The Biggest Rockets

Alex Ross

  • Gustav Mahler. Vol. III. Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1904 to 1907) by Henry-Louis de La Grange
    Oxford, 1024 pp, £35.00, February 1999, ISBN 0 19 315160 X
  • The Mahler Companion edited by Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson
    Oxford, 652 pp, £50.00, May 1999, ISBN 0 19 816376 2

‘In thirty or forty years,’ Gustav Mahler is said to have said, ‘Beethoven’s symphonies will no longer be played in concerts. My symphonies will take their place.’ The line comes from a dubious source – an ageing critic – but it is not out of character. Mahler, the most generous of megalomaniacs, often prophesied great things for his music, and, to judge from the programmes of recent seasons, his roll-over-Beethoven fantasy is coming true. The Mahler symphonies now occupy the dead centre of the repertory. This past season, in New York, Carnegie Hall put on the Ninth on a Sunday, the Third the following Thursday, and, about a week later, on successive evenings, Das Lied von der Erde and the First. One loud night in February, the Second and Fourth were done simultaneously, at Carnegie and at the Philharmonic. The Fifth, the Sixth, the Seventh, the Eighth, and part of the Tenth also showed up at various times. The First and the Ninth came back at season’s end, while Thomas Hampson sang the complete Mahler songs. Each of the major works, then, was performed at least once, and it wasn’t even an anniversary year. Beethoven’s little things, by contrast, received, by my count, seven performances – by the Philharmonic and by all orchestras visiting from out of town.

Meanwhile, Mahler books are piling up. Henry-Louis de La Grange, a French baron with a Mahler fetish, has issued Volume III of his four-volume biography, covering the period from August 1904 to December 1907. The tome, a thousand pages long, moves at the geological speed of one page a day. Donald Mitchell, the author of three books about Mahler, has edited a new one, The Mahler Companion. Two other biographies, by Peter Franklin and Jonathan Carr, have recently appeared. And, of course, there are recordings – well over a thousand versions of twenty works. A Mahler Discography, published in 1995, is already thoroughly out of date. One starts to wonder: is there such a thing as too much Mahler? If so, it is upon us.

Few people these days are heard to question Mahler’s greatness, and I don’t propose to do so. His achievement is an objective fact, a mountain range on the musical continent. But La Grange’s biography, suffocating in its detail and sycophantic in its tone, makes one curious about the other side of the story. Is there a case to be made against Mahler’s legend, if not his music? How has his entry into Valhalla changed the way we listen and the way composers think? With his monumentalism, his fanaticism, his unstinting idealism, and his unstinting egotism, he has not always been what school counsellors call ‘a good influence’. He left in his wake a series of inimitable, much-imitated masterpieces and a great deal of confusion about what a composer is supposed to do.

Alfred Roller, who revolutionised set design at the Vienna Opera in the early part of the century, produced a long, meticulous, almost erotically exciting account of Mahler without clothes. La Grange quotes it in full. The Mahlerian stomach, for example, ‘showed well-developed abdominal muscles, but absolutely free of superfluous fat – as was his entire body moreover – and showed the outlines as distinctly as an artist’s model. Because of my profession I have seen a great number of naked human bodies of all kinds, and I can affirm that . . . Mahler possessed a faultlessly beautiful, strong but slim man’s body.’ What this description indicates, aside from a tragic missed opportunity for Calvin Klein, is Mahler’s strength. He was not the sickly saint of popular myth: he was an athletic, aggressive man, undeserving of pity.

Mahler’s rise to the top – both as conductor and as composer – was fast and furious. He liked to say that he was an exile three times over – as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian in Germany, and as a Jew all over the world – but, as Leon Botstein argues in an essay in the Mahler Companion, he was utterly Viennese in spirit and a master of Vienna’s cultural politics. The son of a provincial tavernkeeper, he was brought to Vienna at the age of 15 for an audition at the Conservatory. The piano teacher Julius Epstein at once said, ‘He is a born musician,’ and when the boy’s father reacted sceptically he added: ‘In this case I am not mistaken.’ After failing to win the student composing competition, Mahler took up conducting. He started out in provincial opera houses and moved up to Budapest and Hamburg. Many people responded as Epstein did, with the certainty of the converted. Brahms woke up during Mahler’s Don Giovanni and said that it was the best Mozart he’d ever heard. The big prize was the directorship of the Vienna Opera, and when Mahler took it, in 1897, only the most rabid anti-semites questioned his credentials.

La Grange’s new volume begins as Mahler was coming off his greatest triumph as a conductor. In 1903, he had asked Roller to stage Tristan und Isolde, and that production, with its shadowy, semi-abstract, Symbolist designs, inaugurated the modern practice of opera direction. In the following years, the Mahler-Roller team presented Fidelio, the Mozart-Da Ponte operas, and the beginnings of a Ring. The artistic élites of Vienna thrilled to Roller’s conceptions, but musical conservatives began to have doubts. They complained that Roller kept the stage so dark that the singers’ faces couldn’t be seen; that Mahler had an eccentric taste in singers, favouring dramatic over vocal skills; that he spent too much time travelling around Europe conducting his own music; and that he had presented few notable premieres.

The biographer devotes page after page to Mahler’s detractors, documenting their pettiness and ignorance. Not so evident is the anti-semitism that is often said to have driven Mahler from office. The ordeal he went through was one that Hans Richter had suffered before him – Richter ‘left Vienna seven years earlier in a mood similar to Mahler’s’, La Grange writes – and that Felix Weingartner would undergo after him. Richard Strauss, Böhm, Karajan and Maazel were later victims. The Viennese love nothing better than to greet a new director as a saviour and then to peck him to pieces. (Seiji Ozawa is next in line for the booby-trapped throne.) Mahler’s Jewishness was used against him, but it was never the principal issue. The connoisseurs had simply got bored and wanted a change. The remarkable thing is not that Mahler had to leave but that he survived for a full ten years: no conductor in the 20th century held sole dominion for so long.

Were Mahler’s critics entirely in the wrong? If you look at the list of premieres that he presented in Vienna you will, indeed, find a string of obscurities, suggesting that his choices in new music were mostly political. And he did travel a great deal in support of his compositions. (La Grange describes each of these trips in stultifying detail, devoting one entire page to an incident of lost luggage.) Those who worked under Mahler at the Opera were at the mercy of his righteousness, his anger, his wild changes of mood. ‘When Mahler himself was on the podium he could conjure extraordinary things from even minor performers by the magic of his baton,’ Wilhelm von Wymetal, the head dramaturg for Weingartner in Berlin, said: ‘But Mahler hated repertory opera and wanted exceptional festival performances twice a week . . . Woe to anyone who strayed into the Opera on other occasions!’

‘Exceptional festival performances’: there, in a phrase, is the ambiguous legacy of Mahler the performer. He took the narrow ideal of Bayreuth – immaculately prepared productions of a small set of works – and tried to generalise it in daily musical life. Opera would no longer be a vulgar, hit-and-miss entertainment for the crowd: it would be a deluxe, ‘directed’, theatrically stimulating, orchestrally refined occasion. And, it turned out, an expensive one. After Mahler came the Salzburg Festival and the whole European festival circuit, which grew steadily in opulence as the audience for classical music steadily declined. Mahler, for all his good intentions, gave opera away to the snobs.

There is also a dark side to Mahler’s legacy as a composer, and Mahler’s critics help us pinpoint it. One of the most fascinating objets trouvés in the La Grange biography – a storehouse of turn of the century music criticism at its best and worst – is a review of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony by one Hans Liebstöckl, critic of the Illustriertes Wiener Extrablatt. Liebstöckl has the virtue, first of all, of being funny: his opening quip, ‘Krupp makes only cannons, Mahler only symphonies,’ has the touch of Karl Kraus. He also gives an early, sceptical perspective on the Mahler legend as it was gestating among the young people of Vienna. After a predictable assault on the material of the Sixth, he meditates interestingly on the spirit behind the music:

The right mood isn’t there, nor the tenderness, the happy introspection, the calm inherent in creation. All these things were alive and shining for the last time in Johannes Brahms . . . After [Brahms] comes the circus of the moderns. The colossal symphony, billboard music, the obtrusiveness of the means: the legacy of Liszt, Berlioz and Bruckner, the makers of great occasions . . . Mahler is a mystic, he loves bells of all kinds, celestas, sudden chorales. He is forever on a pilgrimage, has always got something to atone for and put right. He composes original sin. The pure fools have always made the loudest noise. . . . There is now such a thing as politics in music, and Herr Mahler too has a strong party, furiously applauding and religiously intolerant. Cults and fanatical priests are everywhere nowadays.

Liebstöckl’s review echoes the attacks that Hanslick launched on Wagner, and it repeats one of Hanslick’s pet peeves: that Wagnerian monumentalism was destroying the natural dynamic of musical life. ‘Wagner’s operatic style,’ Hanslick had written, ‘recognises only superlatives, and a superlative has no future. It is the end, not the beginning.’ Mahler’s intentions were Wagnerian to the core. Scholars and critics often wonder why he never wrote an opera, and the answer is plain enough: Wagner had established the superlative in opera, and Mahler would now do the same for the symphony. He would trump everything that had gone before.

At the turn of the century, the atmosphere of the musical world was like an arms race, or a race to the moon. Mahler was building the biggest rockets. His competitive instinct emerged most clearly in his relationship with Richard Strauss – his only rival, as he admitted. The Mahler-Strauss connection is a fascinating one, and it takes up many pages of La Grange’s book. In the years 1904 to 1907, Mahler fought for permission to stage Strauss’s Salome, a work which impressed him somewhat against his will; and his failure to overcome the objections of the Imperial censors played a role in his decision to resign from the Opera. At the same time, he found himself dissatisfied with Strauss as a human being. He felt that Strauss didn’t pay him enough attention, didn’t take him seriously as a composer and, by extension, didn’t take music seriously. This resentment of Strauss grew stronger as the years went by, and came to shape his philosophy.

The irony of the situation is that Strauss was for many years Mahler’s most vigorous supporter. He first engaged with Mahler’s music in 1894, when he organised a performance of the Mahler First and rehearsed it himself. In 1895, the Berlin Philharmonic, of which he was the temporary director, presented three movements of the Mahler Second. In 1901, he invited Mahler to conduct his Fourth Symphony with the Tonkünstler Orchestra, in Berlin. He often featured work by Mahler in his own programmes: the Wunderhorn songs, in 1900; Songs of a Wayfarer, in 1901; the First, again, in 1904. Also, in 1901, Strauss became president of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, a powerful composers’ organisation, and for several years running, the ADMV’s summer festival had a Mahler work as its centrepiece. The Third was given its first complete performance at the festival of 1902; the Second was played in 1903; the Sixth had its premiere in 1906. After all this, the ADMV was jokingly renamed the Allgemeiner Deutscher Mahlerverein.

Why, then, did Mahler persist in thinking that Strauss had a low opinion of him? His correspondence records numerous slights and hurts, most of which seem to be the product of an insecure imagination. ‘My friendly and respectable solicitude for him,’ he wrote to Alma on one occasion, ‘evoked no response and was probably wasted on him, since it went unnoticed. Repeated experiences of this kind make me begin to have doubts about myself and the world at large.’ La Grange spends several pages trying to avoid the obvious conclusion that envy had taken hold. Strauss was at the time the more celebrated of the two composers, and his determination to establish Mahler as his equal meant that Mahler had to seek out ever more trivial pretexts for his ill will. After the final rehearsal of the Sixth, as the composer sat shattered by his own creation, Strauss burst in to announce that the mayor had died and that a funeral march should be played before the next night’s performance. Alma Mahler recounted the episode as the collision of a pure spirit and a vulgar one, but Strauss was being his usual pragmatic self: mayors needed to be attended to, even after death.

In these years of Strauss’s greatest fame, Mahler, who suffered from the Wagnerian disease of mistaking the personal for the world-historical, began to speak of the insignificance of contemporary musical judgment and of the ultimate wisdom of posterity. ‘As long as I am the Mahler down here on earth,’ he said, ‘a man among men, I must resign myself to an “all too human” treatment as a composer. Only when I have shaken off this earthly dust will I receive my due.’ He was the ‘untimely man’, in Nietzsche’s phrase. Strauss, of course, was the ‘timely’ one. On another occasion, he wrote: ‘My time will come when his is up.’ The antipode, again, was Strauss. That last remark has been bowdlerised, in scores of books and essays, as ‘My time will come.’

Such contempt for the public was a café-table affectation. Mahler worried immensely about the reception of his work and danced on air when a piece succeeded. In the pages of La Grange, he is repeatedly to be found having dinner with wealthy or famous admirers, sending notes to favourite critics, gauging his popularity in one city or another. When he sensed that he had left his audience behind with the instrumental experiments of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, he composed his Eighth, a ‘gift to the nation’. Step by step, he won over the sceptics, and in his later years scored many triumphs. He wrote consciously and directly for the audience of his time. In truth, Mahler and Strauss were after the same thing: grand entertainments interlaced with irony and sophistication. But Mahler would never admit that he was an entertainer.

It may seem inappropriate to characterise the high priests of Modernism in terms usually reserved for the producers of Hollywood blockbusters, but it is worth bearing in mind that just before Schoenberg discovered atonality he wrote Gurrelieder, the splashiest Wagno-Mahlerian spectacular of them all. For a while, composers were competing to see who could end a work with the most deafeningly over-orchestrated major chord, and thanks to Gurrelieder, Schoenberg held the trophy for a few years. Mahler took it back in the coda of the Eighth, with its thousand-odd performers and its spine-tingling augmented triads – major-key except more so. Schoenberg then tried a new tack: he and his pupils would write tiny, spooky pieces, stripped of triads altogether. He won the race into musical outer space.

Schoenberg, in his writings, converted Mahler’s faith in posterity into a religion of incomprehension and neglect. If a contemporary audience likes you, he said, you’re no good. At the same time, he himself delivered the verdict of posterity by painting Mahler, in a 1912 obituary, as a fragile, otherworldly saviour. That image, for all its obvious distortions, has prevailed in the public imagination. Schoenberg certainly owed Mahler something, because the great man had given him vital public support. At the premiere of the First String Quartet in 1907, Mahler had applauded ostentatiously and nearly got into a fistfight with an anti-Schoenbergian in the audience. Buried in La Grange’s account of this episode is a less attractive explanation for Mahler’s behaviour: appalled by the way Vienna had turned against him, he expressed his contempt for the establishment by applauding these outrageous new sounds. In private he admitted that he no longer understood what Schoenberg was doing. Was that generosity, or hypocrisy?

Mahler was never merely petty. The intensity of his devotion to music was recorded by admirers and enemies alike. ‘I strive to preserve my positive, productive mood amidst the confusion of everyday life,’ he wrote in a letter to Alma. But the need to underscore the words ‘positive’ and ‘productive’ suggests that they came with effort, and at a price. Mahler’s symphonies had a military edge, a destructive energy: the territory in front of them had to be scorched and scoured for the shining towers to be erected. He showed a hatred of the status quo, of tradition, of all bourgeois values. Which isn’t to say that he was a socialist, as some commentators have claimed. Witness this anecdote from Alma:

Mahler and I were badly shaken by the terrible San Francisco earthquake, but on the same day Professor Curie, the great discoverer of radium, was run over and killed by a carriage in Paris. Mahler and I knew of his hermit-like existence and his life, which was wholly dedicated to science. We unanimously agreed that this misfortune was the greater one. The discoverer and great benefactor of mankind, who sought and found this substance – versus the nameless mass of people swallowed up like a large question mark.

Many who attended Mahler’s first nights, even those who praised him, commented on the violence, even the malevolence, of the music. It isn’t so easy to hear those qualities now that his music has become the preferred soundtrack for romantic films. Julius Korngold, one of Mahler’s steadfast advocates in the press, commented, in a review of the Sixth Symphony, on its ‘satanic’ and ‘annihilating’ character. (Mahler sent a friendly postcard in response.) Others spoke of the bitterness of his parodies. His myriad quotations stuck out more than they do now. Leon Botstein sees him as a satirist in the Fin-de-Siècle Viennese tradition, noting that he echoed and embodied Vienna’s ‘cultural artifice, self-satire, hypocrisy, irony and intolerance’.

His music would probably sound fresher if conductors were less inclined to treat him as a saint. Current performance style favours slow tempos and plush sonorities, sacralising the music as post-Wagnerian ritual. The quotations are pronounced in earnest, without quotation marks. I would plead with conductors to bring out the muscle, the anger, the nastiness, the wit in Mahler. If you listen to older recordings by Hermann Scherchen or Dimitri Mitropoulos you will see what I mean. Contemporary composers, meanwhile, should put away their Mahler for a while. Every other new work these days has a passage in which the strings are asked to bow heavily through hymnal harmonies, prompting critics to hit control-M for ‘Mahlerian’ on their computers.

Last season, the Walt Disney Company commissioned two composers – Aaron Jay Kernis and Michael Torke – to write works in the manner of the Mahler Eighth. Disney’s CEO had evidently been so impressed by the Eighth that he wished to have a similar noise made by his own money. The premieres had a comical aspect, yet the end result was sad. Composers can no longer play at Fin-de-Siècle gigantism: when they work on the same scale, and with the same materials, they end up producing blasts of hot air. Mahler’s own work is made to sound hollow and kitschy in turn. Hanslick’s warning about the excesses of Wagnerism is apposite: ‘He who follows will break his neck, and the public will contemplate the disaster with indifference.’ It happened decades ago.