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Mahler in Manchester

Originally published in 2010:

I finally managed to make it to one of the Mahler in Manchester concerts this past weekend (in spite of my blog project, I’ve had concerts of my own every previous concert night). Happily, this time I had a rehearsal in Manchester, so I was able to catch Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic giving a quite stunning performance of Mahler 7.

Almost as interesting as the performance were the conversations before and after. There was a small army of rather distinguished composers about, as well as critics, Mahler nuts, broadcasters and other serious listeners. While everyone seemed unanimous in their praise for the performances, the work still sparked some rather pointed conversations- particularly the famous Finale, which still seems to shock and baffle.

For me, however, the experience of sitting back and listening after a week with the score on my desk helped to put the piece in clearer perspective. I really came away thinking that it marks one of the most important and decisive moments in Mahler’s music, and perhaps even in the development of Western music.

It is certainly a culmination. Mahler made clear that he thought of the three middle symphonies as a triptych, a point Gianandrea made back stage after the performance. Still reeling from his workout, he suggested that next time the orchestra perform 5, 6, and 7 all in one day. “Mahler said the 5th was all about horizontal lines, the 6th about vertical lines and the 7th about spirals” was G.N.’s take “It is one gigantic symphony in 3 parts.” I realize that this is some people’s idea of Hell, but I wouldn’t miss such a marathon, although I’m not sure one conductor would be advised to do it all. Maybe we can share.

But I think it marks an even grander culmination. Part of what sets the 5th and 6th apart from their predecessors is a shift to slightly different subject matter. The narrative voice of the first four symphonies essentially disappears. Instead of linear drama, Mahler gives us studies in mood and experience. In the 5th, he creates a vast triptych of Death, Ambivilance and Love. The 6th more or less reverses that trajectory. Gone are the fairy tales and the Wunderhorn imagery- nature remains a powerful force, but a more realistic and less idealized one. The natural world becomes less picturesque and more potent.

Although it is often faulted for being a re-working of the ideas of the 5th, the 7th begins with something of step back to territory of the Wunderhorn symphonies. Although the musical language of the first four movements is quite advanced (it’s no wonder it was Schoenberg’s favourite Mahler symphony), the imagery is much more rooted in the mythology of German Romanticism than anything in the prior 2 works. The imagery of night, the forest, the presence of marches, love songs and even a witches Sabbath are just the tiniest hint of the extent to which so much of the symphony is indebted to, and plays off of, the inherited images and symbols of Romantic poetry and drama. On one level, this symphony is a culmination of the Romantic movement.

In this sense, the piece finds connections Mahler’s earlier works, but, as so often in Mahler, a powerful paradox is at work. On the one hand, we are returning to comfortable and familiar territory- re-telling old stories, re-visiting old haunts, re-haunting old forests. On the other hand, we can’t escape the fact that Mahler’s musical language has moved on. He is showing us familiar territory from a fresh perspective. By placing the first four movements in a nocturnal context, it is almost as if he is making the point that this whole world of Romanticism isn’t real- it is a dreamscape, nothing more or less. All these potent archetypes rightly belong in the subconscious world, not the world of daylight. All those stories- all those symphonies. They are powerful dreams, but only dreams. This re-examining of familiar landscapes with new tools makes us doubt their solidity- their dream nature is strongly hinted at for a long time, then in the Finale, Mahler makes explicit the point that has been lurking throughout. We awaken.

In the Finale, Mahler opens with an obvious shout-out to Wagner. Not just any Wagner, but Die Meistersinger. Why this piece and not Tristan or The Ring? Perhaps it is worth noting what sets this opera aside from the rest of Wagner’s output. It’s largely a question of what it doesn’t contain and isn’t about. There are no gods, no ghosts, no miracles and no magic. It is an opera about real life, stripped of mythology and magic.

One very great musician said to me after the concert on Saturday that he found the material in Mahler’s Finale a little “embarrassing.” I don’t agree, but I understand the reaction. For the first time in Mahler’s output, he is in the world of Meistersinger- in a real human community.

By suddenly shifting from the world of Romantic convention and archetype to a realist perspective, Mahler is all but parodying the artifice of what came before. It is as if he is saying that dreams and myths are all well and good, but this is the real world we must live in, and somehow learn to love. Mahler’s portrait of real life is both generous and affectionate on the one hand and bemused and ironic on the other. It is certainly the most consistently funny Finale of any symphony since Beethoven’s 8th, which it self stood on a similar threshold to its composer’s late style. I find another parallel (be patient with me here) in Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles, where near the end of the film, the warring actors spill out of their films set across the MGM lot, wreaking havoc on countless other film sets in the process. Mahler’s Finale is possibly (certainly) more dignified, but it does open up similar questions about this conflict between the world of myth (the Western or the Romantic forest) and reality (the set-the town of Nurnburg).

But the parallel with Wagner and Die Meistersinger has one more thing to tell us. If Mahler simply ended with a joke, I think it would be unworthy of what comes before it. Fortunately, like all great composers, Mahler takes humorous music seriously and always has a deeper point to make. Die Meistersinger is not simply a comedy about town life, it is also a declaration of Wagner’s Schoepenhaurian philosophy-

Although Die Meistersinger is a comedy, it also elucidates Wagner’s ideas on the place of music in society, on renunciation of the Will, and of the solace that music brings in a world full of Wahn (which may be translated into English as “illusion”“madness”“folly” or “self-deception”). It is Wahn which causes the riot in Act 2 – a sequence of events arising from a case of mistaken identity, which can be seen as a form of self-delusion. Many commentators have pointed out that Sachs in his famous Act 3 monologue Wahn, wahn, überall Wahnis paraphrasing Schopenhauer when he describes the way that Wahn, or self-delusion, drives men to behave in ways which are actually destroying them.[7]

In the Finale of the 7th, Mahler creates a vivid depiction of a world rich in “madness” and “folly” but also seems to be underlining the presence of so much “illusion” and “self-deception” in the dreamscapes of the previous movements. It is music that brings solace in Wagner’s philosophy and Mahler’s. On the one hand, this Finale is about Life, not legendary, heroic, Romantic fairy-tale life, but real, simple, smelly, noisy life.  On the other hand, this Finale is about Music. When you are confonted with the madness of life, it is in music that you find solace.

And here we find that Mahler’s choice of material, some of it banal, some of it borrowed, some of it even embarrassing is no accident. His obvious model here is Haydn, who always seemed to treat the most ridiculous themes in the most sophsisticated ways. Think of the Finale of Haydn 92- has such an absurd melody ever been put through such paces? Yes, but only in other Haydn pieces. This process always feels cathartic and humanizing, and so it is in Mahler. He takes this hodgepodge of ideas and makes from them the single most complex and virtuosic movement in all the symphonies, deconstructing almost his whole life’s work in the process. When we think of the symbolic power of the brass chorale at the end of the 3rd Symphony and compare it to the brass chorale which forms the refrain of this movement it’s almost like a mirror image. One is transcendent, the other is just party music, and yet, by the end, the party has become a transcendent experience. This movement marks the birth of late Mahler, the end of Romanticism and the beginning of the musical 20th c. with a movement that invents modernity by re-engineering Haydn using a tune by Wagner.

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