E-Flat Clarinets Are...What?

This odd bit comes from Anna Picard of the British Sunday Independent, reviewing this year's Proms. Can anyone enlighten the DR about the veracity of this bizarre claim?

I've never bought the notion put about by Alma Mahler

that the three "hammer blows of fate" in the finale of the Sixth foretold the death of four-year-old Maria Mahler, the anti-semitic putsch at the Vienna Staatsoper and the diagnosis of the heart condition that would kill Mahler at the age of 51.

Me, neither. I guess I bought into the conventional wisdom that they signified the death blows of the nebulous "hero" of the symphony. But I could be wrong; meaning in music is, indeed, nebulous.

(The shriek of anti-Semitism is in any case a near-constant in his symphonies, present in each mocking call of the E flat clarinet.)

What? That...is truly...Jews hate E-flat clarinets? Or: anti-Semites hate them? What is the symbolism, or metaphor at work here? Is this some well-known musicological meme of which I'm just not aware? Anyone?

But the struggle depicted in the music must have a neurotic dimension if it is to be more than a panoramic slide-show of the Austrian Alps, with cow bells.

I don't know what that means, either. But it's not as off-putting as the equating-instrument-with-anti-Semitism thing.

A little help?

(h/t again to anzu)


Anonymous said...

There is the klezmer music of the Mahler 1 slow movement, which is led by two E-flat clarinets. That's the only association between the instrument and Jews that I know of in Mahler; nothing from the Sixth comes to mind. (I just leafed through the score to the Sixth now, and I didn't see anything that really stands out for the E-flat or D clarinets.)

Sator Arepo said...

Hm, good point. Is that enough to make the association for all of his symphonies, do you think?

Murderface said...

E-flat clarinets are anti-Semetic, obviously. Everyone knows that. That's why they're so prominently featured in the musical catalogue of Resistance Records.

Sator Arepo said...

Holy Fuck! Why did you make me click on that?


Joshua Kosman said...

The idea being referred to here in shorthand is that the sound of the E-flat clarinet can be heard as an anti-Semitic caricature of Jewish identity (just as, more generally, the instrument depicts a debased parody of something essentially serious and noble — classic case being the debasement of the idée fixe in the finale of the Symphonie fantastique).

The most explicit and unmistakable example is in the third movement of Mahler's Ninth. At issue is the melodic theme based on a simple turn, which is present in various embryonic forms in the first three movements and is destined to emerge as the emotional core of the finale and to some extent (at least in retrospect) of the entire symphony.

So the Rondo-Burleske has been going along in its fiercely acerbic style, and then suddenly (this is around fig. 37) the turn motif steps forward in this absolutely heartfelt way, "mit großer Empfindung," and there's a burst of pure unadorned sentiment.

In "Viva Voce," his book of interviews with Edward Seckerson, Michael Tilson Thomas characterizes this moment very beautifully, in the context of a long discussion of Mahler's Jewishness and the pervasiveness of Viennese anti-Semitism:

"...we hear the same notes, the same shape of the same tune, but now it's as if he's saying, 'But this is how I really am inside. What I really am feeling inside is a warm yearning need to make music and communicate with you. Why can't you hear this? Can't you understand? Can't you meet me halfway, somehow?' It is all so heart-on-the-sleeve, but so perfect. Then the orchestra has a few moments of embarrassed twitching before the grotesque parody resumes in all-out savagery."

The transition back to parody is in fact entrusted to the E-flat clarinet, which (at 8 mm. after fig. 39) responds to this plea for fellowship with a pitiless parody of the turn motif. It's shocking in its brutality, and the message could not possibly be clearer: "Fuck you, Jewboy." Check it out.

AnthonyS said...

This is why we love the K-Man.

Sator Arepo said...

Very interesting.

Empiricus said...

You hit upon a hardly-describable, JK. Do you really intend that?

Seriously...yikes. Though, narrative, in my short-sighted opinion, is often a farce, a delicious, yet thorny (read: whatever you want adv.) farce.


And sometimes, "MTT, cough, cough."

Joshua Kosman said...

Anthony: Thank you sir; you made my afternoon.

Empiricus: I feel pleased to have grasped the semantic content of your third paragraph; the other three elude me. Could I persude you to elaborate, or is aphorism to be the order of the day?

But that's not what I came to talk about. I wanted to clarify and slightly refine my comments from yesterday. Perhaps that's unnecessary; or perhaps, through sheer stochastic serendipitude, I will light upon a way to alleviate Empiricus' gnomic objections (if that is in fact what they are).

To be quite clear: There's nothing inherently or semiologically "Jewish" or "anti-Semitic" about the use of the E-flat clarinet, except to the extent that the clarinet itself can be used to allude to klezmer music (as in the First Symphony).

What the E-flat clarinet does really well is sneer and distort. That skill can be put to use in the service of any number of musical narratives — again, the finale of the Symphonie fantastique, which I invoked yesterday, is a case in point.

Another is the scherzo (third movement) of Mahler's Second. In mm. 44-50 the first clarinet (B-flat) gets a tune; immediately afterward, in a passage marked "mit Humor," the E-flat clarinet razzes it mercilessly. I don't have a nice crisp story at hand about what that razzing "means," but I wouldn't be particularly inclined to interpret it as involving Jews and anti-Semites (except insofar as every instance of parody and irony in Mahler's music is him thumbing his big hooked nose at the Viennese musical establishment — something I do believe, but can't really argue here).

Now to return to the third movement of the Ninth: That episode, too, lacks any explicit semiotic markers of Jewishness (no klezmer, no cantillation, etc. etc.) But the emotional narrative — a plea for fellowship brutally rejected and mocked — is quite clear, I think. And it should be understood autobiographically, just the way, say, Ein Heldenleben should. So Jews and anti-Semites only come into the picture if you know something about Mahler's life; but if you don't, you're missing an integral part of the piece.

Sez me, anyhow.