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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits
Richard Taruskin

The quintessential representative of Weltanschauungsmusik and the man whose work most justifies the coining of the term was the composer who professed as his aim the writing of a symphony “so great that the whole world is actually reflected therein—so that one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays.”6 The author of these words was Gustav Mahler, whose ten finished symphonies (the next-to-last disguised as an orchestral song cycle called Das Lied von der Erde, “The Song of the Earth”, composed between 1908 and 1909), plus a fragmentary eleventh called the Tenth, left unfinished at his death in 1911, brought the line of Austro-German symphonic composition to a climax—and conclusion. After Mahler, as we shall see, there has been no German-speaking symphonist of comparable prominence; the important twentieth-century “schools” of symphony writers have been Scandinavian, Russian, and Anglo-American.

Mahler’s career was one of the great success stories of music history. He was born in a small town in what is now the Czech Republic, into the large family of a Jewish distiller and tavern keeper: of his thirteen siblings only six survived into maturity, leaving him the eldest. He first showed talent as a pianist, gave a public recital at the age of ten, and (having landed a sponsor) was sent to the Vienna Conservatory, where he was drawn toward theory and composition and, finally, conducting. At the age of seventeen (having been one of the few to sit out the first performance to its end) he was given the task of preparing the piano-duet reduction of Bruckner’s Third Symphony for publication. He also audited a few of Bruckner’s lectures at the University of Vienna, but was careful to insist that he was never a pupil of Bruckner’s in composition.

Mahler did not begin to make a reputation as a composer until he was already a famous conductor, especially of opera. To scan a resumé of his conducting posts is to witness an astounding, truly meteoric rise to the pinnacle of his profession. It began with an appointment, in the summer of 1880, to direct operettas at a vacation resort. The next summer he was employed at the provincial opera house in Laibach (now Ljubljana in Slovenia) where he conducted his first opera (Verdi’s Il trovatore). In 1883 he was appointed a staff conductor in another provincial city, Olmütz (now Olomouc in the Czech district of Moravia). From there he went to the central German town of Kassel, a provincial capital, where he served until 1885.

From now on it would be only big cities and major posts: Prague (the German theater, 1885–86); Leipzig (1886–88), where he conducted Wagner’s Ring for the first time; the Royal Opera at Budapest (1888–91), where he conducted a Don Giovanni that aroused the admiration and support of Brahms; the Municipal Theater of Hamburg (1891–97), where he conducted Chaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in its non-Russian debut, much to the composer’s delight, and from where he began to tour internationally, first in England, later in Russia.

Finally, in 1897, aged thirty-six, Mahler was offered the plum of plums: the directorship of the Vienna court opera, the empire’s top musical organization. To take this job he had to accept pro forma baptism in the Catholic faith, but it nevertheless seems extraordinary that a Jew, however emancipated and assimilated, could have been thought as indispensable to the glory of Austrian music-making as Mahler’s talent and drive had made him in the eyes of the Viennese arts establishment. (It was not in fact quite as extraordinary as it might seem: the highest aristocratic circles, secure in their supremacy, are relatively tolerant as a rule; Mahler, who certainly knew that he was in for it, was dependably subjected to anti-Semitic attacks in the bourgeois press, the domain of the upwardly mobile—see Fig. 1-2 where, as a “hypermodern conductor,” he is caricatured as a “typical” wildly gesticulating Jew.)

Mahler: Maximalizing the Symphony

fig. 1-2 “A hypermodern conductor,” caricature by Hans Schliessmann in Fliegende Blätter, March 1901. The caption, “Kapellmeister [Conductor] Kappelmann conducts his Symphonie diabolica,” makes unmistakable reference to Mahler’s Jewishness.

Mahler held this post for a decade, leaving it only for an even more prestigious joint appointment at the helm of both of New York’s leading musical institutions, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic orchestra. The record he compiled in Vienna made Mahler, by common consent, the world’s greatest conductor. It was a record of authoritarian intransigence and perfectionism, in which heavy demands were made not only on singers but on audiences as well (the new kapellmeister zealously reinstating all the customary cuts in Wagner, for example). Identifying as a composer with composers rather than as a performer with performers, Mahler made a fetish of textual fidelity at the expense of singerly display. Yet at the same time he allowed himself the creative liberty to improve Schumann’s orchestration and modernize Beethoven’s. To adopt a Wagnerian analogy, he made sure that the relationship between the author of the score and the effectuators of the performance paralleled that of the gods and the Nibelungs. Since he himself, the composer-conductor (and yet a Jewish outsider in the eyes of many), claimed godlike power within his interpretive domain, Mahler was widely regarded as a sort of Alberich, the upstart world-destroyer of the Ring.

Yet his authoritarian purism set an example, however controversial in his own day, that became the norm in twentieth-century performance practice, and as such another benchmark of modernism. Also prescient was the literalism with which Mahler construed the idea of textual fidelity. He found abhorrent the idea of unwritten performance conventions, such as appoggiaturas in Mozart (something Mozart never dreamed of dispensing with), and tried to stamp them out. His battle cry against performers who insisted on maintaining such conventions in the name of tradition—“Tradition ist Schlamperei!” (Tradition is just sloppiness!)—has become a watchword among conductors in the twentieth century, who in the name of an imagined “historical authenticity” have actually produced a style of performing that is radically new in its amnesiac divorce from historical precedent.

Despite his lifelong association with the opera house, Mahler never wrote an opera. His one attempt, Rübezahl, was begun in 1879 and abandoned in 1883. Five years later he undertook to complete Weber’s last opera, Die drei Pintos—a task Meyerbeer had previously undertaken but failed to complete, and which Mahler, then working in Leipzig, accepted as a love-offering to the wife of Weber’s grandson, with whom he was having an affair. That is the extent of Mahler’s creative contribution to the musical genre in which he excelled recreatively.

His domain was and—as he claimed—had to be the symphony: the maximalized, philosophical symphony of early modernism. In a letter to Max Marschalk, a friend and colleague, Mahler declared that “we are now standing—I am sure of it—at the great crossroads that will soon separate forever the two diverging paths of symphonic and dramatic music,” and, he added, like any truly contemporary musician, he was casting his lot on the symphonic side.7 These statements are often viewed as paradoxical. As we shall see, no composer ever appropriated so many dramatic and otherwise vocally or textually oriented means toward symphonic ends. But Mahler himself acknowledged this apparent contradiction in the letter’s very next sentence. “Wagner,” he admitted, “appropriated the means of expression of symphonic music, just as now in his turn the symphonist will be justified in helping himself to the new possibilities of expression opened to music by Wagner’s efforts and in using them for his own means.” And yet he went right on insisting on the categorical generic divide.

The insurmountable difference between the genres, for Mahler or any other practitioner of Weltanschauungsmusik, was that one could not truly express a weltanschauung—a world outlook, or as Mahler would say, a world reflection—through anything so limited as a narrative plot or a dramatic scenario, no matter how metaphorical. One needed the unlimited interpretive space that “absolute music” provided. Then one could load the symphony with as much introversive and extroversive sign-language as one wished, confident that its application would be infinitely extensible, bound only by the listener’s powers of imagination.


(6) Gustav Mahler to Anna von Mildenburg, 18 July 1896 (on his Third Symphony), Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler, ed. Knud Martner, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), p. 190.

(7) Mahler to Max Marschalk, 26 March 1896; Piero Weiss, Letters of Composers Through Six Centuries (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1967), p. 393.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001004.xml