Mahler and meaning

Mahler 9 ending

I am at this moment listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and my face is covered with my own tears and my insides are torn up by the force of the music.

It is the morendo of the final movement. Ersterbend, is what Mahler asks for. And he means “dying.” Not the dramatic or theatrical dying a sensitive teenager imagines, but a slow extinguishing ad nihil: a kind of evaporation of the last molecules of life. I can hardly tell when the last note actually ends, it is so quiet.

The great music critic, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who died last year at 90, (and who attended the Ring cycle at Bayreuth 17 times, and before he retired, managed to go to two different Mahler festivals, one in Amsterdam in 1995 and the other in Berlin 10 years later) said the highest experience he ever had in a concert hall was the Mahler Ninth conducted by Abbado in Amsterdam. As that last note hung in the ether and finally could be heard only in the mind’s ear, Dimitri said he was afraid the mood would be destroyed by the expected applause, but it didn’t: “No one applauded for a full five minutes,” he said. And I’ve read the same thing in other accounts of that concert. If he was exaggerating, it is only by a little.

Applause would have been the inappropriate response to the music; this was hardly a case of hearing pleasant tunes and enjoying them. The music, rather, spoke to its listeners on some deep, disturbing and emotional level.

The profound emotions drawn out of us by Mahler, or the late Beethoven quartets, or the Bach unaccompanieds (take your pick, fiddle or violoncello), have long ago persuaded me that music is not abstract, as the current prejudice would have it, but rather, it was meant by its composer to be “about something.” That is, the music is deeply metaphorical.

When we listen to Shostakovich’s Seventh or his Eighth quartet, or to Beethoven’s Eroica or Mahler’s Third, we are hearing the composers thoughts about extra-musical issues. Yes, they are all elaborate, complex and interesting arrangements of notes, but they are also about war, heroism, nobility, longing, death, love and idealism, among many other things. To ignore those things in the music is to misunderstand the music. Worse, it is to trivialize it.

I am not making the argument that all music, or all classical music is meant to be understood philosophically, but that a certain level of music by a certain class of composer was intended to intersect the larger issues of being alive. A brilliant Mozart divertimento may not be more than an especially graceful and intelligent divertissement, and our main concern may be the clever things he does with D-major, but you cannot hear “Viva la libertad” from Don Giovanni and not weep for its extra-musical import and what it meant at that instant of human history.

Neither am I making an argument for what used to be called “program music.” I don’t mean that the composer meant to tell a story simply by substituting notes for words. Yes, many 19th century composers published or announced “programs” for their works, but many of them also privately or later publicly disavowed those programs. And there are many cases of music writers proposing programs that are prima facie ridiculous. We now use those excesses to bludgeon the entire century of musical purpose.

But I am saying that the music we take most seriously, and hold to the longest in our lives, speaks to us of more than musical ingredients. We should not be embarrassed to be brought to tears or to elation by the Beethoven Ninth or the Verdi Requiem. That’s what those composers intended to happen. They weren’t entertaining us, they were speaking to us.

There are two aspects to this problem that I worry the most about.

The first is the assertion by some (including all those tedious French Post-Structuralists) that thoughts and words are identical. There is a good deal of thinking — perhaps the overwhelming majority — that is not verbal. We can think spatially, we can think mathematically, we can think emotionally, we can think visually. When we do something as simple as pass a car while driving, we don’t think in words about the speed of our car, the speed of the car in front of us, the speed of the car coming at us in the other lane and how far off it is. We think in temporal-spatial terms, completely without words, knowing whether there is opportunity to overtake the bumpkin in the pickup truck in front of us who is going 25 in a 45 mph zone. No words, but thought nonetheless.

And when Richard Strauss takes on the afflatus of idealistic aspiration in his Don Juan, we recognize the affliction in our own body-reaction — the heightened pulse or the rise of gorge in our goozle. I don’t have to put in words to know it. It is the perfect musical metaphor for the non-musical experience.

If one objects that the music can never be as precise, or that it is always ambiguous, I can only respond that words themselves are always ambiguous and imprecise. Their supposed precision is an optical illusion. (It is why we have lawyers). To contain largeness requires ambiguity: The more precise a word is, the less it defines, until the ultimate precise word has no more meaning than the name of a dog. Here, Spot.

(I mean, for instance, that genus is more narrow than phylum, species more precise than genus, breed yet more precise than species, and when you slice it down to an individual dog by name, you have narrowed the scope so much that whatever observation you make no longer has any wide application.)

If we think about this issue of precision, it is obvious: What is the white whale in Moby Dick? The very ambiguity is essential to its power. So, this can be no argument against metaphor in music.

And secondly, if you say music is not “universal” and is culturally inflected — as so many intellectuals do these days — then I scratch my head. Is not language culturally inflected? Do you not have to learn English to understand Steinbeck? So how is it different having to learn the tradition of European classical music to understand Mahler? Mahler is (albeit idiosyncratic) something to learn, just as you have to learn by reading Faulkner or Joyce to get past the parts that at first don’t make sense.

The Mahler Third arguably makes no sense understood merely musically. It took me years to begin to fathom what was going on in that vast ocean of music and orchestration, but now that I understand it metaphorically, it is the greatest of Mahler’s symphonies (or maybe shares that with the Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde — “Ewig, Ewig.”

The other big problem I have is the prejudice of Modernism.

I have lived through the century of Modernism, and was infected with it from my earliest years. I am only recently cured. I grew up loving abstract art and stream-of-consciousness novels. The party trick that is Modernism is to understand the means of expression as the subject of the art itself: color, form, shape, contrast: These carry meaning in themselves.

(I know Modernism has other aims as well, but this part of it is what ruins classical music for me.)

And you can see the effect of Modernism in the history of classical music recordings. The old style of performance, exemplified by Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Casals and Walter, by mid-century, gives way to Toscanini, Weingartner and eventually Szell, Solti and now, John Eliot Gardner. These are the “just-the-facts-ma’am” conductors, following Toscanini’s dictum: “To some, the Eroica may be about heroism and nobility, but to me it is just Allegro con brio.”

A century of musicians have disparaged the very idea that music can be about anything but music. “Music can express nothing,” said Stravinsky, whose music is profoundly expressive despite himself.

What is lost when this Modernist esthetic is applied to music — and 19th century music in particular — is the core of what the music is about. If a Leonard Slatkin doesn’t believe that the first movement of the Eroica strives for something and achieves it in the coda, then he is only making noise. I read reviews over and over where the critic complains that the conductor is “interpreting” the music instead of just letting it speak for itself, and what he means, of course, is that he wants the music to shut up about life, death, the universe and everything, and just scratch the familiar tickles and amuse me. As if you could play Hamlet and just speak the words clearly without all that “acting.”

The century of Modernism is over, although the effects linger on. And what we call Postmodernism isn’t all that much better (it being merely a kind of Mannerism to the Renaissance of Modernism), but you can find a number of musicians and conductors seeking to find other ways of dealing with the real issues of the music. Yes, there are the Roger Norringtons out there, mucking things up with their idiocy, but there are also the Mikhail Pletnevs and Daniel Barenboims, seeking to understand why there should be a ritardando here, or a sforzato there, even when not called for in the score. The same as a Gielgud applies a pause in “To be or not to be,” to maximize the rhetorical understanding of the content. Shakespeare did not indicate such in his text, but an intelligent actor knows where they work and why.

I also have to laugh at the way Modernism once thought of itself as the natural conclusion of a historical process, having finally gotten to the point of esthetic “purity” that all art previously only aspired to. Got a giggle out of that.

Along with Pablo Neruda, I am in favor of the impure in art.

And in favor, not of a simple-minded return to an elusive “golden age” of the past — such an age never existed, and the old recordings prove that musicians now play in better tune and with better intonation than they ever played for Mengelberg — but for some new way to explore the metaphor inherent in the music, and not to ignore the music’s meaning for the sake of keeping alive a dying flame of Modernism.

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1 comment
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