More on Mahler’s Instruction Manuals

I was please to see that Patrick Smith at the Penitent Wagnerite picked up on my thread about Mahler scores as conducting lessons with this pseudo-rebuttal.

I’m not sure, however, that he and I are really talking about the same thing, as I’m not at all concerned with how benign his state of mind was towards other conductors when he wrote his works. Mahler understood full well that the craft of conducting as it existed in his day was not sufficiently sophisticated to allow conductors to realize his musical intentions. He’s not alone in this, as composers before and since have often written for the next generation of musicians (Beethoven’s remark to the effect “I don’t give a damn about your violin” when told a passage he’d written was unplayable on the instrument comes to mind. He knew full well that it was playable). Mahler himself said that it would take conductors a generation to figure out how to conduct some of his mixed meter passages, such as the in the Scherzo of the Sixth Symphony, and the second movement of the Tenth, and he was right. For Mahler, the “instruction manual” approach to notation was the only way forward.

All credit to him then that he had the expertise to pull it off. His experience as a performing musician shines through on every page. Though his music makes tremendous demands on players and conductors, it is always playable, and that which he suggests always works unless the acoustics of the performing space get in the way. In fact, Mahler himself has prepared us for even this eventuality- we can look at his various stages of revision and retouching and match them up to the performing space that he was working in when he made them. A study of the different versions of the Fourth, for instance, is a fantastic primer in how do deal with wetter or drier or muddier spaces.

Not every composer who set out to do this has been able to. Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande, a piece I adore, looks very much like a Mahler symphony on the page, and his scores are just as carefully notated as Mahler’s. However, although the music is wonderful, the orchestration, though colourful, dramatic and original, is not nearly as professional as Mahler’s. I’ve conducted and covered the P&M, and there are few works I’ve done where one listens to the piece being rehearsed in the hall by a good orchestra and ends up with pages and pages of balance notes. His scores must be read as Sibelius’- that is, as how he wants it to sound rather than as what you are really supposed to do at every moment.
A similar comparison can be made between the two great French composers, Ravel and Debussy. Both had unparalleled creativity in their writing for orchestra, but Ravel had more skill. By and large, Ravel’s orchestral works sound as written when they are played as written, but Debussy’s often don’t.

It is a fact that the instruction manual approach to orchestration has become the norm in the 20th Century, but though composers like Schoenberg aspire to it, we must sometimes recognize that, acoustics and physics being what they are, it won’t always sound in a room like it sounds in your head when you look at the page without help.

Certainly, studying scores is what makes conductors better at what we do, but studying the scores of one of the great conductors is doubly illuminating. Established conductors will often loan their own copy of a given work to a younger colleague-studying another conductor’s analysis and markings is very helpful. Studying Mahler’s music not only can make a conductor a better musician, it makes you a better conductor, because you’re not just learning the symphony by Mahler the composer, you’re looking at the performing notes of Mahler the conductor. I’m not assigning papal infalibility to Mahler or Ravel, there’s always a harmonic or a bowing in any score that doesn’t work as notated. It’s not that they knew everything that could be known about the orchestra, just that they knew more than anyone else.

The one thing in Patrick’s piece I completely disagree with is the following-

Mahler might have written conducting masterclasses into his scores, but don’t confuse general conducting advice for “here’s how to conduct my works so they sound like I wanted.””

I would actually suggest the hypothetical quote from Mahler should read, and would read if we could ask him, “here’s how to perform my works so they sound like the way I conceived them.” That includes conducting, and that’s a promise that many other composers of genius couldn’t make.

UPDATE- More from Patrick Smith here

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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