Thursday, August 16, 2007

Leonard Bernstein on the Mahler Ninth

Mahler is practically all made of clichés, and the wonder of Mahler is what he does with these clichés, that they all come out so fresh and so personal, and there is no one of them that doesn't sound like Mahler every minute. But it's only in the fantastic and incomparable last movement that Mahler clichés finally do turn into gold.

He starts this last movement in a series of clichés that are reminiscent of church music. You can practically sing the words of 'Abide with me' to the tune that emerges at the beginning of this movement. It's no longer simply the death of tenderness, or the death of simple pleasures, but the death of life, death itself.

That mad, sarcastic version of the cliché that we heard in the third movement has now demetamorphosed into one of the most divine phrases in all Mahler. About four minutes into this movement, he changes abruptly to a kind of religiousness which is now Eastern, it's a kind of very spare Zen-like meditation. It's as though he is trying on for size disembodiment, he is trying to see what it would be like to be disembodied, to be away from reality, to be part of the Universe, to be molecular instead of having an ego, an identity, a name. The orchestration becomes extremely bare, and almost cold, it seems to be suspended in a kind of ether. The movement is barely discernible, the space between the lines is enormous. And this is the closest thing in music, in Western music, to the Eastern notion of intense transcendental meditation.

But he's not yet ready to accept this cold solution, this drama, this nothingness, and so he breaks out again with this bitter resentful passionate claim into life.
And so, throughout the movement, Mahler alternates between these two attempts at spiritual attainment, the Western and the Eastern. When he runs out of esteem in one he tries the other, and vice versa.

After a series of climaxes, the last of which, by the way, most remarkably doesn't succeed - it's a very short climax, which tries to be the super climax of all and doesn't work - you suddenly have the feeling that he has let it slip, and that is the turning point of the last movement, because it's in that moment that the world does slip out of his fingers.

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