Hamburg. Whenever there was opportunity, he gave exposure to national operas, and the pungent, sensuous sounds of Slavic music especially found their way into his symphonies.

It was not until he reached Vienna, in 1897. first as the substitute and then as the permanent director of the Vienna Opera, that Mahler felt he had come to a spiritual home. The sense was to prove ironic. He brought the Vienna Opera to a new pinnacle of achievement, enlivened its repertory, refurbished the fusty Mozart productions, and gave unsurpassable performances of Wagner. He was the focus of concentrated attention, both favorable and disparaging; but it is doubtful that he ever felt completely at home.


Vienna at the turn of the century was an imperial capital, a cultural crossroads, and mad about the arts. Austria was politically indolent and on the decline as a power; Stefan Zweig in The World of Yesterday speculates that the Viennese substituted artistic for political passion. Actors and writers were celebrated, lionized, imitated. Musical controversies were front-page news and subjects of heated coffeehouse discussions. Austria and Germany were seedbeds of modernistic movements; Secession in Vienna foreshadowed Jugendstil (Art Nouveau); Expressionism (in whose ranks Mahler should perhaps be included), had its inception here; later there was the Bauhaus. In his intellectual history of the period, The von Richthofen Sisters, Martin Green traces the fortunes of the erotic movement which represented a kind of counterculture to the dominant “male” ethic, and which was the germination of modern developments in art throughout Germany and Austria.

Zweig, in his reminiscences of Vienna, notes that Jews, to whom political and administrative spheres were closed, took on the role of patrons and protectors of the arts. “They were the real audience,” he writes, “and with their mobile understanding, little hampered by tradition, they were the exponents and champions of all that was new.” The roster of Jewish artists who worked in Vienna around the time of Mahler's tenure there is illustrious: Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Beer-Hofmann, Peter Altenberg, Sonnenthal, Max Reinhardt. Martin Green also points out the predominance of Jewish figures in the erotic movement, and among Alma's lovers specifically. Although there is no evidence that Mahler was directly acquainted with the erotic movement, his last letters to Alma express some of the ideas espoused by its adherents. He talks of her as his muse, his life force, the eternal feminine from which his music emanates, and of which it is only a pale imitation. And certainly eroticism, in Martin Green's sense of throwing off restraints imposed by prevailing norms and repudiating repressive discipline and orderliness, is one of the poles of Mahler's music—although it is in tension with the urge to bridle, to impose strict form.

The erotic movement was one “counterculture” which generated some of the best art of the time. But in general, the relationship of art to the culture at large was changing, and the Jewish prominence among creative innovators may perhaps be attributed to that shift. Art no longer reflected, or even strove to reflect, the essential spirit of the whole people, as Wagner once wished it to do, but began to take a skeptical, oblique, alienated stance. Jews, who willy-nilly brought to the culture an anomalous and a critical vision, became the ideal creators and exponents of new art.

Still, it was unusual for a Jew to hold a position as an important public servant, such as the directorship of the Vienna Opera. Mahler knew that Jewishness was an obstacle to getting the appointment—so he unhesitatingly took the necessary step of converting. It was a pragmatic gesture, possible to make since on many levels Jewishness did not matter to Mahler. His religious impulse was just that—an impulse, an attraction to the spiritual dimension of experience, which never crystallized into a particular creed or orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there are indications that conversion was not an easy step; he later reported to a friend that it had “cost him a lot.”

The pro forma gesture was not enough to quell anti-Semitic attacks, especially since Mahler never made any attempts to conceal his Jewishness, nor was he, by nature, a person who could “assimilate”—make compromises, tame his excesses—in any sense. The anti-Semitic press took predictable lines of assault; it charged Mahler's musicianship with “impurity” and declared that he could not understand—really, profoundly understand—the Germanic musical spirit. This of Mahler, about whose interpretation of Tristan und Isolde Bruno Walter wrote that he always felt as though he should die in the middle of it.


It would be unfair to say that Mahler met with an ungrateful reception. The productions he mounted were brilliant in every respect, and he was rewarded by packed concert-halls, the esteem of connoisseurs, invitations to conduct elsewhere, and many rave reviews. When he conducted his farewell concert, in 1907, people wept and refused to leave the concert hall for hours. But he also provoked violent hostilities, not only of an anti-Semitic nature, which gained momentum during the latter years of his tenure there. Eventually, Viennese critics and music lovers were divided into the pro and the anti-Mahler factions. His authoritarian and unconciliating method of working irritated the more easygoing, polite Viennese. His ruthlessness and “despotism” became legendary. He tried to develop a sense of uniformly competent ensemble and would not kowtow to the caprices of star singers. In retaliation, some musicians wrote an anonymous indictment. He was criticized as a poor administrator who ruined the working atmosphere; caricatures were drawn of his jerky, volatile, emphatic style of conducting; and when he dared to tamper with orchestration of untouchable classics (he sometimes felt that his changes were more faithful to the composer's intentions), the dismay was unbounded. For the Viennese, this was equivalent to defacing holy statues.

In the midst of all this ferment, Mahler appears as a curiously private, solitary, even an impervious figure. He considered aloofness from the swirls and eddies of public opinion a high virtue, and attained it more fully than most who profess it. He did not engage in public disputes; he had no relish for “society.” He did, though, come into contact with notable musicians. He admired Richard Strauss inordinately, and was a mentor to Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, and Bruno Walter. But there is no consistent circle, no broader associations. He was largely immune to the pull of artistic trends and movements. Alfred Roller, whom he handpicked as stage designer for the Vienna Opera (and whose sets were daringly abstractionist), was a member of the Secession, and Mahler knew other artists in that group—but his links with it were tenuous.

That so hermetic and reclusive a person should have married Alma Maria Schindler is surprising. The union was incongruous from the start, consigned to failure by almost all who knew them. At forty, he was almost twenty years older. She was beautiful, courted by eminent men, the daughter of wealthy Austrian aristocracy. It seems evident that Mahler's greatest attraction in her eyes, at least initially, was his fame and artistic achievement. She was determined to marry a great man, probably because she knew that this was one of the few avenues available for her to an interesting life and companionship. Her appeal for him is on one level quite obvious. Aside from her reputation as “the most beautiful woman in Vienna,” she was said to possess extraordinary radiance and vitality. But apart from these compelling qualities, Mahler must have been intrigued by her otherness, the differences between her and the women he had known previously. Both his mother and his sister—the women he had known longest and best—were timid, self-effacing, restricted by their femininity. Alma was assertive, spirited, unabashed by men, and comparatively independent. She had read and thought, had musical ambitions, and discussed problems of composition with Mahler without being intimidated.

Mahler's courtship of her was, not unlike his treatment of orchestras, authoritative, impetuous, and although occasionally awkward, marked by a high sense of his own value. After a few meetings he alluded to marriage as if it were a settled question. Although her spunky independence must have been a drawing card at first, Mahler had small tolerance for any opposition or insubordination to his will, and he soon set out to divest her of all autonomy with a frightening singlemindedness. When composing music prevented her from writing to him one day, he sent her an almost brutal letter demanding that she give up her musical efforts and subjugate herself completely to his work. From then on, he explained, he should be the center and the periphery of her life. She recoiled at first, but then convinced herself that such a renunciation might be splendid, and did not touch composition for the next nine years.

He conducted the marriage with unrelenting paternalism, directing her reading, scolding and praising her like a pupil. And yet, in spite of this veneer of complete assurance, there are glimpses of ways in which he felt at a disadvantage with her, shaky and uncertain. He was uncomfortable with her more worldly friends, she felt contemptuous of his. He worried about his sexual performance and was sometimes incredulous that such a young and beautiful creature could love him. Some of their friends, at least, felt that the relation was a privileged one for him. In a passage quoted in Alma's memoirs, Frau Dehmel confides to her diary that “. . . he is the first Jew, except my father, to impress me as a man—one who doesn't, to put it crudely, strike me as impotent. I am glad that such a beautiful, proud, strong German girl has married him.” When, toward the end of his life, Alma threatened separation (nine years of repressive submission, even if it was to a genius, took a severe toll of her), all of his confidence shattered, and he was left in frenzied desperation. For the first time, his letters become fervently amorous and vulnerable. Fearful that his life and his selfhood were collapsing, he went so far as to consult Freud, whom he met for a single, long session shortly before his death. One can sense, in the veiled story of Mahler's marriage, the same willful control of unruly, irrational, potentially destructive forces that can be discerned in his music. Those forces, however, like the imp of the perverse, always irrepressibly rise to the surface and make themselves heard.


The resistance to Mahler within the Vienna Opera and the pressures outside it made working conditions exceedingly difficult for him, and when a financially tempting offer came from Heinrich Conried, the manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he accepted. Initially, he treated the American journey as a moneymaking venture, which would enable him to devote himself exclusively to composing afterward. But he found that he liked America-its effervescence, its monumentality (“Fortissimo at last!” he exclaimed on seeing Niagara Falls), and its less superstitious attitudes toward tradition. He was provided with top-notch musicians, whom he found more malleable than their European counterparts. Audiences were in transports over him. Moreover, through the efforts of a women's committee, he was given the headship of the failing New York Philharmonic. He extricated himself from his Met contract, and gave most of his energies to the orchestra. He was free of the theater at last.

His dream of spending all of his time on composing was never realized; death, of angina, combined with a chronic heart defect, intervened in 1911 when Mahler was fifty years old. As it was, throughout his life, the strenuous demands of his conducting schedule forced him to restrict composing to the summers. For that season, he secluded himself in rural settings, and while Alma guarded his privacy and his routine he went off to a separate studio and plunged into creative whirlpools. Each work claimed him wholly, and threw him into states of intense agitation or utter ecstasy. He spoke of composition as a release of torrents of energy accumulated and pent up during the year, and perhaps that is part of the reason for their unleashed, driven character.

In the winter he was a mouthpiece for the music of others, in the summer a conduit for his own inspiration. The others are present in his music, but finally he does not succumb to anyone's spell, not even to Wagner's “siren song,” as Bruno Walter calls it. His almost literal usage of characteristic fragments does not constitute influence. The styles of other composers are not assimilated and then transmuted into a style which derives from or is a continuation of theirs. Rather, the juxtaposition of various styles betokens a distance from each of them. Mahler is not so much an heir to classical and romantic music as its commentator, a metaphysician who sees all, even the most distressing implications of that tradition.

The stimuli of his composition were literary and philosophical as much as musical. He read widely and intensively, everything from folk tales and poems to obscure mystical treatises. His song cycle, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, uses lieder from a collection of folk ballads for which he felt a great affinity. Simple, naively religious lyrics also appear in vocal parts of his symphonies. He was steeped in German romantic and post-romantic literature, and had a particular taste for its more fantastic and bizarre examples. He thought that E. T. A. Hoffmann's stories contained the very essence of music and liked Jean Paul for his fluctuations between the sublime and the grotesque. The Titan (First) Symphony, composed in 1888, was named after Jean Paul's novel of the same title. He thought of the shape of his symphonies in philosophical terms, although he sometimes suppressed movement titles, fearing that they would encourage audiences to hear his music as programmatic rather than pure. But in fact the programs differ from Debussy's pictorial descriptions, for example, in being themselves abstract. Usually, they outline a movement from the soul's travails in worldly sorrow, to redemption and the unfettering of the spirit from earthly bonds. On occasion, Christian terminology is used, but in general, Mahler's mysticism is vague, as are the poems he uses. The music overshadows these lyrics and concepts—and is also much more complex. The urge to purity, to transcendence, is rarely so easily resolved as the words suggest.

Mahler's religious lyrics did not help to convince his first audiences of the music's legitimacy or propriety. Again, it would be inaccurate to say that he was completely misunderstood or unappreciated. Musicians admired his symphonies, and traveled from distances to hear them performed, as Mahler had traveled to hear Wagner in his youth. (This did not include all musicians—Debussy and Paul Dukas walked out of one of his concerts in protest.) There was also a small, international coterie of devoted adherents, and as his music became more familiar, the enthusiasm grew more widespread. But the enthusiasm was often outweighed by the bafflement and even wrath, and applause was mingled with catcalls and derision.


Critical misunderstanding was especially rife; one revealing contempoary account is a peculiar essay by a critic who analyzes Mahler's music astutely, but who is nevertheless shocked and insulted by it. The essay, by William Ritter, is reproduced in parts by de La Grange, and it is worth quoting here at some length, because it captures so vividly the often hysterical consternation felt by Mahler's first listeners, and the admixture of anti-Semitism almost inevitably linked with protests against him. After a description of Mahler's Fourth, Ritter goes on to say:

What does it actually amount to? And where are we in relation to the noble world of great music ranging from Bach's Passions to the austere, Promethean, and magnificent Symphonies of such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner? It's as though we'd gone from Bayreuth to a sort of Überbrettl.

He recognizes “the musical giant behind the grimaces and the thoroughbred beneath the grotesque trappings,” but he deplores

the constant overloading and the perversion of an alluring melody with every possible large or small sound effect, the way it swung from the sublime to the ridiculous, in an apparent effort to please everyone from the aristocrat down to the peasant; the way in which its Jewish and Nietzschean spirit defied our Christian spirit with its sacrilegious buffoonery and the fact that it exasperated our loyalty to the past by crushing all our artistic principles to a pulp.

For Ritter, and many others, Mahler committed sacrilege by sounding the death-knell for everything that went before him. But Ritter is mistaken in attributing intentionality to the offense. Mahler never set out to be outlandish or shocking. There is no evidence that he was guided by aesthetic creeds or avant-garde theories. The language in which he talks about his music is much more conventional than the music itself. Mahler thought of himself as a receptacle for the music, and said that he did not compose but was composed. Of course that is only one half of the truth; there is also ordering, filling in voices, finishing contrapuntal lines, choosing the most effective orchestration. But Mahler knew how to follow the logic of his impulses, and that logic, for personal and historical reasons, took him one step beyond Wagner and Bruckner, to a limbo between two worlds.

This netherworld does not obey the rules of any region, and Mahler's music often violates classical canons of taste. Largely for that reason, he remained in critical disfavor for a long time, continuing to be charged with the same offenses of which Ritter found him guilty. And indeed, Mahler's music often narrowly avoids sheer bombast and self-indulgence. It may be these very excesses which, ironically, are responsible for Mahler's current popularity, for they make his music deceptively accessible.

Even more than with most composers, one can listen to different Mahlers, and one of these Mahlers is a dramatic artist who is prone to broad, extravagant gestures. He is impulsive, freely expressive, impetuous. His themes are often simple, immediately graspable, and are driven hard to expand and to make their point. His “mass effects” created by voluminous instrumentation are voluptuous, lavishly erotic. Thought and emotion are translated into palpable physical sensation. Mahler often aimed at creating overwhelming effects on the listener. The monumentality and the drama of the first movement of the Second Symphony or the last of the Eighth engulf the listener, draw him in irresistibly. It is this side of Mahler which earned him, in the past, the pejorative epithet of “gigantism.” But now, once again, we seem to be attracted to amplitude and opulence in art; witness the resurgence of oversized canvases, of sculptures one can walk through, of movies replete with Baroque excesses. Perhaps this is a swing of the pendulum away from the parsimonies of self-reflective art, perhaps a necessary competitiveness with physical bigness around us, and with the frightening quantities of other art. It takes more to make an impact. Among classical composers, Mahler, with his casts of hundreds, outdoes them all, even the electronically magnified sound of rock groups.

It is entirely probable that many people hear only this super-romantic, sincere, vastly panoramic Mahler and ignore his more troublesome manifestations. It may be this Mahler who, as Deryk Cooke quipped some time ago, is becoming the Tchaikovsky of our day. Richard Strauss, a contemporary of Mahler, is another case in point. Suddenly, his music is deemed easy enough to be fare for a movie score (the record jackets remind us that Thus Spake Zarathustra was the score of 2001, for all the world as if it were Love Story). But one sometimes wonders what is left in this transformation from high to popular art aside from the opening theme.

Of course, the easiness of Mahler is only superficial. The “gigantism” is embedded and must be understood in the context of an emotional world which is multiform, full of incongruities, and often highly disturbing. Thus, on a more serious level, the fact that Mahler supplants Tchaikovsky as our Tchaikovsky indicates a shift in our affinities, in what we can spontaneously rather than obligatorily enjoy. Tchaikovsky's forthright, lyrical, “mainstream” romanticism strikes us as suspiciously sentimental. Mahler's quirks and complexities guarantee his legitimacy. He appeals to our taste for ambiguity, paradox, extreme irony. It is his “doubleness,” as Bernstein calls it, which distinguishes Mahler sharply from Bruckner, and probably accounts for his greater interest to us. Bruckner's music is monolithic, unrelievedly calm, ponderous. There is nothing uniform about Mahler's music; it is mercurial, unpredictable.

In every way, Mahler practices the art of brinksmanship. His music exists at that difficult point between aesthetic systems, where one set of attitudes and norms is no longer absolute, and another set has not yet come to replace it. If Wagner and Bruckner stand at the point of the most extreme development of romanticism, then Mahler stands just beyond that point, where the unity of the romantic aesthetic begins to unravel. It is difficult to imagine music more refulgent, luxuriant, containing more force of passion than Wagner's. His “infinite melody” carries melodiousness to ultimate lengths, his harmonies are full to the bursting point, his rhythmical movements are grandly protracted. In Mahler's symphonies, the immensity reaches unbearable proportions, and then shatters into fragments. “It is terrible,” Mahler wrote about the first movement of his Third Symphony,

the way it keeps growing and expanding so far that my Second seems to me a baby by comparison. It is so much bigger than life-size that by comparison with it everything human seems to shrink to pygmy size. I am seized with horror when I realize where all this is leading, when I see the path marked out for the art of music and when I realize that the fearful responsibility of accomplishing this gigantic mission falls to me.

Mahler's horror might have been mitigated if he could have foreseen that he was the end of the path, that after him would come the economy of Schoenberg and the minimalism of Webern. But, concomitant with the vertiginously expansive urge, the collapse of the grand classical symphony is already imminent in his music, even in the same piece which he is describing. This movement is at times so overblown as to be self-mocking. Romantic gestures are served up on a platter. But the masses of sound, at the peak of their intensity, fracture and leave attenuated, thin, high single lines. And throughout the movement, an inappropriate, biting, sour trumpet flourish accompanies and undercuts the lyricism and the martial Sturm und Drang.


At times, to risk a far-fetched comparison, Mahler's music sounds like a representation of Roderick Usher's hypertrophied mind. Usher, the dark underside of the romantic artist, has pushed himself beyond human, physical limits, into a disembodied, insane transcendence. Mahler's music, too, travels into stratospheres ominously severed from any “natural” grounding. His fragments of heightened, chromatic, convoluted, anguished melodies often seem to appear from and vanish into vacuums, without being embedded in any matrix, or supported by a base.

But no matter how far the music departs from traditional form, it always eventually returns to its confines—to solid tonality, to classical sonata pattern, to clear periodic structure. Mahler has been compared to Kafka, another Bohemian Jew, both in his psychological significance and his formal procedures, but perhaps the parallel to Edgar Allen Poe is in general just as revealing. Both artists use preexisting forms and conventions, often in an absurdly exaggerated, mannered way, and both wreak havoc within those forms, sabotage them, and disintegrate their usual meanings. For a long time, what was visible to us was the absurdity, the kitsch—while now we are apt to discern the darker meanings contained by the mannerisms.

It is the presence of traditional, tonal norms which causes us to experience departures from them as distortions. The disjunctions between them make for tremendous tension, turbulence, and incongruity in much of Mahler's music. The listener is rarely allowed to rest on an even plateau, to retain equilibrium. Extremes of mood alternate and converge on each other. Progressions of triadic harmonies culminate in clashing discords. Sonorous textures are abruptly supplanted by small, brittle ones. Instruments are made to play outside their usual pitch and dynamic range. Flutes exert themselves to fortissimo and trumpets are restrained to ethereal softness. French horns, usually employed episodically, carry prolonged melodic lines. Rhythmical patterns, which to a large extent determine our subjective experience of music, veer off from the romantic movement of preparation, swelling, climax, and release. Climaxes are unfinished, rhythmical movements intercepted in midstream, contrasting rhythmical lines travel their parallel courses. All these sometimes violent oppositions can be ironic, grotesque, even demonic. The most frequently cited example of Mahler's “diabolism” is the “Funeral March in Callot's Manner” in the First Symphony, in which somber gravity is intextricably linked with derisive, coarse humor. It is rare, in fact, for Mahler to sustain unqualified moods of heroism, tenderness, or tragedy, without the intrusion of invidious humor or problematical, contorted music.

The contrasting elements are often taken verbatim, so to speak, from other sources, or are strongly reminiscent of them. There are segments of his symphonies which sound like a patchwork compendium of Western music. Bach fugues stand side by side with military marches, snippets of Slavic folk songs and Austrian waltzes seesaw with Beethoven-like motifs and imitations of natural sounds. Standing at the end of a tradition, Mahler seems to look back on it, already with nostalgia, irreverence, and affectionate irony. No sentiment, no cultural edifice is absolute or invulnerable in Mahler's musical world. It is all curiously similar to Charles Ives's use of musical objets trouvés. Ives expresses an American stance toward the classical tradition—sometimes fond, sometimes celebratory, but always distanced. Mahler, in different circumstances and for different reasons, shares this vantage point. The compression of so many diverse and discrepant energies into single works threatens to explode into an unruly hurly-burly at times—but Mahler, as if by an exertion of sheer will, always manages to hold it all together.


This topography of Mahler's territory is, of course, not equally true for all its parts. In his later vocal works particularly—Kindertotenlieder, Das Lied von Der Erde—a more uniform voice is evident. The writing here tends toward the “modern” and the dark end of the Mahler spectrum. Technically, it is more economically orchestrated, and has the transparency of linear counterpoint which presages Schoenberg. Incidentally, although Schoenberg always admired Mahler, he felt that it was not until the Seventh Symphony that Mahler achieved the balance and the objectivity necessary for great art. But even in the earlier works there are whole movements of light gaiety or pastoral serenity.

Still, the predominant Mahler gestalt is disturbed agitation. His description of the Fifth Symphony, couched in characteristically romantic language of natural metaphor, could be equally well applied to most of his works. “Oh, heavens,” he wonders in a letter to his wife,

what are they to make of this chaos of which new worlds are for ever being engendered, only to tumble in ruin the moment after? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?

He predicted that the public, like a flock of sheep, would say “Baa!” But for today's listeners, the anxious disorder, the complexities of conception and feeling, emerging from and assuaged by familiar structures, hold a peculiar fascination. His music defines the painful point of breakage. It foreshadows our own instabilities and fragmentations—but from an intense, grand, and still unified vantage point. In Mahler we have an artist in whom we can recognize ourselves from a nostalgic distance.



1 Gustav Mahler, translated by Inge Goodwin, Praeger, 279 pp., $10.00.

2 Mahler, Doubleday, 576 pp., $17.50.


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