Unfinishment: (In)completing Mahler’s (In)completion

(Nexus entry.)

From the opening bar of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, we are plunged into a memory space populated by ghosts of the Prelude from Parsifal, the Prelude from Tristan, and the final movement of Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony. In fact, the opening of Mahler’s Tenth feels like a renewal of the conversation that Mahler had with himself in the Ninth. Like Hermann Hesse or William Faulkner or Terry Gilliam, there were certain topics that Mahler, once he had introduced them, simply couldn’t let go.

Of course it’s possible, however unlikely, that Mahler’s Tenth wouldn’t seem this way if the composer had finished the symphony himself. For over fifty years the world only had the colossus of an opening movement and the featherweight sidekick of a third movement, a self-effacing Allegretto with the bizarre appellation “Purgatorio.” Then Deryck Cooke (1919-76), who never finished his own planned study of Wagner’s Ring (mentioned in my last entry), made a performing version of all five movements of Mahler’s Tenth, which premièred in 1964 and was published in 1976. Other performing versions have been made, but Cooke’s is distinguished by being the first and having more than one famous name attached to it. Brothers David and Colin Matthews both helped revise Cooke’s orchestration to achieve something approaching a Mahlerian sound. R-3485643-1332258657.jpeg.jpgThe recording I was listening to, incidentally, was of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth, which accompanied the August 1994 issue of BBC Music. In some ways it makes a great deal of sense to listen to this live performance, as the 1964 concert that brought the fully realized Tenth to the world was part of that season’s Proms.

The three movements that Cooke’s completion introduced to that 1964 audience (II, IV, and V) make for a fascinatingly symmetrical form in performance: around 23 minutes for the first and last movements, around 11.5 for the second and fourth, and a four-minute middle movement. Mahler clearly intended this symmetry. The outer movements are slow and share with the last movement of the Ninth an autumnal atmosphere that ranges from desolation and despair to searing pain—including the most dissonant sonority Mahler ever wrote, out of which blazes a solo trumpet, which is then submerged again in a “poisoned” chord—to visions of paradise and achievement of rest. The second and fourth are scherzos, similar to the placement of the Nachtmusik movements in the Seventh Symphony. But unlike the Nachtmusik movements of the Seventh, which are clearly differentiated, the scherzos and slow movements of the Tenth, respectively, feel like siblings, so that the interrupted kinesis of the first scherzo is picked up again in the second, and the solemnity and scope of the first movement are picked up again in the fifth. The sense that any Mahlerite has from the first note of the Tenth—that this symphony is a return, after an “interruption” between symphonies, to the essence of the Mahlerian conversation—is mirrored in the finale’s “return” to the first movement’s manner, after the interruption of three movements, and in the fourth movement’s return to the scherzo language of the second movement after the interruption of “Purgatorio.”

In a symphony that blends Mahlerian tropes with extraordinary surprises, one of the things that surprises me most is the language of constant interruption that Mahler cultivates in the scherzos. Motives are cut short; phrases are arrested; cadences are unfulfilled. Mahler has created a style in which a sentence almost never ends; instead, it gets turned into another sentence, which itself does not end. There’s logic to this—a way of the music—but the logic is one of incompletion. What Mahler does with form at the largest scale, he also does with material at a local scale: incompletion has become a sort of aesthetic, made poignant because of the unfinished state in which the composer left the symphony.

What does incompletion mean? Is it a sign for nervous anxiety, the impossibility of positive action in the symbol-laden decaying world of fin-de-siècle Europe? I think people often feel compelled to read Mahler like that, to look for ways that the music expresses the extraordinary emotional contours of its creator’s thinking in a Freud-filled, angst-bedeviled prewar context. But I confess that as I was listening to the scherzos of the Tenth this week, thinking about the aesthetic of incompletion that they embody, I perceived not a neurotic rhetorical hyperactivity but an achievement of rhetorical emptiness. One can only follow so many changes of mood before the rapid-fire volte-face of happy face-sad face-happy face-sad face—emoticons spinning in a slot machine—loses its precision and ceases to mean in conventional rhetorical ways. It feels to me as if in these two scherzos Mahler is unhooking mode and gesture from rhetorical function. He seems to be trading in musical twists and turns shorn of their communicative inheritance, a world powerfully close to Schoenberg’s where musical extremes need not signify emotional ones. I increasingly hear the two scherzos of the Tenth Symphony as a kind of kinetic workshop, a place where the composer was thinking, through music, about where music was going.

And what does this mean for the diminutive “Purgatorio,” a movement that spends a good deal of time spinning its wheels, like Gretchen am Spinnrade, with an empty oscillating figure underlying more conventional statements of melody? This is clearly Mahler’s Lieder style, and arguably it’s a more specific reference than that, but it’s so strange to hear this between the boldly fragmentary, proto-modernist scherzos, a leaky skiff bobbing along between Scylla and Charybdis. (Romantic metaphor-of-the-day award winner). I place the blame for this ridiculous metaphor squarely on Mahler. 61uYgohaXCL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHe’s the one, after all, who called his middle movement “Purgatorio,” suggesting the epic scope of Dante’s Divine Comedy and practically begging a listener to look for an Inferno and a Paradisio. Or is it really the middle three movements that function collectively as a kinetic purgatory—a waiting place, an interruption—foil to the first movement’s hell and last movement’s paradise? Music musics, ultimately, and any narrative parallel fails to fully accommodate those qualities that make the music so extraordinary.

One of the extraordinary features of Mahler’s Tenth, the narrative significance of which is elusive, is the final movement’s shape, which begins and ends with expansive tempos and features a central Allegro moderato. This shape echoes the rhythmic profile of the entire symphony, an echo enriched and complicated by the resurfacing of motives from earlier movements in the finale. There can be no question of the “validity” of a narrative reading here; Mahler brewed up such a complicated potion that one must simply accept that multiple readings, resonances, visions and revisions abound. Mahler has created a space constituted of reflections and refractions, making the nature of any one fragment difficult to pin down.

I’ll mention just one more such feature, which seems more powerful to me the more I hear this symphony. One of the principal motives of the last movement is a trumpet figure, another in a long line of funereal brass motives whipped up by Mahler. 800px-Richard_Strauss-Woche,_festival_poster,_1910_by_Ludwig_Hohlwein.jpgBut this one bears a striking resemblance, I think, to the motive from Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) that Lawrence Gilman called the ¡¡¡EnTiCeMeNt!!! motive in his 1907 guide to the opera. In isolation, the connection would perhaps merit little attention, but taken with the bass drum hits that open Mahler’s finale and the return of the “poisoned” chord, both of which have parallels in Strauss’s score, I cannot resist the comparison. (It’s the bass drums, remember, that crush Salome with their shields [or something like that], and who can forget the “poisoned” chord when Salome kisses the forbidden fruit, the severed head of Jochanaan?) When Mahler was sketching his Tenth the music of Strauss’s operatic success de scandale was all the rage, and Mahler certainly knew the score well. What’s Mahler doing here? Perhaps he’s contemplating, through music, another recent development in music, in just the same way that the internal scherzos reflect a kind of Schoenbergian shearing of aspects of signification from musical gesture. If Mahler is thinking about Strauss in the finale of his Tenth, the music is too potent, too evocative and immediate not to spark narrative dimensions. What forbidden fruit has Mahler’s symphonic protagonist tasted to be crushed in this way? Whatever it was, Mahler himself didn’t live to taste it. In listening to the last movement, we hear Mahler from beyond the grave, expressing things he did not have the time to express.

(Nexus ex. . .

I Saw the World Begin: Das Rheingold

It wasn’t possible to post last week. And why? Well, life presents its various difficulties, of course, but I think more than this is that I reached the precipice: Wagner. It was inevitable that I should eventually write about him, as I knew when I started this blog, although I wasn’t sure how I would get there or when. But, having spent some time on the Circe myth in Alcina and South Pacific, I started thinking about sirens, about the Lorelei, and this led me to the Rhinemaidens, that trio of seductive water nymphs swimming in the Rhine in the opening scene of Das Rheingold, first of the Ring operas.

(Nexus entry?)

This is the kind of moment that has the power to arrest the flow of prose. What can one say that hasn’t been said? At the same time, how can one choose what to say when there are so many things to say? Just take the Prelude of Das Rheingold, that long suspension of E-flat major bliss, growing from the subterranean basses and blossoming into swaths of full orchestral diatonic glory—how to focus? Do I say something about the significance of the three-flat key signature, suggesting simultaneously the trio of Rhinemaidens, the trio of Norns, the three muses (Dance, Music, Poetry) that Wagner cites when writing about his concept of music drama, the Christian trinity, the key of Beethoven’s Eroica, of the Masonic in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte? Do I then opine further about how in this originating kernel of E-flat-ness, Wagner has conducted preliminaries for a ritual theater during which he makes obeisance to the Christian god, to the norse gods, to the Greek gods, to the gods of music (Mozart and Beethoven)? v1.bTsxMTYxODIxMjtqOzE3Njg0OzEyMDA7NzY4OzEwMjQ.jpegOr do I go in another direction entirely and talk about the uses of Wagner—for example, the use of the Prelude from Das Rheingold in Terrence Malick’s film The New World (2005), ostensibly about the founding of Jamestown and the relationship of John Smith and Pocahontas, but projected, through the use of Wagner’s Prelude, into a larger creation myth, an originating legend for America paralleling the creation of Wagner’s world of the Ring, and/or a suggestion of the unspoiled world before European colonization.

(Nope, just kidding.)

You see? I have a problem. And no one’s even on stage yet!

40300.jpgI take consolation from reading Deryck Cooke’s I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner’s Ring (Oxford University Press, 1979). An attempt to say as much as could be said, Cooke managed to say intriguing things about the libretti (and occasionally the music) for the first two Ring operas, and then laid him down to rest. Somehow this is touchingly fitting, in a way that echoes other extraordinary projects of scholarship cut short by the unsympathetic winnower: Henry-Louis de La Grange’s revision of his definitive Mahler biography, J. A. B. van Buitenen’s translation of the Mahabharata. What I mean is that the epic subject is honored, in a sense, by not being fully encompassed by similarly epic scholarship. On a more pedestrian level, I was by turns upset, amused, and relieved that in the extensive liner notes + libretto accompanying Karajan’s classic recording of Das Rheingold with the Berlin Philharmonic, the essayist Wolfram Schwinger hardly mentions that singing is going on. (Yes, really!) Schwinger’s focus is almost exclusively on the Master—Karajan!—and his sensitivity to orchestration, his commitment to accuracy, transparency, his refusal to get bogged down and insistence on maintaining forward momentum. All well and good, but. . .singers?

118001648.jpgAfter all, here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wotan, the ultimate singer of German Lieder crafting a father of the gods who is lyrical and sympathetic instead of brash, spoiled, tyrannical. And here is the masterful performance of Gerhard Stolze as Loge, who follows every opportunity for multi-dimensionality of character that Wagner provides: at one moment playfully mercurial, at another fiercely scornful, at another distant and wise. And here is Martti Talvela as Fasolt, volleying blasts of bass sonority over the orchestra and hamming it up marvelously as the unlikely love-struck giant. But perhaps this is why Schwinger doesn’t say much about the singers—they do their job splendidly, on the whole, so his focus is free to flit to other phenomena. (How’s that for Stabreim?) All this to say that, after delay and uncertainty, I feel liberated not to attempt the completist’s gambit. Flit, float, fleetly flee, fly—it will be enough to be and not to be enough.

Nexus entry.

Wagner’s command of musical irony always stuns me, and I was perhaps more sensitive to it than ever on this listen to Das Rheingold. The gold standard for Wagnerian musical irony is Act I of Tristan und Isolde, and the queen reigning over that language is Isolde herself, who can snatch away someone else’s line and spit it back laced with venom. But I don’t think I had fully appreciated how much irony there is throughout the first of the Ring operas. Take, again, that opening scene with the Rhinemaidens, where the dwarf Alberich, frustrated in his attempts to capture one of them, takes the Rhinegold instead and curses love so that he will be able to forge the ring of power.

00005973.jpg(Don’t say anything about Tolkien. . .don’t say it!!! No, go on and say it—you’re in the nexus!)

In Wagner’s cosmology, love is the ultimate power inasmuch as it cannot be achieved through force, whereas everything else can be. So when Alberich can’t have love, he seizes upon the next best thing. Seen another way, the denial of love is what twists Alberich into a destructive tyrant. In Tolkien’s mythos, the creation of the Ring doesn’t work this way. It is forged by Sauron, who is so wholly evil, a force so far beyond conventional human experience, that to imagine him (it?) giving up love for power is a laughable suggestion. Love is foreign to evil in Tolkien’s universe; it cannot be imagined as existing anywhere in Sauron’s sphere.

Steamboat_Willie.jpgWagner invites us to consider, though, what might have happened had one of the Rhinemaidens chimed, “Oh, so he doesn’t replace the toilet paper and puts his elbows on the table—can’t help lovin’ that dwarf of mine!” And how does he invite us to consider this possibility? By writing mock-love music, of course! The Rhinemaidens sing, each of them, as if they’ve fallen for our sulfurous cave-dweller, and he buys it each time. But we know better, and not just because of the narrative context. Wagner hams it up, giving us saccharine overtures interrupted by action-oriented “underscore.” (Incidentally, do you realize how much mickey-mousing there is in Das Rheingold?! Steamboat Willie, sit down!) The music shifts gears too quickly for us to hear the love music as genuine; something that gets that sticky that quickly must be manufactured.

There are so many moments like this in Rheingold, each representing its own unique dramatic accomplishment, and the completist in me wants to dwell on many more, but the realist in me wants to mention one more general idea that kept occurring to me on this listen to the opera, and this has to do with Wagner’s materials. When the Rhinemaidens first direct Alberich’s (and our) gaze to the Rhinegold, we hear, for the first time in the score, a bright and shiny solo trumpet line. Got it, Wagner. A trumpet is made of brilliant metal, and so is the Rhinegold. But what about other such associations? Like the blast of clarinet sonority that accompanies Alberich, suggesting a reedy, swamp-like origin for him. Or the waves of arcing string lines in the Prelude suggesting, yes, the motion of the waters of the Rhine, but also, because of presence of string instruments themselves, the “threads” (strings) that the Norns are weaving and the wood of the World Tree—those organic materials. IMG_4855.JPGWagner was the kind of brilliant orchestrator who understood the cultural significance of timbre, particularly as it had been used historically in opera, and knew therefore how to use timbre to communicate dramatic ideas. But the world of the Ring seems to me to have presented Wagner with the perhaps singular opportunity to associate instruments with primal elements. Okay, so this idea is partly formed at best, but I’m recording it nonetheless as one of those topics to keep in mind as the life journey that constitutes anything more than a passing familiarity with Wagner’s Ring continues to unfold. Long may it last and never reach its end.

Nexus exit.