Friday, April 13, 2007

Mahler's Influence and Legacy

Critics are no longer to be found who will insist that Gustav Mahler's popularity is a fad or a craze that will shortly pass; but while his place in musical history and in the repertoire seems secure, sober assessment of his specific legacy is inhibited by several factors. For example, little common ground can be found between those who revere Mahler for his 'emotional frankness' and 'spiritual honesty', and his equally vociferous detractors for whom the same music displays 'mawkishness', 'tastelessness' and 'sentimentality' (Franz Schmidt clearly spoke for the latter camp when he described Mahler's symphonies as "cheap novels"). A similar divide separates those who appreciate and analyze the symphonies as conscientiously orchestrated and rigorously organised large-scale forms, and those who see merely the lavish, sprawling outpourings of a 'self-indulgent egotist'.

Passionate admirers of Mahler, too, have sometimes muddied the waters by seeing the composer through the prism of their own preoccupations; thus the critical literature boasts manic-depressives who have insisted that Mahler's contrast-rich work betrays a manic-depressive psychology, and Jews who have claimed that his music exposes the cultural and social tensions that led to the Holocaust. Composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, who felt a strong affinity with Mahler, expressed the view that Mahler's music "foretold" the many cataclysms of the twentieth century—from world wars to Black Power. Vehement resistance to Mahler's expressive message sometimes has additional racial and nationalistic overtones; devoted Mahlerian Hans Keller used to quote an influential British critic as declaring: "The truth is, we just don't want Mahler over here."

With Mahler thus to some extent still critically embattled, a situation has developed in which his detractors attempt to minimise his legacy, and his admirers tend to respond by exaggerating it. A cautious middle ground might be pursued by noting that a combination of factors (World War I, economic depression, relentless Austrian anti-Semitism [so fierce that it had caused Mahler himself to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1897 to improve his prospects] and World War II) worked greatly to inhibit performance and understanding of Mahler's music after 1911, and undoubtedly made his posthumous influence less than it could have been. As a result, it was principally among composers who had known Mahler or been part of his circle that his influence was first felt –- even if such personal relationships often brought extra-musical factors into play.

During a concert tour to Finland in November 1907 Mahler told fellow composer Jean Sibelius that "the symphony should be like the world: it must embrace everything" ("die Symphonie muss sein wie die Welt. Sie muss alles umfassen"); putting this philosophy into practice, he brought the genre to a new level of artistic development. Increasing the range of contrasts within and between movements necessitated an expansion of scale and scope (at around 95 minutes, his six-movement Symphony No. 3 is the longest in the general symphonic repertoire; his Symphony No. 8 premiered with some one thousand performers) –- while the admission of vocal and choral elements (with texts drawn from folk-poetry, Nietzsche, Goethe, Chinese literature, and Medieval Roman Catholic mysticism) made manifest a philosophical as well as autobiographical content. Neglected for several decades after his death, Mahler's symphonies and orchestral songs are now part of the core repertoire of major symphony orchestras worldwide.


Schoenberg, for example, almost a full generation younger than Mahler, came to venerate the older man as a "saint": an exemplary figure, selflessly devoted to art, generous to younger composers, and badly treated in the same way he himself was badly treated; Schoenberg could still, however, display a complicated attitude to the music and even speak of having had an "aversion" to it. This ambivalence did not, however, prevent him from becoming a penetrating analyst of Mahler's irregular melodic structures, or defending the Seventh Symphony against an American critic, nor did it inhibit his adoption and even refinement of massive Mahlerian effects in his Gurrelieder or Pelleas und Melisande, or, in those same works and elsewhere, the pursuit of Mahlerian clarity through soloistic or chamber-style orchestral scoring.

For Alban Berg, younger still, Mahler was a musical influence rather than a personal one (the tragic Symphony No. 6 was "the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral)", and Mahlerian elements can be heard in many of his works. For example, the two hammer blows (three in the original edition) in the finale of the Mahler Sixth find their echo in Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, which features seven hammer blows in its final movement as well as thematic material of a decisively Mahlerian cut. In the case of Webern, who, in his early professional life, had conducted performances of Mahler symphonies, one may detect a Mahlerian concern with total textural clarity, although the small scale and rhetorical sparseness of Webern's mature pieces means that overt 'Mahlerisms' are hard to find outside his juvenilia.

The earliest significant non-contemporaries to register the impact of Mahler were perhaps Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom identified with elements of Mahler's personal and creative character as well as with aspects of his musical style. Britten, who had first come to know Mahler's Symphony No. 4 while still a student, produced a 'reduced orchestra' version of the second movement of Symphony No. 3 and during his life performed Mahler's music as both a piano-accompanist and conductor. Both Britten and Shostakovich came to hold Das Lied von der Erde in special regard, and undeniable references to it are found in such works as the former's Phaedra and the latter's Fourth and Tenth symphonies. In the United States, Aaron Copland's development of an authentically 'American' sound was influenced by Mahler, most notably in his Clarinet Concerto, written for Benny Goodman.

Among other leading composers, an aversion to Mahler can often be attributed to radically incompatible creative goals rather than to any failure to recognise his technical skill: to Stravinsky, Mahler was "malheur" (French for "misfortune"), while Vaughan Williams described him as a "tolerable imitation of a composer". By the late 20th century, however, Mahler's kaleidoscopic scoring and motivically independent lines in intense contrapuntal combination had become staples of modernism, and formerly shocking features of his music such as his radical discontinuities, his penchant for parody and quotation (including self-quotation) and his blunt juxtaposition of 'high' and 'low' styles were prominent features of postmodernism.

As well as Shostakovich, Britten and Copland, Mahler's music also influenced Richard Strauss, the early symphonies of Havergal Brian, and the music of Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and Alfred Schnittke. Alexander von Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony seems to have been inspired by Das Lied von der Erde.

Mid and late 20th century

Mahler's difficulties in getting his works accepted led him to say, "My time will come". That time came in the mid 20th century, at a point when the development of the LP was allowing repeated hearings of the long and complex symphonies in competent and well-recorded performances. By 1956, every one of Mahler's symphonies (including Das Lied von der Erde and the opening Adagio movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony) had been issued on LP –- as had Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Das Klagende Lied, the song cycles, and many individual songs.

Advocated by both those who had known him (prominently among them the composers Alexander von Zemlinsky and Arnold Schoenberg), and by a generation of conductors including the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, his works won over an audience hungry for the next wave of musical exploration. In the late twentieth century, new musicological methods led to the extensive editing of his scores, leading to various attempts to complete the tenth symphony, such as by Deryck Cooke, and improved versions of the others.

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