7. Mahler as Imagist
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7. Mahler as Imagist Mahler’s symphonies, though never truly neglected, didn’t achieve wide popularity until the later decades of the twentieth century. Why they were so late finding broad appeal remains an absorbing question. Was it simply a matter of musical style? No, the wider public’s late embrace isn’t entirely consistent with the cliché of the ahead-of-his-time composer achieving belated recognition. Was it then an issue of cultural context and understanding? Writers do keep returning to the idea that Mahler represents some kind of nascent modernity or prescient postmodernity. In his celebrated essay “Mahler: His Time Has Come” (1967), Leonard Bernstein spoke not of listeners coming around finally to a difficult musical style, but of music-lovers being awakened to Mahlerian affect by the century’s transfigurative horrors.1 In trying to explain the Mahler phenomenon, others have looked not to technologically assisted warfare and genocide but to technological advances in middle-class leisure electronics—to the long-playing record as the first real means of reproducing this composer’s long musical spans, or to high fidelity as a vehicle for his orchestral complexities .2 But this explanation doesn’t satisfy either: to leave Mahler’s belated popularity at the doorstep of hi-fi is to oversimplify technology and people’s ways of uncovering musical meaning. Mahler’s meanings have been largely facilitated by “mechanical” mediation , yes, but to understand this composer’s reception we must bring together all three subjects: compositional awareness, listener understanding, and developments in audio technology. The three can be related through a notion of the imagistic sensibility. I borrow the term imagism from an early twentieth-century school of free verse that Ezra Pound described in terms of “luminous details” and “hard light, clear edges.” Literary historian Theodore Maynard attributed to the imagist poets “a hunger for actuality, 221 for close contact. . . . Their hands must touch the wood of chairs, the skin of flowers—and reproduce in words the sensations of their curious fingers .”3 In attributing a similar sensibility to Mahler, I focus on his quasipictorial immediacy of images, his capitalization on—to borrow another Pound description of imagist poetry—“the intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”4 The present day shares this image-oriented aesthetic with Mahler, but his contemporaries did not. His imagistic style of illustration, different in basic ways from the nineteenth-century modes of extramusicality that we now call program music, could not be widely grasped until later twentieth-century cultures of visuality and mediaassisted convergence of the senses. Mahler’s music is promiscuously involved with images, just as our own time—a time when this composer dominates recording lists and symphony programs as never before—is deeply in thrall to the visual. In the view of iconologist W.J.T. Mitchell, it seems overwhelmingly obvious that the era of video and cybernetic technology, the age of electronic reproduction, has developed new forms of visual simulation and illusionism with unprecedented powers. . . . The fantasy of a pictorial turn, of a culture totally dominated by images , has now become a real technical possibility on a global scale. Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” is now a fact and not an especially comforting one.5 Mitchell describes “postmodernism” as a broad reorientation from the logos to the image, from the syntactic to the iconic. As he presents it, however, this large-scale pictorial turn is attended and complicated by a deep-seated conflict: namely, a gut anxiety over the power of images. This imago-phobia dates as far back as condemnations of Christian idolatry and, we might add, as far forward as absolute-music partisans’ condemnations of programmatic idolatries. Might not these two facts—of Mahler’s importunate relevance and of our current visual urgency—be connected? And though Mahler is commonly called a prophet of postmodernism, might his professed loyalty to musical abstraction—to absolute music—demonstrate the age-old unease over imagery that Mitchell mentions? Literary scholar Christopher Collins speaks of the need for “reading the written image” in certain bodies of literature; in similar fashion, Mahler asks his listeners to “hear the composed image.” Consider a statement Mahler made to Bruno Walter when the latter was admiring the mountains near Mahler’s composing retreat at Steinbach: “No need to look—I have already composed all that away” (Sie brauchen gar nicht mehr hinzusehen— Das habe ich schon alles wegkomponiert).6 What a fascinating notion, one 222 / Mahler as Imagist...


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