Why Mahler Should Rest

Dan Albertson

[October 2011.]

[For my lovely black ladies in Chicago. D.A.]

Even before the recent spate of double celebrations, marking 150 years since his birth and 100 years since his death, Gustav Mahler had gained celebrity far beyond his achievements, which are large in scope, yet shallow in musical integrity. He is a composer who left the world nine-plus symphonies and some Liederzyklen, but not much else, unless one includes assorted arrangements and juvenilia.

How and why has he achieved extraordinary renown, above all in the past half-century? Big-boned Late Romanticism, wallowing in emotion, music with its proverbial heart on its sleeve, is a vernacular easy for elites and plebeians alike to savor. He is equally beneficial for conductors and orchestras with egos almost as hefty as his Eighth Symphony.

His story helps, too. As a Jew forced not to be one, as a conductor at odds with the establishment, as a man married to a younger woman with an excessive libido, he is a figure doubtlessly appealing in the present age, in which suffering and voyeurism are commonplace, even encouraged. His music is more about him than about music.

A change in musical tastes, away from the homogeneity of modernism, toward the heterogeneity of post-modernism, has allowed eclecticists of the present day to find a guiding spirit in him. Berio was thus prescient to take Mahler as the basis of the third movement of his Sinfonia, a hodgepodge begot by a hodgepodge. True, modernists from Berg to Schnebel and Boulez to Gielen and far beyond have praised him, willing to overlook the gaping deficiencies of his symphonies, but for very different reasons, keen to put an emphasis on his incorporation of unconventional instruments or his harmonies, at the expense of rigid structuralism. What the eclecticists derive from him is much more superficial, the idea that any music could be worthy in any context, fulfilling the aim of Mahler to encompass the world in his symphonies.

Mahler is easily the composer in history most in need of an editor. He is brilliant at moments, but never consistently so. His symphonies are nigh vertiginous in their meandering and veering, both in musical content and musical quality, with dull patches, banality and bombast in excess. His indulgence, endlessly portraying his life in his work, is a betrayal of the ability of art to transcend the personal. The point of his music seems to be not so much what a mastery of his craft could muster, but rather how important he thinks himself to be, how much he thinks that his listeners should commiserate. He substitutes documentation for imagination, personal vagary for musical order.

His death may well have been the first with the accompaniment of a mass audience; how appropriate, then, that the hordes have now embraced his music to the point of absurdity. How much they listen, as with any composer with a certain status, is unclear. The important act here seems to be not listening, but rather being there: prestige, goodness by association with someone deemed worthy.

If one were to judge him strictly on his music, Mahler would be a man of immense ambition without the technical means to realize his aims, a failure more often than a success. Who cares? In an age of the hysterical, and with the loss of a universal standard for artistic judgment, Mahler is an ideal fetish, one that every shrewd orchestra now celebrates, to great remuneration. His fame suggests more about the delusional vulnerability of audiences and maestri than any richness in his music.