Saturday, February 11, 2006

Mahler: the anti-Beethoven

How’s that?

Mahler’s first symphony clearly exhibits signs of being written as a deliberate aheroic, or even antiheroic, counterpoint to Beethoven’s Eroica.

How’s that?

First, the title of Mahler’s First: “Titan.” Selected by Mahler itself, and not at all modest for the title of a composer’s first symphony, it deliberately plays off Beethoven’s Eroica. Yet, unlike that work, it contains no dedication to a particular person nor was it ever written with that end in mind.

But the real anti-Beethoven, aheroic strains come out in the funeral march.

Those familiar with the symphony know that the theme of the march is the popular nursery rhyme “Frere Jacques,” suitable retarded, and put in the minor key. A nursery rhyme is anything but march-like. And the daily routine of a 4- or 5-year-old child is anything but heroic, let alone martial. The child in his mundane, everyday world, slowed down in sadness — the sadness that anticipates the Kindertotenlieder — is the Titan of Mahler’s symphonic world.

There are no heroes, and certainly not in a romantic sense, for Mahler’s musical canvas. And he is telling us that.

The theme continues, in my opinion. The resurrection of the Resurrection Symphony is not heroic in the sense of, say, Handel’s Messiah. And for Mahler, a converted Jew who had little formal religious connection, such heroism was not to be found there anyway. Resurrection was a wistful possibility for him, not a concrete certainty.

And the bombast of the Third, no matter how loudly or longly played, cannot force heroism. Nor does the tenderness of the Romantic, the Fourth, have a heroic edge to it.

Returning to the purely instrumental, the Fifth seems to hit a note of quiet resignation. The Sixth is known as the Tragic and its antiheroism speaks for itself through that moniker.

The Seventh? If I were to be naming Mahler symphonies, the would be the Pensive. Certainly not heroic.

The Eighth? Does the Veni, Creator Spiritus triumph over the Faust first movement? If so, the triumph is not a human one — it is purely spiritual and purely abstract.

That takes us to the Ninth, completed as Mahler’s life ebbed away, mired in the pain of knowing he had an unfaithful wife. The answer of this symphony is not a heroic rage against either physical restriction and decay on one hand, or lovlessness and faithlessness on the other. Rather, it is a degree of resignation greater, broader, deeper and more worn-out at end than the Fifth.

And finally, the Tenth, begun and unfinished as Mahler approached his deathbed. The death-knocks of the bass drum speak for themselves; stated firmly, if anything is heroic in this symphony, it is death itself.

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