I’ve got the Mahler in me

When tickets to Sunday night’s Oregon Symphony performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony fell my way, the Classical Music Critic’s left eyebrow arched, he peered over his spectacles and with absolutely no edge in his voice to betray him, said, “It’s long.” Long, my brother? Long? I know long. Long is when the stream of time starts to puddle up … and then flow backward, away from me. (Like the Mississippi River after the New Madrid earthquake of 1812.) You look down at your watch and it’s 8:43. Hours pass. Look again and it’s 8:37. Have you been going the speed of light? No, you’ve been in an excruciating play or concert or movie that you can’t escape, a time eddy. Having canoed through these treacherous timestreams before, and survived, “long” does NOT deter me. And the Classical Music Critic, let’s call him Stevie, realized my firm resolve, brought out a reference book that sought to de-mystify the Mahler Nine, from here on known simply as Nine, and improperly prepared, I folded my body into the torture device known as a seat in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Nine trembles into life as a low, intermittent murmur, conductor Carlos Kalmar motioning to the deepest horns and strings to begin. And immediately Mozart’s Quintet in C Major comes to mind, the contrast of it, that deep cello rising confidently, a growly friction that emerges as a melody of sorts, one of my favorite openings. This is apropos nothing really, though Mahler’s wife Alma recounted that the composer died with Mozart’s name on his lips. (See how we grasp at the slightest biographical evidence to “understand” both what we hear and how we think about what we hear? This thought will escape from parentheses before you know it.) So, low and intermittent, emphasized by plucked notes. Some Mahler analysts claim to detect an irregular rhythm in this, and perhaps it really is there: They say it’s a musical reflection of Mahler’s heart problems, an arrhythmia captured in the beginning of his Death Symphony. (See previous parenthetical!) And then tremulousness subsiding, the heart steady, horns call us to a lush, stringy, sweet orchestral melody, pastoral even.

If we were in a story ballet, the happy shepherd would be gesturing to his happy bride-to-be from a nearby hillock. But this being Mahler, truly, we know this happy harmony will not last, and as I examine my notes afterwards, sure enough:”then darkening and bang we speed along darker, pulsing, too loud for sweet, too brassy, a crescendo and then back to the lush beginning.” In the long first movement, there are serious complications, returns to the melody, more complications. The trombones make a weird, throaty sound, competing musical lines clash and resolve in drumming, the simplest, quietest moment is abruptly overtaken. Sometimes it sound “exotic” like a Conan, to my ears both kitschy and cinematic (more on cinematic later). And then it ends, quietly, fewer and fewer resources of the orchestra invoked, heading for one high, barely audible note.

Mahler has tucked an entire universe in that first movement, or so it seems, and someone with a keen ear and a good case of graphomania could spend many chapters recounting it. It’s that various, and really, it’s less so than the movements that are coming up. It just so happens that the Mahler People have an explanation for this — right from Mahler’s lips as reported by no less an authority than, wait for it… Sigmund Freud. The very beating heart of all music writing about Mahler (OK, this is a slight exaggeration: I haven’t read all of it by any means; I’m extrapolating from a very small sample) starts in biography. In 1910, having some problems with his much younger wife Alma (who was having a fling with architect Walter Gropius — she had her reasons, which we won’t get into), Mahler spent four hours walking around Leyden, Holland, with Freud, hoping the conversation would be therapeutic. During the walk, Mahler recalled a bitter fight between his parents when he was a little boy. He ran out onto the street of his village and heard a barrel organ playing a ditty, “Ach, du lieber Augustin.” Freud concluded: “In Mahler’s opinion, the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind.”

So, just to consider Nine, that explains why those light dance numbers (which Mahler eventually “deforms”) pop up in the second movement during a symphony that is “about” the acknowledgment and acceptance of death, not to mention marches, pastorales, snippets of tavern songs maybe, and other almost-recognizable musical quotations. It’s the barrel organ! No barrel organ, no argument between his parents, and the whole edifice we call “Mahler” comes tumbling down, because what we call a Mahler symphony is about as various as it could possibly be, “stretching from the masses of the Renaissance to the marching songs of rural soldiers — an epic multiplicity of voices and styles,” as Alex Ross says in The Rest Is Noise (my guide to things musical and 20th century). And all of this “stuff” surrounds some of the most beautiful, emotional music we can find. Thanks to Freud, we now know why!

Sorry. No more dark sarcasm (alert: Pink Floyd reference). Did Mahler say this to Freud? In just that way? If he did, do we “believe” that his self-awareness was of such an order that he could detect such a subtle bit of business from his childhood — and then not “correct” for it? Would he have told Freud his very deepest “truths” on his first visit? Is it possible that Freud dramatized the story? Shouldn’t we be at least a little bit skeptical? We know that the tavern that Mahler’s father kept in the little village, now part of the Czech Republic, was very close to the undertaker’s establishment. Isn’t that simple coincidence just as persuasive, if you’re looking for a biographical reason for Mahler’s variety?

Yes, I’ve already slipped into the second movement, based on an Austrian folk dance (the Captain and Maria dance a form of one to “The Lonely Goatherd” in The Sound of Music). Will Mahler spend an entire movement doing a jolly dance? I don’t think so, though he keeps it up for a good long while. But there are some “goofy” moments, some trills, a cloud rising over the Alpine meadow, some spills, drums throbbing at times. You can be dancing along merrily in your lederhosen and suddenly find yourself in a French Foreign Legion outpost in the Sahara surrounded by angry Berbers. Or maybe that’s just MY movie. Because the oompah brings us back, the 3/4 time flickers along, and things end with a funny little gesture from the flute. If we are to believe our man (or woman) on Wikipedia, we are listening to a “dance of death.” Ask 10 people who don’t know their Mahler from their Lawrence Welk and not one of them will describe this movement as a “dance of death.” Guaranteed.

So where does this come from? Mahler, we know from various sources, feared the Ninth Symphony, because so many composers died soon after writing THEIR Ninth Symphonies. He even wrote a Ninth Symphony before this one; he just called it something else. When he wrote Nine, he had already been diagnosed with heart disease. His first daughter had died the same year (1907) of scarlet fever (though some say diphtheria), and his term conducting the opera in Vienna had just about run out, as audiences grew restless with his experimental programs and he became a target of the anti-Semitic press (he had converted to Catholicism in order to take the post in the first place). So, Nine is seen as a summing up, a symphony about acceptance and resignation. My guide Ross calls it “the long goodbye.” It’s not too much of a leap from there to “dance of death,” once the narrative is in place. The last movement actually does sound like a “coming to terms” to me, too, a great hymn, the night approaching. But first, movement three.

And it’s time for a bow, already, to Kalmar and the symphony, who have been playing delightfully, yes? If we don’t get back to them, you are doing yourselves proud!

We’ll work our way through the third movement, the Rondo-Burleske, at a snail’s pace. No!!! That’s not right. But I will quote, however, from program notes by Elizabeth Schwartz, whose qualifications to talk about this stuff far exceed my own, not difficult since I have none whatsoever. The key words she uses are “grotesqueness,” “derision” and “bold rebelliousness.” And just as in “dance of death” I’m left dangling. I get the counterpoint that’s going on, and the brassiness. But I think the odd moments are funny, not derisive, certainly not grotesque, except in the broadest possible definition. I love that great sense of calm in the middle. And then I thought of Freud’s diagnosis of Mahler: Mother fixation! There it is: Right in the middle of the third movement! Actually, no, what I thought was that for just this second I agree completely with Nabokov on the subject of Freud — worse than useless, all the way to poisonous. (In the cool light of day, I don’t actually believe that.) I think of Nabokov and Mahler as allies in a way, Late Romantics, symphonic and novelistic, fearless, geniuses, about to be swept up in a century of… what? How do we describe the century that destroyed our beliefs the way the 20th century did? Mahler seems a million miles, a million years, away. “Grotesque”? After this century? Amusing is more like it. And at the end of the third movement I poked my companion and laughed out loud.

The fourth movement starts and the hymnals come out. Well, not exactly, but some of the rhythms and harmonies are similar. Mahler himself said it was about the “majesty of death,” but what does he mean? Such a short phrase, such a long movement (twenty some minutes). It is far simpler, more nearly of a piece, than the other movements and perhaps it is an exploration of a single idea. But as I listen, there are other lines, at least to me, maybe because the process of death in its way is as various as life. Mahler leaves the pain out. Was this wishful thinking? I think he succumbed to Romantic poetry, to a Romantic ideal, not the hacking, spitting, bleeding reality. And in this he betrays his description to Jean Sibelius, quoted in the program notes: “The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.” I have hope occasionally as the music quickens in that final movement, blares for a moment, cymbals crashing. But he doesn’t give us the world; he gives us his fairy tale.

But here, I sound like I’m doing what I’m decrying: I deploy the narrative in a way that makes the music make sense to me. I would love to see the movie for which Mahler made the soundtrack. But that jumpy, beautiful, crazy and yes, maybe even grotesque film, is in my head. No offense, but it’s a better movie than the one the Mahler People have told us we should have. Even if we know the authorial intent, and the great lesson of Derrida and company is that we never actually do, even if we have the testimony of Freud and Alma and a great biography, Henry-Louis de La Grange’s, the music itself, not to mention the narrative, escapes the bonds of this original set of interpretations. It is — under the bow, in the ear, over time — something else. The representation of the music that has come down to us seems so flimsy by comparison. It begs for more descriptions, for more interpretation, for different representations. I don’t see Mahler as a received truth: It’s not the barrel organ! After a certain point, the biography can’t explain the music. Neither can the interpretation. Mahler, the music, is winding its way from that low murmur at the beginning to the high soft note at the end. Once you decide to jump aboard, it’s going to take you a different way every time, drum up a different set of thoughts and emotional responses, reveal different parts of itself.

The “death” part still bothers me. Did Mahler know his own death was imminent? Doubtful: He leaves Vienna in 1907, moves to New York where he conducts first the Metropolitan Opera and then New York Philharmonic, for which he is paid very large sums of money, enough to get back and to Europe every year. In 1911, still full of vigor, he contracts subacute bacterial endocarditis, cancels the rest of his New York Philharmonic season, moves back to Vienna and dies there. He leaves behind an unfinished symphony. What was dying then, if we read some kind of “ending” into Nine? His daughter, his tenure at the Vienna Opera, his style of music, which was giving way to the younger atonal crew led by Schoenberg, maybe his relationship to Alma? What gifts of prescience do you want to give him: Maybe the whole Imperial order about to be collapse in the death spasms of World War I? Or the destruction after that war and during the next one? A keen nose might have detected all of these, I suppose.

But I don’t see any of them in my head as a I watch and listen. And I’ll be fair for once: maybe the Mahler People don’t want me to, necessarily. They understand the inevitable multiplicity of our response. They don’t want to colonize our thoughts, give us the One True Mahler, do they? Kalmar holds that last note until it diminishes into the Great Imperceptible, we the audience stand and cheer: for great playing that brought challenging music to life, sure. For Mahler, possibly. But maybe also for our own rich experience of the sound, whatever that experience was. And I don’t begrudge us. That’s worth an ovation, too.