My Prejudice Against Mahler

I find myself consistently unable to like Mahler’s music. It’s not that I dislike it — I just feel ambivalent, and ever so slightly suspicious. I certainly want to like it, and I believe those who speak so highly of his music. I’m not yet ready to join the small but noisy Mahler backlash, those fed up with how frequently his symphonies are performed.

My feelings about Mahler are not particularly reasoned. It is a musical prejudice of sorts (and not my only one). Most listeners have such prejudices, and I’ve encountered many far more severe than my own. People who only really like Baroque music. People who listen to no music before Mozart (with the exception of Bach). People who have almost totally avoided 20th and 21st century music. People who much prefer symphonies. People who much prefer chamber music. People who can’t stand certain instruments.

One of my musical prejudices is for moderation and brevity. I prefer smaller and shorter music. Musical forms seem to metastasise: orchestras get bigger, symphonies get longer, scores become more prescriptive, techniques become more challenging, the music becomes more complex. It’s quite possible I’ve gained this prejudice as a guitarist. The instrument is a quiet one which, though quite capable of polyphony, is far more limited than the piano. We can pluck four notes simultaneously and strum six. The pianist can play ten simultaneously, and with greater range and far greater liberty. With the exception of the organ, I can think of no instrument more powerful than the piano. It provides the player with more possibilities than any other instrument. For many this is wondrous. For me it’s frightening. I see music as more the product of limitations than possibilities.

All that said, this prejudice does not stop me liking many things that are big and splendid. I adore the symphonies of Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Ives, Vaughan Williams, Pettersson, Tchaikovsky, Aho and many others (as well as the smaller Classical symphonies of course). I like Shostakovich’s symphonies, but tellingly I prefer his string quartets. Beethoven’s symphonies are perhaps bombastic but he achieves this great effect with the most meagre musical material — triads, the simplest of motifs. I also enjoy going to the opera. But operas are made up of a lot of short, often small things with some show-stoppers thrown in. The overture is a short symphony, the arias are seldom too long (do any exceed ten minutes?). I’m tempted to say that my favourite opera is Dido and Aeneas, intimate and a mere hour long, though it could easily be exchanged for, say, Don Giovanni or Madama Butterfly.

Confucius’s favourite follower, the one he thought the most virtuous, was the one who almost never spoke. Indeed I loathe ostentatiousness (though can be guilty of it myself) and the quality I most admire in others is humility and quiet. So it is with music too. Music that goes on and on, the type that seek to excavate every musical inch, bores me greatly. Mahler’s symphonies are that kind of music. Moreover, they are manipulative, pushing me explicitly in a particular emotional direction, teasing me, holding me in suspense for an inordinate amount of time, presenting like a peacock, boastful and grand. They can be annoyingly predictable — that inevitable, elongated swell leading to a loud drum hit and cymbal crash, rather like being hit over the head in slow motion. I prefer music that gets to the point rather than labouring unnecessarily and, perhaps, artificially.

I went to a Mahler concert this week, his Symphony No. 1 ‘Titan’. It ended splendidly, I’ll admit, and prompted rapturous applause within a semiquaver of the last note. Indeed I enjoyed the concert as I do any. The concert hall — even those as flawed as the Barican and Southbank Centre — is a magical place, especially if, like me, you go somewhat infrequently and have to journey a fair way to get there. Almost never has that spell been broken for me, so even when unsure of the music I am still transfixed by it. The Mahler also benefited from its pairing with Berntein’s Symphony No. 1. It was a theatrical symphony, brash, big, shimmering and forgettable. Bernstein was a remarkable educator and conductor but, it would seem, a negligible composer. The Mahler, coming in the second half, was a sort of relief, but far overstayed its welcome. I almost find the Mahler symphonies rude in a way.

I want to end this post with something quite different: a small and delightful rondeau by Machaut, ‘Ce qui soustient moy’. The musicologist and blogger Elizabeth Eva Leach has an excellent post analysing another Machaut rondeau, in which she begins by saying:

Most of the two-part Machaut pieces are rather neglected: you can’t make a dance out of them like you can with the monophonic virelais, and by the time you’ve assembled singers to perform Machaut, you might as well do the pieces closer to a modern four-part texture. As two-part songs are neglected by performers, they’re also neglected by musicologists, who tend to prefer the three- and four-part pieces as if these show evidence of greater artistry in some teleological narrative of contrapuntal progress. *sigh* Ok, off the early music soap box now and down to business!

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Hierarchy of Music

If someone builds an exquisite birdhouse I will marvel at it, be fascinated by the craft, take pleasure in its design, enjoy its function and so on. But what is it compared to, say, Westminster Abbey or the Royal Albert Hall, places so awesome and imposing, so sublime and transfixing? This isn’t merely about scale. One sees the attractive birdhouse and knows it exemplifies human resourcefulness and skill; but the greatest architectural achievements are so incredible as to seem to defy natural human ability. They are so ingenious that their complexity is overwhelming. One can find the same complexity — not technical complexity necessarily, but artistic complexity, imagination as much as skill — in physically smaller things. Great paintings, for instance. And just as often the same thing is evident but without the same physical presence. Books, poetry and music fall under this category.

None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with the birdhouse, that one can’t or shouldn’t find pleasure in it. One thing being superior to the other does not imply that the other is bad. A lazily-crafted birdhouse would be bad, but a well-crafted one clearly isn’t.

This shouldn’t be controversial but in our strange times there are few taboos greater than discrimination. My concern is primarily with how this affects music. Googling around, one easily comes across attacks on the idea of a hierarchy of music (and few defences). In 2012 The Guardian posted a conversation between rock ‘n’ roller Laura Barton and (now former) BBC Proms director Roger Wright. An excerpt:

Barton: … the problem I have with classical music is the lack of democracy – not just to do with how much it costs to go to the opera. I remember reading something – do you know Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes? – about how many working-class people loved to go to classical music concerts, and then it stopped. That was probably around the same time rock’n’roll was born. Now there is a weird aristocracy of music, where people automatically assume classical music is superior to rock’n’roll. My problem is with the way it is represented and regarded.

Wright: Classical music, itself, I don’t see it as a hierarchy. I recognise that there is great classical music, but there is frankly also second-rate classical music. There is great hip-hop, but clearly there is also second- and third-rate hip-hop. I also think that opera gets a bit of a bad press.

You’ll notice Wright contradicts himself. First he denies a hierarchy, then he categorises music into first, second and third rate. If music within genres can be organised into hierarchies, why can’t we establish hierarchies between genres? It’s totally illogical, an exemplary bit of doublethink.

Barton later says:

For me, it is the number of people I have met, predominantly people who are older than me, maybe from a different background, who have dismissed the fact that I love the music that I love, and think I should get into this. That’s what I mean about a hierarchy: “This is nice but this is sort of adolescent, and eventually you’ll graduate to liking this.” That’s what I resent, or feel uncomfortable with. A kind of loftiness.

I struggle to see what’s wrong with this, unless individuals were indeed rude and condescending towards her. But you’ll find a more pernicious kind of inequality, one of genuine widespread condescension, in the absence of sound hierarchies. I don’t want people to pat me on the head and make me feel comfortable in my ignorance. The person who respects me is the one who says I should explore such-and-such because it is better, and who helps me understand how to do that. The cruel person is the one who disingenuously says that I don’t need to explore these better things because everything is equal — you don’t need to taste this slice of roast venison because you have a bit of stale bread, and food is food, after all.

In the last post I listed some of the deficiencies of popular music, which I will repeat here with some additions. By ‘popular music’ I refer to the essentially twentieth century development — an unfortunate one — in which music was bisected into classical and popular. The popular side covers everything from Tin Pan Alley to Grindcore. I must add that some pop music is quite good, and will include an example later in the post. But most of it sadly isn’t, especially in recent times, for these reasons among others:

  • an emphasis on extra-musical features (theatre, image etc.)
  • an interest in sound as much as music (the ‘sound’ that characterises not only the genre but each band, and the use of non-musical — some might say anti-musical — sound effects, e.g. distortion, autotune)
  • a very limited understanding of harmony
  • no understanding of voice leading
  • repetition of simple riffs
  • escalating volume and thus a very limited dynamic range
  • unsophisticated notation systems, if any
  • insipid melodies (which goes hand-in-hand with a limited understanding of harmony)

This is a recipe for truly awful music. Browsing on YouTube, one of the trending music videos is Taylor Swift’s …Ready for it? Now, the invention of the ‘music video’ is itself one of popular music’s great horrors. How vain is a music that places such an emphasis on image — and thereby fuelling one of the most depressing features of modern life, the desire to be famous. So many of the great classical composers never received due wealth and fame, nor is that particularly why they pursued music. And not even the most respected composers received the kind of material success pop stars do now. (If you want to discuss unfair hierarchies, let’s talk about a society that distributes so much wealth and power to these pompous, talentless minstrels.)

The Taylor Swift song has almost no melody (much of the song consists solely of one note), which not too long ago would have disqualified it from even being a song. Most of the piece only uses one chord and relies on an inflexible rhythm and superfluous sound effects to move things forward. The only hint of musicality is the generic chord sequence and plain melody in the chorus.

Now compare that to Billie Holiday’s Gloomy Sunday. The Taylor Swift is a piece of unpleasant ephemera, like much pop music, but Gloomy Sunday will likely stay with you. Musically it’s not that interesting, but it has the fundamentals — a good memorable melody, harmonic tension, and of course it is performed very well.

However, it’s obviously not on the same level as something like this: Monteverdi’s madrigal Tempro la cetra. Gloomy Sunday is the birdhouse and Tempro la cetra is the Royal Albert Hall.

Mendelssohn: On the Wrong Side of History

In the history of the spirit all that is decisive is newness, originality; everything else is of subordinate importance … Those composers who unconditionally ally themselves with the old masters do not work for progress, for a further development of the art.

–Franz Brendel’s 1852 book Geschichte der Musik in Italien, Deutschland und Frankreich

Franz Brendel was a prominent German music critic and and an early proponent of what we now might call musical historicism, or a Whig history of music. He advocated for an idea of musical progress, that universal truths could be inferred from history and that these would determine the future of music. As a consequence, he had some quite mad ideas, such as insisting that music before the Palestrina was ‘prehistory’, for it didn’t express the ideas and feelings of individuals. Theories like this make it easy for ideologues to place people and ideas on the wrong the side of history, and among the many victims was Felix Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn died at a rather bad time. 1847 was one year before revolution would sweep across Europe, and so Mendelssohn, who saw himself as an inheritor and custodian of the past, would have his posthumous legacy formed in a post-revolutionary context. Moreover, Mendelssohn was an ethnic jew. And with German nationalism on the rise, this made his legacy vulnerable, despite the fact Mendelssohn seemed to be something of a German nationalist himself. And despite the fact that his family had since abandoned religious judaism, and that he, the reviver of Bach’s Matthew Passion, was a devout Lutheran. (‘Every kind of music ought, in its peculiar way, to tend to the glory of God,’ he said.) Wagner singled him out in his infamous Das Judenthum in der Musik (‘Jewishness in Music’), which was in fact first published by Brendel in 1850, though with Wagner hiding behind a pseudonym. Wagner wrote that

[Mendelssohn] has shown us that a jew can possess the richest measure of specific talents the most refined and varied culture, the loftiest, most tender sense of honor, without even once through all these advantages being able to bring forth in us that profound, heart-and-soul searching effect we expect from music…

This critique of Mendelssohn as sentimental, unoriginal and superficial would live on, albeit without the rancid antisemitism. One such way was in the backlash against perceived Victorian values — shallowness, prudishness etc. — with which Mendelssohn, who had an exceptionally close relationship with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, could easily be associated.

So, how large an impact did antisemitism have on Mendelssohn’s legacy? Certainly the worse it ever got was under Nazi Germany, where they literally wrote him out of history and removed his statue from its honoured place outside St. Thomas Church, Leipzig (more famously, the church where Bach was director). Yet again, Mendelssohn didn’t fit the right narrative. But the regime apparently struggled to eliminate his music from public life completely, with his A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and incidental music still proving too popular to get rid of.

However, I think by far the more significant reason for Mendelssohn’s problems was that he didn’t fit the new obsession with originality. (This subject, I must admit, is also a small obsession of mine.) Berlioz, who was incredibly admiring, professionally and personally, of Mendelssohn — ‘enormously, extraordinary, superbly, prodigiously talented’  — nevertheless remarked disapprovingly that ‘he is still rather too keen on composers who are dead’. According to Berlioz, Mendelssohn even found Berlioz’s music incomprehensible. And while Mendelssohn did, in his work as conductor, help promote new music, in many people’s eyes he did not do enough. He was a much better promoter of the music of the past, and was instrumental in forming the canon.

His own music showed him to be a master of his craft, as did his much-praised piano skill and his pioneering conducting (conducting was a relatively new thing in the early nineteenth century). Indeed, he excelled at many other things too, from chess to gymnastics to theology to painting. And while he had his own personal troubles, he seemed generally less mopey than many, which may have been helped by the fact he and his family were pretty well off. He was exceedingly competent, therefore, but without any of the mythical traits of a genius composer. The musicologist Alfred Einstein complained about this exact point: ‘he had no inner forces to curb, for real conflict was lacking in his life as in his art’. Certainly, Mendelssohn didn’t feel compelled to be innovative and to seek musical conflict. Responding to a friend who was disheartened by that fact that he couldn’t compose anything original, Mendelssohn said

But your reason for not wanting to write any more, because you do not hope to break any new ground, is — if you will pardon me — not reasonable. What does this phrase mean, actually? To clear a path that no one has walked before you? But first this new path would have to lead to much more beautiful, more charming territory. For just clearing a new path can be done by anyone who knows how to wield and shovel and move his legs. In every nobler sense, however, I deny forthwith that there are new paths to be cleared, for there are no more new artistic territories. All of them have long since been discovered. New ground! Vexatious demon for every artist who submits to it! Never, in fact, did an artist break new ground. In the best case he did things imperceptibly better than his immediate predecessors. Who should break the new ground? Surely no one but the most sublime geniuses? Well, did Beethoven open up new ground completely different from Mozart? Do Beethoven’s symphonies proceed down completely new paths? No, I say. Between the first symphony of Beethoven and the last of Mozart I find no extraordinary [leap in] artistic value, and no more than ordinary effect. The one pleases me and the other pleases me.

Forgive the length, but I hope you agree it’s a marvellous little rant. And it highlights so clearly why Brendel et al. found the Mendelssohnian view of music anathema.

When Mendelssohn died in 1847, the English journal The Musical World described it as ‘the eclipse of music’. He was extraordinary well-received while alive, especially in England. Yet his death was really his own eclipse. It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that his reputation began to climb back to where it was when he was alive.

Now, I don’t if he’s one of the Great Composers. I must confess, I’ve probably spent more time doing somewhat cursory research on him than actually listening to his music. So I defer judgement on whether he was great, or, to borrow from H.L. Mencken, whether he missed greatness ‘by a hair’. But of the three symphonies I’ve heard, I keep coming back to his Symphony No.4, the ‘Italian Symphony’. A perplexing thing about the Mendelssohn symphonies is that all but one of them are wrongly numbered. The 5th is actually the 2nd, the 2nd is actually the 4th, the 4th is actually the third, and the 3rd is actually the 5th. At least I think I got that right! Anyway, the Italian Symphony, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra themselves performing it:

Vivaldi vs Status Quo

It’s often said about Vivaldi that he wrote the same concerto some five hundred times. Well, I remember from my rock days that something strikingly similar was said about Status Quo, that they essentially rewrote the same song ad nauseam. The thing is, Vivaldi somehow remains enjoyable for most of those concertos. The vivacity and energy and harmonic movement of a Vivaldi concerto is so infectious. Status quo’s music plods along with the same three chords, and always with the same rhythmic pattern, the blues shuffle: dum da dum da, dum da dum da. Status Quo do the bare minimum needed to be interesting. Three chords are the fewest needed to create harmonic tension, and the standard blues pattern is all you need to keep a dance rhythm. Vivaldi expanded the possibilities of the concerto, whether it be his excited and quick-changing harmonic rhythms, his melodic inventions (for example his use of compound intervals), his unexpected modulations, or the inclusion of programmatic elements — not to mention the wonderful dynamism present in much of his work. It’s no wonder Bach, for one, took great interest in his works.

Is it an unfair comparison? Nah. It’s just that so few people seem willing to discuss the qualitative differences between musics. People can be so damned egalitarian about it. (See Alex Ross, perhaps.)

Here’s Status Quo playing Caroline:

And Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto: