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Oxford’s Mahler dummies issue a ridiculous defence

Earlier this month, I drew your attention to the most disgusting Mahler recording in recent memory – a choral setting of the Fifth Symphony Adagietto to the words of ‘Ave Maria’. Neither the words nor the sentiments fitted the composer’s known intentions (see Why Mahler? pp138-9). The violation cannot be justified for any musical reason beyond cupidity.

Yet justify they try. In a note on the Choir of New College Oxford website, Professor Edward Higginbottom claims that it was all right to put godly words to Mahler’s Adagietto because Samuel Barber did just the same to his Adagio.

Can anyone here spot the hole in the logic? Give me strength…. Can’t the Oxford dummies tell the fundamental difference between a composer adding words to his own piece and having it vandalised a century later by a fellow called Higginbottom?

I won’t quote any further from his argument because it just gets sillier and sillier. Read it here, if you like, for yourselves.


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  1. Totally idiotic. Let the strings speak for themselves.

  2. I read that, well, “justification” of Mr. Higginbottom. It really hurt.

    He reduces the possible opinions about his Mahler-raping to a choice between “does it undermine the effect of Mahler’s music?” and “does it add a possible new layer of identity on the movement?”. Which are two of the many questions that wouldn’t come to my mind in this case.

    Now everyone is fully entitled to make a fool of himself as best as he can. But I wonder if Mr. Higginbottom ever heard the term “artistic integrity”.

  3. another student says:

    ‘Perhaps the first thing to say is that the original Adagietto has not somehow been smothered by making of it a choral arrangement. It is still there. The next thing to say is that when composers launch their works on the world, they begin to say goodbye to them. And 75 years after their death they can exercise no further control. Their music then enters the ‘public domain’. So we are certainly allowed to view them in new ways. And this we have done in singing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony Adagietto to the text ‘Ave Maria’. ‘

    What’s the problem here?

    • Do you know anything about Mahler? Or the integrity of a work of art? Does Higginbottom? Evidently not.

      • james davy says:

        Mr Lebrecht, you may have opinions and a position to uphold, but by adding words to an existing tune (as happened to Elgar’s P&C march 1 -albeit with his blessing- surely brings the music to the notice of more people, who may then seek out the original for themselves, as has been done with Mahler’s music by others already. Your blustering attack on Dr Higginbottom is a little self-righteous. It’s not your music, after all, and Mahler doesn’t need your help in preserving the integrity of his music, regardless of how it may be arranged, simplified or traduced.

  4. How would you then explain Mahler’s settings of overtly Christian texts? Do his 2nd and 8th symphonies constitute a form of musical self-violation?
    I always thought that musicology had long progressed beyond the use of highly problematic terms like ‘intention’ and reductive biographical approaches to studying works of art. Do you reject all kinds of arrangements/adaptations that might conceivably contradict the author’s alleged intentions? If so, you must find much of the Western canon of music and literature disgusting.
    Are other choral arrangements of that movement more acceptable than this new version? I find that the third-rate Romantic poem in Gérard Pesson’s more frequently performed choral arrangement of that movement is much more at odds with the character of the music than the text of the ‘Ave Maria’.

  5. Christopher Slater-Walker says:

    I have to agree with “another student” here. A piece of music is not a thing fixed for all time, like a painting or a sculpture. Our musical notation gives us only the most basic mechanical outline of how the music is to be played; it omits much more than it fixes. In that context, music has to be recreated almost from scratch every time it’s played. Whether Mahler would have approved of this particular re-interpretation is entirely moot and cannot be determined. It’s up to us now to find new approaches and new interpretations; we also have the choice, should we so wish, to attempt to reproduce the performance practices of 50 or 100 years ago. But I doubt many interpreters would be satisfied with copying something that’s been done and done again and again.

  6. Randolph Magri-Overend says:

    I’d like to see the text to ‘Ave Maria’ twined with the Beatles ‘Can’t buy me love’ and wonder whether Prof Higginbottom concurs.

  7. As a Mahler lover, I at first was taken aback by what some are calling a rapacious use of one of Mahler’s most sublime pieces. But then I listened to this version and have to say it’s rather beautiful.

    Sure Mahler could have set words to the Adagietto and chose not to. But Mahler, and so many other composers, used the texts of other writers. Would Schiller have been offended by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy? And would Goethe have minded that Mahler used set Faust text to his 8th?

  8. Alexander Learmonth says:

    For Mr Lebrecht to speak of vandalism is absurd. Like what Professor Higginbottom has done or loathe it, it’s not as if he has daubed on the Mona Lisa; the original is still there for others to perform, listen to and enjoy.
    For my part, I can see no reason why a choir should not sing a piece written for instruments or vice-versa. Let’s be democratic with our performance. To be frank, the words chosen are largely irrelevant – no more than pegs on which to hang the vocalisation; their being in Latin helps prevent them from intruding on the listener’s sense of the music. But even if setting those words to that music were intended as an act of worship, what of it? The music I’d there for everyone now, as Dr Higginbottom says.
    Personally, I would not have chosen to do this, but I defend this choir’s right to do so; by all means criticise it, but don’t pretend to be holding the keys to Mahler’s music.
    Finally, I recognise that this CD is one designed to appeal to the popular market. No shame in that. In the case of the Choir of New College, profits made from projects like this go to help pay for less marketable music such as the incredible disc of Couperin motets just released on their own label, including works reconstructed by Dr Higginbottom and recorded for the first time.

  9. If we had the guts to say the emperor was in the nude, we might as well end the stupid aspects of that ‘public domain’ thing. I mean, such vandalizing of any work of art should be prohibited and despised as disrespectful and non-artistic kitsch. ‘Mahler’s Ave Maria’ is no singular case, there’s a whole plethora of stupid, useless and crude ‘easy listening’ remixes of classical pieces, which would make an edifying subject for anyone to look upon.

  10. That bastard Handel – fancy showing such little respect for the artistic integrity of Bononcini’s setting of “Ombra mai fu”….What was he thinking of???? And he didn’t even have the decency to wait until Bononcini was dead!

    Oh wait – Bononcini didn’t show any respect for Cavalli’s artistic integrity either when he rewrote an earlier setting of the text…

    Good job all three versions have survived so we can enjoy their artistic integrity…

    • @Lauren, of course you know Handel did not simply attach a text to an instrumental piece by someone else, but composed another aria.

      Here comes again the old story of Handel’s ‘plagiarism’? Almost all his music based on other people’s music consists of reworking of material, or even recomposing based on their themes.

  11. A Student says:

    Utterly remarkable how people seem to be completely incapable of justifying their disagreement with any sound argument that is not based on egomaniacal emotions or flawed logic. It’s rather tedious to read different expressions of “Oh isn’t this ridiculous? Look how ridiculous it is! Oh my, isn’t it silly?”. Tell us WHY you have such a strong reaction to something which is certainly not without precedent. It’s not garbage (that much is obvious), it’s not talentless, and this is from the choir that recently recorded unpublished Couperin as the latest in its exemplary recording history – certainly not a group of charlatans. Please drag yourselves out of the musicological dark ages and actually consider this problem without prejudice and without some deep-set need to reify what you seem to insist on regarding as almost sacred. I suggest you all start by taking an aspirin, having a lie down in a dark room, and calming your nerves!

  12. I’m surprised that the argument has progressed this far without anybody questioning the appropriateness of the Ave Maria text (a chaste, virginal text if there ever was one), for music that was probably erotically inspired. All the evidence, including Alma’s copying of the movement (published in facsimile), indicate the original Mahler was essentially a love letter for her — a love that from the start was most emphatically not of the platonic variety. Alma’s post-Mahler career is a wonder in these areas. Mahler would likely be astonished at the musical incomprehension evidenced by the use of Ave Maria.

  13. Randolph Magri-Overend says:

    I’ve taken an aspirin and have taken a lie down in a darkened room but lo and behold!…. I still haven’t seen the light!

  14. A complex masterpiece is dumbed down to one-dimensional kitsch and is still labelled as Mahler: that should already be reason enough to get upset.

    Utterly remarkable that a student should need explanations on so basic questions of artistic behaviour.

    If you ask “Why kitsch”, have a look at the Wikipedia article on kitsch: the first paragraph puts it quite right for this case, too. You even might think about the function of all those voices, sounds, contrasts, etc. deemed necessary by Mahler, which are lost in the choirificated version.

    “Something which is certainly not without precedent”? All examples mentioned in this thread were about words that later were set into music. Someone knowing a masterpiece where words were added to existing music? I don’t recall any in the moment.

    As to the precedent mentioned by Mr. Higginbottom in his article (“Gounod certainly added to the tradition by adapting Bach’s keyboard prelude in C, and making of it an Ave Maria”): not only wouldn’t this piece be taken as artistic guide by any respected musician – it simply is no precedent but an urban myth. There is no “Ave Maria written by Gounod”. Gounod only developed the theme as an improvisation on the piano, played at home. His teacher and father-in-law Zimmermann heard it, wrote the melody down (Gounod never did), then made a instrumental transcription of it; and it was left for later publishers to add first a French, then a Latin text.

    • Alexander Learmonth says:

      “Dumbed down”, “one-dimensional” and “kitsch” are all entirely subjective phrases, and do not advance your argument in the slightest. Maybe a choir plus harp (though hardly one-dimensional) can never produce as rich or varied a texture as a full orchestra, but that does not mean that orchestral music is superior to choral music, or that a choral version of a piece originally written for orchestra necessarily lacks artisitic integrity; it may depend on the piece, and the arrangement. Mahler himself issued piano versions of his orchestral songs. Maybe when doing so he lamented the loss of the oboe’s plaintive tone in ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, and maybe he preferred the orchestral version, but he still chose to publish both.

      I’m glad that someone has pointed out that far from Dr Higginbottom’s argument getting ‘sillier and sillier’, Mr Lebrecht has in fact chosen the least compelling of his three examples (Barber’s Adagio) to attack in his remarks above. As pointed out by Dr H. and other contributors to this thread, there are countless examples of composers using and adapting the work others. The detail of how the ‘Gounod’ came to be written is not important; what is important is that a work by possibly the greatest composer of them all was added to, re-scored, provided with words, and in that form has become a well-loved work in its own right. You may not like it, just as you may not like this Mahler arrangement, but you need to recognise that is an aesthetic judgment you are making, and that you have no right or reason to be ‘upset’ or ‘hurt’ merely because the recording exists, or to describe it a ‘vandalism’, ‘violation’ or ‘rape’, or to descend to personal abuse. That’s just silly.

  15. Mathias Broucek says:

    In the scheme of things, I can’t see that this is something to get quite so upset about. As long as there’s transparency that this is an arrangement by another hand the public can decide whether they see this as an improvement, an interesting varient or a war crime…….

    The reality is that good music can cope with all sorts of abuse. I once went to a concert with choir and steel band and Jesu Joy and the Humming Chorus came off just fine!

    • “good music can cope with all sorts of abuse”

      I’d have no problem with an arrangement of the Adagietto for steel band, flugel horn and nose flute as a one-off; it doesn’t trash the piece because when I hear it in its proper context, I’m hearing strings and harp.

      The problem is the addition of a text – any text, it doesn’t matter which one – to any piece of music where it is not part of the original design. No music, even the greatest, can defend itself from spurious associations once they have “stuck”; tell me honestly that you never think of the Lone Ranger when you hear a certain Rossini overture. It’s bad enough when the abuse is motivated, as so often, by commercial greed, but inexcusable when it’s perpetrated by a serious musician who really should know better.

      The earlier comment about Mahler 2 and 8 is null and void, as in these cases the text was intended by the composer as an integral part of the work.

      • Another student says:

        I don’t see why people are complaining so much about the text, which is just a pre-text (!) for having a choir sing the Adagietto. The Ave Maria fits vaguely the phrasing and is generally used in lilting, quiet settings. It’s not really giving the work ‘spiritual significance’ more than giving it to a choir.

        • If a text had to be fitted to the Adagietto, it would have been far more historically appropriate to have used a work of erotic poetry. That’s because the movement can be “read” in the same way as the Liebesnacht from Tristan, the opening of Der Rosenkavalier and the love scene from Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica. Then again, a truly suitable text — something from the Song of Songs, to use a biblical example — would not have been appropriate for the delicate ears of the choristers.

  16. I do not want to take any position on this matter, but one thing is clear: Gounod’s (or Zimmermann’s, who cares) Ave Maria is not a very good argument to invoke, for it as universally acknowledged as a piece of sh**t. Not that it desacrates His Holiness Bach, or that it shows disrespect. It just is a simplistic, amateurish, clumsy setting of the first prelude, the like any first year student in harmony and counterpoint can write without much effort. Gounod did better than that piece of cheap sentimentalism.

    As for the argument from Haendel’s settings of other composers, which is nothing but a sheer argument from practical authority (if X is very renowned, and X did Y, then I have a reason to do Y), it is strangely becoming commonplace today. Sure Bach transcribed a Vivaldi four-violin concerto into a four-harpsichord concerto! But is really Mr. Hidden Bottom to be compared to Bach or Haendel? And even if he was of a comparable musical genius (maybe he is, who knows), the point is that his purpose (i.e. to bring Mahler to the masses and/or make a little money) in recording this setting of Mahler’s Adagietto is quite different from Bach’s or Handel’s. What makes it a tad disgusting is the subjacent idea that the masses cannot appreciate Mahler’s Adagietto in its original form, and that it has to be made familiar to be accessible; and by ‘familiar’ of course, we mean sentimentalized: “Let’s put the Ave Maria: you loved Schubert’s, you sure will love Mahler’s!”

  17. Randolph Magri-Overend says:

    We can go on arguing on the merits of Mahler’s ‘Ave Maria’ for yonks. One point that none of the critics/lovers of the piece haven’t mentioned is that the new arrangemant will stand or die on its own merits. So what is it? Have the public accepted the piece? Has it shown up on the music charts, whether classical or pop? If it is merely a blip on the measure of musical sales then one can safely assume that the public have not embraced this attempt at modernising a classic.

  18. Personally, I find it much more offensive that Andrea Bocelli and Katherine Jenkins sing opera arias with the original lyrics than what Choir of New College Oxford has perpetrated. At least that choir can sing and produce beautiful sounds, even when adapting a classic for the pop market.

    The cross-over classical pop market is bound to seem tasteless in the vast majority of cases to most connoisseurs of classical music. There are successful exceptions, but not very many. It’s hard to bash the CNCO for milking the cash machine on occasion, especially in these days of staggering cuts in budgets for arts support.

    Frankly, almost regardless of what they do, the CNCO can’t do as much damage to classical music as the divino Bocelli and divina Jenkins, or Andre Rieux or Vanessa Mae and all the other hacks out there. But hey – they’re making a VERY good living compared to 99% of serious musicians, so who has the last laugh?

  19. Hey Norman. Let us take the same charming approach you did for this response.

    You dummy. I vomited when i read this article.

    I’m not one for this type of thing either, but maybe you should daign it with a more civilised and more lengthy responce. “Vomit”, “puce”, “disgusting” are just some of the words used to describe this recording. If it’s that bad I would have expected an actual rebuttle. Some witty disparagement from the cultural critic side of you. Here’s how you actually explained what was wrong with it (between both articles):

    “Why? No earthly reason; the words don’t even fit.

    Mahler wrote the piece as a love letter to his fiancée, Alma. It is wordless, troubling and full of contradictions. Turning it into a Christian prayer distorts art and perverts religion.

    There is no point in offering sensible discussion of a recording that violates everything the composer intended. Mahler’s ideas for the Adagietto are summarised in my book Why Mahler? pp. 138-9.

    The work has no religious connotation whatsoever. To overlay it with the words of ‘Ave Maria’ is foolish, arrogant and culturally offensive. It verges on cultural vandalism

    Neither the words nor the sentiments fitted the composer’s known intentions (see Why Mahler? pp138-9). The violation cannot be justified for any musical reason beyond cupidity.

    Can anyone here spot the hole in the logic? Give me strength…. Can’t the Oxford dummies tell the fundamental difference between a composer adding words to his own piece and having it vandalised a century later by a fellow called Higginbottom?”

    Thats it. Unless the book (which I’ll admit I havn’t read, but I’m sure unlike these articles DOES give us a well written arguement of the compositional process) tells us exactly WHY it shouldn’t be done as a choral peice you have told us hardly anything. What nothing more on the choice of words used, the arrangement itself, maybe liking it into your view on the chamber arrangements of the symphonies (a differant but related issue)? Could you not even have paraphrased those pages of the book, for those of us who havn’t read it? At least Higginbottom actually tried to explain what he did, in well written calm and precise style. At the end of the day whilst all may not totally agree with his arguments at least he had the audacity to try and explain why this peice was included in the recording (shock horror!)

    And calling the performers “stupid”, “dummies” etc well, to go to your level, i’d like to see you do better. And then we could all write reviews calling you a stupid dummy.

    To paraphrase what I think of this then if you’d actually explained your point of view to us, using good arguments, and not just spouted pejoratives, you could have fought your corner, built up a strong case and probably trampled all in your path. Instead you’re a grumpy old man who disagrees with something without remembering why, or at least it looks that way. Open up the debate, if Mahler means that much to you, then make your case.

    Come on Norman, you can do better than this.

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