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Mahler in Manchester

Guest blogger Peter Davison will be a symposium speaker at the 29th annual Colorado MahlerFest on Saturday the 21st of May. The MahlerFest Orchestra will be performing Mahler’s 7th Symphony under their newly-appointed Artistic Director Kenneth woods on the 21st and 22nd of May. Details available here.

How Wagner leads us to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony

In 1909, Mahler was invited by Willem Mengelberg to perform several of his symphonies at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  A performance of the Seventh Symphony, premiered in Prague a year earlier, was scheduled for 8 October, and Mahler pondered what to perform alongside his vast five-movement work. He proposed to Mengelberg a first-half devoted entirely to Wagner; his early Faust Overture, his Siegfried Idyll and the Overture to Die Meistersinger. Mahler’s symphony would follow after the interval. In the end Mahler simply preceded the symphony with just the Meistersinger Overture – due to limitations of available rehearsal time and presumably also the audience’s stamina. But Mahler’s original proposal remains interesting to us, because of what it tells us about the symphony. Whenever he conducted his own works, Mahler always designed programmes to illuminate his music in some way. So what was he thinking of on this occasion?

The Seventh Symphony picks up on many of the issues confronted in the Fifth and Sixth. Mahler was exploring the Viennese symphonic tradition, especially Beethoven’s symphonies, as models for expressing idealistic aspiration. The Fifth had asked the question – can the idealised musical logic of the Beethoven symphony relate to the fundamental existential questions which confront us through our experience? He left the answer open. In the Sixth, the question found a brutal “no” for an answer. Beethoven’s visionary optimism and transcendence were found wanting, and without compromise Mahler presented the tragic circumstances of the human condition. But this was not the end of everything for Mahler. In fact, it proved a platform for a new burst of creative originality, for the Seventh Symphony is among the most innovative and complex music which Mahler ever wrote. If it appears to mimic aspects of the Fifth, its musical idiom and orchestral technique mark a huge stride in his creative and technical development.

But let us return to Mahler’s Wagner programme and speculate upon what in these three pieces can throw light upon the meaning of the Seventh Symphony. Wagner was, of course, a towering figure in musical life at that time and someone whose music Mahler adored. However, the Faust Overture is not well-known today. It was a relatively early work based on Goethe’s famous story. Faust makes a cynical pact with the devil to ensure his success in the world. For Romantic artists, this story showed that Man was alienated from the forces of life because of his lust for dominion over Nature. In another sense, the Romantic artist also bargains with the devil to pursue his creative vision against the claim of ordinary life. Interestingly, Faust makes his pact with Mephistopheles when he is at his lowest ebb and contemplating suicide, and it is this mood which characterises Wagner’s overture. At the head of the score, he quotes Goethe’s play: “So is my whole being a burden, and hateful life makes

You may know that Byron’s Manfred partly inspired Mahler’s Sixth, and Byron had been inspired by Goethe’s Faust to create the character. Manfred has grown disillusioned with life and his fellow man. He has committed some fearful crime against Nature for which he deserves to die. Mahler’s Sixth belongs in this psychological territory and, if the end of the work is not quite suicidal, it marks a loss of hope and surrender to fate. We know that Mahler felt empty and unable to compose for a while after the composition of the Sixth, as if it had exhausted him creatively. But one day rowing across a lake, he got an idea for the opening of the Seventh. The first movement of the Seventh is profoundly engaged with the dark side of Nature; its wildness, its unwillingness to be contained and the way in which it disrupts human life and conventions. There is (appropriately enough) a volcano of energy in this movement which threatens destruction. Mahler struggles to contain it, and we sense a creative birth full of labour pains. The movement seems to ask – how does man live in harmony with Nature, indeed with the Nature that is in himself? How does he find forms that make Nature civilised and bearable? The alternative, which is apparent at the movement’s end, is a Dionysian power that threatens to become aggressive and militaristic.

So we can now understand why Mahler wanted to allude to Faust in his suggested first-half. But there is another reason. The Faust Overture opens with a slow introduction which is recapitulated in the course of the movement, much as Mahler’s first movement does. In the Mahler, the struggle to contain his material yields a brief visionary glimpse of paradise, but the funereal mood of the movement’s opening returns. The effect in the Wagner and the Mahler is a collapse of momentum; a falling back into the murky gloom of depression with the mind haunted by demonic powers. We can even hear in Wagner’s stormy textures some connection to themes in Sixth and Seventh symphonies.

The relationship between the Siegfried Idyll and the Nachtmusik: Andante Amoroso, (the fourth movement of the Mahler) is much more obvious. Wagner composed his work as a love-gift for Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried, and its subtle expansion of the serenade into a work of symphonic wholeness is remarkable. It also has a dream-like narrative which influenced Mahler’s whole conception of musical form. In fact, I should add that the Siegfried Idyll was the epitome for Mahler of inner contentment and redemptive love. The “Resurrection theme” in Mahler’s Second Symphony is even based on the main theme of the Siegfried Idyll. The Andante Amoroso of the Seventh takes up the idea of the serenade and views it with a fairy-tale nostalgia verging on irony. (The sound of guitar and mandolin are curious anachronisms which place the music in the past and also in the ordinary world). Mahler asks, can we speak any longer with Wagner’s idealized and elevated feeling or with the instinctive trust of coventions that we imagine was the case in the past? For Mahler such eloquence and sincerity were always hard-won, and he reminds us that Nature is always ready to disrupt human love with forces beyond our control.

In the Seventh’s Finale, we can hear the most audible link to Wagner. There are festive trumpets and drums in C major that could have come straight out of  Meistersinger; a work which explores the relationship between the artist and the society around him. Wagner uses the opera’s hero, Walther and his Prize Song as symbols of the artist who expresses true Nature in defiance of social convention, represented by the pedantic Beckmesser. The artist is compelled to follow his muse and that means living by different rules. Yet it is by this expression of individuality that the divine spirit enters the world to renew human society. This leads to the celebrations in last scene of Meistersinger, surely one of the most euphoric moments in all music. There is a reconnection with true Nature, because Walther’s creative talent has been inspired by his musse, Eva and guided to fruition by the wisdom of Hans Sachs. It is an idealised paradigm for the artist’s contribution to the society around him.

Mahler wanted to express something similiar in his Finale, but uses humour to do so, because he is less confident that this reconciliation of  natural talent with the mundane world is really going to happen. In his Finale, we are never quite sure whether he is celebrating his talent entering the world or poking fun at the outside world for standing in his way. The movement is titled, Allegro Ordinario. In what sense is this music ordinary? The title suggests that we are listening to the stuff of everyday life, not something deeply personal and transcendent. It is the hustle and bustle of daily business, social chatter and laughter. These are the modest pleasures and difficulties of the ordinary world, in contrast to the profundities of a night filled with dreams, intimacy and the dark forces of the unconscious. Mahler hovers between the joy of his creative exuberance and the feeling that if he told the whole truth, it would bring him into conflict with his audience and critics. The night-time music of the Seventh doesn’t really find resolution, rather it contrasts with the Finale – and when the main theme from the first movement emerges at the end of the work, its presence is for a time simply disruptive.

But Mahler isn’t taking all this too seriously. It implies more the comic atmosphere of Die Meistersinger than the despair of the Faust Overture. At the end of the work, Mahler is celebrating the paradox, viewing the duality of night and day with emotional distance and acceptance. The scientist and philosopher, G.T. Fechner, a thinker who influenced Mahler deeply, observed that night and day only appear to be in opposition. If we were to view the world from outer space, he suggests (and we can, even if Fecnher could not) we would see that night and day occur at the same time, that they are part of an indivisible unity. Perhaps the message of this symphony is that the meaning of our human experience is subjective and always a matter of perspective. In that sense, what was tragic and hopeless in the Sixth can easily be reconciled with the visionary optimism of the Eighth. The Seventh is the bridge between them that shows us how this is possible. Mahler seems to say, it is not  Creation that is flawed and split down the middle, but our limited perception of it which makes it seem so, and it is our unwillingness to accept this limitation which leads us into Faustian bargains and rigid Beckmesser-like ways of thinking.

Peter Davison

2 years ago | Read Full Story
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