Sunday, November 22, 2009

Late Night Thoughts on Mahler's 2nd Symphony

My first memory of the Resurrection Symphony was when I was thirteen. I was a second-year Dorrite at New England Music Camp in Waterville, Maine. My best friend at the camp was a guitar student named Eli Sacks (whatever happened to him?) who shared all my obsessions with classical music, obscure baseball statistics and Star Trek. The year before, he had introduced me to Mahler through his first symphony. I was in the throes of terrible anxiety from a week's worth of trying to work up the nerve to ask out a girl, and to the twelve year old mind there is no suffering so great as that. He would indulge me as I went off for twenty minutes at a time to listen to his Leonard Slatkin CD of Mahler 1's last movement. Perhaps he tolerated this because he was just as grateful as I was to know that there was at least one other kid on the cusp of high school who had the same weird enthusiasms.

(Last movement of Mahler 1)

I had heard Mahler before, on CD and in concert, but I had never heard Mahler until I was twelve. There are so many things about his music - the length, the complexity, the bombast, the breath of his style - that are completely beyond the understanding of even the most musically inclined children. I remember listening to the fifth symphony when I was nine or ten, and whatever I didn't find completely disturbing in it I found terribly boring. And yet all the things that make Mahler wrong for children make him completely right for adolescents. The violence of the music, the overwhelming sense of tragedy and burden, the bleak cynicism juxtaposed the lofty visions of a more ideal world, are always in place to make Mahler the perfect composer for human beings with overactive hormones.

And yet even when I was thirteen, Mahler's Resurrection Symphony proved just too intense. I borrowed Eli's CD's yet again. Eli had graduated from just a CD of Mahler 1 to a collection of the first 4 with the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti. I mistakenly cued up the last movement of Mahler's Resurrection thinking it was the first. And suddenly the crash of the last movement filled my headphones until I thought I was deaf. I had never heard a sound so disturbing, and I found that after that, even the strains of Mahler 1's first movement proved far too much for me to listen to. I returned the CD's to Eli almost completely unlistened.

(Last movement of Mahler 2)

It was only when I was well into high school that I first heard it complete. I remember that night very well. I had a lot of homework to do, and yet there was an Orchestre de Paris broadcast about to start, and Semyon Bychkov was conducting the Resurrection Symphony. As usual in contests like this, my studies lost. I knew my priorities.

And thus began an experience that could never possibly leave me. Very rarely in my life could I ever listen to music with that sort of concentration. Schoenberg once said that the first time he heard Mahler 2, he was 'seized with a violent throbbing of the heart.' I knew that feeling well because that was exactly what it felt like. As we get older, it's impossible to feel with the intensity of a fifteen year old anymore. And while in most moments that is an entirely welcome development, it can also make you nostalgic for the days that you believed in things so fervently that critical distance never seemed necessary. The entire experience was like what Virginia Woolf said about Dostoevsky's novels, "seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture."

(To this day, nothing screams adolescent angst to me like the first movement of Mahler 2)

As a child, there is no way to be prepared for an experience like this. You want to cry out for protection because your world is not supposed to be filled with things so disturbing. But as a teenager, you want nothing more than experience after experience that's exactly like what Mahler gives you. When you talk to people who love Mahler's music, it's amazing how often they tell you that it started with a blinding adolescent passion. Usually brought on by a performance by that eternal adolescent, Leonard Bernstein.

(When attempting to carve out a niche for myself as a jazz violinist in Israel I probably listened to this untold hundreds of times.)

Now I'm 27, and perhaps I feel younger than I have since graduating college. And for the first time in a number of years, I'm listening to the Resurrection Symphony with something like the old passion. As a listener, your ears can't help but change. The composer gives the data, but it's my brain that processes it. And for the last number of years, this work, or at least the last movement of it, has seemed rather silly. Almost dangerously so. Granted, I never wavered in my passion for the first movement, the Totenfeier, which is not only an apocalyptic 22-minute funeral march but also a compositional tour de force of sonata-allegro form on a scale that nobody before Mahler had ever reached. I was always charmed by the second movement, even though I usually fast forward through it when listening to the piece (whatever, like there aren't songs on your favorite albums that you don't skip). With or without its presence in the second symphony, Urlicht is a great song (lied) and Uri Caine ensured that I'd never stop listening to it. And I especially loved the scherzo, which is one of the funniest juxtapositions in Mahler. It's based on another song of Mahler's, "St. Anthony of Padua preaches to the fish." And yet these are some bizarrely Jewish sounding fish (Nova Salmon?). And yet right in the middle of all this Jewish music is a series of bombastic Christian interruptions. It's the preeminent conflict in Mahler's life, sprawled all over the score in full view of proto-Nazi critics in the press and in his orchestras who hated Mahler for polluting Holy German Art with J├╝dische Musik (like the Nazi composer Franz Schmidt, who was Mahler's principal cellist at the Vienna Opera).

(Those very Jewish fish. The third movement of Mahler 2)
No, I was pretty cool with the first four movements of the symphony. But however transfixed they are by it, firstime listeners inevitably go home remembering the last movement, the blockbuster, the sonic pulverizer, the Mahlerd├Ąmmerung.

For almost forty minutes, the listener is bombarded with a series of images from the apocalypse. The music is too graphic to not be recognized as exactly that. The music roars, then retrats to almost absolute silence, then roars again. Fanfare after fanfare, march after march, with peaks higher and valleys lower than any music that ever came before, and perhaps any since. Like the last movement of Beethoven's 9th, it's not tied to any formal design. But unlike Beethoven's 9th, it doesn't seem to treat you as an adult with a message to entrust you. The music simply lays your senses on a rack and leaves you feeling as though you have fallen through fire and time to emerge from the experience purified and cleansed.

(The apocalypse itself. Then the rise of the chorus of saints - Mahler's own description of the chorus.)

Depending on whether the statement comes from the mouth of Churchill or the mouth of Stalin, Beethoven is either the most egalitarian or the most totalitarian composer who has ever lived. Mahler is scarcely behind him in this regard. There is so much in Mahler that seems democratic - his music is like an encyclopedia of every musical genre of 1900. Would that composers after him were half as all-embracing. But Mahler was as much the child of Wagner as he was of Mozart and Schumann. Listener's don't engage Mahler's music, they live it.

It's impossible for a sane person to listen to Mahler with the type of regularity that they can listen to Brahms and Schubert. Too much Mahler can easily frey the nerves and make you forget just how enjoyable life can be. Mahler's music can do anything except relax. As a man Mahler failed to come to terms with his inner torment, and as the most self-revealing of all composers his music reflects that as pellucidly as light in a mirror. The music so clearly made by a man enraged by life's refusal to meet his high standards that it speaks to the frustrated idealist in us all. But what Mahler can't do (for at least more than thirty seconds at a time) is settle with life's smaller pleasures. Mahler has all the the geniality and even the bittersweetness of Schubert and Schumann in his music, but he sets that against all the inherent bitterness of later composers who decided that the German middle-class dream of a heuse mit zwei point zwei kinder und a weisse picket fence muss nicht sein. Mahler's heart was obviously with Mozart and Schubert, but his head was with Wagner and Liszt. And he often seems so determined to see a Wagnerian Apocalypse in every positive sentiment that you could easily see an older Mahler welcoming the writings of a dumbass like Adorno with open arms. For all his sympathy with the popular music of his day, Mahler had extremely prudish attitudes about the sanctity of art. You could easily imagine him in our day being shown a television and stumbling on something on the Disney Channel only to say "That's So Raven! Dieses ist NICHT KUNST!"

(And just imagine what Schoenberg would have made of "That's So Raven.")

And yet...would that there were more people who had a little bit more Mahlerian an attitude today. We in the classical world can and should bend over backwards to embrace our brethren in the pop world for everything they are, but we can't bend over to embrace them for everything they're not. And what they're not is us. It is wonderful that we live in an age when musicians can make wonderful music that everyone knows in spite of not reading it or only knowing how to play three chords. But nobody should be forced to pretend that the music they make is of the same value as people who go to school for two decades to master their instrument. Maybe they're not even comparable, but entertainment will always be entertaining, but for it to be art, it takes skill that can only be acquired over a period of decades. The Beatles may have written songs as great as Schubert's, but neither Lennon nor McCartney repeated their best efforts hundreds of times over. Nor did either of them write deathless instrumental music (McCartney tried and it was an embarrassment). To do what Schubert did takes a highly delicate mixture of genius, proper training and ferocious self-discipline. There can be no doubt: the best of the pop world does create art that should be remembered as nothing less than art. But the greatest art is like a science. It takes hundreds of years to develop in a process of trial and error that has to factor in the accumulated knowledge of great predecessors. The very best of the American pop-music tradition: whether Dylan, or Ellington, or Sufjan Stevens, has obviously assimilated the knowledge of previous musicians and poets whose example can teach better than any classroom. But pretending anything less than that is art of any quality is a much worse kind of snobbery than any amount of gate keeping. At least the snobbery of the classical world, for all its flaws, has managed to preserve centuries of great music so that anyone who wants to may appreciate it today. The particular snobbery of the pop world that makes them hostile to classical music has only accomplished the feat of keeping music lovers from listening to hundreds of years of great music. The 'right now' approach of the pop world has made them forget thousands of great musicians even from their own culture the moment after they ceased to catch the prevailing wind. You tell me, which snobbery is worse?

Mahler is a hero of mine. But heroes are there to lead us by their example, not to be worshipped as incapable of wrong. No doubt, Mahler was not as egalitarian as he should have been. But he was working with a stacked deck, and anybody with the courage to move music to a more democratic model of composing in the shadow of Wagner's totalitarian fog should get a friggin' medal. The Resurrection Symphony will always be an assault on the senses that doesn't feel quite human even in the age of Ozzfest and Metalcore. But it comes by its assault honestly. After a good performance of the first four movements, you feel as though a punishing confrontation with the infinite is the only way to go. And the ending message is one of hope and cheer. It's not for nothing that Leonard Bernstein chose this work to conduct in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination (or in Jerusalem after the Six Day War). Its ending message of survival and hope, that in the face of all the world's brutality we are still here and perhaps better people for having suffered as we did. So long as the 'perhaps' remains to qualify the statement, there's nothing offensive about the suggestion.

(Mahler wrote his own text for the final movement. The line "I shall die so as to live" never struck me as being either particularly hopeful or comprehensible. But the message of the music speaks for itself.)

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