With various commemorations of the birthday of Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) in July, the attention to this composer reinforces his continuing significance for modern audiences. Literary scholars have made cases for the ways in which Shakespeare’s works retain their relevance for modern audiences in such different works as Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1960) and Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare and Modern Culture (2009). Without going into the details involved with Shakespeare, a similar case can be made for Mahler’s music not only retaining its status for modern audiences but also having the potential to continue its appeal. With a composer like Mahler, the attraction to his music is no accident.
Research on Mahler offers some points of reference that reflect his continuing appeal. A recurring theme in Mahler studies is the idea of autobiographical implications in the extramusical ideas that Mahler explored. The lovelorn narrative of the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1885) draws on poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and as much as Mahler’s selections from those poems reflect personal choices, the fact that he wrote some of the verses brings the text closer to him. The anguish of spurned love and the desperation the lover feels comes through immediately in these vivid songs. When it comes to the anonymous narrator, is it Mahler himself or some version of himself that Mahler embodied in the music?
The fact that such questions are impossible to answer in any absolute sense contributes to the appeal of the music, which sometimes allows the narrator to merge with the listener. This is hardly unique to Mahler, but the appeal of this particular work intensifies when audiences hear it quoted in the opening and penultimate movements of his First Symphony (1888). The main theme of the first movement suggests a sense of energy through the intervals and rhythms, but the idea takes on additional meanings when listeners connect it to the second song of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, “Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld” (This morning I went into the field”) The self-quotation is part of other intertextual elements that add to the experience of the music. As much as listeners can focus on the development of the ideas within the Symphony itself, the connotations from the text of the song cycle contribute additional levels of meaning that suggest some programmatic ideas, and it is not difficult to read into the reference as the work shifts from struggle to triumph as the music progresses to the exuberant Finale of the First Symphony.
That stated, the shifting roles of programs with Mahler’s music also have an appeal for audiences. The work that modern audiences know as his Symphony no. 1 was known in some of its early performances as “Tone Poem,” a title that implicitly suggests a program connected to the musical structure. While Mahler once sanctioned written program to accompany performances of the First Symphony, he eventually withdrew it, along with the programs for other works, including the Second Symphony. Mahler famously disavowed programs for his music: “Let every program perish.” Despite Mahler’s wishes, modern audiences often encounter some version of the narrative he once gave the First Symphony in program notes. In some ways this suggests a level of intellectual involvement on the part of the listeners who remind those unfamiliar with the work that those levels of meaning were part of the experience.
With or without a program, the music does not change and, in this sense, it does not lose its appeal. It is similar with his later works, which often did not have programs at their original performances and which can still suggest something more than the innovative structure he gave his works. His strategies are at times ingenious.
The Fourth Symphony (1901) culminates in a Song-Finale “Das himmlische Leben” (“Heavenly Life,” 1892) that quotes in part the choral movement of the Third Symphony (1896), the song “Es sungen drei Engel” (“Three angels were singing,” 1895), a piece that Mahler actually composed several years after he finished the other one. Beyond the interplay with the Third Symphony, Mahler used thematic ideas from “Das himmlische Leben” in all three of the movements that precede it in the Fourth Symphony. Here the fragments are sometimes so brief that they suggest the kind of motivic exploration found with Beethoven and the atomization sometimes associated with serial composers.
While modern audiences are sufficiently familiar with Mahler’s music to hear thematic ideas from the song in the first, second, and third movements, the audiences of Mahler’s day might not have benefited from such knowledge of his music. Yet that did not make the quotations unintelligible. Rather, they point to the ways in which such thematic fragments make the music seem familiar. Just as in literature, the idea of defamiliarization is a means to impart ideas organically in a work, Mahler’s musical deployment of this technique makes it possible to grasp the ideas. The short ideas eventually emerge in more extended ones, and he supports his strategy with a remarkably shifting orchestration that adds yet another level of appeal to the music.
Such appeal is hard to dismiss, with scorings that make use of chamber-music textures and sonorities that stand in stark contrast to the large forces on stage for his works. The timbres involve as rich a palette as the colorful scorings Schoenberg would explore in his Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (1909) or some of Alban Berg’s early works. Anton Webern’s early tone poem Im Sommerwind is redolent of timbres that anticipate the innovations other twentieth-century composers would exploit in the decades after Mahler’s death. Yet Mahler stands at the center of these innovations, a composer who found ways to create very personal works that have an aural appeal through their connections with other music and also the craft the composer used in shaping them. At the anniversary of his birth, it’s useful not just to acknowledge his place in history but also to explore the ways his music makes Mahler our contemporary.
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