Full Fathom Nine
April 10, 2006 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Mahler performances were rare in Vienna in those days because Mahler's city had already been contaminated by the acolytes of Adolf Hitler. By their reckoning, Mahler's music was loathsome — a product of "Jewish decadence." To put Mahler's music on the program was therefore a political act. It was to protest and deny the hateful faith that blazed across the border from Germany. That much I understood quite clearly, even as a boy.
The New Yorker's Alex Ross reprints Hans Fantel's New York Times 1989 essay on Bruno Walter's 1938 performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony -- the last performance of the Vienna Philharmonic before Hitler invaded Austria.
posted by matteo (7 comments total)
Mahler, by the way, never a devout Jew, in 1897 had converted to Christianity. this of course didn't stop the smear campaigns against him, much before Hitler came to power. interestingly, "When in 1908 antiSemitic smear campaigns at the Vienna Opera were raging against former director Gustav Mahler, Hitler continued to admire Mahler as a Wagner interpreter".
posted by matteo at 9:18 AM on April 10, 2006

Wow, this is amazing. I've always loved Mahler's music but never looked into his life very deeply. Thanks.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:25 AM on April 10, 2006

... a product of "Jewish decadence."

And this is a bad thing? One of the best nights of my life was the result of Jewish decadence. I don't remember if she liked Mahler though....
posted by three blind mice at 9:44 AM on April 10, 2006

Mahler was born a jew??!!! *burns Mahler CDs* :)

Okay, really...from the NYT article: "One could sense its [Walter's 1938 Mahler's Ninth] uncanny intensity — a strange inner turmoil quite different from the many other recordings of Mahler's Ninth I had heard since. Knowing now what nobody could have known at the time of the concert, it seemed that perhaps the playing of the music carried within it a foreboding of what was to come. Terror and anguish, not yet experienced but divined, were transformed into song.

A fascinating reprint, but even better after you read all the corrorborating, excellent anecdotes on amazon of the last performance.

I love the general acknowledgment that there was a 'foreboding of what was to come' suffused into the music (and reminds me of furtwangler's melodic beethoven's 9th in lucerne just a few months before his death) and the apparent phenomenon that sometimes these moments collide where the conductor just *knows* something paranormal that trancends the music and the performance.
posted by naxosaxur at 10:44 AM on April 10, 2006

This is really not helping my current Anschluss obsession... (I keed). matteo, thank you, this is marvellous. (And so is the post title, especially given Fantel's loss of his father shortly afterwards).

Now I'm wondering again, as I have many times, about that performance of Gotterdammerung in Berlin just before the city fell-- another haunted night in the history of European music.

Thanks for the wonderful post.
posted by jokeefe at 11:10 AM on April 10, 2006

Be sure to check out Death In Venice for more about Mahler. I've said this before: his work can move me to tears.
posted by intermod at 8:23 PM on April 10, 2006

Once again, matteo, a superlative post.

This puts me in mind of a recording a Dutch friend once played for me of a 1939 performance, in Amsterdam, of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The conductor was the the German Carl Schuricht. Just before the last movement commenced, a woman in the audience stood up and proclaimed: "Deutschland über alles, Herr Schuricht!"

Talk about your premonitions...seven months later, the armies of the Third Reich would march into the Netherlands. The moment is chilling. And Fantel is right: its capture on the recording lends it a kind of immortality. Unlike the tragic performance of Mahler's 9th in Vienna, though, this is a sort of pathetic irony. The woman's voice is feeble, her sycophantic pretensions obvious, and the contrast between narrow, fascist triumphalism and Mahler's great art are profound.

Adorno, as always, has it best:
In the final phase it may be that the idea of a music that evokes transcendental meaning is reduced to a truly Proustian search for things past, for the pavilion of friends and the blossoming beauty of slender young girls. But if so, the composition adapts itself to this with figures of disintegration and by renouncing the ambition of integration. It finds its true solace in the strength to look absolute desolation in the face and to love the world even though there is no hope. Such figures are to be discovered in the leave-taking movements of Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony, which dissolve into particles that make no pretense of unity.

Mahler's nonviolent violence, which is formulated in such figures, is the power of a true humanity. Greatness in composition does not consist for him, as it did for Luther, in commanding the notes to go where they belonged. Instead, he follows them where they lead, from a sense of identification with those who are cruelly knocked about and forced into line by aesthetic norms and indeed by civilization itself. In short, he identifies with the victims.
posted by felix betachat at 1:11 PM on April 11, 2006

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