The Magazine

The Modern Sound

Two prophets, in music, of suffering and redemption.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Despite the insistence of formalists that music is about nothing but itself, the supreme composers take in and give out as much life as the supreme novelists do. That is as true of the modernists as it is of their generally more revered predecessors—though when it is modern life that the composer expresses, the sound world tends to get hectic, emotionally contorted, and downright strange, befitting the times.

Mahler Picture

Gustav Mahler, 1909

AKG-Images / Newscom

The serious music audience has come to accept as pretty much normal certain peculiarities that flummoxed or outraged their original listeners. The unspeakable avant-garde has always had a way of catching on with the public eventually, and the 21st century is coming to terms with modernist music. Some modern music is not merely accepted but beloved. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) sound almost as respectable to today’s concertgoers as Beethoven or Brahms, and a rip-roaring performance of one of their symphonies can induce mass delirium. Indeed, that was known to happen even in their own day: While Mahler and Shostakovich encountered fierce contempt for and resistance to their innovative artistry—and nobody’s contempt and resistance were as terrible as Stalin’s, which nearly meant the death of Shostakovich—they did enjoy adulation in their lifetimes. They were (and are) probably the most popular of 20th-century classical composers. They are also likely the most characteristic and the greatest.

Last year marked the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth, and this year brings the centenary of his death. As the memorialists say, a terribly brief life, and a heroically full one. He was a Bohemian Jew from a dead end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father owned a tavern and a small distillery, and Mahler’s upbringing was ugly, disorderly, and sad, except for music. Brothers and sisters died off left and right. Father and mother ripped into each other on a regular basis. When Mahler met with Sigmund Freud in 1910 he related a childhood memory of running out of the house to escape a parental brawl and hearing an organ grinder in the street play Ach, du lieber Augustin.

Mahler and Freud concurred: This conjunction of sadness, even tragic sorrow, and hurdy-gurdy banality gave his music its unique flavor: lyric grace and emphatic gracelessness, the utmost seriousness and the grossest vulgarity, were the artistic residue of this psychic trauma.

Whether or not this particular incident explains Mahler’s distinctive sensibility, it was just that sensibility that made him a founding father of modernist music. Mahler was not only the greatest composer of his time but also the greatest operatic conductor, though he did not write operas. A steady climb up the ladder of provincial opera houses got him to the topmost rung in 1897: the Vienna Court Opera, where he would conduct the most remarkable renditions of Le nozze di Figaro and Tristan und Isolde that anyone had heard. The post was bestowed by the emperor’s appointment, and such distinctions did not go to Jews, so Mahler converted to Roman Catholicism in anticipation of his main chance. The conversion was strictly a career move, and he never practiced his new faith.

Writing the sort of music he did was not a particularly shrewd career move for a conductor; many of his own musicians despised his compositions. He wrote during the summer breaks from the operatic season, and produced nine symphonies (a tenth was left unfinished, and various versions completed by others have entered the repertoire) and the song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer, 1885), Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children, 1904), Rückert-Lieder (1905), and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth, 1908)—the last being a masterly quasi-symphonic piece for tenor, contralto, and orchestra, setting German translations of Chinese poems to music of exquisite plangency that mourns and celebrates the queer fate of being born and facing death as a human being.