Notes 60.1 (2003) 171-173
[Access article in PDF]
Mahler and His World. Edited by Karen Painter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002. [xiii, 393 p. ISBN 0-691-09243-5. $55.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.
Mahler and His World, edited by Karen Painter, constitutes the latest installment of single-volume composer studies published by Princeton University Press in conjunction with the Bard Music Festival. A successful endeavor, this series has sought to place the composers' lives and works under a broader light of social, cultural, political, and other interconnections—and the current volume is no exception. Only the first two parts of the book's four parts include original contributions, while parts three and four form an anthology of source readings and reviews, some presented in English translations for the first time.
The five essays that open the book, subtitled "Contexts and Ideologies," establish an uneven but nevertheless uniform effort to interpret Mahler and his legacy within a critical, sociological, religious, and political context. Leon Botstein's "Whose Gustav Mahler? Reception, Interpretation, and History" provides a critical reappraisal of the composer's reception, from the polemics of fin-de-siècle Vienna to the late twentieth century's fascination with his music that led to his canonization as a composer and often to a virtual sanctification of the man and the artist. Botstein, however, is no hagiographer. From Robert Hirschfeld's visceral attacks and the Nazi-era condemnation, to Leonard Bernstein's championship and Theodor Adorno's brilliant endorsement, Botstein methodically and insightfully traces the changing image of Mahler in the twentieth century. In what resembles an afterthought, Botstein borrows Adorno's well-known literary metaphor, and attempts to "read" Mahler's symphonies as novels placed against Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest, and Henry James's The Ambassadors. Although not a new concept —one cannot forget Robert Schumann's similar reaction to Schubert's "Great" C- Major Symphony, whose "heavenly length" he compared to "a novel in four volumes by Jean Paul" (Robert Schumann, "Die 7. Symphonie von Franz Schubert," Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 12, no. 21 : 82)—actual parallelisms between musical and literary works of art might need more space to be explored effectively. In a way, and maybe unconsciously, Botstein adds his own voice to a long series of critics who expressed their ambivalence toward Mahler. Eventually, the question of the essay's title turns into "Why Mahler?" and Botstein perceptively surmises in passing that Mahler seems to belong more to any other era than his own because through his music, he "[revealed] the extent to which the world was broken" (p. 26)—and it remains broken ever since.
In "Mahler's Jewish Parable," Talia Pecker Berio judiciously ventures to dispense with common aesthetic evaluations of Jewishness in music. She eloquently discredits such labels as ethically, culturally, and musically wrong, although she too sets out to identify Jewish elements—now under the label "Jewish matrix"—not just in music, but also in thought. One hopes that Berio's conclusion, that Mahler's Jewishness "makes itself sensed without producing a sound" (p. 107), will help to bring closure to the subject. Less convincingly, on the other hand, Peter Franklin's essay [End Page 171] proposes a discussion of gender issues in Mahler's works. In "A Soldier's Sweetheart's Mother's Tale? Mahler's Gendered Musical Discourse," Franklin achieves more by implication than by comprehensive evaluation. His undoubtedly appealing argument, whereby "gendered voices" may be traced in Mahler's works, is weakened by diffuse analyses and dense rhetoric.
Charles S. Maier's "Mahler's Theater: ThePerformativeand thePolitical inCentral Europe, 1890-1910" perceptively addresses issues of theatricality that penetrated both the political and artistic world of Europe. Writing from a broad, interdisciplinary perspective, Maier regards the Viennese as a highly "performative culture," where work and performer assumed equal dramaturgical significance with overt socio-political implications; by analogy, under both guises as creator/composer and performer/conductor, Mahler partook of the progressive side of modernity. A model of clarity, Maier's study offers a penetrating view of the contradictions of...