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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits
Richard Taruskin

Another manifestation of that perennial obsession was Mahler’s infatuation with Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The youth’s magic horn”), an anthology of German folk lyrics edited by two early romantic poets—Achim von Arnim (1781–1831) and his brother-in-law Clemens Brentano (1778–1842)—and published in three installments between 1805 and 1808. Between 1887 and 1901 Mahler set some two dozen Wunderhorn texts to music, some with full orchestral accompaniments, and even more tellingly, incorporated some of the same songs, and some newly composed ones, into the symphonies composed during the same period, namely the Second, Third, and Fourth.

It is sometimes wondered why no composer before Mahler took a comparable interest in the often exquisite poems in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, given that Volkstümlichkeit (folksiness), with its implied wisdom of innocence, was from the beginning such an important value for the German romantics. There are a few pre-Mahler settings of Wunderhorn poems—by Carl Maria von Weber, Carl Loewe, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Brahms among others—but Mahler practically specialized in them. To ask the question another way, why did so many composers of lieder, beginning with Franz Schubert or even his “Berlin School” predecessors, so avidly set Goethe’s or Herder’s artistic imitations of folk balladry and lyricism to music, but not “the real thing”? The answer seems to be that only the heightened sense of distance from the land and from its denizens brought on by the advent of modernism created the demand for an “authenticity” that only the folk original could supply; only modernity’s quickened sense of loss (of innocence, of goodness, of well-being and peace) demanded the undiluted restorative powers of actual, rather than artistically adapted, folklore. That demand, sometimes called neoprimitivism, was another aspect of modernity that maximalized the romantic heritage.

Mahler’s Second Symphony makes two references to the Wunderhorn collection. The third movement, the first of Mahler’s famously grotesque scherzos, while an instrumental movement, is based throughout on the song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (“St. Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes”), composed in 1893—or rather, on the song’s madcap accompaniment (with only scattered references to the sung tune). And between the scherzo and the grandiose choral finale, Mahler interpolated in its entirety an orchestral song from the Wunderhorn set entitled Urlicht (“Primordial light”), a setting for alto solo that expresses a child’s faith in salvation—the first of the promised “answers” to the oppressively urgent philosophical questions propounded by the Todtenfeier.

To anticipate a remark made by Claude Debussy, a French contemporary of Mahler’s whom we will meet in the next chapter, about a work by Igor Stravinsky, a Russian neoprimitivist of the next generation, Mahler’s Urlicht is “primitive music with all modern conveniences.”15 The harmony and orchestration that clothe its studied melodic simplicity are of an extreme sophistication, as are the subtly calculated metrical dislocations that lend an air of “spontaneity” to the performance. A piece like this one communicates a deeply ironic double message, proclaiming at once the urgent need for a return to simple values and the utter impossibility, at this late date, of ever achieving simplicity. The theatrical reconstruction of paradise lost contradicts the faith in progress that had led musical style to such a level of technical complexity. The naive sentiments wishfully manifested in the choice of text are contradicted by the shameless self-consciousness manifested by the choice. Nostalgia is perhaps the most modern and complicated—or in one word, the most modernist—of all emotions.

The symphony’s finale is an all-stops-out attempt to surpass the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth in every dimension: in length, in sonorous magnitude, and especially in philosophical depth. After a wild orchestral fantasy standing in lieu of Beethoven’s Schreckensfanfare, a solo trombone sings a recitative (Ex. 1-5a), like the cellos and basses in the Ninth, that will later be repeated by a singer, with a text. It begins, fittingly enough, with a pair of bare Seufzern or sigh-figures.

Folklore for City Folk

ex. 1-5a Gustav Mahler, Symphony no. 2, V, trombone solo at fig. 21

Folklore for City Folk

ex. 1-5b Gustav Mahler, Symphony no. 2, V, alto solo at fig. 39

After the chorus sings the geistliche Lied or sacred hymn—Aufersteh’n, “Resurrection”—by the religious poet Friedrich Klopstock (1724–1803), from which the symphony draws its occasional subtitle, the alto soloist returns to re-sing the trombone’s recitative to words of Mahler’s own (Ex. 1-5b), which begin with an exhortation: “O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube!” (Believe it, my heart, believe it!). The admonition to believe puts Mahler’s own verses at a great distance from Beethoven or Klopstock, to say nothing of the anonymous poets in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, who needed no such instruction.

But then they had never been faced with a set of questions like those propounded by the Todtenfeier. By the age of early modernism, mankind’s lot was doubt. The symphony’s apocalyptic conclusion, in which Mahler’s verses pass in a steady crescendo from the alto to the soprano, thence to the chorus, and finally to a colossal orchestral tutti augmented by the organ, can be experienced either as an ecstatic renewal of faith in spite of everything or as a desperate effort to drown out doubt. But there can be no innocence. Nothing—least of all style or rhetoric—will ever again be taken for granted. Tradition is aging. It will not age gracefully. Rather, it will become preoccupied with what the great early-modernist novelist Marcel Proust (1871–1922), in the all-encompassing title of a long series of novels, called “la recherche du temps perdu.” Literally the phrase means “the quest for lost time.” What it really amounts to is the doomed attempt to reexperience youth. As well as any single phrase could hope to do, it encapsulates the whole history of music in the twentieth century.


(15) Debussy to André Caplet, 29 May 1913; Debussy, Letters, eds. François Lesure and Roger Nichols (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 270.

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 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001009.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 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001009.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 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001009.xml