Monday, November 1, 2010

resisting mahler

At their very best, orchestral programs can be stunningly original, intellectual, eye- and mind-opening: a juxtaposition of works becomes a synthesis of elements, drawing out unperceived possibilities in music, revealing the inner secrets of composers’ dialogues with history. A clever pairing of works by Brahms and Haydn elucidates both composers—who knew that Brahms had so much of Haydn’s brusque humor? Who knew that Haydn had so much Brahmsian pathos?

Very rarely does the act of programming an evening of music approach art in itself. Good programming may illustrate a clever, but it is usually a skill, not an art. In the case of the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert of Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Mahler’s Second Symphony, though, intelligent programming did more than just help the listener make connections between two like-minded artists. It created something which felt artistically significant unto itself, something with a world-historical weight which never finds its way into an orchestra concert. Mahler’s symphony acquired a depth of meaning, a coil of interpretive layers, which I had never before perceived.

The triumphalist narratives of Mahler’s first two symphonies are part of a continuity which reaches back to Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth: the affirmation of the will, the overcoming of tyranny, the vanquishing of death and the enemy. A thirty-five minute, apocalyptic Grand Guignol comprises the finale of Mahler’s Second, achieving terrifying dramatic heights before the entrance of the chorus and the resurrection. That final chorus is one of the grand summations of a tradition begun by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, continued in Liszt’s Faust Symphony, and brought to its over-the-top apotheosis in Schoenberg’s Gürre-Lieder.

The harrowing conclusion to Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw is an indictment of this Schlusschor tradition, a refutation of the brotherly paradise promised by Beethoven and Mahler. In only six minutes, Schoenberg destructs the entire narrative tradition he once embraced. As the speaker describes an experience at a concentration camp, in which a group of prisoners is being counted to be sent to the gas chambers, an all-male chorus breaks out into the Shema Yisroel, the Jewish credo. It is the voice of those about to be marched to their deaths, a desperate affirmation of faith in light of the knowledge that all men are not brothers. Simon Rattle barely let the air clear after the Shema before plunging into the depths of Mahler’s funeral march—Schoenberg’s doomed victims right next to Mahler’s heroic procession.

Where Bruckner, Beethoven, and especially Wagner demanded close scrutiny following the Nazi appropriation of their music, Mahler escaped undamaged, experiencing his biggest boom in the decades following World War II. But one can’t help but re-examine Mahler when it’s placed in such close proximity to Schoenberg’s A Survivor. The aesthetics of fascism are a twisted form of 19th-century Germanic ideals and Wagnerian symbolism. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is a perversion of Beethoven’s Ninth and Die Meistersinger in film form, a metaphor for fascism as what Susan Sontag calls the “grotesque fulfillment—and betrayal—of German Romanticism,”* (a view held by Thomas Mann and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg).

We cannot look upon the past without the knowledge of its future, and this is exactly what Rattle’s pairing does: framing a symphony which seems to exist outside of its time with a piece which makes painfully evident its placement in history. The triumph of Mahler’s Second is wrapped up in the triumph of the unified, arrogant German monarchy of the 1890s, the era which the Nazis deemed the Second Reich, their nationalist precedent.

The disturbing, skeletal low string bow bounces towards the end of Mahler’s funeral march echo Schoenberg’s pungent bow slaps. The valiant fanfares of Mahler’s finale, the resounding of military trumpets and snare drum, recall the orchestral effects which accompany Schoenberg’s speaker imitating a Nazi officer. Tropes of triumph resonate as hallmarks of evil, the very intent of the symphony turned on its head.

So what can we do with this information? Surely the years 1933 to 1945 cannot retroactively poison the entire Austro-German historical and artistic lineage; that is certainly the opposite of what humanists like Thomas Mann would have wanted (though Mann presages this in Doctor Faustus). And Mahler, obviously no anti-Semite, should be innocent. Justin Davidson wrote last year about the idea of resisting Wagner, and Richard Taruskin has an essay about resisting Beethoven’s Ninth. Even if I could, is it necessary to resist the overwhelming sublimity of Mahler’s Schlusschor? Rattle reminds us that that this victorious dramatic saga is not distant from a world of overcrowded ghettos and gas chambers—that even in the concert hall, we have a responsibility to never let ourselves fully go, never embrace the music wholeheartedly, never let go of our historical awareness to what Davidson calls (in reference to Wagner) the “coercive rapture” of the music.


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The irony, of course, is that to deliver such a stupendous concert, Simon Rattle did have to give everything he had to the music. Intellectual distance may benefit programming, but it does not make for a searing performance. Schoenberg’s brief work benefitted from the clarity of the Berlin Philharmonic and Rattle’s sensitive but engaged conducting, as well as Hanns Zischler’s severe narration. And Rattle’s Second, my third this year (the first two from MTT), was easily the best Mahler I have ever heard. Rattle drew on the pristine playing of the orchestra, crafting a rich landscape of sounds with an organic sense of pacing. Somehow he managed to continuously produce more and more energy; unlike MTT, who occasionally feels like a puppeteer, Rattle is perfectly willing to simply let things happen, sometimes barely moving his hands and letting the orchestra do the work.

Magdalena Kožená sang the opening of the Urlicht at a whisper before emerging full and radiant, her voice finding the consummate balance of innocence and sorrow. In the episodic finale, the level of musicianship continuously shocked, with a trombone chorale which sounded more like an organ than an organ does, and breathtaking singing from soprano Kate Royal and the Runkdfunkchor Berlin. And the final delirium of the resurrection swept me away. Any sense of historical consciousness, of what the Germans calls Vergangenheitsbewältigung, became irrelevant—intellect overpowered by beauty.

*In “Syberberg’s Hitler,” part of A Susan Sontag Reader, p. 411.

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