Boulez on Mahler

There is a transcendence. It isn’t enough to simply have difficulties with life itself – one has to be able to convey this in music too! A Mahler symphony is about more than emotion, it is also about structure. In a long movement such as, for example, the last movement of the Sixth Symphony, it is certainly  not enough to say “I can feel the emotion”. Mahler worked extremely hard and made an enormous effort to transcribe and organise his ideas and to render them effective. Anyone who performs the work with feeling alone is creating a lie about Mahler.

It is very difficult to achieve a balance between feeling and structure, but emotion without structure produces no security and, when you listen to a long movement such as this (the Finale of the 6th Symphony- ed.), one needs to sense the structure too. I am not suggesting that one needs to analyse the work, since not everyone is capable of taking an analytical approach, but one needs to find this balance, which is very hard to do.

Part of a wonderful interview with Pierre Boulez from the Musikverein website.

I find Boulez to be one of the most thoughtul and open-minded musicians alive today, not at all the inflexible modernist tyrant some would have you think he is.

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5 comments on “Boulez on Mahler”

  1. A.C. Douglas

    Do you really understand what Boulez is saying here? I sure don’t. What can the man mean by, “A Mahler symphony is about more than emotion, it is also about structure. [...] Anyone who performs the work [the last movement of the Sixth Symphony] with feeling alone is creating a lie about Mahler. [...] It is very difficult to achieve a balance between feeling and structure, but emotion without structure produces no security and, when you listen to a long movement such as this [one]…one needs to sense the structure too.”

    How can any conductor separate “feeling” from structure in a Mahler symphony unless he be an incompetent? The former is a direct and ineluctable consequence of the latter. Or is all the above perhaps an apologia by Boulez for his trademark “transparent” and analytic reading of any work of the Romantic and late-Romantic rep wherein he attempts relentlessly to render as impotent as the notes will allow all the work’s inherent romanticism?

    ACD

  2. A.C. Douglas

    Oops. Missing parenthetical up there.

    My, “…wherein he attempts relentlessly to render as impotent as the notes will allow all the work’s inherent romanticism,”

    should have read: “wherein he attempts relentlessly to render as impotent as the notes (and the structure!) will allow all the work’s inherent romanticism.”

    ACD

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hey ACD- good to hear from you, as always.

    Certainly as a teacher of conducting, I see young musicians struggling constantly with finding that balance between feeling and structure, between the Appolonian and Dionysian aspects of their work. In Mahler, where the emotional aspect is so strong, many conductors get too focused on what is going on now and not enough on where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Boulez is not insisting others imitate his performance, just observing the need for finding a balance between heart and head. He feels his performances have more emotional impact if he maintains a less subjective approach, but even in the quote above, he’s not advocating we strike the same balance, just recommending we strike a balance.

    Cheers
    K

  4. AC Seger

    Screw balance, I kinda like the extremes. One of the great things the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde did this year was to have Barenboim and Boulez conduct the Mahler symphonies. I heard the first five-Barenboim did 1 & 5 and Boulez did 2, 3, & 4. Definitely one of the more ear opening experiences you can have. I think it’s right to view Boulez as maybe one end of the head/heart axis-especially the way he conducts the 4th. very cool. But still deeply moving, perhaps best seen as the futility of arguing for any one best way of conducting mahler.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi AC Seger (two AC’s in one day?)- Welcome and thanks for the comment. Lucky you to see all those concerts. One thing I’ve always appreciated about Boulez’s attitude to conducting is his lack of meglomania. I’ve never seen him attempt to force a student to to imitate his interpretation or temperament, but instead, he’s extremely pragmatic about the art of conducting and very insistant on developing a respect for the text. Even in the text above, he makes clear that not everyone arrives at an internalization of a piece through pure analysis, that we’ve all got our own temperaments. As a listener, I may or may not dig every Mahler performance he does, but as a musician, there’s always something to be learned from PB.

    K

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