Monday, November 7, 2011

Gustav Mahler: Nature, God and Art

A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.

I don't let myself get carried away by my own ideas - I abandon 19 out of 20 of them every day.

If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.

It's not just a question of conquering a summit previously unknown, but of tracing, step by step, a new pathway to it.

The point is not to take the world's opinion as a guiding star but to go one's way in life and working unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause.

When I have reached a summit, I leave it with great reluctance, unless it is to reach for another, higher one.


Thomas Mann: You said that a symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.

Gustav Mahler: Yes, I did say that. For me, the symphony is the complete form of musical expression.

TM: Greater even than the opera?

GM: Yes, my friend, greater than even that. In opera, music and libretto combine to inform, to command, and to relate, whereas with the symphony, the music is all; it must contain everything.

TM: Only God can do that, surely.

GM: God and Shakespeare, yes. But we who deal in notes, in tones, and not in verbal language, though we do often resort to its use, we compose, we musicians have only the tools of our trade to communicate our intent to the world.

TM: But where are we to search for our intent? You recall that the art of composition is a lonely one; you write in your hut by the lake, do you not, taking an apple as your only repast. Where do you get your intended composition?

GM: As I am alone with my work, my answer would be that I get it from my own mind, but that would be too simple an answer, for it gives no information other than stating the obvious. The mind, the mind is like a vast expanse of land that I must cross to and fro to discover what I am looking for.

TM: And where do you look, in your mind?

GM: In all those reservoirs of feeling, in those fathomless depths of emotion.

TM: But where are they? Do you alone know how to access those parts of your personality that lie dormant or covered for the rest of us?

GM: It is not for me to say what I can do, what I can know. I only know this; that once the search begins, things fall into place, my life, all I have experienced, all I have read, or been told, or seen, all I believe, unites in my searching, and finds expression in my music.

TM: Do you think you could ever find a different vehicle for your self-expression?

GM: Quite possibly, yes. For no doubt the workman who stood here by this lake and built this hut felt something akin to self-expression even as he was sawing wood and combining his skill and his brawn to create what you see before you – this little hut, my home for the days of creation.

TM: But surely the carpenter has his plans, how can he deviate from them? How is he expressing anything except the plan in front of him?

GM: The plan of the hut – the drawing, if it is such, the measurements, you mean, all that is only a part of what he does before he puts away his tools and goes home to his rest.

TM: A part, I grant you, but a major part. Is there anything left for him to do except follow the plan obediently?

GM: His plan is merely someone’s outline, as one might outline an essay or a musical composition, a story or a poem; it is not the hut itself, only an idealized form, not a realized one. It is the realization of the plan that the carpenter creates.

TM: And how is that anything more or less than a plan?

GM: The medium is wholly different, as is the plane of its architecture, and the use to which it is put once it is built.

TM: But that cannot be a part of the carpenter’s skill, can it?

GM: Whose skill would it be, if not his, and mine, the user’s?

TM: You might as well say that it is the lake’s skill and the trees that shore it.

GM: Who can say that it is not those things. Have I not said what the flower tells me, what the stars tell me, what the night tells me? Should I now not put them together and express my thoughts in music, using all those components that go to form my experience of sitting here in this hut searching my thoughts and feelings, my emotions? Should I not include all of these elements, and should these not include the hut that shelters me as I write?

TM: But can the audience reach what you intend to portray? Can the audience feel what you feel?

GM: Each feels according to what he brings to the experience of listening, and from the particular direction that he brings what he contributes to the experience.

TM: So you are unable to say that anyone listening to your music can experience anything like what you intend him to experience.

GM: You have me wrong if you think that is my mission. I express what I am capable of; let us not forget that like each member of the audience, each member of the orchestra, each conductor, I bring what I bring in the particular direction that I bring it. If I find commonality, it is in the conventions of the form in which I write.

I am changing what I can, not for any superfluous reason, but because I must change it. The forms of the past cannot ever be sufficient for me to express what I desire to express.

TM: But if you change the symphonic form, do you not change the concertgoers’ expectations?

GM: I sincerely hope so. In change lies progress, and in both, painful as they can usually be, comes education. We live at this moment in our history, and we must consequently make what we create reflect that fact.

TM: But what has gone before was not of our making, was it? You did not start the Franco-Prussian War. How can you deal with it in your work?

GM: For the very reason that I am unable not to. It is who I am, who we all are, is it not?

TM: Yes, I suppose it is.

GM: Then we must reflect it in our way, each according to our means. The carpenter built this hut; he lived through the war that is finally over, and doubtless he will live though others. He comes to his task with that knowledge inside him. Do you think he can eradicate its effect on him?

TM: But does it inform how he holds a hammer, how he saws a piece of timber?

GM: You cannot see that it does?

TM: Not at all, all I see is the carpenter building the hut.

GM: Then you are not observing the whole organism, only the arm as it swings the hammer, only the hand as it holds the saw. Yet it is the artist who must observe the whole event, the carpenter sawing, the birds singing, the wind blowing, the sun shining, is it not?

TM: Why must it be the artist who shall have the task of conveying all?

GM: To allow the listener to experience everything the composer does.

TM: And that includes how he feels too, does it?

GM: Most certainly, for if it did not, it would be unworthy of the name of art, wouldn’t it? It would be a snapshot of a man building a hut, or a film of him doing so. At least, in my way, I ensure that the pictures that emerge from my music are more real than anything the camera could record.

TM: How can that be? Surely the camera can record with absolute accuracy and high resolution?

GM: But that is all it can do, my friend. It cannot begin to show the real event, the man stopping over his plans as the breeze from the lake attempts to free them from his gaze.

TM: Were his plans to blow away, he would have to stop his work, wouldn’t he?

GM: Most certainly, and yet you persist in stating that the breeze plays no part in the building of the hut.

TM: It only slows or stops to the extent that the plans are obscured from the carpenter’s gaze. That is all the breeze does.

GM: And yet in the brief interval in which the carpenter must stop and place his boot firmly on the pans to prevent them from being whisked into the water, he is able to think of something to prevent the hut being blown away in a similar fashion when the breeze becomes a storm. No moment is wasted, my friend; not for the carpenter or for the artist depicting him in sound.

TM: But a symphony must do more than describe the physical conditions of the scene it seeks to portray, surely?

GM: Of course it must, and so it does, if it can be truly be called a symphony. It must capture the essence of the scene, and it must capture the spirit of all it seeks to portray.

TM: Can you say what you mean by the spirit?

GM: If we return to the little hut by the lake, built, if you recall, by the carpenter, forced occasionally to retrieve his plans from the clutches of the breeze as it blows out across the expanse of water that is the lake.

Now, let me ask you a question. What does the carpenter bring to his task, and what does he take from it?

TM: Well, first of all, he brings his expertise, his skill in working with wood, and his frame of mind as he approaches his work.

As far as what he takes from his task is concerned, he surely takes his wages that feed his family and replenish his pockets when the need arises.

GM: And anything else?

TM: The sense of achievement he must feel when he has made something with the sweat of his brow and his knowledge of the material of his work.

GM: And do you think he brings to it anything more than his skill as a worker of wood?

TM: I suppose you mean his bearing towards his work; his love of his work, I might even say.

GM: Do you think there is anything in his spirit that brings him closer to his work?

TM: I suppose his faith would be involved, particularly with a man with such a trade as his.

GM: What do you mean?

TM: It may sound a bit obvious, but he may well always be aware that Joseph was a carpenter; that his trade is one that goes down through the ages of man, right back to the earliest days of man making a surplus enough to remove himself from tilling the soil to take up other work that served to move mankind on further to where we stand today.

GM: That is well said, for we all come to this spot with the cooperative efforts of many, acknowledged or otherwise. We work under a sheltering sky, which should seek to unite us, but fails in some.

What I have tried to do in my music is to codify the world of Nature and the world of God, a unity of which is vital to our time here on Earth and beyond the grave. To glorify what has been done with us, by us and for us is what I seek to convey in my music.

TM: I want to ask you how music can really convey anything to an audience, short of rapture, or horror? How can the vibrations in a column of air so affect one, do you think?

GM: Well, I should begin by again stating the obvious, for which I beg your forgiveness and your patience. The musician’s medium, as you have said, is air, the painters the canvas and its effects on the retina and the visual cortex.

The musician aims at that most delicate of human intricacies (after the mind and possibly the heart) the ear – that little sac of bones displayed in delicate distance relative to each other and their reacting to what blows in by way of vibrating columns of air, again, as you have already mentioned.

Helmholtz has described how certain intervals of sound – of these vibrating columns of air – affect the nerve endings; some producing calm, others a more stressful orientation to what is entering the auditory channels. The semitone, that pernicious space between two adjacent keys on a piano, struck together, produce distress to the listener.

TM: So what you are doing, with your symphonic works, is to manipulate the emotions of the audience merely by activating those notes that cause distress, I may say, discord, in the listener.

GM: And then, by recourse to other, more calming configurations of notes, relieve the tensions set up earlier.

TM: But surely you do not go through your music with a fine toothed comb, merely to distress and calm, do you?

GM: Distressing and calming the audience is not my main consideration, and although I am aware that what I write will inevitably cause such perturbations, I do not specifically set out to create them.

Rather, I intend, in the only way I can, which is through musical composition, to convey my wonder at God and Nature working in harmony, as they surely do, to produce the Earth and all its splendour, all its ills, in successions that strike the listener as a revelation.

TM: We learn, if and when we learn anything at all, do we not, by having our expectations disturbed, rather than at those times when all is as we have come to believe it is?

GM: I am encouraged to think so, and yet there are those who bellow at music that so assaults their hearing, as they might say of some of my chords, who revel only in what they know.

TM: That is the enemy of progress, I think.

GM: It is, and while I hope my music is thought of as avant-garde, I do not think it will be thought so after my death.

TM: To be appreciated after one’s demise is the wish, is it not, of any composer, any artist?

GM: It is popularly thought to, yes, but I think most would take any generous applause while still mortal as a much more appreciated accolade.

I do not compose music to gain applause, however gratifying, indeed necessary, such applause is to any performer who stands or falls by his popularity with his audience. I say again, I do not court such popularity; that I reserve for my time as conductor, as director of music rather than as composer of it.

When I sit in my little hut, munching an apple, penning phrases in my forthcoming creation, I do not think of money, but concentrate rather, on what inspires me, although I think that concentration is the wrong word for what happens to me in my hut by the lake. I am inspired and moved to write music. That is all.

Robert L. Fielding

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