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Gustav Mahler: the face of a man wearing glasses. The face attracts the attention of the viewer: there is something very expressive about it. It is a strong and open face, we are willing to trust it right away. Nothing theatrical about it, nothing presumptuous. This man wears no silks. He is not someone who tells us: I am a genius, be careful with me. There is something energetic, vivid, and “modern” about the man. He gives an impression of alacrity: he could enter the room any second. Many portraits from the same period display men, Germanic and not only Germanic men, politicians, professors, and writers, whose faces disappear stodgily into the thicket of a huge voluptuous beard, as if hiding in it, disallowing any close inspection. But the composer’s visage is naked, trans-parent, immediate. It is there to speak to us, to sing, to tell us something.
I bought my first recording of Gustav Mahler many decades ago. At the time his name was almost unknown to me. I only had a vague idea of what it represented. The recording Isettled on was produced by a Soviet company called Melodiya — a large state-owned (of course) company which sometimes produced great recordings. There was no trade in the SovietUnion and yet the trademark Melodya did exist. It was the Fifth Symphony, I think — I’ve lost the vinyl disc in my many voyages and moves — and the conductor was Yevgeny Svetlanov. For some reason the cover was displayed in the store window for a long time; it was a modest store in Gliwice, in Silesia. Why the display of Mahler’s name in this provincial city which generally cared little for music?
It took me several days before I decided to buy the record. And then, very soon, when I heard the first movement, the trumpet and the march, which was at the same time immensely tragic and a bit joyful too, or at least potentially joyful, I knew from this unexpected conjunction of emotions that something very important had happened: a new chapter in my musical life had opened, and in my inner life as well. New sounds entered my imagination. At the same time I understood — or only intuited — that I would always have a problem distinguishing between “sad” and “joyful,” both in music and in poetry. Some sadnesses would be so delicious, and would make me so happy, that I would forget for a while the difference between the two realms. Perhaps there is no frontier between them, as in the Schengen sector of contemporary Europe.
The Fifth Symphony was my gateway to Mahler’s music. Many years after my first acquaintance with it, a British conductor told me that this particular symphony was deemed by those deeply initiated in Mahler’s symphonies and Mahler’s songs as maybe a bit too popular, too accessible, too easy. “That trumpet, you know.” “And, you know, then came Visconti,” who did not exactly economize on the Adagietto from the same symphony in the slow, very slow shots in Death in Venice, where this music, torn away from its sisters and brothers, the other movements, came to serve a mass-mystical, mass-hys-terical cultish enthusiasm, floating on the cushions of movie theaters chairs. Nothing for serious musicians, nothing for scholars and sages…. But I do not agree. For me the Fifth Symphony remains one of the living centers of Gustav Mahler’s music and no movie will demote it, no popularity will diminish it, no easily manipulated melancholy in a distended Adagietto will make me skeptical about its force, its freshness, its depth.
As for that trumpet: the trumpet that I heard for the first time so many years ago had nothing to do with the noble and terrifying noises of the Apocalypse. It was nothing more than an echo of a military bugle — which, the biographers tell us, young Gustav must have heard almost every week in his small Moravian town of Jihlava, or Iglau in German, which was the language of the Habsburg empire, where local troops in their slightly comic blue uniforms would march in the not very tidy streets to the sounds of a brass orchestra. Yet there was nothing trivial or farcical about this almost-a-bugle trumpet. It told me right away that in Mahler’s music I would be exposed to a deep ambivalence, a new complication — that the provincial, the din of Hapsburgian mass-culture, will forever pervade his symphonies. This vernacular, this down-to-earth (down to the cobblestones of Jihlava’s streets) brass racket, always shadows Mahler’s most sublime adagios.
The biographical explanation is interesting and important, but it is not sufficient. An artist of Mahler’s stature does not automatically or reflexively rely on early experiences for his material. He uses them, and transposes them, only when they fit into a larger scheme having to do with his aesthetic convictions and longings. The strings in the adagios seem to come from a different world: the violins and the cellos in the adagios sound like they are being played by poets. But then in the rough scherzo-like movements we hear the impudent brass. From the clouds to the cobblestones: Mahler may be a mystical composer, but his mysticism is tinged with an acute awareness of the ordinary, often trite environment of all the higher aspirations.
His aesthetic convictions and longings: what are they? Judging from the music, one thing seems to be certain: this composer is looking for the high, maybe for the highest that can be achieved, for the religious, for the metaphysical — and yet he cannot help hearing also the common laughter of the low streets, the unsophisticated noise of military brass instruments. His search for the sublime never takes place in the abstract void of an inspiration cleansed of the demotic world which is his habitat. Mahler confronts the predicament well known to many artists and writers living within the walls of modernity but not quite happy with it, because they have in their souls a deep yearning for a spiritual event, for revelation. They are like someone walking in the dusk toward a light, like a wanderer who does not know whether the sun is rising or setting. They have to decide how to relate to everything that is not light, to the vast continent of the half trivial, half necessary arrangements of which the quotidian consists. Should they ignore it, or attempt to secede from it? But then what they have to say will be rejected as nothing more than lofty rhetoric, as something artificial, as unworldly in the sense of unreal. They will be labeled “reactionary” or, even worse, boring. Anyway, aren’t they to some degree made from the same dross that they are trying to overcome, to transcend?
And yet if they attach too much importance to it, if they become mesmerized by what is given, by the empirical, then the sheer weight of the banality of existing conditions might crush them, flatten them to nothingness. The dross, right. But let us be fair about modernity: it has plenty of good things as well. It has given us, among other things, democracy and electricity (to paraphrase Lenin). Any honest attitude toward modernity must be extremely complex. Modernity, for better and worse, is the air we breathe. What is problematic for some artists and thinkers is modernity’s anti-metaphysical stance, its claim that we live in a post-post-religious world. Yet there are also artists and thinkers who applaud modernity precisely for its secularism and materialism, like the well-known French poet who visited Krakow and during a public discussion of the respective situations of French poetry and Polish poetry said this: “I admire many things in present- day Polish poetry, but there is one thing that makes me uneasy — you Polish poets still struggle with God, whereas we decided a long time ago that all that is totally childish.”
To be sure, they — the anti-moderns, as Antoine Compagnon calls them — may also become too bitter and angry, so that their critique of the modern world can go too far and turn into an empty gesture of rejection. In his afterword to a collection of essays by Gerhard Nebel — the German conservative thinker, an outsider, once a social-democrat, always an anti-Nazi, after World War II a marginal figure in the intellectual landscape of the Bundesrepublik, a connoisseur of ancient Greek literature, someone who saw dealing with die Archaik as one of the remedies against the grayness of the modern world — Sebastian Kleinschmidt presents such a case. He admires the many merits of Nebel’s writing, his vivid emotions, his intolerance of any routine, of any Banausentum or life lived far away from the appeal of the Muses, his passionate search for the real as opposed to the merely actual — but he is skeptical of Nebel’s overall dismissal of modern civilization, since it is too sweeping to be persuasive, too lacking in nuances and distinctions. Perhaps we can put the problem this way: there is no negotiation involved, no exchange, no spiritual diplomacy.
When coping with modernity, with those aspects of it which insist on curbing or denying our metaphysical hunger, we must be not only as brave as Hector but also as cunning as Ulysses. We have to negotiate. We need to borrow from modernity a lot: since we encounter it every day, how could we avoid being fed and even shaped by it? The very verb “to negotiate” is a good example of the complexity of the situation. It comes from from neg — otium, from the negation of otium. Otium is the Latin word for leisure, but for contemplation too. Thus the verb to negotiate denotes a worldly activity that tacitly presupposes the primacy of unworldly activities (because the negation comes second, after the affirmation).
In French, le négoce means commerce, business. We can add to it all the noise of the market and the parliament. When we negotiate, we have no otium. But it is also possible to negotiate in order to save some of the otium. We can negate otium for a while but only in order to return to it a bit later, once it has been saved from destruction. As I say, we must be cunning.
By the way, the notion of otium that gave birth to the verb “to negotiate” is not a marginal category, something that belongs only to the annals of academia, to books covered by dust. For the Ancients it was a central notion and a central activity, the beginning and the end of wisdom. And even now it plays an important role in a debate in which the values of modernity are being pondered: those who have problems with the new
shape of our civilization accuse it of having killed otium, of having produced an infinity of new noises and activities which contribute to the end of leisure, to the extermination of contemplation.
But can we discuss Mahler’s music along with poetic texts by, say, Yeats and Eliot, along with the other manifestoes of modernism? Talking about music in a way that makes it seem like philosophy or a philosophical novel, a kind of Zauberberg for piano and violin, is certainly flawed. Questions are methodically articulated in philosophy and, though never fully answered, they wander from one generation to another, from the Greeks to our contemporaries. Does art need such questions? Does music need them? The first impulse is to say no, art has nothing to do with this sort of intellectual inquiry. Isn’t pure contemplation, separated from any rational discourse, the unique element of art, both painting and music, and perhaps poetry as well?
But maybe pure contemplation does not need to be so pure. We do not know exactly how it works (another question!), but we do know that art always takes on some coloring from its historic time, from the epoch in which it is created. Art obviously has a social history, and earthly circum-stances. And yet impure contemplation is still contemplation. Let us listen for a minute to the words of a famous painter, an experienced practitioner — to Balthus in his conversations with Alain Vircondelet, which were conducted in the last years of the painter’s life:
Modern painting hasn’t really understood that painting’s sublime, ultimate purpose — if it has one — is to be the tool or passageway to answering the world’s most daunting questions that haven’t been fathomed. The Great Book of the Universe remains impenetrable and painting is one of its possible keys. That’s why it is indubitably religious, and therefore spiritual. Through painting, I revisit the course of time and history, at an unknown time, original in the true sense of the word. That is, something newly born. Working allows me to be present on the first day, in an extreme, solitary adventure laden with all of past history.
How fascinating: a great painter tells us that in his work he used not only his eye and his hand but also his reason, his philosophical mind; that when he painted he felt the presence of great questions. Even more: he tells us that the pressure of these questions was not inconsequential, that it led him to spirituality. We know that Mahler, in a letter to Bruno Walter, also mentioned the presence of great questions and described his state of mind while being in contact with the element of music in this way: “When I hear music, even when I am conducting, I often hear a clear answer to all my questions — I experience clarity and certainty.”
Certainly, the questions that sit around a painter or a composer like pensive cats are very different from those which besiege a philosopher. Do they require a response? Here is one more authority: in a note serving as a preface to the publication of four of his letters about Nietzsche, Valery remarked that “Nietzsche stirred up the combativeness of my mind and the intoxicating pleasure of quick answers which I have always savored a little too much.” The irony of it: “the intoxicating pleasure of quick answers” in a thinker who, as we know, was so proud of his philosophizing with a hammer. Of course, this one sentence comprises in a nutshell the entire judgment that mature Valéry passed on Nietzsche — the early temptation and the later rejection of such a degree of “the combativeness of the spirit.” And it confirms our intuition: the questions that accompany art, painting, music, and poetry cannot be answered in a way similar to debates in philosophy seminars, and yet they are an invisible and inaudible part of every major artistic exertion.
In a way, Mahler’s doubleness of approach seems completely obvious; the brass and the strings attend each other, and need each other, in the complex patterns of his symphonies. I have read that in his time he was accused by many critics of triviality in his music. They claimed that his symphonies lacked the dignity of Beethoven’s symphonies, the depth of great German music. What they ferociously attacked as trivial is probably the thing that I admire so much in Mahler’s music — the presence of the other side of our world, the inclusion of its commonness and its coarseness, of the urban peripheries, of village fairs, of the brass — the quotation of provincial life, of public parades and military marches, almost like in Nino Rota’s scores for Fellini. Very few among Mahler’s contemporaries were able to see the virtue of it.
The charge of triviality also had anti-Semitic undertones and followed in the footsteps of Wagner’s accusation, in his “Judaism in Music,” that Jewish composers were not able to develop a deep connection with the soul of the people, and were limited to the world of the city only, gliding slickly on the surface. Jewish composers apparently could not hear the song of the earth, argued such critics. How wonderful, then, that Mahler triumphed in his own Song of the Earth! Jewish composers were accused — among the many sins of which they were accused — of introducing modern elements into their music. Never mind that one of the principal modernizers of Western music was Wagner himself.
I have yet to understand why Mahler has for so long, from the very beginning, been so overwhelmingly important for me, so utterly central to the evolution of my soul. Once, in speaking with some American friends, I asked them who “made” them, in the sense of a master, a teacher, un maître à penser, and the reason was I wanted to tell them that Gustav Mahler made me. It was an exaggeration, I know, and a bit precious. I had other masters as well. And yet my statement was not false. Did it have to do only with the sonorities of his symphonies, with the newness of his music, the unexpected contrasts and astonishing passages swinging between the lyric to the sardonic? Was it the formal side uniquely? For many years I resisted the temptation to translate my deep emotional bond to his music — the deep consonance between Mahler’s work and my own search in the domain of poetry — into intellectual terms, maybe fearing that too much light shed on it would diminish its grip on my imagination. I still hold this superstitious view, but I also suspect that there may be some larger intellectual benefit to be gained from an exploration of my obsession.
For everyone who has a passionate interest in art and in ideas, sooner or later a problem arises. When we look for truth and try to be honest, when we try as a matter of principle to avoid dogmatism and any sort of petrification, any blind commitment to this or that worldview, we are, it seems, necessarily condemned to deal with shards, with fragments, with pieces that do not constitute any whole — even if, consciously or not, we strive for the impossible “whole.” But then if we also harbor a love for art — and it is not at all unusual to have these two passions combined in a single individual — a strange tension appears: in art we deal with forms which, by definition, cannot be totally fragmentary. To be sure, at least since the Romantic moment we have been exposed to fragments, and accustomed to fracture, in all kinds of artistic enterprises, from music and poetry to painting — but even these fragments tend to acquire a shape. If we juxtapose them with the “truth fragments,” with Wittgensteinian scraps of philosophical results, an integrated pattern is created by virtue of some little embellishment, by a sleight of hand; a magician is at work who tends to forget the search for truth because the possibility of a form, a more or less perfect form, suddenly attracts him more strongly than the shapelessness of a purely intellectual assessment.
These two dissimilar but related hunts, one for truth, one for form, are not unlike husky dogs pulling a sled in two slightly different directions: they are sometimes able to achieve an almost-harmony. The sled fitfully moves forward, but at other times the competing pressures threaten to endanger the entire expedition. So, too, are our mental hunts and journeys, forever hesitating between a form that will allow us to forget the rather uncomfortable sharpness of truth and a gesturing for truth that may make us forget the thrill of beauty and the urge to create, at least for the time being.
This brings us back to Mahler. The doubleness in his music that I have described may be understood as reflecting the ambiguity of the double search for truth and form. Mahler was a God-seeker who recognized the ambivalence of such a quest in art. He was torn between the search for the voluptuousness of beauty and the search for the exactness of truth.
Hartmut Lange, a German writer living in Berlin, a master of
short prose, told me once that Mahler’s Song of the Earth, which he listens to all the time and adores in a radical way, “is God.” I was taken aback. The deification of this almost-symphony, which I also ardently admire, made me feel uneasy. But I find it more than interesting that this great music can be associated with, and even called, God. This suggests a quasi-religious aspect of the music, and even a sober secularist cannot escape at times placing the work within the circle nearing the sacred.
Among the many approaches to the sacred we may distinguish two: one which consists in searching, in a quest, and is conducted in a climate of uncertainty and even doubt, and another which proclaims a kind of sureness, a positive certainty, a eureka-like feeling that what was sought has been found. In our tormented and skeptical time it is not easy to find examples of such a positive and even arrogant attitude, at least not within serious culture. Among the great modern poets and writers only few were blessed by certainty. Even the great Pascal had his doubts, and so much earlier. Gustav Mahler belongs to the seekers, not the finders. The quest is his element, and doubt is always near.
It is true for both poetry and music: whenever one approaches an important work, one is much more outspoken when it comes to discussing the elements within it that will yield to the intellectual or even dialectical categories that the reader or listener cherishes. The other ingredients, especially those that represent pure lyricism and thus are at the very heart of the work in question, are hardly graspable, at least in words. What can we say? It is beautiful, it pierces my soul, or some other platitude of the sort. Or we can just sigh to signal our delight. Sighing, though, is not enough; it is too inarticulate, and in print it evaporates altogether. This is the misery of writing about art: the very center of it remains almost totally ineffable, and what can be rationally described is rather a frame than the substance itself.
A frame that enters into dialogue with its period, with its cultural and historical environment, can be much better described than the substance of a symphony or a painting. The nucleus of a work, or of an artist’s output, is less historical, less marked by the sediments of time, and therefore mysterious. It is also more personal, more private. This is certainly the case with Mahler’s music, whose very core constitute those lyric movements, those endless ostinati that we find everywhere, first in his songs, in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the other lieder, then in his symphonies, and supremely in their adagios, and then finally in the unsurpassable Lied von der Erde. And the Ninth Symphony! I don’t have in mind only the final Adagio but also the first movement, the Andante comodo, which displays an incredible vivacity and, at the same time, creates an unprecedentedly rich musical idiom — a masterful musical portrayal of what it means to be alive, with all the quick changes and stubborn dramas, the resentments and the raptures, that constitute the exquisite and weary workshop of the mind and the heart.
But let us not forget, when we celebrate the lyric sections, the sometimes simple melodies, and the long ostinati, let us not forget all the intoxicating marches, the half sardonic, half triumphant marches that originated in a small Moravian town but then crossed the equator and reached the antipodes. These marches give Mahler’s music its rhythm, its vigor, its muscle. There is nothing wan in Mahler’s compositions, nothing pale on the order of, say, Puvis de Chavannes; instead they display, even in their most tender and aching passages, an irreversible vitality. The marches propel the music and give it its movement, its strolls and dances and strides. The “vulgar” marches convey the mood of a constant progression, maybe even of a “pilgrim’s progress.” Nothing ever stagnates in Mahler compositions, they are on the move all the time.
It’s unbecoming to disagree with someone who was a great Mahler connoisseur and also contributed enormously to the propagation of his work, but it is hard to accept Leonard Bernstein’s observation that the funeral marches in Mahler‘s symphonies are a musical image of grief for the Jewish God whom the composer abandoned. The problem is not only that there is scant biographical evidence for such an interpretation. More importantly, the marches are more than Bernstein says they are. They represent no single emotion. Instead they oscillate between mourning and bliss and thus stand (or walk or dance) high above any firm monocausal meaning.
In the Song of the Earth, it is the sixth and last movement, der Abschied, the Farewell, that crowns Mahler’s entire work. Musicologists tell us that its beauty consists mainly in the combination of a lyrical melodic line with the rich chromaticism of the orchestra. But obviously such an observation can barely render justice to the unforgettable charm of this sensual music which unwillingly bids farewell to the earth; we hear in this work the tired yet ecstatic voice of the composer who knew how little life was left to him. Perhaps only in Rilke’sDuino Elegies can we find an example of a similar seriousness in embracing our fate, an instance of a great artist finally abolishing any clear distinction between sadness and joy.
There is a fine poem written in the early 1980s by the Swedish poet and novelist Lars Gustafsson. It is called “The Stillness of the World Before Bach” and it caught the attention of many readers. Here is part of it:
There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor partita,
but what kind of a world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments,
where the Musical Offering, the Well-Tempered Clavier
never passed across the keys.
where the soprano line of the Passion
never in helpless love twined round
the gentler movements of the flute […]
[translated into English by Philip Martin]
Of course there were many voices and many composers before Bach, and not at all “a Europe of vast empty spaces.” What would Palestrina, Gabrielli, and Monteverdi say? What would the monks say who created and developed Gregorian chant? Still, in Gustafsson’s poem we immediately recognize some deeper truth. I imagine that in a similar poem in which Gustav Mahler would replace Johann Sebastian Bach, the poet would describe not “a Europe of vast empty spaces” but rather a Europe of cities, great and small ones, of empty Sunday streets, of empty parks, of waiting rooms.
The Mahler gesture resembles in some respect the Bach achievement, but it is very different too. Bach was a genius of synthesis, who appeared after centuries of the development of Western art and on this fertile soil built a great edifice of music. There is less synthetic energy in Mahler’s creation; the significance of his work seems to reside in its spiritual implica-tion. Mahler, more than any of his contemporaries, tries to graft onto this lay world of ours a religious striving, to convey a higher meaning to a largely meaningless environment without ever forgetting or concealing the obvious features of a secular age. [END]