Theodor W Adorno, Two Essays On Mahler

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

[I]n Mahler’s music both things may be implicit: that as a brittle allegory that overreaches itself, the gesture of final, satanic defiance may signify reconciliation; that for the person who has lost hope, the nearby blaze of destruction may shine like the faraway light of redemption. – Theodor W. Adorno, “Marginalia On Mahler”, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p.614

Mahler occupies an odd place in the canon of western art music.  Coming at the point where both the symphony as a musical form and both classicism and romanticism had exhausted themselves, it seems Mahler made the decision to create not only a temporal escape.  His work, especially his symphonies, are among the first to use music to create space as well as a temporal world unto themselves.  Yet, too often, as Adorno notes in the first of the essays, “Mahler Today”, we hurry past Mahler, having spent time with Beethoven, then Brahms, then Wagner.  Mahler’s young-contemporary, Richard Strauss, is far more interesting precisely because of all the controversy that surrounds the man and his music.  Younger composers like Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg would pick up where Mahler left off, heading in opposite directions; yet their work is the opposite of Mahler’s, filled not with space and, very often, very little time.

As is his wont, Adorno picks up with Mahler where far too many leave off: the composer who comes at the end, whose work tries to breathe life in to an art form and musical style that is exhausted, a transitional figure whose work is overshadowed too often not only by those who came before him, but by his contemporaries.  As Adorno says on p. 604, “Mahler has not been overcome, he has been repressed.”

The bourgeois music culture of the prewar world has reconstituted itself and strictly rejects everything that is not in keeping with its moderate peacefulness.  Everything that does not fit in is regarded as crazy and esoteric, or banal and kitsch.  But precisely a situation that would like to bury the explosive productive power of music is ripe to be measured by its extremes. . . . The genuine significance of Mahler that can be discovered for today lies in the very violence with which he broke out of the same musical space that today wants to forget him.  Admittedly, Mahler’s breakout from bourgeois musical space is not unambiguous and can be truly understood only from with the dialectical opposition to the thing from which it launched itself: not as flight.

It is precisely Mahler’s insistence on making music out of shards and remnants, bits and pieces of shiny things, fitting them together just so, that thing about his compositional style that leaves so many cold, his works dark, always hinting at death, that constitutes for Adorno the reason for returning to Mahler, for considering him not only as an important historical figure, but as someone who has something to say to us today.

For Mahler, the depraved essence underneath the form is the only place where the true images are stored, to which form speaks in vain.  He picks them up as one picks up potsherds along the road, their fractured mass reflecting the sun in a way the well-preserved, full soup tureen hardly could.  It is not stifled pantheistic love of created beings and Nature, not a romantic return to lost simplicity that is occurring in Mahler’s work when it inclines toward lower things.  Rather, he is searching for the higher contents in the r downward plunge through history in the place where they appear to him here and now.  The ruins of moderate, formed musical practice are transparent for him right through to the starry heavens that once shone down upon it. (p.605)

I’ve rarely read a more apt, more incisive, more true description of a composer and his work.  Much the rest of Adorno’s apologia and marginalia are little more than variations on this theme: Mahler is ignored, then and now, precisely because he saw clearly enough the end of that through which and in which he worked.  That this aesthetic end also marked the coming catastrophe of Europe’s self-immolation in the First World War makes Mahler as much musical prophet as it does the innovative creator of space through sound.  His was indeed not necessarily a safe space, but then he saw more clearly, and articulated all the more forcefully, the truth behind the comforting lie of bourgeois domestic tranquility.  For that reason alone, as much in 1930 when Adorno was insisting on Mahler’s on-going relevance, we should take the time to visit these spaces Mahler opens up for us, and consider them, in all their darkness, as a possibility of what might yet lie in wait for us no less than a generation about to embark on self-destruction.

I will end with the ending of Adorno’s “Marginalia”, offered on the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death, from p. 617 of Leppert’s essay collection:

The individual who is carried along is not eliminated.  The community of lovers is made available to him.  The human being survives in the march on the strength of the variant, the determining asymmetry – this is what makes it so completely impossible to misuse Mahler’s music.  The men who otherwise were simply forced to die when they fell out of line, the line above the Strasbourg’s trenches; the nighttime sentry, the [soldier] who is laid to rest in the beauty of the cornets, and the poor little drummer boy – Mahler forms them out of freedom.  He promises victory to the losers.  All his symphonic music is a reveille.  Its hero is the deserter.

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