The Magazine

The Modern Sound

Two prophets, in music, of suffering and redemption.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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There was much to celebrate and much to mourn in Mahler’s life. Genius like his is a rare privilege, and it has its perquisites. Thomas Mann, who was not inclined to acknowledge superiors, found himself tongue-tied in Mahler’s presence, and inscribed a gift copy of a novel of his to “a man who seems to me to embody the most serious and sacred artistic purpose of our time.” Mahler was not only one of the most celebrated but also one of the best-paid musicians of his day: At 41 he married the 22-year-old Alma Schindler, a famous beauty said to work erotic sorcery. But five years later he would resign from the Vienna Opera under duress, lose a cherished daughter to diphtheria, and receive the diagnosis of a potentially fatal heart condition. In the last year of his life, Alma took up with the handsome young architect Walter Gropius.

“There is not one spot on your body that I would not like to caress with my tongue,” she wrote to Gropius. One can be quite sure that not one spot went uncaressed. When Mahler discovered the affair, he was devastated. But the pains of love did not last long. He contracted subacute bacterial endocarditis in 1910 and died a few months later.

There are two ways of understanding Mahler’s music. One of them is a common misunderstanding. In Why Mahler? Norman Lebrecht, a critic who has lived with Mahler about as long and as intimately as anyone going, discerns his hero’s signal innovation as “the application of irony in a musical score.” Lebrecht cites Samuel Johnson’s definition of irony: “a mode of speech in which the meaning is contrary to the words.” In more up-to-date parlance, what is said is different from what is meant. Composers before Mahler, Lebrecht says, kept the emotions they described or evoked clear and simple and discrete: Joy was unambiguously radiant, sorrow was draped in mourning, and there could be no confounding beauty with ugliness. Mahler changed all that, Lebrecht rightly states, but he did not change it in quite the way Le-brecht would have it.

Mahler’s First Symphony opens with the softest sounds of pastoral, even Edenic, gentleness, as though a warmhearted Creator were fashioning a world from His boundless love. Yet one hears presently some of the agony in beauty, the inescapable pain in being alive. Pain of this order is an essential Mahlerian feature. So is the thunderous grandeur that ends the first movement. The second movement is a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance in which bubbling woodwinds make merry, though a gay Viennese urbanity seems more prominent than peasant jollity. So far, the shifts in mood and blends of style indicate a certain aesthetic novelty, but it is with the third movement that things get harum-scarum. A funeral march to the folk tune Bruder Martin (or Frère Jacques) in the minor mode, with a reiterated marcato fillip that rings like a comic slap to the head, had some first-night concertgoers and critics howling abomination. 

Not a few listeners, Vienna being what it was, howled Jewish abomination: There were, after all, echoes of klezmer music, played by small bands and popular at Jewish weddings, and some found such stuff low-rent and degrading. Mahler certainly gave the audience cause for bafflement. Welcome to modern music, he announced, where antic grotesquerie has its rightful place alongside the tragic or the sublime. With the first notes of the fourth movement, the sublime enjoys a resurgence, as tempest bursts out of nowhere. We are back in the world of Berlioz and Liszt and Alfred de Vigny and Caspar David Friedrich. The grimacing modernist in Mahler’s nature cannot suppress his impulse to Romantic magnificence. No other composer, except perhaps Tchaikovsky, dares incite the strings to so melting a rapture as the one that follows the storm. But Tchaikovsky, of course, never caroms from overrich heart-wrung sentiment into sardonic mockery.

That is Mahler’s innovation, but it cannot correctly be called ironic music. With “irony” the true meaning is not found on the surface; it broods or rages or smirks underneath, and the aesthetic and moral responsibility of the adept audience is to ferret it out. In the case of Mahler, his meaning lies precisely on the surface; Mahler always means what he says; it’s just that what he says out of one side of his mouth jars so violently with what he says out of the other.