Gustav Mahler: ‘Though I sang in my chains like the sea’

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘€™s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

A recent performance of the Sixth Symphony at the Sydney Opera House put me in a continuing Mahler mood, as could be expected. This great work imposed its cataclysmic lurch from exaltation to vertiginous despair and its final pizzicato abandonment of hope with the usual directness. However, this time, some vitality and inwardness stayed after the performance, something that countered the tragic import of this most brutal of symphonic works.

My reactions to performances of Mahler’s music always vary. There is so much malleable psychic energy in it. Pain and beauty rear and twist in the air with never-to-be-resolved tensions. Dylan Thomas’€™ line from €˜’Fern Hill’—’€˜Though I sang in my chains like the sea’—seems true to the Mahler soundscape: bound in flesh, yearning for transcendence, alive to the beauty of the world but always aware of looming disaster, the whole threaded with nervelines of alpine respite or ominous farewell. Sometimes the endings are heroic and confident, as in the Second, Third and Eighth symphonies; at other times, as in the Sixth, the final sense is one of exhaustion. Unchained melody liberates from the sheltering sky an apparent freedom to explore the boundless world of our feelings, the Alma-inspired celebrations at the end of the first movement and the hammer blows in the final movement of the Sixth paralleling our own confrontations with fate.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have loved Mahler’€™s music. I remember being at the first Australian performance of Deryck Cooke’s performing version of the Tenth at one of the Sydney Proms, conducted by the indefatigable John Hopkins, seeing Solti take the Chicago Symphony through a chilled Ninth, hearing a grave, burnished Seventh with Dean Dixon, near the end of his life, and so much more. Always, new revelations, new orders of feeling.

The sickly young boy from Kalischt who became the director of the Vienna State Opera and universally-admired composer never had easy successes. The struggle to get through the rampant anti-Semitism of his time left markings that eventually led to transatlantic crossings. There were also his own personal tragedies to contend with—the death of his siblings and of his daughter, the diagnosis of his heart disease. Kindertotenlieder, the songs on the death of children, are a lugubrious reminder of Mahler’s personal biography. It’€™s hard not to think of Schiele’s emaciated figures when listening to them. Though Mahler was triumphant at the Opera, he was particularly vexed at Richard Strauss’ musical successes, his own being so much harder-won. Taking up with Alma Schindler, Kokoschka’s €˜bride of the wind, wasn’€™t going to lead to a settled existence either. The Mahler world: a combination of sensuality and puritanism, composed by a liberal, conducted by a martinet. What did Mahler want to be when he grew up? ‘A martyr’€™ replied the man-child. All of this can be felt in the music. Overriding all is a love of the world and a celebration of the self that is liberating, when, as in the performance of the Sixth in Sydney, the music is given its due.

Mahler’s biographer, Henry-Louis de la Grange, may have marked out the life biography comprehensively, but the spiritual biography of the music remains elusive, containing, as it does, so much contradictory and combustible emotional material. I don’€™t believe in the predictive powers of music—€”I don’€™t think Mahler foresaw the Holocaust. But I do know his music expresses our fears and joys, wonder at nature, spiritual doubts, and splendour. And his music is equal to tragedy, swooping from above, covering all in the shimmer and glint of tremolo, brass fanfare, harp glissando. The wound of life sometimes shrieks or offers praise. Suddenly, all is lost, or won. Summer marches in. Autumn prepares for final things.

Finally driven from Vienna, the Mahlers set up home in New York. A moment I should like to have witnessed. Mahler has just finished a rehearsal of the complete Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 3 with Rachmaninov at the piano. Just as the orchestra is about to break Mahler insists on a repetition of the entire concerto. Rachmaninov fears an outbreak of ‘a taxi for the maestro’. But Mahler gets his way. Just as he makes us listen to his supersized symphonies with their Promethean heights and depths. Perhaps Mahler’s feeling for the poetic helps here, the sensitive settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Rückert, a feeling that gets into all of his music. It could all be seen, and sometimes has been, as straining for significance by those who don’t like the music. When some cultural product now resembles landfill, how good to have every bar alive with energy and poetry, to find, amid today’€™s contemporary brouhaha, a gold standard for our uncertain leaps to the sublime, in which we don’€™t believe, our slippages into convenient self-approval. However, the price to be paid for this standard was Mahler’s relative unsuccess in his own life. The cult of Mahler came later with its cycles of recordings, the Ken Russell film, the festivals and scholarship. 

When some are now discontent with their first life, pursuing a second one in cyberspace, Mahler asks that we confront our first life directly, no squirming into an avatar’€™s disguise possible. But Mahler does not make it easy going for us on the journey. He insists on you considering your own seriousness, which some don’€™t want to do.

Vorbei!—€“it’€™s over—€”Gustav Klimt commented as the Mahlers left Vienna, bound for New York, the perceived cultural richness of the Sezession beginning to fragment.

But no. A faltering heartbeat. Veni creator spiritus. A drinking song of the earth’s sorrow. Resurrection. The great cyclothymic spirals of musical DNA cross, connect and part, forever trying to reconcile the fraught human condition in song, hymn and elegy.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the end of Mahler’s Symphony No 8 with its setting from Goethe’s Faust here. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is performing at the 2002 London Proms. 7′ 42”