Why Has Mahler Become a Cultural Icon?

R. J. Stove has a delightful article on Mahler posted at the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation:

The Mahler symphonies … get me out of here. I keep surreptitiously cheering Kingsley Amis’s verdict “Mahler lacks talent even more spectacularly than he lacks genius.” …

The leap in Mahler’s stature from near-oblivion in 1960 (when, as Britain’s Spectatornoted on January 13, “[H]is impact on the general public was roughly the equivalent of, say, [Poland’s Karol] Szymanowski today”) to deification after that date, has little or nothing to do with musical merits and almost everything to do with external considerations.

And what might these external circumstances be?

Once it became widely known that Mahler had lamented being “a Bohemian in Austria, an Austrian in Germany, and a Jew in the world,” his identity-politics credentials became the aesthetic equivalent of a nuclear warhead, lacking only homosexuality to complete his posthumous triumph.

With the exception of a few musicians enthralled with the challenge of playing his music, the people who love Mahler love him because of who he is, not because they enjoy listening to his music.

Mahler has been the subject of TOO articles by E. R. E. Knutsson and Elizabeth Whitcombe. Knutsson described the Jewishness of Mahler’s music in the context of the fin de siècle cultural scene of Vienna:It has been arguedthat Mahler’s music has links back to the Hasidic music of Eastern European ghettos of the eighteenth century in which dance music is deployed as a remedy to misery.” An anti-Jewish critic at the complained, “What I find so utterly repellent about Mahler’s music is the pronounced Jewishness of its underlying character. … It is abhorrent to me because it speaks Yiddish. In other words it speaks the language of German music but with an accent, with the intonation and above all with the gestures of the Easterner, the all-too-Eastern Jew.”

Whitcombe links Mahler to T. W. Adorno: “Adorno claimed that the bourgeois musical world was repressing Mahler’s work because Mahler shunned ‘moderate peacefulness.’ In Adorno’s words: ‘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’ (Mahler Today,” 1930).”

Stove’s comment does not get into the details of how Mahler became so important. I suspect that an argument can be made that Mahler’s incredible success since the 1960s has to do with ethnic networking and with peculiarly Jewish attitudes toward culture. The topic deserves a full treatment.

Mahler’s visibility these days is truly phenomenal. Leon Botstein labels Mahler “the most visible figure from the high-art classical music tradition since Mozart.” Whereas in the 1930s Adorno complained that Mahler was on the verge of being forgotten, by the 1960s the intellectual landscape had changed dramatically, bringing to the fore the intellectual movements discussed in The Culture of Critique, including Adorno’s Frankfurt School.  By several accounts, the two most important advocates of Mahler during the 1960s were Adorno and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Adorno’s campaign on behalf of Mahler did not bear fruit until his influential 1960 book Mahler: A Musical Physiognamy. An historian notes, “The effect [of Adorno’s book] on the cultivated, on many musicologists, on composers, has been immense.” The Culture of Critique shows that Adorno had a strong Jewish identity and a hostility toward traditional Western culture (viewed as inevitably leading to fascism and anti-Semitism) that colored all of his writing.  In his view, Mahler was attractive because he was the antithesis of the traditional muscial culture of the West. (The same can be said of Adorno’s attempt to promote Arnold Schoenberg; see TOO’s Knutsson and Whitcombe.)  Re Bernstein, Botstein notes that “Bernstein was Mahler’s most prodigious advocate in the seminal 1960s…. Bernstein implicitly set Mahler’s ambivalence to his fate as a Jew alongside his own proud assertion of Jewish identity and faith.”

The result was that Mahler has become a sainted icon of the new culture — another example of Jewish genius. Even if no one really enjoys listening to his music.

Bookmark and Share

41 replies

Comments are closed.