The Measure of Mahler (4)

Gustav Mahler conducting caricatureI’m keen to get back to the issue of our classical repertoire’s ‘functional extinction’; but before I do, there’s one other Mahler theme I really can’t stop myself enthusing about. Partly this is because it happens to be a theme I love so much; but on top of that, we’ve now had one theme from ‘early’ Mahler, and another from ‘middle-period’ Mahler, so I do think something from ‘late Mahler’ ought to be included as well. (In reality, though, there is no ‘late’ Mahler, as he died in 1911 at the age of just 50.) What’s more, both the examples I’ve presented so far were thematic utterances of the ‘fast and loud’ variety — which is all very well, but it’s not what every listener prefers, and it’s not what every Mahler theme is like, either.

So, to round out the picture a little, here is a quiet and slow theme from one of Mahler’s last works: the famous oboe tune from the final song, ‘Der Abschied’ (‘The Farewell’) from Das Lied von der Erde  (‘The Song of the Earth’, 1908-9). When I was a lad just getting to know Mahler, I remember hearing this tune and being completely bowled over by its expressivity — it’s one of those moments in Mahler that can be felt to cause a sudden change in the atmosphere of a concert hall! — at the same time as dimly recognising that there was something rather astounding about its construction. (The two experiences are fundamentally related, of course: artistic expression is what happens when artistic construction hits you in the proper way.) And as I got older and started studying music more technically, I discovered that a succession of serious figures had also been fascinated by this theme’s compelling irregularity.

But I don’t want to go any further without making sure everyone has had a chance to hear what I’m talking about. Here’s the theme I mean (and if anyone is wondering why we’ve got Chinese art to look at, they can take a peek at the work’s Wikipedia entry later):

Since I’m hoping that the emotional power of that tune will ‘speak for itself’ at this point, I’m only going to add a detail about what makes it so fascinating on a technical level. Schoenberg put it clearly in his meaty 1947 essay ‘Brahms the Progressive’ — a fascinating study of irregular and unorthodox musical shapes in the works of great composers:

An extraordinary case, even among contemporary composers, is the melody from ‘Abschied’, the last movement of Mahler’s Lied von der Erde . All the units vary greatly in shape, size and content, as if they were not motival parts of a melodic unit, but words, each of which has a purpose of its own in the sentence.

In the 1975 version of Style and Idea, Schoenberg’s music example then divides the theme into five units, which I’ve labelled as A, B, C, D and E. (One needs to be a little cautious here, as Schoenberg’s essays have been printed and reprinted with shockingly wrong things done to some of the music examples: I don’t totally believe any example until I’ve compared all the existing sources — and in this case, I haven’t.):

abschiedIf you happen not to read music, that example may seem a bit abstract (though there’s no reason at all why you can’t use your ear to separate the tune into its constituent phrases and focus on their lack of regular ‘balance’ or ‘symmetry’!). But even if that example looks to you like nothing so much as a group of tadpoles dancing on telegraph wires, you will still be able to see that the bracketed numbers below the tadpoles don’t completely correspond to the bracketed letters above them. That’s because the numbers show the ‘phrases’ identified by Carl Dahlhaus (1928-89) in an essay contained in his 1987 collection Schoenberg and the New Music. Yes, the two analyses don’t only disagree about the number of units the music should best be seen as comprising, but they also have different views about where the second unit ends and the third begins…

Well, there you are. A little tune in Mahler that turns out to be a knottier problem for analysis than you might think given the ease with which the ear — if mine is anything to go by! — takes in its sense and meaning. But then, isn’t that true of all great music that’s musically understood? Here’s the theme again, anyhow — this time running on into the passage that comes after:

For the rest, just think of all the expressively and technically compelling themes that were never created, as a result of Mahler’s early death. Had he lived, he might have finished his Tenth Symphony in 1911, and started work on his Eleventh in 1912: it would have been 1930 before he reached the age of 70…


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