Essay: Toronto Symphony’s Mahler 8 an epic-scale peek into a conflicted soul

Gustav Mahler (photo art by Keith Adams)

Tonight, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra offers a picture-window view of the tourtured soul translated into music with the first of two performances of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony of 1,000,” aka his Symphony No. 8.

Mahler (1860-1911) was famous in his day as an opera conductor and secured the respect of Germanic Europe in his mid-20s by conducting a Wagner Ring Cycle and completing an unfinished opera of Carl Maria von Weber, Die drei Pintos.

But Mahler never actually wrote an opera of his own. That’s probably because the man who stood on the podium of the Metropolitan Opera as well as many of the big houses in Europe knew that that inner turmoil is hard to convey on a big stage.

So he used pure music — instrumental and song — to express the inner battles between the devil sitting on the left shoulder, whispering seductive notions of all sorts in one ear, and the angel sitting on the right, exhorting us to remain on the straight-and-narrow of an upright, virtuous life.

Sigmund Freud was already analyzing Viennese neuroses while Mahler splattered black ink on paper, but the feelgood drugs of the 21st century weren’t even a distant dream. Anyone living before our antidepressed time never knew when they might wake up spooning an unexpected emotional guest, such as anxiety, guilt and fear.

Romantic literature and poetry not only gave voice to these anxieties and conflicts, they glorified them. To be a proper Artist meant plumbing inky, bottomless wells of inner conflict. And Mahler’s music is its epitome — before two wars, an economic depression and fascism trampled Europe’s old social orders and tonal art music.

There are few composers that attempted to deal with the turbulent soul quite on the scale of Mahler in his Eighth Symphony, which he finished in 1907. He conducted the premiere himself in 1910, in Munich, with 1,030 performers on stage — which is where the work’s nickname comes from.

The forces needed to make it work make the average opera look puny, in comparison. (The stage and choir seats at Roy Thomson Hall will count around 500 orchestra members and singers tonight and tomorrow.)

In the Eighth, Mahler presents his soul’s journey in two parts. The first uses the text from the Medieval Christian hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire,” set with massively dramatic means. The second is the final scene from the second part of Faustn, an early 19th century play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — a play any educated person in Europe would have know intimately.

The final scene involves redemption, requiring soloists to sing the roles of the play’s characters, as well as several choirs to depict the Heavenly Host, including various ranks of angels.

Even though this is just music, Mahler describes the setting in the score, to give his musicians and singers the strongest possible image of where their heads must be: “Mountain gorges, forest, cliff, solitude. Holy Anchorites are sheltering in rocky clefts.”

Later instructions include “soaring up and down,” “nether region,” “bearing Faust’s immortal essence as they soar in the upper air,” “circling the highest peaks,” and so on.

The final sung words in the music are sung by a Mystic Choir:

All things transitory
are but parable;
here insufficiency
becomes fulfillment,
here the indescribable
is accomplished;
the Eternal Feminine [a reference to the Blessed Virgin, who is in the picture through much of this]
draws us heavenward.

Here is the late, great Klaus Tennstedt leading the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (and others) in this moment of drug-resistant ecstasy:


The conflicted soul and the concepts of immanent grace and redemption are so remote from everyday, secular urban life in the 21st century.

Or are they?

Making sense of this both practically and artistically is an irresistible challenge for any ambitious conductor. The resulting 80 minutes of aural drama are an equally irresistible temptation for any lover of large-scale symphonic music.

I haven’t run across a more eloquent explanation of why the music of Mahler continues to attract new fans than in “Mahler: His Time Has Come,” a 1967 essay written for High Fidelity magazine by the great American Mahler champion, Leonard Bernstein. (The essay is included in a compilation book entitled Findings. You can get more info here.)

I defer — no, bow deeply and reverently — to this master communicator:

Mahler: His time has come.

Has come? Had come, rather; was there all along, even as each bar of each symphony was being penned in that special psychic fluid of his. If ever there was a composer of his time it was Mahler, prophetic only in the sense that he already knew what the world would come to know and admit half a century later.

Basically, of course, all of Mahler’s music is about Mahler – which means simply that it is about conflict. Think of it: Mahler the Creator vs. Mahler the Performer; the Jew vs. the Christian; the Believer vs. the Doubter; the Naïf vs. the Sophisticate; the provincial Bohemian vs. the Viennese homme du monde; the Faustian Philosopher vs. the Oriental Mystic the Operatic Symphonist who never wrote an opera. But mainly the battle rages between Western Man at the turn of the century and the life of the spirit. Out of this opposition proceeds the endless list of antitheses – the whole roster of Yang and Yin – that inhabit Mahler’s music.

What was this duple vision of Mahler’s? A vision of his world, crumbling in corruption beneath its smug surface, fulsome, hypocritical, prosperous, sure of its terrestrial immortality, yet bereft of its faith in spiritual immortality. The music is almost cruel in its revelations: it is like a camera that has caught Western society in the moment of its incipient decay. But to Mahler’s own audiences none of this was apparent: they refused (or were unable) to see themselves mirrored in these grotesque symphonies. They heard only exaggeration, extravagance, bombast, obsessive length – failing to recognize these as symptoms of their own decline and fall. They heard what seemed like the history of German-Austrian music, recapitulated in ironic or distorted terms – and they called it shameful eclecticism. They heard endless, brutal, maniacal marches – but failed to see the imperial insignia, the Swastika (make your own list) on the uniforms of the marchers. They heard mighty Chorales, overwhelming brass hymns – but failed to see them tottering at an abyss of tonal deterioration. They heard extended, romantic love songs – but failed to understand that these Liebesträume were nightmares, as were those mad, degenerate Ländler.

But what makes the heartbreaking duplicity is that all these anxiety-ridden images were set up alongside images of the life of the spirit, Mahler’s anima, which surrounds, permeates, and floodlights these cruel pictures with the tantalizing radiance of how life could be. The intense longing for serenity is inevitably coupled with the sinister doubt that it can be achieved. Obversely, the innate violence of the music, the excesses of sentiment, the arrogance of establishment, the vulgarity of power-postures, the disturbing rumble of status-non-quo are all the more agonizing for being linked with memories of innocence, with the aching nostalgia of youthful dreams, with aspirations towards the Empyrean, noble proclamations of redemption, or with the bittersweet tease of some Nirvana or other, just barely out of reach. It is thus a conflict between an intense love of life and a disgust with life, between a fierce longing for Himmel and the fear of death.

This dual vision of Mahler’s, which tore him apart all his life, is the vision we have finally come to perceive in his music. This is what Mahler meant when he said, “My time will come.” It is only after fifty, sixty, seventy years of world holocausts, of the simultaneous advance of democracy with our increasing inability to stop making war, of the simultaneous magnification of national pieties with intensification of our active resistance to social equality – only after we have experienced all this through the smoking ovens of Auschwitz, the frantically bombed jungles of Vietnam, through Hungary, Suez, the Bay of Pigs, the farce-trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel, the refueling of the Nazi machine, the murder in Dallas, the arrogance of South Africa, the Hiss-Chambers travesty, the Trotzkyite purges, Black Power, Red Guards, the Arab encirclement of Israel, the plague of McCarthyism, the Tweedledum armament race – only after all this can we finally listen to Mahler’s music and understand that it foretold all. And in the foretelling it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equaled since.

Now that the world of music has begun to understand the dualistic energy-source of Mahler’s music, the very key to its meaning, it is easier to understand this phenomenon in specific Mahlerian terms. For the doubleness of the music is the doubleness of the man. Mahler was split right down the middle, with the curious result that whatever quality is perceptible and definable in his music, the diametrically opposite quality is equally so. Of what other composer can this be said? Can we think of Beethoven as both roughhewn and epicene? Is Debussy both subtle and blatant? Mozart both refined and raw? Stravinsky both objective and maudlin? Unthinkable. But Mahler, uniquely, is all of these – roughhewn and epicene, subtle and blatant, refined, raw, objective, maudlin, brash, shy, grandiose, self-annihilating, confident, insecure, adjective, opposite, adjective, opposite.

The first spontaneous image that springs to my mind at the mention of the word “Mahler” is of a colossus straddling the magic dateline “1900.” There he stands, his left foot (closer to the heart!) firmly planted in the rich, beloved nineteenth century, and his right, rather less firmly, seeking solid ground in the twentieth. Some say he never found this foothold; others (and I agree with them) insist that twentieth-century music could not exist as we know it if that right foot had not landed there with a commanding thud. Whichever assessment is right, the image remains: he straddled. Along with Strauss, Sibelius and, yes, Schoenberg, Mahler sang the last rueful songs of nineteenth-century romanticism. But Strauss’s extraordinary gifts went the route of a not very subjective virtuosity; Sibelius and Schoenberg found their own extremely different but personal routes into the new century. Mahler was left straddling; his destiny was to sum up, package, and lay to ultimate rest the fantastic treasure that was German-Austrian music from Bach to Wagner.

It was a terrible and dangerous heritage. Whether he saw himself as the last symphonist in the long line started by Mozart, or the last Heilige Deutsche Künstler in the line started by Bach, he was in the same rocky boat. To recapitulate the line, bring it to climax, show it all in one, soldered and smelted together by his own fires – this was a function assigned him by history and destiny, a function that meant years of ridicule, rejection, and bitterness.

But he had no choice, compulsive manic creature that he was. He took all (all!) the basic elements of German music, including the clichés, and drove them to their ultimate limits. He turned rests into shuddering silences; upbeats into volcanic preparations as for a death blow. Luftpausen became gasps of shock or terrified suspense; accents grew into titanic stresses to be achieved by every conceivable means, both sonic and tonic. Ritardandi were stretched into near-motionlessness; accelerandi became tornadoes; dynamics were refined and exaggerated to a point of neurasthenic sensibility. Mahler’s marches are like heart attacks, his chorales like all Christendom gone mad. The old conventional four-bar phrases are delineated in steel; his most traditional cadences bless like the moment of remission from pain. Mahler is German music multiplied by n.

The result of all this exaggeration is, of course, that neurotic intensity which for so many years was rejected as unendurable, and in which we now find ourselves mirrored. And there are concomitant results: an irony almost too bitter to comprehend; excesses of sentimentality that still make some listeners wince; moments of utter despair, often the despair of not being able to drive all this material even further, into some kind of paramusic that might at last cleanse us. But we are cleansed, when all is said and done; no person of sensibility can come away from the Ninth Symphony without being exhausted and purified. And that is the triumphant result of all this purgatory, justifying all excesses: we do ultimately encounter an apocalyptic radiance, a glimmer of what peace must be like.

So much for the left foot: what of the right, tentatively scratching at the new soil of the twentieth century, testing it for solidity, fertility, roots? Yes, it was found fertile; there were roots there, but they had sprung from the other side. All of Mahler’s testing, experiments, incursions were made in terms of the past. His breaking-up of rhythms, his post-Wagnerian stretching of tonality to its very snapping point (but not beyond it!), his probings into a new thinness of texture, into bare linear motion, into transparent chamber-music-like orchestral manipulation – all these adumbrated what was to become twentieth-century common practice; but they all emanated from those nineteenth-century notes he loved so well. Similarly, in his straining after new forms – a two-movement symphony (#8), a six-movement symphony (#3), symphonies with voices, not only in the Finales (#3, #8, Das Lied), movements which are interludes, interruptions, movements deliberately malformed through arbitrary abridgment or obsessive repetition or fragmentation – all these attempts at new formal structures abide in the shadow of Beethoven’s Ninth, the last Sonatas and string quartets. Even the angular melodic motions, the unexpected intervals, the infinitely wide skips, the search for “endless” melody, the harmonic ambiguities – all of which have deeply influenced many a twentieth-century composer – are nevertheless ultimately traceable back to Beethoven and Wagner.

I think that this is probably why I doubt that I shall ever come to terms with the so-called Tenth Symphony. I have never been convinced of those rhythmic experiments in the Scherzo, of the flirtation with atonality. I often wonder what would have happened had Mahler not died so young. Would he have finished that Tenth Symphony, more or less as the current “versions” have it? Would he have scrapped it? Were there signs there that he was about to go over the hill, and encamp with Schoenberg? It is one of the more fascinating Ifs of history. Somehow I think he was unable to live through that crisis, because there was no solution for him; he had to die with that symphony unfinished. After all, a man’s destiny is nothing more or less than precisely what happened to him in life. Mahler’s destiny was to complete the great German symphonic line and then depart, without it being granted him to start a new one. This may be clear to us now; but for Mahler, while he lived, his destiny was anything but clear. In his own mind he was at least as much part of the new century as of the old. He was a tormented, divided man, with his eyes on the future and his heart in the past.

But his destiny did permit him to bestow much beauty, and to occupy a unique place in musical history. In this position of Amen-sayer to symphonic music, through exaggeration and distortion, through squeezing the last drops of juice out of that glorious fruit, through his desperate and insistent reexamination and reevaluation of his materials, through pushing tonal music to its uttermost boundaries, Mahler was granted the honor of having the last word, uttering the final sigh, letting fall the last living tear, saying the final good-by. To what? To life as he knew it and wanted to remember it, to unspoiled nature, to faith in redemption; but also to music as he knew it and remembered it, to the unspoiled nature of tonal beauty, to faith in its future – good-by to all that. The last C major chord of Das Lied von der Erde was for him the last resolution of all Faustian history. For him?

John Terauds


4 thoughts on “Essay: Toronto Symphony’s Mahler 8 an epic-scale peek into a conflicted soul

  1. I don’t know if I agree with the reason of Mahler’s musical ressurection into the 21st (we had to see or relate to his “prophecies”). We are a completely different generation listening to him since 1990, and classical music itself is a tiny niche. Listeners of classical music today have all eras/composers laid out in front of them; they’ve never experienced its progress through time and the culture. I agree that it may have sounded like an eclectic mess at the time, given the immediate past. But now, being born into ALL classical music, and among those, Mahler’s works shine like diamonds in the rough.

    Great essay, I love the “Operatic symphonist who never wrote an opera”.

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