One-Hour Crash Course in Music History

This article is about Mahler. Gustav Mahler.

He was a composer, and is fairly well-known today. Sometimes, major orchestras even program some of his symphonies.

Kyle MacMillan, Denver Post, Mahler Symphony Electrifies

Mahler, right? Mahler.

Got it.


The first word in this article about Mahler is...Beethoven.

Beethoven, of course, is the first and last word in music history. There was music B.B. (Before Beethoven), then Beethoven, then music After Beethoven (A.B.). The date 1 A.B. is commonly set at 1805, when his Symphony No. 3 was premiered on April 5th. Specifically, it was the C# in measure 7 of the first movement that ushered in the common era from which time is judged today. Any musicologist will tell you that.

That's common knowledge, though, and I don't mean to sound pedantic; in these days (204 A.B.) that hardly needs explaining.

What does need explaining, though, is Mahler. What's the deal with this Mahler fellow anyway, and how does he relate to Beethoven?

Beethoven reinvented the symphonic form, transforming it into a journey of heroism and redemption and investing it with new depth and meaning.

It is also commonly known that music before Beethoven was just a bunch of melodies and stuff. Beethoven changed all of that by investing music with emotion and meaning for the first time. Never before had the motion of tones through musical space been regarded as somehow reflective of the inner thoughts of the composer. Thus, also in 1 A.B. were born the twins radical subjectivity and hopeless anthropomorphism.

At the end of the 19th century, Gustav Mahler seized on his predecessor's vision and pushed it to its fullest possible expression, creating works that stand as some of the greatest achievements in the form.

Born in 55 A.B., Mahler was heavily influenced by Beethoven's idea of making music seem profound.

Among them is the composer's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection," which conductor Jeffrey Kahane and the Colorado Symphony presented Friday evening, putting an exclamation point on the ensemble's 2008-09 season.

I think you mean "2008-09 SEASON!!1!1".

Because of the length of this five-movement work — 80 minutes — and the supplementary forces it requires, including chorus and two vocal soloists, it is infrequently heard.

Yeah, except for the part where it's not infrequently heard. Last season (203-204 A.B.) it was played by "major" [a quibble for another time] symphonies in New York, Cincinnati, and Houston, by diverse international powerhouses like Halle, and smaller cities like Petersboro, England, and La Jolla, California. To name a few. (It's also been recorded a few times.)

Sorry about the linkfest, but it's really, really not infrequently heard, at all.

This paucity combined with the work's exceptional power make any performance an anticipated event and a precious one, when it receives the kind of masterful treatment it did Friday.

That's fair enough, as is the balance of the review (which can be found via the [first] link above). But the insinuations that a) this is somehow all contingent on Beethoven, and b) that the performance was special specifically because it's seldom performed, are silly.

Some fussy Mahler die-hards no doubt found something to quibble over — a tempo that was too slow or fast or whatever — but most listeners no doubt agreed that it was an electrifying, deeply moving experience.

The "fussy Mahler die-hards" constitute a classic straw man construction, and are admittedly imaginary. Equally apocryphal, and in a parallel construction, are the "most listeners" who "no doubt agreed" that the imaginary "die-hards" were full of shit.


The imaginary purists' (die-hards'?) imagined complaints were trumped by the imaginary every-listeners' imaginary contentions that the music was electrifying and moving.


Thankfully, this is all in the A.B. era, because music written B.B. was never moving, heroic, or redemptive.

Here is the rest of the review, which seems perfectly cromulent by itself:

Kahane invested this epic work with deep musical understanding and a razor-sharp sense of drama, bringing incisive definition to its constant shifts in sound and mood, from sweeping gestures and grand exclamations to moments of quiet vulnerability and wonder.

The well-matched vocal soloists were both first rate, but special kudos go to mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who highlighted the third movement with her affecting simplicity of expression.The final movement possessed all the redemptive force and musical thunder it should, with Cooke and soprano Janice Chandler Eteme nicely meshing, and the CSO Chorus deftly building from a hushed opening to a thunderous climax.

This milestone evening ranks among the finest moments of Kahane's tenure, and it served as a reminder of how difficult it will be to bid farewell to him as music director at the end of 2009-10.

That all seems perfectly reasonable, well-reviewed, and about a good performance to boot. Why, then, the speculative and Beethoven-framed introduction? It seems like a bizarre supplement to the review proper, and that supplement implies a lack (but that seems beyond the scope of this afternoon's project).

Derrida, trying to think about Mahler as that which is naturally prior to Beethoven.

Perhaps someday, someone will pen a massive, 4000-page four-volume study on Mahler's life and music to flesh out this little-known composer for us.

It is, after all, going to be 205 A.B. before we know it.


Empiricus said...

I'm surprised that April 5th isn't already a conservatory holiday.

Tom Strini said...

Damn you, S.A. Now I have to go look up "cromulent."--Strini

Sator Arepo said...

Ah, Strini--vocabulary embiggins the mind, don't you know.

Tom Strini said...

Ever since "Family Guy" took over my mind, I've fallen behind on "The Simpsons." Lisa might call me incromulent. Or perhaps ensmalled.

David Wojciechowski said...

There is no vocal soloist in the third movement of that symphony. The reviewer probably meant fourth movement, but I remain underwhelmed.

Sator Arepo said...

Oops! Heh, good catch, David. (Either that or they omitted the (clearly) altogether-unnecessary third movement.)