The Meaning of Mahler

Carey_1-121715Leo Carey at The New York Review of Books:

After Adorno’s essay, Mahler’s overreaching maximalism and his fondness for banal melodies stopped being an embarrassment and became instead his core achievement. He emerged as a far more sophisticated artist: the works, tuneful enough to please the average concertgoer, were now also difficult and ambiguous enough to absorb the cognoscenti.

Mahler advocates before Adorno had to adopt a proselytizing tone. A recently republished volume contains two works of this kind: a reverent appreciation from 1936 by the conductor Bruno Walter, an acolyte of Mahler’s, who premiered the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony after his death; and an essay from 1941 by the composer Ernst Křenek. Křenek was briefly married to Mahler’s daughter Anna, and worked on completing two movements from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, left unfinished at his death. His essay is brilliantly perceptive and anticipates Adorno. Mahler’s symphonic edifices are old-fashioned, he writes, but “the cracks in the structure herald the future.”

Today Mahler is no longer a cause and critics must seek out unexplored aspects of a composer who has become a fixture of the musical landscape. Two recent academic studies, by Thomas Peattie and Seth Monahan, are complementary opposites: Peattie focuses on evocative moments of orchestral writing, Monahan on the long-range narratives created by Mahler’s use of sonata form.

more here.