Performing Arts

Celestial Sound: Thoughts on Mahler's Third Symphony

To listen to Mahler is to claim your soul hasn’t been splintered by postmodernity -- even if you hate Mahler and disbelieve in the soul.

The Problem of Immensity


To place nature and metaphysics (and god and man) on equal ground is to recognize the supernatural as nothing more than artifice. Because the supernatural is a fanciful projection of a mind incapable of explaining the supernatural, it can never be more than a subjective (or neurotic) experience. Music, too, begins as subjective experience (that is, as a Platonic idea) before it is concretized (and concertized) into audible sound, at which point it is objectified into a commonly accessible phenomenon. The aesthetic or religious aspects of this new phenomenon may become subject to centuries of tradition, hierarchy, politics, and interpretation, but it can never cast off its subjective origin or fully conceal the fact that it -- the artificial totem -- has no life of its own.

Great meaning, whether cosmic or intensely personal, never demands to be expressed through magnitude itself.
This seems to be the position of Mahler, who in the Third equalizes the natural and supernatural by first artificially juxtaposing natural chaos and beatific chiming and then by climaxing the whole affair with the slow movement’s Apollonian resolve. While Le Grange believed the Third proceeds “step by step” to a hierarchically godly climax, in a purely aural sense Mahler’s innovation here is to begin with the climax (the Big Bang), in which case the latter godliness becomes a majestic epilogue rather than a totalizing culmination.

That nature should give birth to religion “out of the spirit of music” (to use Nietzsche’s subtitle from The Birth of Tragedy) is echoed in the words of the early American impressionist Edward MacDowell, a composer guilty of numerous tone poems and pianoforte pieces about misty forests, amorous shepherdesses, New England arcadias, and so forth:

[Before the invention of music,] it is reasonable to assume that primeval man looked upon the world purely subjectively. He considered himself merely a unit in the world, and felt on a plane with the other creatures inhabiting it. But from the moment he had invented the first musical instrument, the drum, he had created something outside of nature, a voice that to himself and to all other living creatures was intangible, an idol that spoke when it was touched, something that he could call into life, something that shared the supernatural in common with the elements. A God had come to live with man, and thus was unfolded the first leaf in that noble tree of life which we call religion. Man now began to feel himself something apart from the world, and to look at it objectively instead of subjectively. (MacDowell, Edward, “The Origin of Music," Critical and Historical Essays, ed. W.J. Baltzell, Boston: Arthur P. Schmidt, 1912)

MacDowell’s observation that primordial music allowed God to “come to live with man” -- not “live above man”, mind you, but “with” him -- implies the ascent of a (musically) masterful humanity and a humbled god who retreats before disciples who know, on some level, that their aesthetics conjured the godhead. These primordial musicians, not yet realizing their smallness in the scheme of the cosmos, needed to remind God that he, too, was just another aesthetic, just another song.

Yet there still looms the structural problem of the Third’s physical enormity. Is our aesthetic thinking so irredeemably redundant that we demand ambitious contents have grandiose forms? If it is difficult to imagine a nature symphony not carved massively or ruthlessly from the elements, we likely suffer symptoms of an old romantic prejudice. At least the primordial musicians put God in his place; even animists were content to lock Him up in decorative or utilitarian bits of wood and stone, rather than insist upon a murky omnipresence and continual theistic surveillance.

Great meaning, whether cosmic or intensely personal, never demands to be expressed through magnitude itself. The first minute of Martinu’s Sixth Symphony and the minute-and-a-half it takes to perform the second of Prokofiev’s op. 31 Old Grandmother’s Tales are worth more than a thousand overinflated Odes to Nature or Paeans to His Majesty. Likewise, the greatest short stories seek not to condense novels to barebones but to transcend the novelistic form itself. In less than seven minutes, the last of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”), a funereal inversion of the immortal children’s chorus of the Third Symphony, contrasts personal devastation and chilling remorse as profoundly -- perhaps more profoundly -- than the Third juxtaposes natural chaos and Christian redemption. I imagine many would not call this claim ridiculous.

Compounding the problem of immensity, the Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache claimed that purposive slowness was needed to access the profoundest works. A devotee of Zen meditation and the unmediated immediacy of live performance, he argued that sedulous conductors must distend tempi, allowing listeners to hear at a “monadic” level and perceive audial structures otherwise muddied by a faster pace. Certainly, music must be allowed to breathe, much as the epic needs to sprawl or the road movie to amble. Yet one too many degrees of slowness can tip over the music into moribund plodding. Sergiu Celibidache once conducted a Prokofiev Sixth of 50-minutes, about 20 percent slower-longer than usual; the work does demands greater breadth than most conductors are willing to allow, but here the border between profundity and enervation grows perilously thin. In his organ concerts, Charlemagne Palestine would press down a chord or pedal for hours, attempting to fill eternity with piping vibrations.

The Zen aesthetic seeks to suspend the heartbeat before plumbing the mind, a pursuit doubtless more difficult when musical experience is increasingly fractured and quickened, ubiquitously disseminated to the public loudspeakers of offices, malls, waiting rooms, restaurants, corporate plazas, and so on.

The disillusionments wrought by WWI eventually made the longwinded symphony passé, and Stravinsky and the neoclassicists would see in crystalline forms what hyper-romantics sought in cosmic ones. A few late romantic anachronists (like Joseph Marx) would cling to the grand nature-symphony, but otherwise symphonic bigness would be colonized by the Soviets -- first by great experimenters like Vladimir Shcherbachov and Gavriil Popov (whose apocalyptic First Symphony of 1935 so influenced Shostakovich) and then by a dreary procession of nationalists under the thumb of Joseph Stalin.

Mahler’s phoenix-like return in the '60s was, of course, partly a reaction to the acridity of the postwar avant-garde and the intellectuality of the Pierre Boulez crowd. Today, Mahler’s prominence and prestige status at the top of concert programs stands as “proof” of this reaction’s prescience. Not only is Mahler’s profundity now needed to rebuff both the iciness of the avant-garde and the triviality of our daily travails, but it towers above countless postwar neoromantic composers reluctant or unable to scale Mahler’s heights. To listen to Mahler is to claim your soul hasn’t been splintered by postmodernity -- even if you hate Mahler and disbelieve in the soul.

While Mahler’s soulfulness is embedded in symphonic length, we can realistically place this length in an appropriately cosmic context. The “great” length of Mahler’s Third is really nothing of the sort. It is absurd to think that in 100 minutes of performance time we can grasp the four years of imagination, labor, revision, worry, insecurity, and tremulous self-doubt Mahler invested in the composition. Certainly, we can re-experience the work, perhaps two or three hundred times over the course of four years, but because each new listening begets a new, disconnected mental narrative, we can never access the holism the undergirds the creative process.

Unable to understand the long holistic thread that births great artworks, yet undeniably moved by the art’s effects, we stumble awestruck into the sublime, an experience quite different from the serenity that Edward MacDowell believed could attend primitive man’s dual discovery of music and metaphysics. Sublimity, which Friedrich Schiller famously described (in “On the Sublime”) as simultaneously a “painful… shudder” and a “potentially… rapturous joy,” reveals a split between our “spiritual” and “sensuous” natures paralleled in Mahler’s juxtaposition of cosmic discharge and Christianity ascension. Logically, Mahler’s Third should fail in its attempt to bridge the rapturous joy of religiosity and the painful shudder of sensuous man, for even in art -- perhaps especially in art -- the two are irreconcilable. However, this irreconcilability only describes the content of Mahler’s symphony; in terms of form, the musical whole is literally “sensuous” (or at least aurally sensed), even if the beginning’s nature-music is more sensually arresting than its religious counterpart.

Schiller concludes that “nature herself has used a sensuous means to teach us that we are something more than sensuous natures”; that is, by experiencing the sublime through a sensuous means (here, music), we can realize the limits of sense and sensuality, for the transporting effect of music entirely outweighs the material, sensory cause. But the sublime, pointing to something outside ourselves, only hints at a transcendence we can never know. Listening to music, we cannot hear anything beyond sound, but we believe we can feel a “greatness” that transcends our sensory abilities to feel. This paradox cannot be resolved by religion, for we cannot take the sublime “into” ourselves as believers transubstantiate or unify with a godhead. An egoistic audience will attempt to solve the dilemma by positing the individual will over pathetic fallacy; the artist will attempt and fail at a reconciliation, and call the failure an aesthetic statement. Nevertheless, we do not envy the primitive, pre-theistic man, who -- existing side-by-side with God and knowing nothing of his smallness in the universe -- never had to sublimely tremble at all.

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