Saturday, May 8, 2010

some thoughts on mahler

Again and again, I return to Mahler. Ostensibly enigmatic, his music often seems to me to be a proto-postmodern pastiche; an attempt to express fin-de-siecle anxieties and nineteenth century nostalgia. A certain fascination with the past permeates and I can't help but think of the rampant historicism in Vienna at that time (Gottfried Semper, ahem ahem). What is really intriguing (as if rampant historicism isn't stimulating enough) is the way this historicism interacts with a yearning for progress--a hallmark of the early twentieth century. One need only to look at the work of say, Gerome and Nolde or the aforementioned Semper and his art historical counterpoint, Alois Riegl. In addition to these broad dichotomies, there is a certain duality that plays out in each individual's work. But I digress (and could go on...and on, but I'll spare you). What is great about Mahler, is that in his music this dualism is expressed so damn eloquently (and effectively, I might add). He uses all these archaic dance forms, but sets them in a modern idiom, fragments them, orchestrates them. In this way, his music (like the visual analogues Kirchner or Ensor) can be downright creepy.

We're playing his piano quartet this season. It is just a movement, a fragment from 1876 (that means Ringstrasse-era Vienna, by the way); apparently it was recently used in a Scorsese film and to my ears it sounds like Brahms. But, not just Brahms--more like post-German Requiem Brahms, anxiety-laden tragic Brahms. Take a listen for yourself:

For me, the pulsating quarter-triplets in the piano are most reminiscent of Brahms--the comparison being something like the cello part in the third movement of the C minor string quartet (but I feel like he uses this gesture quite a bit). You must agree that the music is imbued with ennui: the musical sighs, the low register octaves in the piano, and the aforementioned pulsations (that are to me, symbolic of the passage of time and the fear that often accompanies it). Even at seventeen, young Mahler was acutely aware of burgeoning change. And, like the rest of nineteenth century Europe, he was scared.

With all this in mind, I'll tell you that I am really looking forward to learning and performing this piece. In case you couldn't tell, I have a pretty strong affinity for fin-de-siecle Vienna.

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