Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 7, a culmination

Mahler in Manchester

Originally published in 2010:

I finally managed to make it to one of the Mahler in Manchester concerts this past weekend (in spite of my blog project, I’ve had concerts of my own every previous concert night). Happily, this time I had a rehearsal in Manchester, so I was able to catch Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic giving a quite stunning performance of Mahler 7.

Almost as interesting as the performance were the conversations before and after. There was a small army of rather distinguished composers about, as well as critics, Mahler nuts, broadcasters and other serious listeners. While everyone seemed unanimous in their praise for the performances, the work still sparked some rather pointed conversations- particularly the famous Finale, which still seems to shock and baffle.

For me, however, the experience of sitting back and listening after a week with the score on my desk helped to put the piece in clearer perspective. I really came away thinking that it marks one of the most important and decisive moments in Mahler’s music, and perhaps even in the development of Western music.

It is certainly a culmination. Mahler made clear that he thought of the three middle symphonies as a triptych, a point Gianandrea made back stage after the performance. Still reeling from his workout, he suggested that next time the orchestra perform 5, 6, and 7 all in one day. “Mahler said the 5th was all about horizontal lines, the 6th about vertical lines and the 7th about spirals” was G.N.’s take “It is one gigantic symphony in 3 parts.” I realize that this is some people’s idea of Hell, but I wouldn’t miss such a marathon, although I’m not sure one conductor would be advised to do it all. Maybe we can share.

But I think it marks an even grander culmination. Part of what sets the 5th and 6th apart from their predecessors is a shift to slightly different subject matter. The narrative voice of the first four symphonies essentially disappears. Instead of linear drama, Mahler gives us studies in mood and experience. In the 5th, he creates a vast triptych of Death, Ambivilance and Love. The 6th more or less reverses that trajectory. Gone are the fairy tales and the Wunderhorn imagery- nature remains a powerful force, but a more realistic and less idealized one. The natural world becomes less picturesque and more potent.

Although it is often faulted for being a re-working of the ideas of the 5th, the 7th begins with something of step back to territory of the Wunderhorn symphonies. Although the musical language of the first four movements is quite advanced (it’s no wonder it was Schoenberg’s favourite Mahler symphony), the imagery is much more rooted in the mythology of German Romanticism than anything in the prior 2 works. The imagery of night, the forest, the presence of marches, love songs and even a witches Sabbath are just the tiniest hint of the extent to which so much of the symphony is indebted to, and plays off of, the inherited images and symbols of Romantic poetry and drama. On one level, this symphony is a culmination of the Romantic movement.

In this sense, the piece finds connections Mahler’s earlier works, but, as so often in Mahler, a powerful paradox is at work. On the one hand, we are returning to comfortable and familiar territory- re-telling old stories, re-visiting old haunts, re-haunting old forests. On the other hand, we can’t escape the fact that Mahler’s musical language has moved on. He is showing us familiar territory from a fresh perspective. By placing the first four movements in a nocturnal context, it is almost as if he is making the point that this whole world of Romanticism isn’t real- it is a dreamscape, nothing more or less. All these potent archetypes rightly belong in the subconscious world, not the world of daylight. All those stories- all those symphonies. They are powerful dreams, but only dreams. This re-examining of familiar landscapes with new tools makes us doubt their solidity- their dream nature is strongly hinted at for a long time, then in the Finale, Mahler makes explicit the point that has been lurking throughout. We awaken.

In the Finale, Mahler opens with an obvious shout-out to Wagner. Not just any Wagner, but Die Meistersinger. Why this piece and not Tristan or The Ring? Perhaps it is worth noting what sets this opera aside from the rest of Wagner’s output. It’s largely a question of what it doesn’t contain and isn’t about. There are no gods, no ghosts, no miracles and no magic. It is an opera about real life, stripped of mythology and magic.

One very great musician said to me after the concert on Saturday that he found the material in Mahler’s Finale a little “embarrassing.” I don’t agree, but I understand the reaction. For the first time in Mahler’s output, he is in the world of Meistersinger- in a real human community.

By suddenly shifting from the world of Romantic convention and archetype to a realist perspective, Mahler is all but parodying the artifice of what came before. It is as if he is saying that dreams and myths are all well and good, but this is the real world we must live in, and somehow learn to love. Mahler’s portrait of real life is both generous and affectionate on the one hand and bemused and ironic on the other. It is certainly the most consistently funny Finale of any symphony since Beethoven’s 8th, which it self stood on a similar threshold to its composer’s late style. I find another parallel (be patient with me here) in Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles, where near the end of the film, the warring actors spill out of their films set across the MGM lot, wreaking havoc on countless other film sets in the process. Mahler’s Finale is possibly (certainly) more dignified, but it does open up similar questions about this conflict between the world of myth (the Western or the Romantic forest) and reality (the set-the town of Nurnburg).

But the parallel with Wagner and Die Meistersinger has one more thing to tell us. If Mahler simply ended with a joke, I think it would be unworthy of what comes before it. Fortunately, like all great composers, Mahler takes humorous music seriously and always has a deeper point to make. Die Meistersinger is not simply a comedy about town life, it is also a declaration of Wagner’s Schoepenhaurian philosophy-

Although Die Meistersinger is a comedy, it also elucidates Wagner’s ideas on the place of music in society, on renunciation of the Will, and of the solace that music brings in a world full of Wahn (which may be translated into English as “illusion”“madness”“folly” or “self-deception”). It is Wahn which causes the riot in Act 2 – a sequence of events arising from a case of mistaken identity, which can be seen as a form of self-delusion. Many commentators have pointed out that Sachs in his famous Act 3 monologue Wahn, wahn, überall Wahnis paraphrasing Schopenhauer when he describes the way that Wahn, or self-delusion, drives men to behave in ways which are actually destroying them.[7]

In the Finale of the 7th, Mahler creates a vivid depiction of a world rich in “madness” and “folly” but also seems to be underlining the presence of so much “illusion” and “self-deception” in the dreamscapes of the previous movements. It is music that brings solace in Wagner’s philosophy and Mahler’s. On the one hand, this Finale is about Life, not legendary, heroic, Romantic fairy-tale life, but real, simple, smelly, noisy life.  On the other hand, this Finale is about Music. When you are confonted with the madness of life, it is in music that you find solace.

And here we find that Mahler’s choice of material, some of it banal, some of it borrowed, some of it even embarrassing is no accident. His obvious model here is Haydn, who always seemed to treat the most ridiculous themes in the most sophsisticated ways. Think of the Finale of Haydn 92- has such an absurd melody ever been put through such paces? Yes, but only in other Haydn pieces. This process always feels cathartic and humanizing, and so it is in Mahler. He takes this hodgepodge of ideas and makes from them the single most complex and virtuosic movement in all the symphonies, deconstructing almost his whole life’s work in the process. When we think of the symbolic power of the brass chorale at the end of the 3rd Symphony and compare it to the brass chorale which forms the refrain of this movement it’s almost like a mirror image. One is transcendent, the other is just party music, and yet, by the end, the party has become a transcendent experience. This movement marks the birth of late Mahler, the end of Romanticism and the beginning of the musical 20th c. with a movement that invents modernity by re-engineering Haydn using a tune by Wagner.

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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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6 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 7, a culmination”

  1. Mitch F

    Very interesting, all of it. Could another reason that Mahler chose Die Meistersinger for a Wagnerian shout-out have been the nervousness he was feeling for Alma at the time? I think there’s a letter where Mahler specifically draws a comparison between them and Hans Sachs and Eva (in other words, a young woman and a rather older man in a relationship that doesn’t last).

    Ken, where did Noseda get that bit about horizontal lines, vertical lines, and spirals? You quote him as saying “Mahler said…” I don’t think I’ve seen that before.

  2. Peter

    Hard to argue with this as a general description of how the finale works, but I would question that it marks a repudiation of Romanticism. It represents a distancing from a certain strand of Romanticism; the Faustian bargain, the suicidal despair of Manfred, the self-destructive Wahn of Tristan. But in many ways it shows us the importance of myth and dreams in informing the waking world. If we ignore what is dark in the human psyche, then Wahn is the consequence.

    In fact, the Finale picks up on the Eichendorff connections of the Nachtmusiken. I found this in Dichter und Gesellen (Poets and Wayfarers; a novella of 1834:

    “So he stood for a long time looking from his vantage point deep in thought – the sun rose magnificently, the morning bells rang out across the stillness and the hermit sang:

    We rely faithfully upon vigilance
    so eternal night does not return
    to extinguish the splendour of these lands,
    you – beautiful world – take care of yourself!”

    This quotation describes the Finale very well – a qualified joy, achieved by vigilance against what is dark in the human psyche. There is also aloofness, the hermit on his rock looking down upon ordinary existence, aware that under the surface are many dark undercurrents. Vigilance means taking distance and seeing things as they truly are.

    The Finale is a statement of how to enjoy life without getting too carried away. But there is defiance, impermanence and fragility in the celebration. Defiance because of the threat of darkness, impermanence because night will return – as it always does, and fragility because, if we drop our guard, calamity will surely follow.

    Modernism, which disenchanted music, rather adopted the path of trying to rationalise away the dark side of life or else picking up on the self-destructive aspects of Romanticism. It polarised matters into a war of opposites; cool rational idealism versus existential nihilism. Mahler here is treading carefully to avoid this dialectic, putting Romanticism under scrutiny, but not quite throwing the baby out with the bathwater. he was after all just about to write his most romantic symphony of all.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Mitch- I’m afraid I can’t answer about GN. It’s certainly a striking way of thinking about the 3 pieces. I’ll try to ask for more info next time I see him.

    As for Mahler as Sachs- I’m a little skeptical, only because I can see the profound anguish the thought of losing her gave him in the 10th. I suppose he could be saying “why can’t I do as Sachs did?” but the Finale doesn’t seem that introspective. Maybe he was in denial and thought of himself more as Walter in spite of his age!

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Peter

    Great comment, as always. In the kindest possible way you’ve exposed one area where I was far to unclear. The question of whether Mahler’s music marks the beginning of modernism shouldn’t be confused with whether it marks the beginning of Modernism. As you rightly note, Mahler was far to fascinated by the creative potential of paradox and juxtaposition to ever get into the black and white mind set of Modernism. On the other hand, it does seem like the later works are finding completely new and modern (as opposed to Modern) ways of looking at the world.

    Of course this is a topic for a book rather than a blog post, and certainly not a mere comment, but as we’ve discussed, I can’t see Mahler himself as ever moving toward a 12-tone approach. Surely his music would have become more harmonically adventurous had he lived, but tonality (in the structural rather than sonic sense) was too important for him to ever give up…..


    Readers might also enjoy a classic post from the archives which doesn’t mention GM, but I think addresses why he wouldn’t have been a Modernist, even though his music will always be modern.

  5. Peter

    Take your point Ken.

    Mahler is modern in the sense that he is looking upon the world with the eyes of a man living in the period that saw the birth of modernity in the West; the urban, industrial, multi-cultural, mass-society which has developed through advances in technology and supported by a generally sceptical attitude. Modernism in the arts grew out of that background and Mahler is certainly in the the thick of it. But, as you point out and as Mahler said many times, he was at heart an old-fashioned Romantic composer.

    The more acceptable face of Modernism in music – namely neo-classicism – would probably have been more Mahler’s natural milieu than serialism or other kinds of theoretical constructivism. He might well have gone on to retreat from expressionist excess in order to find some kind of emotional balance.

    That’s the struggle of the seventh, but the forces raging under the surface are not easily subdued, which was the hallmark of the times.

    Modernity is a bit of a myth anyway – a self-consciously wrought end of history. How can we be more modern than other generations who were all modern in their day? If modern means that Mahler is relevant to us now – then I am all for it.

    Interesting point about Mahler identifying with Sachs and seeing Alma as Eva. In the end, Mahler had to show a degree of renunciation with regard to Alma. He forgave her her indiscretions, and any older man must have feared that his young wife might find love elsewhere. We know also that Alma said she could fall in love with any man she felt was greater than Mahler. That’s a fairly loaded gun to have to your head. But I doubt this was specifically in MAhler’s mind when he wrote the seventh.

    On the other hand, we also know that before the premiere, Mahler invited Alma to a rehearsal and performed this final movement for her, almost like a private performance. It is described how he threw himself into it like a wild man, showing off to her. He wanted to impress her with it – as if to say, you see I am still a great man at the height of his powers.

    He was trying to be the wise old man and the dynamic young lover; Sachs and Walther in one – which I guess is probably how Wagner saw himself. These are archetypes afterall, not real people – and the message is that Walther alone, the ardent youth, can’t write the prize song. That takes a combination of passion, inspiration, wisdom, experience and self-denial.

    So many levels in this music. Life, the Universe and everything…


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