It would be disingenuous of me to begin today's class in any manner but talking about the nightmare inducing story of James Levine - the most famous living conductor in America and for many music lovers one of the giant musicians of all time. Everyone in music knew the rumors about him, and there were so many rumors and they were so crazy that it was assumed that the truth couldn't be as bad as all that. It turns out that the truth was worse. At least in one case, Levine was grooming a music loving kid from the time he was four years old until he took advantage of the kid when he was fifteen. This is the behavior of child molesters, and it's now nearly beyond doubt that's what James Levine was, and perhaps still is. Who knows what other horrors he might have enacted, and who knows what might have happened to him in his distant past to make him become this way. The insular, authoritarian, world of classical music is just as strange as you might speculate it is, and surprisingly dangerous.
No artist is above the law, either the laws of a country or the laws of human decency. But the price of art has always been very, very steep. Humans are not inherently democratic creatures who understand each other's plights. We are, by nature, authoritarian and hierarchical, programmed to worship rather than be skeptical. Go to any rock concert in America. Here, in the cradle of modern liberal democracy, audiences of 40,000 turn into a herd, bobbing their heads and arms in the exact same way. You can't get rid of the authoritarian impulse in humans, you can only find a less harmful outlet for it. Compassion for each other is something we have to learn and we never learn it particularly well. The further up the curtain of ugly behavior of artists comes up in Blue America, the more the curtain of religion comes down in Red America, where ministers and priests and judges can indulge their worst impulses with even less checks on their behavior, and do so while hiding under the banner of God and dismissing any report of their monstrous acts as 'fake news.' Dealing with psychopaths is part of the human story, and it will never be eradicated. There is clearly a monster in James Levine's psyche, but many experts still speculate that the fate of psychopaths is sealed from the moment they're born. The harder the James Levines of America find it to have an outlet for their psychopathy that is productive, the easier the Roy Moores of America will find it to create fear rather than beauty.
One of the ideas I had for this final class was to not talk at all and simply have us listen to a dozen-and-a-half five-minute excerpts from symphonies just show us exactly what it is that the symphony does better than any other musical form. But then, I realized that without context it means very little. We need to put the symphony in the context of all that other music, and talk about exactly what makes the symphony different, more abstract; not a better form of art, but perhaps, and I emphasize, perhaps, a higher form of art, maybe the very highest of all, and one that, because it has so little obvious connection to our daily lives, is again, perhaps, capable of pacifying the world in ways we won't even yet realize for centuries yet.
I've talked a lot in here about 'greatest' this and 'best' that, but the truth still is that there is no such thing as 'better than' in art. Any sense that Beethoven is a better musician than Tchaikovsky or Chuck Berry is just a game. Games are fun, but not a serious examination of the humanities. You can't quantify quality. You can only qualify it and say that this is why this particular human expression is great, and that is why that particular one is. But you can quantify uniqueness, and the fact is that every culture, from the beginning of recorded time, has had their own three minute songs with lyrics that express the very specific concerns of their particular time and place. Now just because, in fifty years, there will be a new Beatles that will be so beloved and necessary to people's lives in 2067 that it may render the songs of 1967 as irrelevant to daily life of its time as the Beatles rendered the songs of 1867 irrelevant to the life of it's time. Some of you in here are Baby Boomers, some of you are pre-boomers. But for every person in here too young to have been an adult in World War II, 1967 and 68 seem to have been extremely defining years of your lives just as 2016 and 17 seem to be extremely defining years in the lives of the generations around my age. And if you go to a classical concert, even today, it seems clear that the base of classical support is still people born before 1946 who have memories of an America that wasn't confident enough about its culture to not feel inadequate next to the culture of Europe. Go to their concerts, and you fundamentally hear the sounds of 1868 - Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky...
But Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan still do three hour shows nearly every night of their lives, and seventy year olds buy their tickets for hundreds of dollars to remember what it was like to be twenty, and they bring their children, and now they even bring their grandchildren, to teach them to love this music as the pre-Boomer parents and grandparents taught them to love Verdi and Chopin. This music has become a kind of classical music in America, and please, take it from the classical musician, it's not the state of being you want for the music you love. It probably means that your music will, to a certain extent, be remembered long after you or your grandchildren are gone, but it will increasingly be remembered as a burden, a chore, something your descendants have to learn about to appease their elders, who loved this music for exactly the opposite reason - that it was subversive and new, but it can never be new again.
But that does not mean that She's Leaving Home or The Times They Are a-Changin or Sempre Libera or Carmen's Habanera are not amazing works of art, or that they won't live on, but they can never again revolutionize how the world saw itself in the earth-shaking way they did when they were first heard, because once they've entered the world's bloodstream, they're too familiar to ever have the same impact again. And furthermore, there is only so many meanings, musically or lyrically, that you can discover about a piece of music that's only three minutes long. Simpler never means worse, but 99 times out of 100 and maybe even more, it does mean the simple things in life are more ubiquitous and less unique. The three minute song is the most atomic form of music there has ever been, and there will always be new songs that can express the concerns of that particular era better than the songs of a previous era can. The greatest performers of these songs inevitably die out, and so then do the memories of their greatest performances. Eventually, everything that once revolutionized the world becomes the establishment, and then a force of conservatism, and then even a reactionary force. That's the rule of entropy at work in politics and culture just as it does in science, that's how the dialectic works, and that's just what history has shown to be true again and again. With any concept to which the world can apply a definite meaning, the concept will outlive its usefulness, and the world will eventually have need of some other concept to revolutionize their lives as the older concepts once did for their ancestors.
And eventually, maybe it'll take a few centuries but, the extremely vast majority of this music we love will no more speak to the concerns of daily life than the songs of the Troubadours of the Gothic era do. And that doesn't just go for rock or R&B or any other popular 20th century genre, it goes for the vast majority of what we consider great opera today, it goes for almost all the art songs we call lieder. If one day, the world stops believing in religion, it may also happen to a thousand years of sacred music. If the humans ever evolve from the religious impulse, and bare in mind this is a semi-religious Jew saying that this is a possibility, the entire tradition of sacred music will have no value that isn't historic, anthropological, academic.
So that leaves us with absolute music - sonatas, chamber music, and especially symphonies: abstract philosophical forms rendered through sound to speak with a direct physical presence. Instrumental jazz is plenty complex, but by its nature, jazz is usually more interested in the visceral experience of moment its being played than it is in larger spans of time. In common practice classical music, in the way it makes us speculate about what we've already heard, and what we have yet to hear, we are not experiencing the present moment nearly so much as, at any point in the music, we are contemplating the relationship of what we've heard to what we have yet to hear. As Heidegger would put it, we are being thrown through time, from the beginning of the music to the end of it, and simultaneously experiencing every moment of this piece even though we can only hear it moment to moment.
So what then is the point of this kind of very abstract, very distant, very pompous, very unrelateable conception of music? As best I can tell, the point is to quiet the agonies of our spirit by showing us that there is another dimension out there, a different kind of dimension, in which we relate to thought, to consciousness, to our goals, completely differently than we do in real life with its many unfulfillable concerns. Here, in music, in these dramas of harmony, we achieve those ideal worlds in art which are never possible in life, ideal states of mind and soul which are only possible in the worlds of the spirit, and if we ever try to effect them here on earth, and try we do very hard, leads to still greater suffering than ever.
Lots of musicians deal with words, and many of those musicians who deal with words use them for an actual purpose, the purpose is to inflame their listeners to some kind of cause. That's as true for Wagner as it is for Dylan. But there is no famous composer of symphonies or string quartets for whom that's true. I suppose one could argue that's true for Beethoven, but it wouldn't be a correct argument. If Beethoven were really trying to inflame us rather than pacify us, he would have shown us that transcendence is not a foregone conclusion: maybe he would have given us a symphony that ended in a minor key, and he never did. Even if he ends some beloved sonatas and quartets in an angry minor key, the reason hundreds of years of music lovers have listened to Beethoven is not because he agitates us, but because after he agitates us he always seems to pacify us and reassures us that whatever our suffering, it will never be in vain. "Take action if you feel the need," the music seems to say, "but even if you don't, you're life has meaning and is worth living." He always leads our spirit back home. It was also perhaps true for the young Sibelius who wrote Finlandia, but by the time he wrote the last few bars of the Second Symphony, he was no longer the angry revolutionary, the music seems to tell us that even if the revolution loses, life is still worth living. The Symphony does not revolutionize, it pacifies.
And so we come to what the Symphony does better than anything else: along with the less ambitious cousins from its family like the sonata, the trio, the quartet, it's the only form of music that is meant to genuinely pacify your spirit. Because you've experienced transcendence in music, you don't long for transcending the frustrations of your life with quite the same sehnsucht. You can deal with the endless suffering and frustrations of your life more practically, because while life itself might be unremittingly ugly, there is a dimension you to which you can always go to experience a place where all dissonances are resolved in harmony, all contrasting ideas are fused together in agreement, in which sounds of the entire world can be represented, coexisting together and engaging with one another in music as they can't in real life. Mahler deals with this very directly in his Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand.
In 1907, a doctor had come because Alma was sick, and she was just mildly sick, but the doctor insisted on checking Mahler, and then told Mahler he had a heart condition that was probably fatal. Mahler had just lost a daughter, and would only live another four years. He was just finishing his eighth, the Symphony of a Thousand, which he called a 'gift to the nation.' Schoenberg said of Mahler 8 that it is a symphony about joy, but it's a symphony about joy by a composer who knows that joy is no longer his to experience. I was planning on not playing anything from the Symphony of a Thousand, since it's my least favorite Mahler symphony by some margin - it has very little of Mahler's musical democracy in which there is comic street music all around the sublimity - it's as though Mahler is doing his best Wagner impression. But here is the text Mahler set from Goethe's Faust, which is literally about this eternal state of music that we have talked about: (Solti/Chicago)
Everything ephemeral Is only metaphor; The insufficient Here becomes an event; The indescribable Here is done; The eternal feminine Draws us upwards
With that quote in mind, I want you to hear the final crescendo of the symphony, and see it, as best you can, as the eternal made manifest. I couldn't find the quote or who it comes from, maybe it's Mahler himself, but there's a quote about how at the end of Mahler 8, we hear the literal music of the spheres, in which everything in the entire universe resounds against each other.
Here's the thing about the uniqueness of the Symphony. Every culture has its own songs, most cultures seem to have their own version of musical theater. The one thing that not every culture has is abstract, absolute music which people listen to for a reason other than dancing to it. And of those which do, none of them have achieved anything like the quantitative, measurable, complexity of European classical music in the symphonic age. Yes, there are composers all around the world, but what was unique to music between Haydn and Shostakovich, basically 200 years, is that this incredibly complex music, seemingly of such little use to daily life, became one of the most important fabrics of life on an entire continent. There is no precedent for it, and there doesn't seem to be a successor to it either - and that isn't to say that composers are better or worse today, they're simply different. Like all creative musicians today, they make music for a different kind of use than the grand line of composers did who knew that their chances at making their extremely abstract music part of the fabric of daily life was not completely impossible. It's impossible to write a symphony today for an audience of more than 30,000 people or so. No matter how hard they try, there is no mass audience for them to appeal to. And because there's no mass audience, the miracle that is the grand tradition of the symphony can no longer be continued in the same way. The miracle is that the Symphony used the most elitist concept in the world, abstract sound that has no meaning at all in reality, to become a popular art which was the greatest joy in the lives of tens of millions of people in every generation for well over a century.
This is why, I believe that, thousands of years after even The Beatles and Dylan may have disappeared from cultural currency, Beethoven and Mahler will still be as present in the world as Ovid and Virgil and maybe even Homer. I could, of course, be incredibly wrong about that. And it's not to say that quantitatively simpler music is worse, but it is to say that it can more easily be replaced.
It goes without saying, this is not a popular viewpoint to have in 2017, even and perhaps especially among classical musicians. The majority of classical musicians I know who are my age or younger listen to Top 40 in their spare time, and they're understandably sick and tired of being seen as elitist by the larger world. So many classical musicians I know believe that if we ingratiate ourselves enough, if we become as populist as we used to be elitist, the world will stop viewing us that way.
I don't believe that's possible. Classical music that ceases to be elitist about its quality is no longer classical music. But even if that weren't true, the fact is that there will always be a lot of bellicose people out there who are even a lot more conservative about aesthetics than I am, and the extremity of their vitriol will see to it that classical music maintains its snobbish reputation no matter how hard others try to reform it.
Classical music is not music for the body or even for conscious thought, it's music for the soul, for the unconscious, for the dream life that we can't understand but is such a large part of us, perhaps an infinite part of us, that exists beyond our physicality, beyond our thoughts, beyond ethics, beyond anything in this dimension, and music is perhaps the only thing in the world that gives it voice. Wittgenstein put it like this: 'whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent', and in that spirit, pure music articulates the thoughts and concepts and emotions in us all that can't be expressed out loud, maybe even the ones we didn't know were there until the music showed us. It shouldn't strike us as surprising that classical music is now popular in East Asia, music always seems to be more popular in buttoned up cultures where lots of emotions need to be repressed. Mahler put it differently: 'Where words stop, music begins.'
As we've noted before, Mahler said that whoever listens to his music intelligently will hear his life story. We haven't talked much in here about the superstition of writing a Ninth Symphony, but I think we all know that there is only one rule to life that matters, and that is: Don't write a Ninth Symphony. Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler. Composers from the last century like Vaughan Williams, Kurt Atterberg, Egon Wellesz, Alfred Schnittke, Roger Sessions. Alexander Glazunov, a great but minor Russian composer, never completed more than one movement of his ninth, and lived for another twenty-six years. Malcolm Arnold, a great but minor British composer, stated that he intended his ninth to be his last symphony, and he lived another twenty.
Mahler would write a ninth symphony that wasn't actually a Ninth Symphony but a series of songs: Das Lied von der Erde - the Song of the Earth. Some people say it's Mahler's greatest work, but is it actually a symphony? I don't know, it's not particularly symphonic in a lot of ways, but Mahler certainly thought it was his Ninth Symphony, and by not calling it a Ninth Symphony, he thought he might have found a way around fate. The text is by ancient Chinese poets, and all through, there is a very eastern, Chinese, perhaps even orientalist manner. But, contrary to how many people feel about cultural appropriation today, this is a treatment beyond mere respect. Mahler is turning to the East for wisdom about the transitory nature of life that wisdom of the West, with all its talk about individualism and soul states, achieves comparatively rarely.
Let's start by listening to the last few minutes of Das Lied von der Erde's first song, 'The Drinking Song of the Earth's Misery.' The German text is born out in the music so much that I'm almost tempted not to read it, but even so, here is what it says: (Klemperer/Wunderlich/Philharmonia)
What's important to realize about emotional darkness, whether in music or in life, is that it's always informed not by hatred of life, but by love of life, and a wish that the agonies of life would let up more frequently so that we can experience all those things in life that are worth living for. This duality between love of life and hatred of life, which is present from the very beginning of Mahler, becomes all consuming at the end of his life. It becomes even moreso in the second movement, which is even more explicit and autobiographical: (Kletzki/Fischer-Dieskau)
My heart is tired. My little lampexpires with a crackle, minding me to sleep.I come to you, trusted resting place.Yes, give me rest, I have need of refreshment!The music is nearly sparer than anything Mahler wrote. Usually this is sung by a mezzo-soprano, but when you can hear part of it sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for the money of many and mine, the greatest and most intelligent singer of the 20th century, better to go with him.
I weep often in my loneliness.Autumn in my heart lingers too long.Sun of love, will you no longer shineto gently dry up my bitter tears?
Das Lied is six movements long, and Mahler knows perfectly well that you can't just have unremitting bitterness and heartache for a whole hour, so the next three movements are quite different. You know that the happiness won't last, but it's still quite happy. First you get a movement that is almost stereotypically Chinese, but also very typical of early Mahler, it sounds like it could be in the first symphony or Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The lines are:
Like the back of a tigerarches the jade bridgeover to the pavilion.
Friends sit in the little housewell dressed, drinking, chatting.some writing verses.
Their silk sleeves glidebackwards, their silk capsrest gaily at the napes of their necks.
On the small pond's stillsurface, everything showswhimsical in mirror image.
Everything stands on its headin the pavilion of greenand white porcelain.
Like a half-moon is the bridgeits arch upturned. Friendswell dressed, drinking, chatting.
First we get the image of a tiger's back, which crescents inward. At the end, we get the image of the bridge as a half-moon, it crescents outward. One side of the poem is the actual people, the other is a reflection, and we hear that reflection in the music.
This is probably a nostalgic memory of Mahler and his artist friends, maybe Strauss and Schoenberg are there, maybe Kraus and Hofmannsthal or Arthur Schnitzler are there too, architects like Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, Klimt is definitely there, Alma is serving Sachertorte and possibly making out with one of them in the kitchen, and they all know that they are discussing and understanding the world on a level which no other social gathering in the world can ever approximate. Or maybe, that entire image of the good old days is all just bullshit...
Then comes the movement, Von der Schönheit, or 'Of Beauty' (Horenstein/Hodgson/BBC Northern)
Young girls picking flowers,And then comes one of my favorite key changes in all music, and the music of the sun. Here's the text:
Picking lotus flowers at the riverbank.
Amid bushes and leaves they sit,
gathering flowers in their laps and calling
one another in raillery.
Golden sun plays about their form
reflecting them in the clear water.
We'll skip ahead a minute for when the boys arrive. Note the image of the horses, and how, in the Jungian language of dreams, horses always seem to mean virility.
The sun reflects back their slender limbs,their sweet eyes,and the breeze teasing up the warpof their sleeves, directs the magicof perfume through the air.
O see, what a tumult of handsome boysAnd now the Drunkard in Spring, with music that lurches back and forth: (Tennstedt/König)
there on the shore on their spirited horses.
Yonder shining like the sun's rays
between the branches of green willows
trot along the bold companions.
The horse of one neighs happily on
and shies and rushes there,
hooves shaking down blooms, grass,
trampling wildly the fallen flowers.
Hei! How frenzied his mane flutters,
and hotly steam his nostrils!
If life is but a dream,
why work and worry?
I drink until I no more can,
the whole, blessed day!
And if I can drink no more
as throat and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep wonderfully!
But we finally come to the half-hour main event, Der Abschied, the farewell. It begins with an oboe, wailing in the wind, symbolized perhaps by the gong and double basses, like a certainty of misery. (Walter/Ferrier/Vienna). Taken up, ironically, bittersweetly, Jewishly, by the violins.
Where have we heard these wails, where have we heard this bittersweetness, where have we heard this irony. It's not in the Chinese tradition. (Uri Caine). So far as I know, this is not an actual cantorial tune that Mahler quoted but something of his own invention. Nevertheless, an Israeli Jazz musician named Uri Caine saw the Jewish overtones and created an album around them, and it's unmistakable. This is El Maleh Rakhamim, the Jewish prayer for the souls of the dead.
The plot is all too simple: two friends have a farewell drink before one of them goes off to eternity.
So at the end, after a half-hour meditation on farewells and finality, Mahler finds peace in eternity, a kind of happiness within the agony of dying. The lines here are: (Walter/Ferrier/Vienna)
Those last three lines are not by Wang Wei or Hang Hoeran, but by Mahler himself. The bravery with which Mahler faced his maker is unprecedented, not just in music, but in art. Nobody takes us through the process of wrestling with our end as exhaustively, with as much honesty, and as much generosity as Mahler does. There are some artists who are more concerned with the surface of things, they want to make an amazing musical impression, but they shy away from making us aware on the deepest levels of what life really is, both in its heartbreak, and in its uplift. Sometimes they make statements about life, but they sanitize life from what life really is. Nobody spends the last twenty minutes of their life singing at full voice like in Verdi. Nobody conforms to two-dimensional archetypes like in Wagner. Nobody is just rituals like in Stravinsky. Nobody is just literature like in Berlioz. And life is more than just ideas like in Richard Strauss. But except for Prokofiev, all of these shallower of the great composers shied away from symphonies. Symphonies demand absolute honesty about life, there is neither words nor plot to hide behind. But Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Bruckner, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Nielsen, Sibelius... none of them shied away from taking us down to the deepest possible questions. Does life have meaning? And if it does, what is the meaning of life?
So in the midst of all this Mahler, we have to make a brief word at least about Sibelius and Ives. Sibelius was paring down his musical language further and further and further. Until his seventh, when he finally created a one-movement twenty-minute symphony that had all the gestures of a four movement symphony with an opening with two themes, a slow movement, a scherzo, and a finale, but with not a single wasted note. Here are the three times we hear the main theme of the symphony, in three extraordinarily different spirits.
The Seventh Symphony is a twenty-minute prayer. It tells us, on the deepest level, of what life is, and it arrives at absolute peace. The conductor, Simon Rattle, says that Mahler is like a Red Supergiant that burns at the hottest temperature and assimilates everything into its orbit. Sibelius does not create an orbital system through size, but through density. He is like a white dwarf, and every gesture in Sibelius means something hugely significant. After the Seventh Symphony, Sibelius had arrived at an absolute of musical meaning, he had completed his musical process, there was nowhere deeper to go, so he laid down his pen and didn't pick it up for the last thirty years of his life, in spite of the fact that he was the world's most beloved composer, and everybody begged him to.
But a composer from whom nobody was begging to hear more was Charles Ives, and in Ives's 4th Symphony, he'd achieved the literal opposite of Sibelius, pouring everything into his music - not as Mahler did with severe discipline, but all at once with the maximum exuberance and ferocity. (MTT/Chicago)
Ives's time has not come yet, but oh my god will it ever. Music this good can never be ignored forever. This is the musical inclusion of all - American democracy in musical action, with quotes of "The Sweet By and By", "Beulah Land", "Marching Through Georgia", "Ye Christian Heralds", "Jesus, Lover of my Soul" and "Nearer, my God, to Thee" that overlay each other in different tempos, keys, and rhythms. It's so much more avant-garde than Mahler. And yet, it is of Mahler's time.
Right after that march, we get this simple hymn - imagine a similarly avant-garde composer, Boulez, or Ives's pupil, Elliott Carter, having the courage not just to make something so challenging, but to follow it up with a hymn as simple as this, that sounds like a perfect fusion of Mahler 9 and Sibelius 7.
Ives 4 is more than just a portmanteau or cacophany, it is a statement of belief in the same transcendentalism as Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman - for each of us to find our own voice, with the dictates of our own individual consciences, to create personal works that signify that we each have reached our own unique potential.
The dissonance builds up and up and up, almost unbearably, and then quickly subsides into a D-major heaven that is all the more peaceful and beautiful for being disorderly. But Ives is like Mahler at the next level up, and if Mahler lets some things dominate his all-inclusive texture, Ives never lets any one element dominate his.
All that lives must die, and this is a depressing end to a class about symphonies, so many of which are about triumph and victory, about happy endings, and at very least, about transcendence. But eventually, we all lose the war, and the best we can hope for is to make peace with our ends - say goodbye to everything and everyone we love, and accept that we are just a very small part of a larger essence.
Mahler was saying various kinds of goodbyes his entire career. Even his first symphony has a funeral march, even his second symphony imagines the death of the hero of his first, and the resurrection of the world. The Third Symphony, for my money Mahler's greatest, is the only symphony in which he finally finds enough joyfulness to fundamentally get away from death, and even the third has to begin with a funeral march.
We will get to the Ninth in a moment, but for me, Mahler's other greatest symphony is his fourth. A symphony that seems like the innocence of childhood on the surface, but is really about child mortality, perhaps the mortality of his many brothers and sisters who died in childhood. The first movement is great, but we obviously don't have enough time to listen to the whole thing. Instead, let's go straight to the second movement, which Mahler calls 'Friend Death strikes up a tune.'
Death, of course, plays the violin, and the concertmaster tunes the violin a whole step up, which prevents even a Stradivarius from having the natural ring of a really fine violin. Instead, it's a tinny, it's wiry instrument, a cheap fiddle. Playing against music that sounds truly innocuous, how could this dance possibly be threatening? (Bernstein/Vienna)
Even the most cheerful bars of this movement have something incredibly macabre about it. Furthermore, I think you can pinpoint exactly the moment that death kills its dance partner, because the music becomes so unbelievably beautiful, and the key change is an event without any preparation at all, and given that this symphony disguises its macabre with innocence, what else can this level of innocence possibly signify?
We then get to the third movement, which is said to be the peace of a dead child, sleeping forever. Over the course of a few minutes, it grows, not in intensity, but precisely the opposite, in peace.
You can hear the germ of this melody in Beethoven's Fidelio. (Klemperer/Ludwig/Philharmonia)
And then after more than fifteen minutes of various meditations on this comes the opening of the Gates of Heaven.
And then, in the final movement, we see exactly what heaven is: (Bernstein/Vienna/Matthis)
We enjoy heavenly pleasuresand therefore avoid earthly ones.No worldly tumultis to be heard in heaven.All live in greatest peace.We lead angelic lives,yet have a merry time of it besides.We dance and we spring,We skip and we sing. Saint Peter in heaven looks on.And now that we know what heaven may be in store for Mahler from the 4th Symphony, we are ready to deal with Mahler's 9th, and his struggle to steal as much time on Earth as he possibly can.
Bernstein would say, in his apocalyptic way, that when he studied Mahler 9, that he realized that ours is a century of death, and Mahler is his spiritual prophet. That is both absolutely true, and absolutely ridiculous. As we said about the Sixth, Mahler had no true way of knowing that hundreds of millions of premature deaths would follow his in quick succession. The way that Mahler prophesized death was through an enormous, and incredibly moving love of life. (Abbado/Berlin) And I think it's a mistake for conductors to freight this symphony with too much apocalypse with slow tempos and huge fermatas and dynamic contrast. If you're a giant like Leonard Bernstein, you might be able to pull it off, but I doubt it's what Mahler had in mind. What makes Mahler 9 so moving is that the very personal juxtaposition of life and death which you just heard.
It begins with two motifs. One is that weird rhythm, which you can watch Bernstein speculate on youtube, and I once heard David Zinman speculate in concert, is Mahler's irregular heartbeat. It wouldn't surprise me if that were exactly right since it always comes in the most ominous moments, and at the perhaps literally heartbreaking moments when Mahler yearns, longs, wilts most to enjoy life, death comes back with ever more finality.
And what makes this symphony so heartbreaking is because Mahler is so clearly a man who loves life, yet is prevented, again and again, from engaging in all those life-giving activities he loves. Those two notes we keep hearing, "Miiiii-reeeeee, Miiiii-reeeee." Bernstein speculated it is simply 'fare-weeeeeell, a-dieeeeeeeeu, leb-wooooooooohl.' But the evidence is pretty thick that Mahler meant it to mean exactly the opposite. It comes straight from a Johann Strauss's waltz called 'Enjoy Life.' Compare it with Mahler for a minute or two.
We then come to a second duality. The childhood Mahler, rendered in the country ländlers of the second movement, and the adult Mahler, rendered in the hypermodern counterpoint of the Rondo Burleske, also known occasionally as the Todtentanz - Dance of Death.
Mahler wants this in the tempo of a leisurely ländler, which if you remember way back to when we played that clip from the Sound of Music, is the country equivalent to a waltz. It's an incredibly, deliberately, stupid piece of music that doesn't do much but go back and forth between C-Major and G-Major. (Bernstein/Concertgebouw)
Go forward a minute, and one Ländler is interrupted by another Ländler, in a completely different tempo and character. Not much though that changes otherwise, it's still deliberately stupid music, but instead of the harmony being stupid, it's the rhythm, in which e-very sin-gle beat is e-qual-ly im-por-tant.
And then comes the third Ländler, the lazy Ländler, in which maybe all that clod-hopping and beer has made you completely tired. You can almost hear the exhalations, and yet in those exhalations, you can hear that same 'miiiiii-reeeee' 'miiiiii-reeeeee'. 'Enjoy life!' 'Enjoy life!' In all of this, you can hear both Mahler's love for these rural people, and also his complete contempt for them. In every bar of this symphony, there is a duality between love of life and hatred of life, as though to ask 'is all of this really worth it?' Mahler finds ways to combine all three Ländlers in every which way over sixteen minutes. We won't listen to that because there's still more important stuff in the next movement. (Walter/Vienna)
We didn't listen to the last movement of Mahler 1, but just listen to the main theme of that movement for a moment and compare the extremely similar material, but with the difference of a musician who has both assimilated twenty years of new music, and also lived to be much more cynical about emotional pain than he was as a young man (Mitropoulos/Minneapolis). Mahler described the finale of his Titan Symphony as the outpouring of painful feelings from a deeply wounded heart. This heart has now hardened from twenty years more of adult traumas.
But then comes something utterly unexpected, an entirely new development. Material we haven't really heard. It sounds a little bit like the opening, it's certainly in the same key, but really, it's an entirely new melody made out of the same building blocks. It's a resolution, a new way to enjoy life, by appreciating that we are just one infinitesimal manifestation of life in an a whole world of it, and whatever we are now, when we leave, we will become a very different part of the world, perhaps the leaves that rustle on the trees, or the wind itself, or merely light that helps to reflect the general luminosity of the universe. (Barbirolli/Berlin)
But this general burlesque of cynicism is what forces us to run out the clock on our lives until we can appreciate this transcendent luminosity for exactly what it is when it's time to make our long journey, because the only way we may be able to appreciate the preciousness of life properly is by taking a journey to an undiscovered country. But until then, every time we try to remember the grandeur of the universe, trivialities always pop up and make us remember that the world is determined to show us the uglier side of its duality as often as it possibly can (Bernstein/Berlin).
Now we come to the finale. The reason I keep bringing up Bernstein in this piece is because he made a documentary about it, Four Ways to Say Farewell. The problem with Bernstein's view is that he romanticizes the doom-ladenness of this symphony. He connected it again and again to Keats's Ode to a Nightingale's famous line 'I am half in love with easeful death.' He was much better cut out for the earlier Mahler symphonies which are generally less classically proportioned. The Ninth particularly is much more grounded in the emotional ambiguity of the 20th century, where artists were unsure of their place at the center of the culture and therefore couldn't express with as much primary emotions. Less heart-on-sleeve Mahlerians generally did better with it who wouldn't take ultra slow tempos that got still slower to emphasize every significant moment: Bruno Walter, Claudio Abbado, John Barbirolli, Bernard Haitink, Rafael Kubelik, George Szell, Rudolf Barshai, Daniel Barenboim.
Mahler 9 can only be doom-laden because it's suffused with such great love of life. The heartbreak is because he has to leave it, and if you put too much romantic mysticism around Mahler 9 where it becomes the end of life and the end of the line, music itself can seem to end with it. But music goes on, Mahler even wrote a 10th symphony, which he finished in all but the orchestration. It is a crime against music that so few great Mahler conductors took it seriously until recently. We obviously don't have time to hear the whole thing, but in order to understand Mahler 9 in context, you have to hear Mahler 10 to realize that life goes on and music goes on; music most definitely has a future, and if you put too much significance on music that was premiered in 1912 as Mahler 9 was, the year before the Rite of Spring was premiered, you come to an entire century of great music with a closed mind.
Hear the great moment of Mahler 10's first movement (Bournemouth/Rattle), literally written in the days after Mahler discovered Alma was having an affair with a younger man. This is the world not of Mahler as we traditionally conceive him, but Schoenberg and Berg. But Mahler, being a still greater composer than Schoenberg, who was toweringly great, ties his atonality back in with the extremely romantic tonalities of earlier Mahler and Wagner and lets the two coexist freely without doctrine or dogma.
And hear how he resolves it, and manages to live with the knowledge that his much younger wife has to, and will move on when his death shortly comes. So listen to how Mahler resolves the conflict, the resolution does not come easily, but resolution does come, and peace returns. He falls back in love with life, and has what might be the most glorious, beautiful key change in the entire history of the symphony, I may not keep it together when we hear it.
Now, we are ready to take on Mahler 9's last movement. The first four minutes sound like a Bach chorale. Four minutes in, we get the first false climax, a moment when it sounds like the Angel of Death himself appears in the contrabassoon, Bernstein described what happens next as though Mahler has turned to Eastern wisdom and done his best to renounce the ego, he imagines himself no longer an I but simply imagining himself merely as a collection of atoms in the universe (Abbado/Lucerne). Three times, Mahler tries to create a glorious like what you can hear at the end of Mahler 3, but the climax never comes, and it subsides very quickly after gathering force so heavily.
Here's false climax #2:
Here's false climax #3, with the howl that seems to beg life to let him life more:
It's so moving... I may not be able to keep it together...
And false climax #4: , which can't even gather the force of the other passionate outpourings.
And then, the moment of death itself on the last page. The entire twenty-four-or-so minute movement is only nine pages in score. Mahler writes all sorts of instructions that tell you exactly what his meaning is here. The first tempo instruction is Adagissimo, which is perhaps a slower tempo even than Largo. Then 'mit Dämpfer', with mute. To hit the point home, Langsam, the word for slow in German. Later, Außsert Langsam, 'extremely slow.' 'Mit inniger empfindung'/with inward sensation. And then, the key direction that appears twice, the second time in the very last measure: 'ersterbend'/dying away. We are experiencing death itself.
If people need to leave now, I understand, but I can't not give you an alternate option than to leave on such a down note. So for those who can stay ten minutes more, I am going to give you the movement that might mean the most to me in the symphonic literature. The last movement of Mahler 3, he called it 'What Love Tells Me'. Love, the point of life, not death, and the reason we are all here to experience life. The last movement which he probably wishes he could have written in Mahler 9, but could only write when he was still in life's prime, and understood, perhaps for all too mercilessly brief moments as we all do, that love was the point of the universe. In these ten minutes we are presented with a terrible crisis, an apocalyptic crisis, of the nature of the world, but the saving grace of nature is love . This, love, love of eros, love of life, love of family, love of humanity, love of music and art, love, is the reason for music. And here endeth the lesson. By coming here, I hope you all have learned to love music, and therefore life, a little better. (Bernstein/New York)