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Vol. LXIV, No. 27
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
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Record Review

Celebrating Gustav Mahler’s Anthems for the World on His 150th Birthday

Stuart Mitchner

What nonsense it is to let one’s self be submerged by the brutal whirlpool of life; to be false, even for a moment, to one’s self and what is above ourselves. But I write at random; next moment, when I leave this room, I shall be just as silly as all the rest.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler came to New York in December 1907 to conduct the Metropolitan Opera (and the New York Philharmonic), giving his debut performance on New Year’s Day 1908. According to Alex Ross in his prize-winning book, The Rest is Noise (2007), the composer took the subway in preference to the services of a chauffeur and was once spotted by a Philharmonic musician “alone in a subway car, staring vacantly like any other commuter.” Riders who didn’t happen to be with the orchestra would most likely have seen their slightly built, bespectacled fellow passenger as just another metropolitan character. The photo shown here, said to be his last, was taken in New York in 1910. Images and anecdotes from his New York years can be found online in the New York Philharmonic’s Insight Series, which includes references to urban adventures in opium dens, a wild seance with medium Eusapia Palladino, and subway rides to Brooklyn, as well as recollections from musicians about the conductor’s behavior during Carnegie Hall rehearsals, and from Mahler’s wife Alma about snowball fights in Central Park.

Waking Up to Mahler

Not until I realized that today’s issue would appear on the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s birth, July 7, 1860, did I begin to wake up to his greatness. What a thought, to have had these recordings within reach, available at the library or any record store, and not to have discovered his music, not to have seen Leonard Bernstein on YouTube performing and discussing the last movement of Mahler’s last completed symphony, the Ninth, and not to have heard the last movement of Symphony No. 3, “the anthem for the world,” which makes us feel, as conductor Benjamin Zander suggests in comments included with his Telarc recording, that “We have arrived now at that place where we have always dreamed of being.”

In concluding the massive Third Symphony, Mahler wanted “everything … resolved into quiet being.” His working title for the movement was “What love tells me” (Was mir die Liebe erzählt), and touched with quiet love it is, hushed and heartfelt, until the orchestra rouses itself and lifts the symphony to that place Zander mentioned, a place it’s possible to dream of being even before you’re old enough to comprehend it. At 17, I was naively, unknowingly there, stirred by works like Copland’s Fifth Symphony, Shostakovitch’s Fifth, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves without realizing that much of what moved me in their music came out of Mahler.

A Silly Story

Mahler’s remark about “the brutal whirlpool of life” quoted above is from a letter written to his friend and protégé Bruno Walter in 1909. The reference to “nonsense” and “being silly” could also serve to describe my unceremonious first encounter with Mahler late one November night in 1975 shortly after my wife and I moved to Princeton. We were in bed watching television when a sonic tsunami came thundering up at us from the downstairs apartment. The immensity of the thing shook the room, rattled the windows, and seemed to lift the sturdy double bed we were clinging to right off the floor. I put on my robe, went downstairs, and, during a pause in the pandemonium, knocked on the door, which opened instantly, as if my intrusion had been anticipated. It was the first time I’d spoken with our neighbor, who had been out of town when we moved in. I asked if he would please mind “turning it down.” “Turn Mahler down?” he bellowed, a gigantic Irish wolfhound looming behind him. “This is Gustav Mahler! You don’t turn Mahler down! You can’t listen to Mahler any way but at full total symphonic concert hall volume! I didn’t pay three thousand dollars for this rig” (he called his sound system a rig, as if it were a 12-wheeler) “to listen to Mahler with the ****ing volume down!”

While relations with our neighbor soon took a positive turn (he fell in love with a nice, sensible, civil woman who eventually married him and moved in), the incident surely had something to do with my subsequent tendency to keep Mahler at arm’s length. Now all these years later, I’m driving around Princeton with the Third Symphony blasting forth from my stereo on wheels and wondering if the sublime mountain of sound rising to the exalted place “we always dreamed of being” at the end of Symphony No. 3 might not in fact be the very music that attacked us in our bed that night. But then of course it could have been the funeral march that begins Symphony No. 5. Or the primordial trombone blast in the half-hour-long opening movement of No. 3. Or any number of other extreme moments in symphonies I have yet to hear. In his memoir Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter admits that his friend did have “a tendency to excess in expression, at times reaching the grotesque.”

Shadowed Clarity

As Walter points out, Mahler’s music provoked volatile reactions. Critics and audience members “fiercely attacked” the Fourth Symphony when it debuted in 1901, and at a performance in Vienna a year later, “fisticuffs ensued between opponents and enthusiasts.” Wielding the baton, Mahler was no less controversial. Most accounts suggest that although he was deemed the greatest conductor and opera director of his time, his interpretations took liberties that infuriated the purists (his retouching of the instrumentation in Beethoven’s Ninth was the most notorious instance). Walter’s refreshingly lucid and eloquent chapters on Mahler as conductor are no less relevant to Mahler as composer. “Arbitrary or subjective renderings,” Walter writes, were “incompatible” with his “penetrating divination of the depths of a work.” What ruled his “interpretation of masterpieces” was “clarity,” but “it was not a daylight clarity” because music “is no daytime art; it does not yield its secret roots or its ultimate depths to the unshadowed soul.” You can hear that same “through-a-glass-darkly” clarity in Mahler’s songs and symphonies.


Speaking of “excess in expression … reaching the grotesque,” I’ve been touring, part by part, Ken Russell’s 1974 film, Mahler, on YouTube, and while I would never accuse Russell of “daylight clarity” or question his possession of a “shadowed soul,” the few glimpses of his films that I’ve seen since walking out on Women in Love many years ago have done nothing to change my impression that the majority of his work is repellently overblown. For Russell, Mahler’s mountaintop, that “place where we have always dreamed of being,” is occupied by a jackbooted, Nazi-helmeted nightmare of Cosima Wagner crossed with a CanCan dancer goosestepping with one arm heil-hitlering as she bullwhips a callow, Star-of-David-brandishing caricature of Mahler (played by Robert Powell). Russell’s gross exploitation of the composer’s conversion of convenience (from Jew to Roman Catholic, the only way he could attain the directorship of the Vienna Opera) is one of several formidably out-there sequences (such as Mahler’s dream of his own funeral and cremation) that Russell devotees would probably celebrate as surreal, grandiose masterstrokes from an auteur with a genius for black comedy. Russell’s tormenting of this sorry stand-in for a great composer is a cinematic version of the misguided vagaries of “interpretation.”

Mahler’s image suffers another unkind cut in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), where he is the inspiration for the tortured composer/conductor played — or, rather, endured — by Dirk Bogarde. Both films portray the artist as a sickly, neurotic victim, neither one coming close to Bruno Walter’s picture of the “arresting, alarming” man who was “at once genius and demon,” and whose “electric effect” on Walter transformed the younger man’s “entire feeling about life.”

Last Concert

On February 21, 1911, Mahler conducted a concert at Carnegie Hall in spite of having a temperature of 104. His rival Arturo Toscanini was in the audience. It was Mahler’s last concert. Blood tests showed the presence of a deadly virus. While Mahler reportedly knew his days were numbered as early as the summer of 1907, and while the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, written in 1908, has been interpreted by Leonard Bernstein, among others, as signifying “the end of life, the letting go,” Mahler did not actually hear his death sentence until he insisted on being told the truth by the doctors who administered the blood tests. When he died in Vienna on May 18, the “brutal whirlpool” took the form of a thunderstorm; his precious music sketch book was by his side, as it apparently always was, like a semblance of his truest self.

Walter’s first-hand account of Mahler can be found at the Princeton Public Library, as can two biographies I’ve consulted, Jonathan Carr’s Mahler (The Overlook Press 1998) and Kurt Blaukopf’s Gustav Mahler (Praeger 1973). The library also has a large selection of recorded works including Benjamin Zander’s 3-disc set of Symphony No. 3, which features the conductor’s enlightened and enlightening commentary on the work.

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