Introduction To Mahler


Note: This piece only works thanks to the advent of YouTube, for which I am grateful. For full effect, I suggest you ignore the video aspect of the link and concentrate only on the music. It works best with ear- or headphones, turned up really high. Apologies to your ENT. Take as much time as you like with each clip; each is tailored to the text that comes immediately below it. So as not to interrupt narrative flow, all excerpt details are found at the end.

[Start at 1:09] You can smell it, can’t you, that stench of change? Like the odor in the thick air that builds before an electrical storm. Ask Rick Santorum. Ask anyone who’s voting for him. They’re acutely aware of it. They hold their delusions tighter and tighter to their chests, growing shorter and shorter of breath as they convince themselves that a country that never was is fast becoming utterly, irreconcilably alien to them. Liberals have had no less strong a reaction to the odor. They’ve smelled a vulnerable culture in heat, and have ravished it mercilessly; the Silver Lake and Greenpoint sets absolutely choking with the fear of an enclosing, claustrophobic sameness that, ironically, the Right claims is swiftly evaporating into an irretrievable ether. Trenches have been dug, and Wilfred Owen’s “long black arm” is ratcheted toward the sky. The discussion is over. Oh, and China. And financial calamity. And Israel/ Iran/ immolation. Feeling tense yet?

By now you’re probably about a minute int o the clip of Mahler’s 6th Symphony. Terrifying, isn’t it? Interestingly, Mahler wrote it during one of the happiest times in his life. He wrote it during butter-warm, cottony summer days in a comfortable little hut on the bucolic property of his lakeside villa in the Austrian countryside. Yet even enveloped in this total Gemütlichkeit (that particularly Austrian, ever-so-kitschy expression of domestic comfort and tranquility) he penned this breathless, frantic portrayal of uncontrollable anxiety. In Vienna, where he lived and worked as a conductor during the social season, an unraveling of culture — strikingly similar to the one we’re experiencing today — was taking place.


Automobiles were spilling onto the streets, their rude horn calls easily drowning out the cutesy clip-clop of horse hooves on cobblestones. Architects like Josef Hoffman and Otto Wagner were spearheading the Sezession movement, throwing up absolutely revolutionary, uncompromising projects which were rapidly changing the face of the city. Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele were playing a dangerous game with visual beauty, mixing the world of dreams and the world of wakefulness, and smearing the result with arrestingly frank sexuality. Sigmund Freud was suggesting, chillingly, that people had no real control over their behavior or desires. Of course the whole Western world, Vienna included, was still reeling from Darwin. And there was an unshakable sense of impending doom, as European powers began to flirt ever more overtly with the possibilities of a truly industrial war machine, and radical terrorist organizations began to see the power of chaos as a political tool. Scheiss was going to hit the fan, and when it did, the tenuous European order that had more or less held since Waterloo would crumble.

[Start at 0:25] Most crucial to Mahler, of course, were the trends taking place in musical composition. The great era of musical heart-on-sleeve Romanticism that had begun with Beethoven and continued with luminaries like Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky, was ending. Mahler himself was helping it to its grave, even as he was carving himself a place as one of its most important exponents. Traditional compositional forms were becoming less and less well-defined in Mahler’s works, and eventually the formal scaffolding rotted away almost entirely in favor of amorphous, bare naked expression. The death of Romanticism, I think, deeply troubled Mahler. He was to be the last sliver of sunlight at the close of a spectacularly beautiful day. But in the moonless dark he sensed the barely audible, oscillating breaths of life in a new musical era. Midnight, he foresaw, would be soft, deep, eloquent. Just as Newton stood on the shoulders of geniuses, Mahler’s works represent a summation of the Western musical tradition — and a prophetic view of its future.

But for all his considerable Zeitgeist-capturing skill — and the uncanny resonance his music has in our own time — that’s not Mahler’s real draw. The real reason you should have had his music playing in your ears on lonely train rides and plane trips, when your best efforts couldn’t even get you a f-cking interview at your dream job, when your boyfriend announced he’d chosen his career over your relationship, the day when your parents’ mortality became a palpable and horrifying reality; the reason is that Mahler is music’s first, last, greatest emo. At least a bit (actually, probably a great deal) of every conceivable human emotional state is contained within his symphonies and songs. Remember the first time you thought you might never overcome that sick worry of professional mediocrity? That’s in his music. The moment when it hit you that you’d lost your innocence and, worse, never really cherished it? Yep. The first time you felt undeserving of success? Of happiness? Of love? They’re all there. Like all great artists, he’s beaten you to the emotional punch — but there’s profound comfort in knowing you’re not the first to feel devastation. Even better, Mahler acts as a 120-piece orchestral therapist, allowing you to explore your melancholy, to know it, and ultimately to fold it into your own personal account of the human condition. They say Mozart makes babies smarter, but no one trains the emotional intelligence like Gustav Mahler.

[Start at 0:10] He’s not just there to help you sing the blues, of course. He’s also the soundtrack to your lazy Sundays, your silliness, your moments of buoyant satisfaction at a job well done or an accolade well earned. He was there that time your little brother ended up in Emergency after you convinced him he’d make an awesome bicycle ramp. He’ll be there the day your baby is born, and you let out a very dorky, high-pitched giggle at the sheer preposterousness of it all. “I mean, just look at his toes! Can toes really be that tiny?!”

[Start at 1:21] He’ll be there when it becomes clear that the woman in your bed is a part of how you define yourself, and that thinking about how much you love her gives you a strange, ineffable, glowing pulse of silent joy. He’ll be there when you two decide that “sunset years” isn’t a phrase that applies to you — “What’s a second mortgage anyway? That trip to Argentina isn’t going to take itself,” she’s always saying — and as you float past glaciers and through fjords, you wonder why you didn’t do this sooner. And he’ll be there when, 20-some-odd years later, you lay her quietly to rest, glad that her pain is behind her, and fantastically proud of the contentment you two managed to coax out of an uncooperative world.

[Start at 3:21] As Carl Sagan was fond of saying (and I’m paraphrasing), the human ability to destroy is matched only by the marvelous human talents for creation and achievement. They are our redemption, the tools with which we correct centuries of idiocy and idle hatred. Mahler anticipated our moonshots, our Berlin 1989s, our first black presidents, our smallpox eradications. We’ll have his voice ringing in our ears when African mothers no longer have to worry whether their breast milk will infect their children, when gay men and lesbians find legal recourse to the happiness that they deserve through no other merit than their being human, when women worldwide are born into societies that value their minds as well as respect their bodies. What else but this could accompany the vanquishing of the decades-long AIDS plague, or the blissful tears of recognition as the first elderly man to be pulled from the abyss of Alzheimer’s finds his family standing before him?

I’m not suggesting that Mahler’s is the only music worth listening to. Absolutely not. But the universality of this music, that fact that it touches nerves in Pittsburgh as much as in Phnom Penh, is surely reason enough to allow it some real estate on your iPod. As in our daily lives, personal devastation exists side-by-side with ecstatic triumph on a Mahler recording. Spend the $9.99 for an iTunes download of the 2nd Symphony with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Let it thrill, frighten, chastise, embrace you. The first time it reminds you of your worth and potential as a human being, you’ll know it was money well spent.

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