Art and Politics

Against Clichés about Mahler’s Music

The tendency to reduce an understanding and appreciation of cultural achievements is a limitation of the thought in Marx and Marxism, as I suggested yesterday. Such reduction, though, is actually a more general problem, as is explored here in another of Goode’s thumbnail reviews about music and life. -Jeff

Why should we care? Because some of us love the music. Some of us even commit that chauvinist crime of saying: “He’s the greatest Jewish composer” as if there were a contest out there. (He was reviled with anti-Semitism in Vienna during his lifetime, especially around his directorship of the Vienna Court Opera). But two of the most progressive conductor’s, Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas (both Jewish), both of whom regarded Mahler as central to their lives, are just full of the usual clichés about him. Oh, like: that those wonderful and suggestive, disintegrating endings to his final works are “about death” or about his death. Well, maybe they are, but HE never said that.

The latest slew of these interpretations came in a visually elegant public television program conceived by Tilson Thomas called “Keeping Score.” I won’t list instances here, maybe some other time. Actually the best one-liners came from the first clarinetist, Corey Bell, of the SF Symphony (featured in the film). He spoke about the “skin-of-your-teeth tonalities” in the Scherzo of the 7th Symphony, and of the “corners to hide out in.”

Thomas does get off one perceptive analysis: tracing the use of the musical “turn” from Mahler’s first work, “Songs of a Wayfarer” to the final movements of his last two completed works. And the importance of the tone A in that early work and then in the climax of the first movement of his 10th Symphony.

A final shot of Thomas at Mahler’s grave in Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna, shows without comment, stones placed in the traditional Jewish manner on top of the gravestone. Mahler’s remains were not allowed to be buried in the same cemetery as Beethoven and Schubert. “Those who love me will find me,” he said.

  • Luis Tsukayama Cisneros

    Poor Mahler, he has been accused and interpreted from both extremes of the interpretation: 1. that his music is full of the tragic characteristics of his jewish inheritance; 2. that he was the heir of the Wagner’s (someone who is also a constant victim of this) supposed Germanic musical pride (also a constant idea that comes all the way from Beethoven). I agree that unfortunately it is all too often that “understanding” music is not only related to knowing about the social and cultural context of the creators of the music, but moreover that such ideologically categories (created from a third person perspective) as “jew”, “marxist”, “feminist” or even (gasp!) “latino” seem to be a good starting point (if not wholesome starting points) to understand creative works of art. Where does creative genius start and imposed politicized identities end, that is a question that anyone who tries to appreciate art and history have to reflect on constantly… particularly when we talk about art in the 20th century.

  • Dsgoode

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