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Antipodean Antipathies
February 10, 2010

Mahler: Is it Just me, Or...?
by R. J. Stove

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — The band to which some of us belong might well be the most marginalized, powerless group in the Western world. Just about any other classification of modern humankind has its apologists. Neo-Nazi skinheads? Sure. Pedophiles? Yeah. The chronically obese? Natch. Al-Qaeda members? Come right up. Latin Mass Catholics? Non-car-owners? People who wish Indonesia would revert to Dutch rule? Perhaps some First Amendment absolutist would consent to extenuate even those outcasts.

For us there is no such comfort. You probably have not noticed us. We avoid the public eye wherever possible. Although we are breaking no law, it is as if we are afflicted with terrible body odor; our default position is disrepute. Think of the humiliated poet in that 1950s Jules Feiffer cartoon, who to his girlfriend’s repeated yells of “It’s just so hard to believe!”, eventually confesses: “I admit it ... I’ve never been to Europe.” We are like him.

Who are we?

We are... the people who do not care for most of the music of Gustav Mahler. There, I said it. “I’m Rob Stove, I’m a non-Mahlerian, and I’m not an alcoholic.”

Oh, it is not as if some of us had not long tried to adore Mahler’s output. Nor have I the smallest gripe against Mahler’s contemporaries. Au contraire. Debussy, Elgar, Sibelius, Puccini, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Ernest Chausson, even the much-underestimated Sir Hubert Parry: their music I love. Bless ’em all, bless ’em all, the Brit and the Kraut and the Gaul. I have even caught myself admiring The Song of the Earth and the Rückert Lieder. But the Mahler symphonies ... get me out of here. I keep surreptitiously cheering Kingsley Amis’s verdict “Mahler lacks talent even more spectacularly than he lacks genius.” So in this sesquicentenary year of Gustav M.’s birth, I have attempted to analyze my shortcoming’s possible causes.

Distaste for superb orchestration? Then why do I revere Respighi and Ravel? Impatience with sheer length? Bruckner’s and Wagner’s sheer length suits me fine. Being a musical censor manqué? Gimme a break. Aversion to Mahler himself? How was Mahler more personally obnoxious than, say, Sir William Walton, who compelled Lady Walton to abort their child? Aversion to Mahlerians? Now we’re getting warmer. (Cue Orwell on socialism: “[attracting] with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”) Yet still ...

I have studied not Mahler alone, but as much of the Mahler secondary literature in English — notably the multi-volume biographies by Donald Mitchell and Henry-Louis de La Grange — as is compatible with having a life. What, reluctantly, I have concluded is this: the leap in Mahler’s stature from near-oblivion in 1960 (when, as Britain’s Spectator noted on January 13, “[H]is impact on the general public was roughly the equivalent of, say, [Poland’s Karol] Szymanowski today”) to deification after that date, has little or nothing to do with musical merits and almost everything to do with external considerations.

“Some circumstantial evidence,” warned Thoreau, “is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” Mahler’s ethnicity, although at first it tortured him, may afterward have helped him. Once it became widely known that Mahler had lamented being “a Bohemian in Austria, an Austrian in Germany, and a Jew in the world,” his identity-politics credentials became the aesthetic equivalent of a nuclear warhead, lacking only homosexuality to complete his posthumous triumph. (Compare and contrast his attitude with that of the somewhat younger Schoenberg, who largely ignored his own Jewish background before Hitler’s advent.)

The more I consulted online discussion groups — often a more honest guide to musical emotion than any printed book — the more convinced I became that Mahler-lovers fell into two classes. A few were orchestral musicians awed by the sheer technical challenge of his style. In this awe I can believe, because Mahler’s instrumentation is far more constantly soloistic than Tchaikovsky’s or Rachmaninov’s.

The remaining Mahler-lovers never deigned to discuss Mahler’s music at all. They discussed, instead, Mahler as philosopher; as New Age guru; as sibyl who predicted both 1914-1918 (really?) and fascism (huh?); as Freud patient (a clear vote of confidence in a fellow’s sanity); as therapist himself. “Ours is the century of death,” boomed Leonard Bernstein, “and Mahler is its prophet.” Some testified to the comfort that New Yorkers drew from Mahler’s music after 9/11, although as other New Yorkers presumably derived similar solace from the discographies of Nine Inch Nails or Throbbing Gristle, this is hardly conclusive. By far the most intelligent comment I found from a Mahler-lover was this:

“The world we live in is full of uncertainty: the average person has so little control over so many aspects of their lives [not to mention over his grammar — RJS] that it’s really frightening to think about. Mahler’s music is also full of uncertainty and ambiguity, and I think it’s ... not difficult to draw parallels between this music and the world around us. One of the most powerful performances of the Sixth Symphony I have heard (although by far not the cleanest) was recorded by the UC Berkeley Symphony in 1969, at the height of the student protests.”

This suggests it is not fundamentally about the music, it is about me. About the individual listener’s empowerment. About substitute-religion. Then why not say so? Meanwhile, when I want that old-time substitute-religion, I generally find myself eschewing Mahler in favor of an even more renowned artifact: the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love. The latter strikes me as no more childish, and infinitely better constructed, than Mahler’s symphonic canon. Also, it requires only four performers and is over in four minutes. 

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The Antipodean Antipathies is copyright © 2010 by R. J. Stove and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

R. J. Stove, is an Australian writer who resides in Melbourne. He is the author of three books:
• Prince of Music: Palestrina and His World (Quakers Hill Press, Sydney, 1990)
The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims (Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2003)
A Student's Guide to Music History (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2007)

See a complete biographical sketch.

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