Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Modernity's adolescent

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Mahler. Many are marking the occasion as The Baltimore Sun’s Tim Smith does, with a testimonial on the way that Mahler’s music proved to be life-changing:

Thinking back on my life and music’s role in it, I can’t say that Mahler was pivotal emotionally. Brahms, Bruckner, Nielsen and Vaughan Williams hit me at my most impressionable and vulnerable.

Mahler did provide my christening in large-scale symphonic music played to roof-rattling effect. As a not-quite-teenager, I saw and heard Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s First Symphony at the old Mosque (now Landmark Theater) in Richmond. That performance was my first experience of being swept along in a torrent of orchestral sound.

Had puberty hit me a little sooner, or had Bernstein conducted the Mahler First here a little later, I very likely would hear – and feel – this composer quite differently. His music is about coming of age emotionally and spiritually, about viewing the present and anticipating the future through the lens of the past – perhaps a lens tinted by an imagined rather than real past.

The fundamental tension in Mahler comes from his brooding, impatiently breaking out of it, falling back in, breaking out – a cycle familiar to anyone who’s lived through adolescence.

Reading European history and listening to Mahler, it’s tempting to characterize him as the premier artistic adolescent of modernity. By the time Mahler came of age, all the key components and big differences of modern life were in place: rapidly advancing science and technology, urbanization, mobility, the withering of old roots, hierarchies and identities. Their consequences were beginning to be felt, and the sense that some great hammer was about to fall was widespread during Mahler’s working lifetime; but, dying in 1911, he didn’t live to experience the cataclysmic transformation of the old world into the new.

So, much like an adolescent going through the initiations of adulthood and obsessing on his doubts and anxieties, Mahler is all about anticipation, looking ahead with a mixture of hope and fear, looking back keenly sensitive to the loss of innocence, negotiating the present unsteadily, living as much or more in the imagination as in physical reality.

Listen to the final movement, the famous "dying away," of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and then listen to Richard Strauss’ "Metamorphosen;" of, if you prefer, to "Der Abschied" from Mahler’s "Das Lied von der Erde" and then the "Four Last Songs" of Strauss. Both composers speak to the demise of the old order and the old way of life in the West; but Mahler does so in anticipation – i.e., in his imagination – and consequently with more ambiguity, while Strauss speaks more bluntly from eye-witness experience.

As the adolescent is a rough sketch of the adult, Mahler is a sketch of modernity, in both the musical and emotional-spiritual senses. Today’s listener knows what Mahler could only imagine; and so it is up to the listener to fill in the details, to clarify the colors and contours, of the picture.

With Mahler, as with few other composers, you have to invest your emotions and life experience to get the benefit of his.