Sunday, August 12, 2007

Le Tombeau de Gustav Mahler

It felt a bit odd to start a blog and immediately skip town. I was only away for a week, but on my return, the weather in Helsinki had decided to make another stab at summer, so my wife and I used the three-day window it provided to do some biking, wash our filthy travel clothes, see friends and tame the garden – the latter being her exclusive domain. Plants wither and die at the sight of me. But the real reason for my protracted silence was a trip to Vienna, ostensibly to do some research for the thesis mentioned in my first post, which is about to become all-consuming. I'm writing about the role of nature as a philosophical symbol in Mahler's music, specifically Das Lied von der Erde. The topic also takes in a huge swath of fin-de-siècle Viennese art, architecture and urban design, in an attempt to form something resembling a cohesive idea of the social construct of nature as it was posited during Mahler's lifetime, how that construct can be said to manifest in his music, and what commentary I think Mahler is making on it. (Phew!) It's a big, rambling idea that's taken me years to condense to the point where I can write an 80-page paper on it, and will require further trimming if I'm not to spend the next ten years working on it.

I'm also preparing to teach a class in the spring on Mahler's music, as seen through the lens of the art, society and philosophy of his time. The course is shamelessly modeled on a seminar I took at Stony Brook in 2000 with Joe Auner, the brilliant musicologist singlehandedly responsible for my getting into Mahler studies. After years of reading about Vienna, but never having seen it, I decided it was time to stop imagining. I admit my ego had its own part to play in the trip: I couldn't stand the thought of being caught out in one of my lectures by a student who had personal experience with the city to trump my secondhand knowledge. In any case, direct experience with a subject increases one's ability to speak about it with confidence, so I reread Carl E. Schorske's excellent
study of the period got myself off to Vienna, with my lovely wife in tow, who's a terrific travel companion, to see all the things I'd only read about.

I will say that, although I love living in Helsinki and think it a fine city, Vienna is in a league of its own. It's almost absurdly beautiful, vibrant, with a street life that must be the envy of all but a handful of other places. It has a mind-boggling selection of museums, a huge variety of architecture to explore and, contrary to my expectations, a wonderful culinary culture, if you limit yourself to local specialties or foreign cuisine. I've never had better, more authentic Vietnamese food anywhere, and the coffee would be classed as a recreational drug in most other countries. I spent the week looking at Klimt and Schiele, avoiding Kokoschka, who quite frightens me, and studying the Ringstrasse-era architecture, also taking in the magnificent, weird buildings of Hundertwasser along the way. We even went to the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, where they had a very nice, if not particularly enlightening or convincing audio exhibit on Mozart's influence on Schoenberg. I collected photos of composer memorials and heard Mozart's Requiem in Karlskirche, in the Süssmayr completion. But my real reason for going was Mahler, to see his city, and try to reconcile it with the mental image of the place I'd developed over the years.

But I couldn't find him.

My relationship with Mahler is a complicated one, dating back to my former life as a horn player. I didn't get his music when I first heard it in my late teens, and for a while I associated Mahler with a school where I hadn't especially enjoyed my studies, where I felt out of place amid a group of brass jocks who mostly wanted to play loud, and where the orchestra I couldn't get into played Mahler on a yearly basis. It took me some time to come around, and I approached it with some trepidation. But the Second Symphony eventually sucked me in, and Mahler starting exerting a heavy influence on my composing. He still does, though in a more distant way. After the confessional Romanticism of my early 20s wore off – or, more accurately, nearly killed me – I became fascinated with the way Mahler could seemingly suspend time in the midst of a shattering symphonic argument and briefly open a door into another world, with the end of
Das Lied being the prime example. The music that came floating through that door became a major source of inspiration, contrary to the cataclysmic stuff that had impressed me as a younger man. I like to think that my recent choral work Shiki inhabits the soundworld Mahler opens for us in Das Lied, but didn't live long enough to enter.

So it came as a surprise that, in a city where composer dedications are everywhere – I stumbled across Brahms and sat at his feet, quite literally nearly tripped over Gluck, and found a bust of Bruckner in a bizarre setting between two palm trees – that Mahler was almost invisible. No monuments, no visual reminders, not even a small museum. (For that, you have to go to Mahler's former summer house in Klagenfurt, clear across the country. We tried, the train fare was too expensive.) Klimt is everywhere, Otto Wagner is an architectural god, Hofmannstahl, Strauss, you name it, but Mahler, whose music
is turn-of-the-century Vienna, is virtually nowhere to be seen. To find Mahler, one has to make something of a pilgrimage.

We took the subway to Heiligenstadt, site of Beethoven's famous Testament, of which we saw a facsimile on our return journey. It's possible to take a bus from there, but the weather was so beautiful we decided to walk up into the hills, to the suspiciously pretty, upscale suburb of Grinzing which, in addition to being a tourist trap of
heurigers, has a smallish graveyard – by Viennese standards – where Mahler is buried. (Alma, and her daughter Manon, the Angel of Berg's Violin Concerto, are buried nearby as well.) After some searching, we finally came across the grave, and it proved to be an unexpectedly poignant moment.

First of all, you expect it to be HUGE, but it's quite modest, as you can see in the photo above, no taller than me. It's overgrown with trees and shrubs and the stone is worn. It seemed somehow sad to find such a titanic person buried up in a semi-forgotten place, far from the limelight occupied by other, equally great creators in Vienna. But then I looked down and saw the vases full of flowers: not bouquets, but dozens of individual flowers, most of them still fresh. And then I realized that, despite Mahler's more or less being ignored in town, many people knew about this place, and cared enough to come up here to pay their respects. I'm not really given to overt displays of emotion, other than irritation, nor am I starry-eyed about Mahler and think him a hero. He was a narcississistic cad, self-obsessed and chauvinistic, as was pretty much everyone else during that time. I actively hate some of his works, like the Eighth Symphony, which I see as a colossal sell-out. But it was almost unutterably moving to see evidence of many people going far out of their way to honor the man, connected only by a love of his music, most of which speaks of a humanity and compassion so vast as to be inexpressible in words, though Mahler somehow found them, oftentimes the simplest. I walked away from that place altered, shifted a little off-center by the experience.

I don't know why Mahler is so little in evidence in Vienna proper. It certainly can't be because he wasn't Austrian by birth, since neither were Beethoven or Brahms. I don't want to make the obvious conclusion, that he's shoved aside because he was Jewish. (An American conductor I met at the grave voiced the same suspicion.) Vienna shows some admirable signs of dealing with its past, like the two museums dedicated to the Jewish population, and the stark, troubling Holocaust memorial in the otherwise lovely square at Judenplatz in the city center. Mahler's music seems to be performed regularly in the city. But it's difficult to justify why so significant a figure, whose music speaks of what was, for better or worse, a golden era in Vienna's cultural history, shouldn't have a place beside Mozart and Beethoven.

Maybe finding Mahler should be a quest. I'm fairly sure that he would have loved the view from Grinzing, the bright sunshine and the quiet. Maybe having a statue of him on the Ringstrasse would make it too easy to access him. A conductor friend told me after I returned that there's a dedication plaque to Mahler in the Stadtsoper, which was closed for the summer when I visited, so obviously there's some level of recognition of him, at least as a conductor of opera. And if Vienna went around erecting statues to every important person who ever set foot there, you wouldn't be able to move for monuments. Still, given Vienna's preoccupation with its musical history, Mahler seems to invite special consideration, as do several other neglected figures, like Schreker. With the centenary of Mahler's death approaching in 2011, it would seem like the ideal time for Vienna to make a move to more fully honor him.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and I'm still processing the huge amount of information from it. Many things about my thesis were clarified for me, and many more questions were brought up. And on my last day in town, I came across this:

So things are looking up.


Elaine Fine said...

The monument that Mahler left for himself concerning (but not necessarily in) Vienna is that his music feels, tastes, and smells of Vienna, and of Austria in general. It is Mahler who left a monument to Vienna, not the other way around. When you hear church bells resonating in the alpine air, you hear the sound that Mahler strived for in his orchestration. The Austrian air also "sounds" like Schubert, but Mahler's sounds come from a different time and he could reproduce them using a more developed instrument (the late 19th century and early 20th century orchestra).

I think that most musicians, and certainly most composers, have mixed reactions to Mahler. Envy is a big one for me. Awe is another one. And then, once in a while, I, like you, find that there is a large amount of excess and overkill. But Mahler's physical world was filled with excess and overkill, and he was such an astounding musician and such a mirror for his times, that the size and breadth of some of his music is necessary for it to "ring" true. You can't stuff a 19th century wardrobe into a normal sized suitcase. You need a steamer trunk.

Matthew Whittall said...

Steamer trunk? The Eighth would barely fit in a U-Haul!

Seriously, you have a good point, Elaine. Indeed, the number of tributes I saw at the grave were evidence of Mahler's continuing relevance, but I think it's past time he was given his due. After all, he's no longer an obscure curiosity the way he was fifty years ago. Even if they placed a monument on some out-of-the-way hilltop above the city, which might even be more appropriate than on the Ring, it would be a sign that Mahler's importance to Vienna and its history had been acknowledged.

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