And so, it metastasizes. This ineluctable concept-listening disease…
Since that listening of the final movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, I fell into study this eveningof just Beethoven’s opening movement from the Eroica. By all accounts this is the symphony that forever changed classical music: Eroica made it about the ego, the aggrieved and the mourning hero, funereal yet triumphant, going deaf all along. Promethean Me.
I do prefer the muscular and the mad in Bernstein’s Beethoven, especially in this one.
Movement Two: From the Funereal March
Accchhhhh.. the Third and Fourth! Such Austro-German dionyseanism. (Terrible expression.)
I am not in any way knowledgeable about music or musical theory. I will not pretend to any authority. But in studying this symphony recently — really listening to it, after so many years never touching it, it comes back to me how greater this might ever be than Mahler. And that’s a really really hard thing to hear myself say. Just this one piece — the Eroica. This feeling is emerging, having never thought that Mahler’s understanding of our modern human mind could maybe never be surpassed. And hearing this Eroica again.
This whole thing, this symphony — this madness, this rage, this playfulness, this bold triumph of the Will. This piece, itself, made Mahler even happen, I realise just now. I had not noticed the strong funeral-march-to-deep-question-to-triumph link before. This symphony let Mahler happen, and let him happen with such brutality right from the beginning. Like we expected it. But we’re bystanders in a funeral march again, the funeral march we are engaged in since the moment of birth.
According to the respected Mahlerian, Norman Lebrecht, this “long-rumoured photograph of Gustav Mahler being stretchered off a train on his final arrival in Vienna on May 12, 1911” was only recently confirmed to be authentic. “No Mahler expert of my long acquaintance had ever seen this picture.” The photo was published in the Austrian newspaper Das Interessante Blatt on May 18, the day Mahler died. https://slippedisc.com/2020/07/found-the-last-known-photo-of-gustav-mahler/
My heart jumped up into the throat when I first encountered this, while staying on an island in Greece in August 2020.
Chills. And how is it possible to feel such sadness emerge — almost a hint of a lump in the throat, the longer I lingered over it — for a man who has been dead since 1911? And how like his symphonies, the whole construction of this setting, frozen in time: that ever-present funeral march theme surrounded by casual banalities. One of the greatest artists who ever lived is transported down from a train, in a box, suffering his last pangs of life, meanwhile there is no pomp or announcement, and common folk attend to gathering to witness the scene, a man bending to maybe fix the clothing of the young boy before him. The transcendent and the mundane, life and death, high music and the shuffling sounds in the street. Mahler.
[The previously “last-known photo of Gustav Mahler,” travelling back from New York to Cherbourg, France on the SS Amerika, April/May 1911 — some three weeks before the newspaper photo.]
Of course, this could not close without the third and fourth movement of the First: the funeral march with child’s-tune “Frère Jacques” melody (which I also learned as a child in school) hauntingly in a minor mode, and the triumphant close.