Saturday, May 7, 2022

The Challenge of Mahler and His Music

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

Once I discovered the works of Gustav Mahler, I had a feeling I'd either love or hate them. He seems to have that effect on people.

Born in 1860 in eastern Bohemia -- what is now the Czech Republic -- Mahler grew up in an abusive family and saw many of his 13 siblings die as children. But he had a gift for music, and his early skills on the piano led to his being accepted into the Vienna Conservatory. Writing his own music would become secondary to his career as a conductor, although the virulent anti-Semitism of the day led to a withering public campaign to cancel the man of Jewish heritage.

Mahler did manage to write nine symphonies in his spare time, but his music went largely unappreciated in his lifetime. He married, but one of his two children died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, and he discovered that his wife was having an affair. To top it all off, he was eventually diagnosed with a heart condition that he knew would cut his life short. Sure enough, Mahler only survived to age 50.

The man threw all his angst into his music. Many of his works explore deep philosophical and religious issues such as the meaning of life. And it was this emotionalism that makes some of his works difficult to penetrate. Although he touches on universal human topics, the subjective personal nature of his works can make it hard to separate the man from his music. Beethoven, of course, also channeled his emotion into his works, but the emotions he conveyed were not so much about him but about the human condition in general, which is what gives his works such a wide appeal even today, whereas critics aren't entirely wrong to interpret Mahler's works as an exercise in indulgent self-pity.

There's no denying that Mahler, who at one point in his life ended up on Freud's couch, used music as a kind of personal therapy, expressing through his works what he couldn't in any other way. Does that make his works inherently whiny? At least one music critic thought so, calling the composer "a psychic weakling, a complaining adolescent who [...] enjoyed his misery, wanting the whole world to see how he was suffering." A scathing indictment, to be sure, but ultimately the listener must be the judge: Either the music moves you or it doesn't.

Either way, it does seem that Mahler had an abundance of neuroses. Musicians who worked under him chafed at his demanding perfectionism, his low tolerance for mistakes, and his insistence on rehearsing pieces over and over until he was satisfied with their execution. When he married, he insisted that his wife, herself a budding composer, give up her career in order to support his. He had to have things his way. Not someone you're likely to enjoy having a beer with at the neighborhood bar, that's for sure.

He's also a long-winded composer. All his symphonies run from an hour to 90 minutes. From what I've heard so far as I work my way through his compositions, it seems clear that he took a kitchen-sink approach to writing. That makes his compositions very dense and full of contrasts. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be difficult for those with short attention spans who like their composers to get to the point rather than linger a bit on this theme, then a bit on that, then meander into something else, and then reintroduce some of the themes at various points throughout the work. In short, Mahler's works get your brain working and force you to pay attention.

Mahler was a complex man, and that complexity plays itself out in his compositions. I'm going to refrain from rendering a judgment on his music just yet, because I feel I need more time with some of his symphonic works to fully digest and appreciate them. I'm not sold on the gimmickry of, say, having horns play offstage, or using the thud of a gigantic hammer to signify the blows of fate. But I can say that I like the overall melodic approach he took to writing in an age when atonality was rearing its very ugly head in the classical world. He wrote captivating passages, especially for basses and horns. And of course it's all very dramatic, and very personal to his own life and struggles.

A movement in his First Symphony, for example, teeters between a minor-key rendition of the children's song "Frere Jacques" and the sound of European folk music. It's very easy to imagine a young Mahler living through a dark childhood full of abuse and death, such that what should be a happy time in life felt grotesque and distorted -- and as he'd run out of his house to escape the misery, he'd find himself surrounded by musicians playing folk tunes, dance songs, and military marches. Why was there this seeming happiness around him when life seemed so dark? Was life all just an elaborate hoax? What did it mean?

Mahler asked those questions in his music. His compositions were his catharsis. If he were alive today, I think he'd be a Roger Waters type, working out his anger, bitterness, and sorrow in his lyrics. But his music would resemble something like Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans -- remarkably long and meandering, packed with themes and melodies that snake through the compositions and demand your attention and patience.

Nothing about Mahler, it seems, is easily digestible, and I suppose that's why he elicits such strong reactions from classical fans. For now, I'm keeping an open mind. I'm taking my time with each of his symphonies, and I'm sure I'll have more to say about Mahler and his music when I'm done.

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