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  • The Musical Fin-de-siècle and the Uses of Disenchantment
  • Michael P Steinberg (bio)


The young Gustav Mahler proved to be a champion of the old Giuseppe Verdi. In January 1894 he introduced Verdi’s last opera Falstaff to Hamburg, less than a year after its La Scala premiere. A decade later, in May 1904, he conducted it in Vienna. The latter performance prompted the following notice in the London Musical Times: “For a work so full of delicate and at times ironic details, no abler conductor could be found than Mahler; it is indeed impossible to imagine anything nearer perfection than this Falstaff performance” (1904).

Mahler’s affinity for the late Verdi has been emphasized often, mostly perhaps by conductors, and not absolutely always by Italian ones. Leonard Bernstein, for example, chose Falstaff and Das Lied von der Erde for his celebrity Vienna debut of 1966, producing landmark recordings of both in addition to the run of performances. Most perceptively, Riccardo Chailly has called Mahler “a great Verdi conductor.” “Aida, Otello, and Falstaff,” he added, “were among his favorite operas. When Mahler orchestrated the Fourth Symphony he was conducting Falstaff—there are many ideas for coloring that are common between the two things.”1

Chailly’s remark helps reconcile not only the Italian and the German, the operatic and the symphonic, but also the conductor and the composer. In 1894 Mahler was more experienced and vastly more appreciated as a conductor than he was as a composer. It was for Mahler the composer that the moment of the Hamburg Falstaff proved most transitional. It came perhaps at the point of his most fundamental stylistic [End Page 651] and poetic turn. In January 1894 he was completing work on the Second Symphony, begun in 1888, and beginning work on the Third, composed between late 1893 and 1896.

The Second—so-called “Resurrection”—Symphony pleads for redemption from youthful abjection, for inclusion in a universe of dignity and grace. Its struggle for expression finds satisfaction neither in its massive orchestral machinery nor in its vertiginous sways between shuddering whispers on the one hand and climaxes asserted through sonic shock on the other. It resolves itself, rather, through text: specifically through the touching but banal assertion that “you were not born in vain, have not lived in vain/Du warst nicht umsonst geboren, hast nicht umsonst gelebt.” At the most basic level, the introduction of text into the symphonic texture represents, of course, the challenge that Beethoven had issued to the future of the symphony with his Symphony No. 9 in 1824. The result was Richard Wagner’s revolution in genre known as music drama. Mahler’s musical biography can be understood in terms of the tension between his status, on the one side, as the greatest opera conductor perhaps of all time and the most significant modernist heir of the symphonic tradition on the other. Though he may have flirted with the non-genre that we might call the operatic symphony, he refused opera almost entirely (a youthful completion of Carl Maria von Weber’s Drei Pintos in 1887 stands as the exception) and then repeatedly disavowed those operatic gestures he inserted into his own symphonic works. Celebrated as a conductor, his recognition as a composer was delayed. Despite the efforts of conductors such as Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, and especially Willem Mengelberg (who mounted the first Mahler Festival in Amsterdam in 1920), the Mahler groove, ever more vibrant today, was only etched in the wake of his 1960 centennial, with Leonard Bernstein as its lead proponent. The Mahler cult was born in New York, and Bernstein brought Mahler the composer to Vienna.

Of the symphony as a genre Mahler said what many have said about the modern novel: that it should contain the whole world. Among his works the most personal and most complete microcosm remains the Third Symphony. Here, he sets up and powerfully disavows both the use of text and the claim of the operatic. The minimalist musical core of the massive work is fundamentally [End Page 652] tied to text: to the Midnight Song from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra: O Mensch! Gib Acht! Was...


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