At the beginning of the school of modern music that flowered in Schoenberg stands the work of Gustav Mahler, who was the first to break out of the stiffening molds of 19th-century romanticism and move in the direction which many critics feel offers the most fruitful possibility for music in the 20th century. KURT LIST suggests that public neglect of Mahler’s work may be at the root of the general failure to understand what is being done in modern music, and he here attempts an exposition of the contribution of this great originator.
Romantic music, most fully developed in the work of German composers of the mid-19th century, remains a favorite with modern audiences; but it also represents the beginning of a deep stagnation and a drying up of virility and originality. By 1870 it had already become a kind of background, an illustrative “sound track,” to ideas and ideologies that were themselves losing their interest and relevance: sentimental nationalism, Wagnerian mysticism, romantic Weltschmerz. In the Italy of that time we find the opera given over to cheap sensationalism, and only the eruptions of a Verdi redeemed the genre from time to time. Russian music, hardly come into its own, had already passed through the most heterogeneous development in an attempt to remain national and at the same time assimilate modern Western style. French music, rigidly formalistic, enjoyed in Offenbach an occasional respite from the tasteless glorification of the Second Empire, but was on the whole pompous and without ambition. In Austria and Germany proper, where the fanciful ideas of romanticism flourished most luxuriantly, great composers like Brahms and Wagner, themselves guilty in part of the cult of “program music,” yet also responsible for a tremendous widening of the musical medium, spread mediocrity by their influence. A genius was badly needed to rescue music from that Victorian complacency which so often mistook idle literary fantasy for true imagination.
The French solved the problem by a characteristic compromise. Debussy, substituting vague impressions of nature for the conventional literary “program,” managed to create a kind of impersonal music whose brilliance and aloofness were frequently taken for the qualities of pure abstraction. But what Debussy actually did was split the evolution of Western music in two: his own path was that of sensuous detachment; the other and later path became expressionism, exemplified in the work of such a composer as Anton Bruckner, who brought romantic music to a more personal level, making it the vehicle not of ideas but of individual—and often eccentric—emotion. The consequences of this split are felt today no less than when it first became apparent.
It was in Austria, which witnessed the birth of romantic music in Beethoven and Schubert, that romantic music and its achievements were transformed into something new. Gustav Mahler was one of the leaders in this transformation. Mahler’s achievement is by no means so conclusive or original as that of his successor, Arnold Schoenberg. But without Mahler, Schoenberg would hardly have been possible.
Mahler, without completely giving up the use of music as a vehicle of ideas, nevertheless moved away from the directly representational or literary. Mahler lived in the world of philosophy, and his music expresses an obsession with the dualism of mind and matter, a generalized pessimism about earthly life, and a redeeming confidence in the hereafter; the greater abstractness of Mahler’s music derives from the removal of the ideas expressed from the plane of literary and sentimental conceits to the more “spiritual” plane of abstract philosophy.
Mahler tied together for the first time many of the loose ends of the late 19th century—the technical vagaries of the romantics, the dilemma of modern man and the escape mechanism of the romantic fantasy, man’s courageous posturings and his boundless despair. He remained a romantic, but he brought romanticism to its culmination and wrote finis.
For Schumann, the symphony had become the tone poem, for Debussy it ceased to exist altogether. Mahler attached himself almost exclusively to symphonic writing, abjuring the operas and tone poems of the romantics. He preserved the symphony, but made it “heretical.” Brahms, too, had recognized the value of the symphony. But Brahms tried to rehabilitate the symphony by a reversion to earlier ideals, without making use of the gains of romanticism. Mahler incorporates in his symphonies many of the technical advances of romanticism, without violating the symphonic concept. It is a common error to attribute to Anton Bruckner the first integration of the Wagnerian harmonic expansion into the symphonic form; what Bruckner accomplished was merely the mechanical transplantation into orchestral writing of Wagner’s technique of musical blocks, without assimilating it to symphonic—i.e. primarily abstract, constructivist—musical thinking. It was Mahler who was the first to understand how to subject the large Wagnerian harmonic effusion to symphonic ends in an organic fashion.
Wagner had driven tonality to its limits, and it had become necessary either to break away from tonality altogether, as Schoenberg was to do later, or to delimit it artificially so as not to destroy the conventional formal figures of the symphonic structure. Mahler’s was the latter course, and he was able there by to free his music from the mosaic technique of musical motifs as practiced by the romantics, without being driven to the creation of a full musical revolution. He reintroduced instead the more expansive, classical line, and by devising novel contrapuntal ideas he anchored the harmonic vastness of romanticism to the heart of the symphonic form, and thus showed the way towards a more intricate polyphonic concept, an idea that seemed to have been abandoned since Beethoven.
But from this attempt—in many ways a heroic one—to reconcile the classical symphonic form with the semi-literary ideal of romanticism, arise the many faults characteristic of Mahler’s music: emphatic overstatement; tremendous length and loquaciousness; confusion arising from the attempt to manipulate romantic material within a relatively abstract framework; thematic banality; efforts at popularization, to make the complicated abstract structure more acceptable to listeners reared in the conventions of easy melodiousness; a straining to base the composer’s radical innovations on tradition. But while Mahler may not have created a single perfect work, he remains one of the most significant musical forces of the second half of the 19th century. He was not one of music’s giants, but only such a man as he, with his particular personal and artistic experience, could have helped to shape the future of music so decisively.
Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, the son of a small storekeeper in Kalischt, a little Bohemian town. The family soon moved to Iglau, another Bohemian town where the child grew up near a military barracks, hearing daily the incessant sound of the bugle calls. Mahler’s biographers make much of this fact, tracing some of his sardonic thematic material to the reveille and retreat calls of the buglers. As was usual then in even the poorest Jewish families, Mahler received early instruction on the piano. When he was fifteen, his father sent him to the Vienna Conservatory, where he first came to know the music of Wagner and Bruckner, influences that remained enormously important for him, though he soon passed beyond the stage of imitation.
Mahler’s early compositions are lost, but we know that he composed prodigiously at a very early age. The first works we know are songs—the cycle Songs of a Wayfarer was written in 1884—followed by the First Symphony in 1888. After this latter date, Mahler embarked on composition seriously, but he had to devote most of his time to earning a living as a conductor, and his total output remained small: nine symphonies, parts of a tenth, the symphonic cycle Das Lied von der Erde, two more song cycles, and a few individual songs.
Whether Mahler might have given the world much more music if necessity had not made him a conductor, it is meaningless to speculate. Certainly his work as a conductor was not wasted: as a concert conductor, and especially as a reformer of opera performance, he did much to oppose the general slothfulness of most performers of his time, and to revive respect for tradition and a sense of musical values. We have Mahler to thank for many of the virtues of modern operatic and concert performance.
Although Mahler encountered frequent opposition to his strict demands on those who performed for him, his fame as a conductor spread rapidly after his first apprentice years in Hall (Austria), Laibach (in today’s Yugoslavia), and Olmuetz (Bohemia). His engagements took him to several German provincial towns, and by the age of twenty-eight he had reached the first climax of his career, becoming director of the Budapest Opera House. After three years he resigned to accept a conductorship in Hamburg, where he stayed for another six years. In 1897 he took over the coveted post of director of the Vienna State Opera House, and in the ten years between 1897 and 1907 he completely reformed the Vienna opera, making it one of the foremost organizations in Europe—this despite the intrigues and anti-Semitic attacks organized against him by Viennese bureaucrats and a number of resentful artists. But in the end Mahler became weary of the intrigues of musical life in Vienna, and in 1907 he went to America, where he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York Philharmonic from 1907 to 1911.
But here again the strain of concert life was too much for him; he was already suffering from a minor heart ailment, and on his return to Europe early in 1911 he was more seriously stricken. His wife, Alma Maria Schindler, whom he had married in 1902, managed to bring him back to Vienna, and there he died on May 19, 1911. So great was his reputation as a conductor and so limited his fame as a composer that the general public at first mourned only the passing of a great performer.
Mahler’s life-span covered perhaps the calmest years in all known history. During his sixth year the Seven Weeks’ War between Prussia and Austria was fought, to leave hardly any mark upon the milieu in which he grew up; and when he died the Balkan War of 1912 was still one year away. In the forty-five years between these two wars tranquillity reigned, and those inhabitants of Europe who possessed the financial means lived in unexampled security and comfort. Moreover, by the time Mahler was born the equal status of Jews in Austria, proclaimed by law in 1781, had become more or less an actuality.
But this peace did not have deep roots. The Hapsburgs had chronic difficulties in ruling the many nationalities living under what then seemed to be a stern regime. Mahler himself was mainly affected by the national difficulties of the Czechs. As a middle-class Jew he belonged culturally to the German sphere, but because of his Bohemian origin he was often treated by the Austrian bureaucracy as one of the despised Czechs. (Once Mahler said, “I am a threefold expatriate—a Czech among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew in the whole world.”)
Nor were the complications of nationality the only difficulties that troubled the Hapsburg empire. A powerful labor movement, struggling for independent expression, had come into existence in the late 19th century to threaten not only the throne, but the very existence of the imperial state itself. Yet the intelligentsia of the empire were only half aware of all this, and what awareness they had simply created in them a negative attitude towards social and political matters in general—an attitude particularly marked among the Jewish intelligentsia.
Granted, the Viennese Jew had come a long way from the time he was shut up in a ghetto on a small island between the Danube canal and the Danube, and had to live by usury or petty trade. But though ostensibly admitted into society with full rights, he encountered all those hidden barriers that today still make up the anti-Semitism of the “enlightened” strata of society. Emancipated or not, he was still excluded from high governmental positions, and in a country where all cultural posts had civil service status, such a situation was particularly difficult for the Jew who wished to escape the confines of petty-bourgeois life. Thus, those who aspired to distinction in science or art approached life with an even deeper pessimism than that which characterized the Austrian intelligentsia in general—a pessimism revealing itself, among other ways, in an almost oversensitive reverence for philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
Nietzsche in particular was Mahler’s idol in his early years—that same Nietzsche who had spoken Mahler’s own thoughts when he said, “Two hundred days of every year are pure pain.” But Mahler was not influenced by Nietzsche’s pessimism alone: the tendency that had led to Nietzsche’s complete reversal of position in 1877, when in Menschliches Allzumenschliches he denounced pessimism, attacked Wagner and Schopenhauer, and praised Offenbach, led Mahler, too, to accept simultaneously negativism and optimism. In Nietzsche this reversal was caused primarily by his hatred for the state and its officialdom, both of which came for him to be symbolized in Wagner, whom he called “the Papist.” With Mahler the feeling was not so much political as metaphysical: he made for himself a kind of rough amalgam combining the deep pessimism of Schopenhauer with the new optimism of Nietzsche, a mixture that constituted his own peculiar approach—and was perhaps the result fundamentally of his experiences as a Jew in a society that at no point either accepted or rejected him wholly. Mahler’s pessimism, unlike Schopenhauer’s, was never skeptical and never rationalistic. The roots of his philosophy lay not in intellectual processes but in an emotional doubt and insecurity which was to possess him even more strongly in later years, when, as director of the Vienna Opera House, he became the target of the intrigues of anti-Semitic bureaucrats.
He was, as he said himself, a “summer composer”; his strenuous activity on the podium prevented him from composing during the season. But even so he managed in his “spare time”—his summers away from the bustle of the theater—to write a great deal of music which, if not universally acclaimed, at least won him many ardent disciples and admirers among those circles of the younger intelligentsia he wanted most to reach. In its outward circumstances his life seemed very successful; few other composers have had such an easy and flourishing career. And no other composer, with the possible exception of Richard Strauss, could boast of having enjoyed in his own lifetime great fame along with high material rewards.
But behind this outer picture of serenity was an inner personality which to many who caught glimpses of it seemed obscure and puzzling. Bruno Walter, in his book on Mahler, tells how the composer once was gripped suddenly by terrifying fright, imagining he saw the shadow of an eagle about to pounce on him. When he was only nineteen, he wrote the most resigned and melancholy letters: “O, my loved earth, when O when will you accept the deserted man into your lap? Look! Men have rejected him and he flees their cold, heartless bosom to come to you, to you! O, accept the lonely one, the restless one, all-eternal mother!”
Such pessimism is not new. But in Mahler it is both the traditional pessimism of the baroque and the peculiar despair of the modern, and hand in hand with it there went the positive hope of a better, healthier life in the beyond, a life that became finally the only important one for him. Out of the Nietzschean mixture of pessimism and optimism, reinforced by the influence of Schopenhauer, who in his borrowings from Buddhism combined the skeptical with the affirmative, Mahler made for himself a mood of combined depression and exuberance, perhaps his only answer to the social anti-Semitism he experienced so frequently.
It is remarkable, by the way, that before the advent of Hitler none of Mahler’s biographers felt it necessary to discuss the anti-Semitic attacks he was subjected to for so many years. It was the reverse of the universalist medal: since it was not important that he was a Jew, it was also not important that he was attacked as a Jew. Only after 1933 do the biographers—notably the composer’s widow—begin to see the Jewish strain in Mahler’s personality and work.
Eventually Mahler found his peace in Catholicism, the religion offering the most definite assurance that life on earth is only a preparation for life in the beyond. This fact, which has been made much of by his enemies, supplied an additional reason for his biographers’ habitual suppression of the Jewish “issue.” Baptism in old Austria was a revocable passport to higher honors, and it is easy to accuse Mahler of sheer opportunism; but this is to misunderstand his character and the trend of the times. Catholicism of an ascetic tendency had assumed a “progressive” appearance as a kind of symbolic answer to the dogmatic yet lavish court of Francis Joseph; the pretender to the throne, Francis Ferdinand, young nephew of Francis Joseph, was an ardent and ascetic Catholic, and he rallied around him many younger intellectuals who, half-consciously dissatisfied with the state of affairs yet not endowed with sufficient political insight to place their hopes on the only opposition to the status quo that had reality—namely, the labor movement—saw their one chance in the spiritual and political aspirations of this prince. Many gifted young Jews followed him blindly and accepted his faith as their own, for idealistic rather than religious reasons. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Adolf Loos, Karl Kraus, to name only a few, were among them. Was it so strange, then, that a man like Mahler, deeply conscious of his need of a connection with the world of the German spirit—if only for the sake of his art—should join this general tendency?
Mahler’s eventual rejection of life on earth was actually a form of heterodoxy, since it implied that this world was created by evil. As a Manichean heretic, Mahler was less concerned with the devotional than with the ideological aspects of Catholicism. He found spiritual guidance not in the prayer book or the ritual, but in a book by a famous German psychologist, Gustav Theodor Fechner, called Das Buechlein vom Leben nach dem Tode, a metaphysical excursion arguing that birth is but a change from one life to another. Inspired by this idea, Mahler became convinced that his music was an anticipation of the life to come. Suddenly his art shifts from the aesthetic to the purposeful; he sees himself as a visionary rather than an artist. He begins to attribute magical qualities to his music—“I am afraid people will commit suicide after hearing this work,” Mahler is reported to have said of one of his later symphonies, This sort of thinking provides Mahler with a new source of inspiration, and—as if by a dialectical conversion—the abstractness of “pure music” is achieved by the sheer overstatement of esoteric ideas couched in a musical texture of great physical directness.
Perhaps this abstractness, too, may have been in part a consequence of Mahler’s Jewishness. Forbidden to depict God as a living thing in figurative art, Jews had acquired the capacity to think, feel, and express the abstract. But, like other peoples, they still had to resort to some concrete form for their leading ideas, and thus, while God could not be represented pictorially, he still existed in the imagination as something materially existent: the flaming thornbush, in which God is symbolized by flame—a thing at once immaterial and real—is the best-known example of this conception. And it may have been something similar that made Mahler see in all art a purpose beyond itself; acting on this belief, he achieved, paradoxically again, a result embodying the utmost aesthetic purity.
Philosophically, his music is representational, aesthetically it is abstract. Almost against his will, one might say, his works were fated to remain purely symphonic, despite occasional programmatic implications and even despite his frequent use of texts. “All music since Beethoven has been program music,” was one of Mahler’s favorite maxims. Yet of his own music he said: “Mood music is dangerous ground. For the time being everything remains as it was: themes—clear and plastic so that they can be recognized in each guise and development—and then a varying development and primarily a logical evolution of the inner idea.” This, of course, is the very opposite of programmatic music. And all his programmatic implications—the titles of his Third, the sledge hammer in his Sixth, the words in his Second, Fourth, and Eighth symphonies—are but the result of a felt need to clarify the abstractness of his music for the inexperienced listener. And perhaps, after all, he really knew how far his art was removed from the representational: the greatest opera conductor and director on the German stage, he never tried his hand at an opera or any other expressly representational work.
Mahler was not a modern composer in the revolutionary sense. As a Jew of his particular period, he had to spend too much time and energy entrenching himself in traditional culture to permit him to accomplish any radical break. Nevertheless, he was by far the most advanced symphonic composer of his generation insofar as he did the most to break out of the blind alley of romantic music.
His yearning for integration with German culture, especially its romantic aspect, is well revealed in some poems he wrote which are amazingly similar to those in the famous collection of German romantic poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Yet Mahler wrote them before he ever knew of this book. His music was pervaded by the romantic devices and allusions used by German composers ever since Schubert, yet his feeling of not belonging in their world and his resulting pessimism made him reject the basic aesthetic of romanticism. It was thus that, while seeming to stay within the romantic style, he was able to free himself from so much that had become sterile in it.
Mahler also repeatedly employed such devices of liturgical music as chorales, etc. Yet he converted these devices, too, into forms of musical expression that went beyond the institutional ideas of the Church—just as Beethoven, who had no personal inclination towards religion, had done with similar devices. Consequently, the threefold expatriate Mahler was able to accomplish what the Catholic Anton Bruckner had attempted in vain ever since his Fourth Symphony in 1874. Bruckner, staying within the narrow national boundaries of Austria, employed peasant dances and the clichés of church music, its organ points, chorales, and ostinati as he had learned them during his days as an organist; but the Jew Mahler, thirsting for culture and essentially a cosmopolitan intellectual, lifted his music beyond nationalism. In the history of music, only those works that are truly cosmopolitan make a decisive mark in the end.
It is true that Mahler’s combination of romanticism and religiosity did seduce him into forms with such broad contours that the usual symphony, whose formal essence lies in a tightly knit structure, was extended into absurdity. But this structural elephantiasis was mitigated to some degree by Mahler’s pessimistic questioning of romanticism: the walking basses that appear again and again to give the listener a feeling of indefinable horror; the ostinati, ever recurring motifs emphasizing senselessness in their lack of musical evolution; the barbaric marches, written a long time before Stravinsky; the banalities of the thematic inventions and the almost literal quotations from composers as diverse as Mozart, Schubert, and Bruckner—all these negate almost every effort at grandioseness. Curiously, Mahler’s frequent banality and his stylistic parodies, often amounting to actual plagiarisms and attacked repeatedly by the critics, do not point to any lack of inventiveness; their real function is but to emphasize the composer’s inviolate dependence upon the music of the past, while at the same time, by making the traditional melody and folk song over-obvious, they mock all attempts to recreate the past. Thus Mahler will introduce a traditional melody in the usual manner, only to continue it against a group of distorted woodwinds. Or he will depart from the traditional key in a manner that immediately impresses one as grotesque. He wrote imitations of Laendler—Austrian folk dances—and, by the use of a contermelody played on an out-of-tune violin, lifted these uninspired tunes to an entirely different plane. He never makes a definitely traditional or a grandiose statement without taking it back the next moment; in this he resembles such Jewish writers as Heine, Meyrinck, and Kafka.
Nevertheless, Mahler’s austerity sometimes fails him; a rather shallow worldliness frequently broke through his burlesquing and he did not hesitate to display popularizing tendencies. In such music his banalities are no longer satiric in function, but are planned as valid melodies; the voices follow the natural cadence of the sentence structure, and the popular appeal is intentional. This is perhaps Mahler’s one great weakness. And yet his music is never really gay. It is often biting, laughing, and sardonic, as Jewish humor has been through the ages, but it is never merry. Where Richard Strauss could write a serene ballad about the jester Tyll Eulenspiegel, Mahler’s music is Eulenspiegel in deadly earnest.
Mahler’s Jewishness appears also in more obvious ways: extraverted emotionalism even in the most philosophical passages; a great amount of self-pity, as in the triste passages in Das Lied von der Erde, set to the words “Mir war auf dieser Welt das Glueck nicht hold” (“Luck did not smile on me in this world”); the frequent use of Slavic melodies and modal devices in which the fourth interval plays an increasingly important role—laughter through tears.
Certain technical devices might also be related to Mahler’s Jewishness—mainly the substitution of the revolutionary fourth interval for the traditional third, and the constant vacillation between major and minor keys, both devices perhaps expressive of a certain vacillation between the Eastern and Western musical traditions. Such devices proved most important for the development of modern music under Schoenberg. Mahler’s loosening of the traditional structure of tonality—most noticeable in his later works—in turn necessitated wider melodic intervals, increasing use of dissonance (also partly determined by literary reasons, for “descriptions” of catastrophic climaxes), and a great deal of mere rhetoric such as had until then never been known in symphonic writing. All these effects indicated the end of academic music and went to compose the foundation upon which the young Schoenberg was able to build his own new music.
Mahler’s music was neglected in the beginning because it departed too sharply from the conventional and was not understood. As the years passed, it was performed less and less often, until only a small circle of modernist musicians remained aware of its greatness. Today it is still neglected—and perhaps the general failure to understand the nature of modern music may be caused in no small measure by public unfamiliarity with the work of the genius who brought the new life and meaning that created it. The recent “renaissance” of interest in Mahler’s music, although still within most modest dimensions, may be the first real indication that modern music is on the way to its rightful place in the concert repertory.