February 20, 2009

Mahler's Mysterious Tragedy

For the past few weeks I have been doing some detective work to supplement my job as a second violinist in the RPO. I have been trying to unravel the mystery of Mahler’s Symphony no. 6 , “Tragic,” which our orchestra is set to perform on March 5th and 7th under the baton of esteemed visiting conductor Gunther Herbig.

It all started with the idea to arm my students at a local college with enough understanding of the piece to appreciate its 80-minute splendor. I knew I could begin by selling them the special effects of the piece: the off-stage tuned cowbells, the biggie-sized brass compliment, and the Weekend Warrior moments, Mahler’s call for two or three climatic (real!) sledge-hammer strokes on a big wooden box as “blows of fate” in the finale. Then there is also a lot to like about the composer’s personal style. Mahler mixes Beethoven’s fury with Mozart’s Austrian Pin-point Neatness. He has all the solid heartiness of a good beer and the finish of a great wine.

As I prepared my lecture, I soon noticed that there is a big question mark hanging over the piece. The subtitle, “Tragic,” is obvious for the work, united by a heroic funeral march. But what could have made Mahler write this music? When Beethoven wrote his brilliant funeral march in the Eroica Symphony, he was obviously dealing with his deafness. But during the summers of 1903 and 1904 as Mahler wrote the Symphony no. 6, he appeared to have an enviable life, the stuff of today’s Hollywood’s top producers. As director of the Vienna Opera, he had power and creative freedom. He was newly married to a notably beautiful bride who was twenty years younger but who was no mere “trophy wife.” Alma Mahler, a fascinating character who later lived (nearly) nine lives with various geniuses, was a trained pianist and composer. She understood Gustav and his music. The couple had one small child and another on the way. They summered in the Alps. There was the annoyance of Anna von Mildenberg, a brilliant soprano (and her unruly, unkempt stray dog) who seemed to be following Gustav. But, really, why the long face?

Gustav Mahler (briefly a patient of Sigmund Freud) seems to be staging a kind of confession in this piece. He recycles two of his earlier songs, one about a wounded soldier in battle and one on the death of a child. I hear three main ideas in the piece: some kind of hero’s struggle (with fate?), a passionate woman (Alma) and music about children. I could speculate about the cause of his angst. Did his musically talented brother Otto’s suicide spark an episode of depression? Did his wife’s pregnancy remind him of his childhood when several siblings died of illness? Or, was his struggle a response to a gradually mounting tide of Anti-Semitism in Vienna? Mahler had officially renounced his Jewish roots as a pre-requisite for getting his plum appointment as Music Director. Did he then regret putting his religion and family heritage in a closet? There were also developing marital fault lines in the household. Gustav had asked Alma to give up composing to become his wife. She agreed, but they both paid an enormous price for this bargain. Alma’s absorbing autobiography reveals that she was privately devastated and irate about this arrangement. Had she too agreed to give up too much for their life together?

The mystery of this symphony is even more absorbing, because its gloomy view was to become strangely prophetic. Within a year, Gustav, like a modern-day Job, fell from his seat as King of the Viennese Mountain. His oldest child, five year-old Maria, died suddenly of diphtheria. Then, while recovering at a spa, Alma had an affair with a young, talented architect, Walter Gropius. Mahler learned about the affair when he read a love letter, mistakenly addressed to him (a Freudian pink slip?). Mahler himself was diagnosed with heart disease and left his post as director of the opera under increasing pressure from a hostile musical community.

I have long been a fan of the composer’s sweeping, dramatic style and team-spirit, stereophonic part-writing. I can’t resist the waves he creates, and I hope my students and the audience will enjoy them, too. Today I feel ever more respectful of the hidden, intense confessions of the Sixth Symphony. This cold case is worth a second look, and there are so many other helpful detective/authors, “Mahlerians” whose work points the way toward understanding the music. I am looking forward to our orchestra’s performances of this piece. It will be a tragic pleasure.

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