The case of Mahler; or: Why it is impossible to love Mahler

In what one imagines is a frustrated project manager’s last laugh at a misguided project, the cover of Deutsche Grammophon’s 2010 “People’s Edition” of Mahler’s symphony cycle displays a half-profiled, black-and-white Mahler with his hands resting on his hips against a red background. Apparently, for this collection, DG asked listeners to vote for their favorite recording of each of the Mahler symphonies (presumably from some pre-determined list).

The existence of such a collection provides contrary evidence to Adorno’s hope—who was not wrong about much when it comes to music—that “Mahler, to this very day [which at the time was 1930, though the sentiment persists in pieces Adorno wrote thirty years later], has remained the only exemplary composer who realistically stands outside the space of aesthetic autonomy, and—what is more—whose music could be used truthfully and by living human beings, not ideological Wandervögel [something like Boy Scouts]”. The DG collection effectively did to Mahler what Mountain Dew did in its Dewmand promotions: to reify music into an object of consumption.

The fate of Mahler in the artworld is analogous to that of Kafka in the university. Kafka understood the inevitable fate of discourse and asked his executors to destroy his manuscripts on his death and even himself expressed the wish that his completed works not be published and given to posterity but that they should rather simply disappear and cease to exist. Unlike others who feared of being perpetually misunderstood, Kafka’s writing is at once too intimate and too expressive.

Writing, Kafka said, is like a prayer. We pray, however, only for one reason: to wait for redemption. This is the single idea of all of Mahler’s symphonies: recall, for example, the creator God who never arrives in the Eighth or the unbearable experiences of the finales of the Sixth and Ninth. The latter exemplify the effect of Mahler’s compositional and structural techniques at their highest: through the fragments of an exhausted musical language (i.e., romanticism), Mahler presents the ruins of a world whose redemption has already been lost. What is more impossible than the idyllic simplicity of the folk dance* (see the strange anti-symmetry of the second and fourth movements of the Ninth), Mahler asks, in world where Auschwitz is possible (the untimeliness of Mahler’s symphonies is significant—note that Mahler died prior to World War I)? Mahler’s symphonies are totalities that nevertheless leave us with an awareness of what is missing.

*Scriabin attempts a similar type of expression in his opus 21 polonaise: instead of nostalgia for youthful dances, Scriabin writes a polonaise only to show its impossibility in the modern world.

Instead of inventing a new musical language, Mahler calls for the rescue of traces that linger from what has already been lost. If today Mahler is banal due to the bourgeois pacification of the dialectical content of Schönberg and Stravinsky by their appropriation into affirmative culture, it is because we insist on the past as given (postmodern pastiche is only possible given this conceit). Redemption can only occur once the world has been completed; but instead of an infinite becoming, Mahler’s symphonies are expressions of infinite ruination—of a non-absolute totality. Everything in Mahler’s symphonies has a place—each theme and motif is determined by its function within the whole—yet the whole fulfills no intention (this is what differentiates Mahler from Mozart). As Adorno observes, Mahler is missing from the symphonies, which simply express the world itself. But, on the other hand, to whom could the symphonies possibly be addressed without miring us in the mourning of those caught in infinite waiting for an event that never happens?

The conditions that make it impossible for us to hear Mahler today are many and largely coincide with the obstacles to the constitution of a people, not the least of which is the failure to distinguish between the ochlos (the so-called “wisdom of crowds”) and the demos. To hear Mahler could not be an act of affirmation—for Mahler himself prohibits any such act—but only an acknowledgment that what could be affirmed is still to come, just as the people only exist as the ideal of the democracy-to-come.

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One thought on “The case of Mahler; or: Why it is impossible to love Mahler

  1. Pingback: On Pärt: the mirror of subjectivity | Preludes and Refrains

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