By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert After Carmina Burana: an Historical Perspective, performed on May 16, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Over the past forty years, Gustav Mahler has become one of the most discussed and performed composers in American concert life. He was the author of nine complete symphonies and a fragmentary tenth symphony, as well as a host of song cycles. Since we are devoting our entire season to the larger theme of music and memory, it is appropriate that we recall a time when Mahler’s music was not nearly so prominent.
By the time he died in 1911, Mahler had achieved considerable fame as a conductor and composer. Although there were many consistent advocates of his music among conductors –particularly Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, and Dimitri Mitropoulos–it was only after 1960 (the centenary of his birth) that Mahler’s music achieved the wild popularity it still has today. Much credit for his renaissance is properly given to Leonard Bernstein, for whom Mahler and his music became vehicles for profound personal attachment and identification. By the mid-1970s, Mahler was the focus of a continuing obsession and nearly cult-like reverence. Today Mahler’s presence perhaps rivals Beethoven’s in the standard orchestral repertoire. One somewhat ironic explanation for this phenomenon is that Mahler’s sonic-psychic journey benefited from the medium of high-quality recordings, which could be experienced in the solitary environment of one’s own room. Listeners find in Mahler a musical map of inner feeling, crisis, and ecstasy, a means through which each listener senses his or her own profundity and intensity of emotion. In Mahler the most intimate, the most painful, and the most grandiose seem immediately available, all shrouded in a complexity that makes the music seem like life itself.
Of course, whether this late twentieth-century obsession with Mahler has anything to do with the historical Mahler or his ambitions as a composer is quite unclear, and there is little doubt that there has been no small measure of cloying sentimentality in much of this Mahler craze. But perhaps most bewildering have been the attempts to make Mahler into a bowdlerized Freud. As with Freud, the awe-inspiring brilliance, innovation, and complexity of the work remain perpetual sources of fascination, despite the persistent presence of a reductive, commercialized caricature. If there is indeed any validity in the linking of Mahler and Freud (who were contemporaries) it is in the paradox generated by their posthumous reputations, which has created enduring clichés. Mahler’s music is ultimately only about the meaning it inspires in its listeners: its power to disturb, to force the listener to reflect and think on life, its joys and sorrows, its potentials and its limitations.
In his remarkable 1960 book on Gustav Mahler, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno observed that “music becomes a blotting paper, an everyday thing that becomes saturated with significance.” For Adorno, Mahler is the musical equivalent of Proust, for in Mahler’s music as in Proust’s narrative the ordinary and familiar are the substance of a massive structure, through which the listener can experience the magnitude, complexity, and depth that life over time contains.
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is perhaps the most controversial of all the composer’s symphonies. Both Schoenberg and his pupil Anton von Webern had a special affection for it. Yet few works have received such scathing criticism from Mahler enthusiasts. The last movement of this symphony has long been the object of intense dispute. Some have regarded it as an ironic reminiscence of an older tradition of grand finales and hear in it an undercutting of the heroic gesture of symphonic music. Other Mahlerians view it as an embarrassing failure, a grand mistake that was designed to express affirmation of the universe and its harmonies in a Beethovenian or Brucknerian manner. Yet all observers seem to agree that the Seventh Symphony has a sweep and range unequaled in other Mahler symphonies. It is a virtual panorama of emotions and musical strategies, with moments which justify the comparisons between Mahler and Charles Ives. Direct evocations of bands, tunes, and events in ordinary life are contained in the texture of the music itself. Here music acts as a direct trigger of memory. Mahler’s inspiration for the symphony’s opening came when he was rowing home across a lake and was struck by the sound of the oars. He wrote the work quickly, but then lingered over its revision and publication. He once described his compositional process as starting from the middle and working outwards.
The sheer variety of sounds in the symphony are best exemplified by the two “night music” episodes. These episodes invoke an earlier German Romantic tradition in which night becomes a metaphor for thought, solitude and recollection. Night also served as an emblem of peace and tranquility in the hectic pace of modern life and therefore a symbol of the repose and pensive tranquility of “nature.” The dangers traditionally associated with darkness became in this context internalized as regretful nostalgia and painful memories. Recently, one scholar has suggested a program for the second night music episode in which Mahler reminisces about a walk through a town at night. The listener can hear Mahler’s own impression of the music and sounds heard on his walk. But while the presence of both mandolin and guitar as well as cow bells in the symphony may record Mahler’s impressions, their more important function is to evoke in the listener images from their own memories of the rural landscape and the street–that is, their own night thoughts.
Listeners have always commented on the brilliance and range of orchestral effects Mahler achieves in this symphony. One needs to remember the obvious, that Mahler was writing large-scale orchestral music before the dominance of moving pictures and certainly moving pictures with sound dialogue. Listening to music was in part a journey of rumination and fantasy, much of it visual. The orchestration in this symphony has the effect of creating a complex sense of space and distance. The sound is sometimes close and sometimes far away. There are echoes, clashes, overlaps, confrontations. There is, in short, a sound world that is a condensed version of the conflicting and contradictory strands of daily experience. Mahler transfigures the everyday by endowing it with the meaning which each listener brings from his or her own memory. The brilliance of Mahler is that no matter how personal his compositions may be, he transcends his own experience without losing detail or specificity. He reaches beyond himself and makes the deepest personal and also most general metaphysical speculations possible for the listener. In this symphony the familiar becomes as Adorno suggested the musical screen upon which each individual can project his or her entire life, to an extent well beyond the limits of the composer’s intentions.