Forever Taking Leave

Roland Barthes asked if we are “condemned to the adjective” when speaking of music, when attempting to put into words music’s special way of pulling heartstrings and twisting guts; and in the case of Gustav Mahler one feels especially so condemned. It is difficult not to rhapsodize about Mahler. The descriptors accumulate on the tip of the tongue; a deluge of feeling engulfs us, and we can only in turn unleash our own deluge — of words. But words are pallid and limp before such beauty. Mahler induced even Arnold Schoenberg to rhapsody, a bit of purple prose to which I will return, while Daniel Barenboim lamented Mahler’s status as “the only composer who is discussed mostly in non-musical terms” (the “only” here is arguable). One associates Mahler with the discourse of sheer feeling, not with “musical terms,” for which we may have Visconti’s Death in Venice happily to blame. And there is worse. Namedropped in Woody Allen films, indexed in Sondheim’s “Ladies Who Lunch,” framed as the preoccupying obsession of a certain Lydia Tár — one further associates Mahler with the glib stuff of urbane conversation, his rough edges sandpapered off in the smoother interests of sophistication and “culture.” One can wearily sympathize perhaps with the anti-Wagnerian critic Eduard Hanslick: An intelligent musician will, therefore, get a much clearer notion of the character of a composition which he has not heard himself by being told that it contains, for instance, too many diminished sevenths, or too many tremolos, than by the most poetic description of the emotional crises through which the listener passed. And yet one doesn’t wish to dissect music like a cadaver. Bruno Walter, for his part, instructed that “no evaluation in strictly musical terms can be just” when approaching Mahler’s corpus, for “his work was the

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