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Monday, October 1, 2012

A personal point of view on Gustav Mahler and his First Symphony
By Omer Meir Wellber 

In his article about Beethoven’s 7th symphony, Harry Goldschmidt writes:
 
“…Using some of the Greek poetic rhythms as the substance of the symphony’s form, he manages to create a bridge between his world and the ancient world with its music, ideals and values.”
 
Without necessarily intending so, Goldschmidt concluded that the major difference between Beethoven and Mahler is that while Beethoven’s music created a bridge to the past, Mahler wrote the music of the present. Living during one of the most important moments in world history, Mahler wanted to write the music of his reality. We may even say that through his personal life, he built a mirror to our lives and to the history of the world. Think about Brahms, Bruckner or Wagner: the first two dealt with music as a way to express their own musical talent, the third to express his visionary idealistic ideas. Yet none of these composers treated their own personal tragedies as universal. None of them, I believe, tried to place a mirror in front of us. Mahler does not try to change our ideals or beliefs. He is certain that through music he can confront very important issues, such as religion, wars and humanity, within the fabric of our daily lives.
 
What was so special about Mahler’s personal internal war?
 
De La Grange opens Mahler’s biography with the words: “Mahler is together a Jew and an Austrian.” This is not only a biographical detail – this is the leitmotif of Mahler’s personal and artistic life. Mahler never felt at home. He was not at home as a Jew. He was not at home as an Austrian. The importance of Mahler’s personal question took perspective after the nationalistic waves that washed over Europe in the second half of the 19th century, and which culminated in the Second World War. “Mahler is together a Jew and an Austrian” could be easily changed to: Mahler is neither a Jew nor an Austrian. While this may have rung true for many minorities in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, Mahler’s tragedy was that he himself did not know where he belonged, and searched all his life for a sense of home.
 
A quote from August Wilhelm Schlegel in a course of lectures on dramatic art and literature, from the first lecture (1846):
 
“Hence the poetry of the ancient was the poetry of enjoyment, and ours is that of desire: the former has its foundation in the scene which is present, while the latter hovers between recollection and hope.”
 
More than 40 years before Mahler finished his first symphony, Schlegel made this observation, which – without his knowing – defined a crucial characteristic of Mahler’s music. Desire hovers between recollection and hope; it is therefore subjective. Enjoyment is in the present – in the current reality – and it is less personal than desire. Allow me to explain. An audience does not necessarily need to delve deeply into the artistic work, its motives, rules or history, in order to enjoy an artistic experience. The poetry of desire, however, is much more personal from the artist’s point of view, but is also highly demanding of the audience. Now, in order to enjoy the artistic work , one must delve more profoundly in his or her reading. Enjoyment is blocked in the immediate experience, in its own time and space; it does not use the “bridge” a “desire” artist would use.  The desire deals with the past and the future but in a personal and private way – recollection and hope: what do I think of the past and what do I want from the future?
 
My last point for us to ponder is the simple fact that Mahler was an enthusiastic vegetarian. Following the ideas of Wagner and Schopenhauer in 1880, Mahler took upon himself what was at the time a very difficult choice. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t eat meat. In fact, his relationship with the earth’s suffering is present in all his compositions. I know that what comes next might sound completely creative and not empirically based, so I will say this to you now: it is not going to be empirical and it is highly creative. 
 
I think that the search of belonging to something, belonging to an idea – to nature – was maybe Mahler’s custom-made religion. As a man without a god or a country in which he truly belonged, he chose nature and could only hope that nature would choose him.
 
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud writes of some very relevant distinctions:
 
“Religious ideas have arisen…from the necessity of defending one-self against the crushing force of nature.” According to this view, vegetarianism is the way to practice nature and accept its power over us – power that is physical but also political, sentimental and spiritual. Or perhaps the opposite, Mahler tries to control nature by communicating with the earth, personalizing it by “speaking in its vocabulary”: “it is in fact natural to man to personify everything that he wants to understand in order later to control it.”
 
I don’t think that Mahler believed he could “beat” nature. I surely don’t believe he thought he could understand nature. I do think that a person without a home or a god chooses the biggest home and god that exist, and tries to make it his own using his artistic talent.
 
The symphony begins with the motif of descending forth in D minor. Then the same interval goes to the clarinets in an imitation of nature (perhaps water?); the same interval appears as the sound of the kuku bird, then the far trumpets call for war and again into the kuku sound. After all this, it moves to the cellos in the beginning of the allegro as the main motif of the first movement. This evolution of an interval is very exciting in light of my introduction. In the introduction of the first movement, we already hear and confront the biggest questions of mankind. Who controls what? What came before? What is god and what is the manner of his relationship to nature and mankind? Do we learn from nature or do we try to teach it?
 
When Mahler chose to put the Jewish Klezmer music in the third movement, it is not because he is mocking Jews or Judaism. It is merely a way for him to confront the religion he was born into with his actual religion, nature. As does a mirror, he shows us the true proportions of the world: this symphony is about the power of nature above all of human civilization’s ideas: religion, nationalism, wars, etc. Everything comes from nature and everything returns to nature.
 
In the second movement, the ländler, Mahler takes again his kuku interval and transforms it into what seems to be a traditional Austrian-southern German dance. Perhaps it is a political statement? Mahler shows us that nature creates everything, the good and the bad, democracy and autocracy. In a time of crisis in the very nationalistic Europe, inside a symphony full of nature and religion, self-denial and profound personal questions, a simple dance becomes full of importance and meaning.
 
In conclusion to this small article, I would like to mention a very beautiful quote from Alma Mahler:
“Mahler has put in music what Dostoevsky has put in words: ‘how could I be happy, if in some other part of the world there is another suffering creature?’, a quotation that he adored above everything.”