Images in a dream

I have to smile when I read that Mahler’s Ninth Symphony uses, however distantly, familiar structures like sonata form. To the extent that I hear those structures, they loom like the silhouettes of ruined castles, dimly seen in a fog. Because there’s nothing stable in this piece.

As I was sorting CDs in our DC apartment, I found Roger Norrington’s recording of Mahler’s Ninth. I was curious to hear it. I know Norrington has recorded lots of Mahler, but I’ve never heard any of it, and was curious to hear how his typically objective approach to music — with no vibrato, as he requires, citing historical practice, even in music this deeply expressive — would work in the piece. 

It works tremendously well, as I found.  But later for that. What struck me — so clearly realized in the performance — was the piece itself. Always one of my deep musical loves, but I realized I didn’t know it bar for bar, the way I know most of Beethoven’s symphonies. So I’ve been listening repeatedly. (To another performance, too, but later for that as well.)

There’s nothing stable in this piece. To talk even of themes is misleading. Themes, in a symphony by Brahms or Beethoven, are reference points, recurring points of stability. But there’s nothing like that in Mahler 9. There are recurring elements, sometimes longish (like the opening melody in the last movement), sometimes fragments (all over the first movement). But they’re transformed every time they appear.

That could register as inventive, a sign of compositional imagination, of focused thought, of rigor. And of couse the transformations show a composer working with transcendent craft, and transcendent musical delight, too, i think. Or we could look at the perpetual variation as a forerunner of the same thing (though more thoroughgoing) in Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, who of course were inspired by Mahler. 

But I feel the constant transformation much more as a lack of stability, which is a clue to what the piece (in my view) is about. The world has become unreliable (culturally, all around Mahler; politically; socially; and personally, as his life headed toward an end, and as he wrote what he considered to be a symphony with a fateful, end-of-life number). The music tries to find stability, but never can. 

When this becomes tragic is in the final movement. There’s a hopeful, searching climax, reaching upward. Which (as the piece keeps spiraling back toward what it seems to hope might be a stable version of itself) returns. But now darker, uncertain, asking questions it can’t find answers for. (Despite the resolution into a simple glowing chord, for which — in the larger meaning of the piece — see below. But listen to the uncertain harmony in this second climax, and the growing darkness of the roll in the bass drum. The apparent resolution, into the apparently peaceful major key, can’t begin to answer the questions the climax so desperately asks.)

I’m reminded of something, and this might seem, to those who haven’t read the book I’ll mention, like a trivial comparison, but to me it’s powerful. The book is Passage, science fiction by Connie Willis. It’s about research into near-death experiences. These, in the book, can be induced, and one of the researchers lets them be induced inside her, over and over. She finds herself on the Titanic, as it starts to sink, but (though each time she’s more in peril) she always can escape. 

And then she dies, for real. And has the same near-death experience. But this time sinks. The second, dismaying climax, in the Mahler, is like the sinking, in the book. You’re in the same place you used to be in, but this time things turn more than dark.

In the book, the researcher’s consciousness continues beyond death. It’s just the random firing of dying neurons, she (a solid scientist) says to herself, as she waits for her brain to stop, locked away in a world that first is blackness, then grows lighter, and then has a sky that turns a terrifying red — disaster, the scientist thinks. 

One power of the book is that, right up to the final page, it balances on the edge of a knife, between belief that there’s nothing after death but random firing of neurons, as they turn off, and belief that there could be an afterlife. This balance holds right through the final page, which seems to end with hope. But it could just as well be the last hallucination. 

Likewise the symphony. After still a third attempt, but this time with no strength at all, to make the climax hopeful, the piece dissolves into reminiscence and regret. And, if you like, acceptance. But what I hear is unwillingness to end, an understanding that the end must come, but no desire for it. Just the last neurons lighting up before they die, stirring faintly in the violas, shading up and down from what has to be the final note, but even at the end not stating it. 

This, in what you could take to be the radiance of D flat major, creating what you could think is a glow of resignation and acceptance. But I hear loss, forever loss. 

“The history of the twentieth century is the history of a collapsing vocabulary — categories that were formerly thought sacred and separate begin to melt and flow together like images in a dream.” (Kenneth Tynan, quoted in the extensive historical display in the Roundhouse, the fabulous London performing arts space, whose history of cutting art, documented in the display, goes back many decades.)
More coming on Mahler 9. One thing I’ll say right now — I couldn’t listen with the score. With the notes all laid out neatly in my view, the piece seemed orderly. Which it isn’t, not at all, and above all not in its depths. So just as holding his viola seemed to block a Guildhall student from hearing music (see my recent post on Guildhall), watching the Mahler score stopped me, too, from hearing. 
I studied it while I wasn’t listening, and learned a lot. But, as I’ve been saying, later for that.
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  1. says

    A beautiful description, Greg. Thanks for that. It’s especially intriguing to me because of two things:

    1) I’ve been reading about different views to “what music can say,” coming at it from my point of view as a rhetoric scholar, and one of the common answers seems to be that musical meaning is associative–as your connection to Willis shows.

    2) I recently had the pleasure of hearing Willis speak, and I quickly read Blackout, the first part of her most recent two-part novel. I haven’t read Passage, but I love that you reminded me of it, and in a musical context.