Mahler's Popularity? He's the Antidote for Medieval (and Modern) Anonymity: the Sixth at Symphony Center

Originally, my plan was to review the October 19, 2007 performance by Haitink and the Chicagos of the Mahler Sixth Symphony for these pages.  But I decided (to borrow a phrase from one of the psychopathic hillbillies in Deliverance), “That river don’t go to Aintree.” My reviews of particular performances tend to end up like this:

Of course it was great. It was Mahler’s Sixth. It was Haitink and Chicago. 

Others are welcome to recount how Haitink’s expansively paced tempi allowed for stentorian (yet plush) sounds from the brass, and other ephemera that you really had to be there to appreciate.

So, let’s talk about something else. How about, “What does Mahler mean for the intellectual and emotional life of a human being in 2007?”

Mahler said, “My time will come.” If he meant that lots of smart people who love music will come to venerate him, he was right on the money.  If he meant that his music was ahead of its time or a vision of the future, he was mistaken.  We have yet to realize Mahler’s vision of the future: the “Long 19th Century” may have ended with the First World War, but the twentieth century is still, sadly, with us.  America is still in “Viet Nam”, the Russians (Soviets) still have a “Czar”, genocide still reigns in too many places, Nuclear weapons are still all the rage, etc.

In a sense, the Twentieth Century is a Medieval epoch. In Medieval times people were largely anonymous, like the characters in Die Frau ohne Schatten: the dyer, the dyer’s wife, the lame brother, the one-eyed brother, etc. All but the wealthy and powerful were so much at the mercy of nature that they, rightly, feared such things as being eaten by wolves.

The twentieth century has alarming similarities. People have names, but technology has made them anonymous (when it isn’t taking away their privacy). Even our “celebrities” have achieved a strange kind of anonymity due to their ubiquity. They’ve become an undifferentiated set of cute nicknames, completely interchangeable. (Was it Britney or Lindsay that got arrested last week?) Some don’t even merit a cute nickname of their own, but must share with a (statistically temporary) partner, a la TomKat, Brangelina, or Bennifer (one Ben, two successive Jennifers). They might as well be The Anorexic Supermodel, The Globe-trotting Humanitarian Actress, or The Former Bodyguard Baby-Daddy. Anonymous, anonymous, anonymous.

Fear of wolves has been replaced by fear of dirty bombs and climate change, but we’re still at the mercy of nature (science), because most people don’t understand it, and too many of those that do only want to deny it, abuse it or exploit it.  And have you compared the virulent strains of faith propounded both by some American politicos and their unspeakable “fundamentalist” adversaries with their Dark Age counterparts lately? This is a Medieval epoch.  There are Torquemadas, Savonarolas, and Sultans all over the place.   

Well, by obsessing about himself, about Gustav Mahler, personally — and for 80 glorious minutes at a time as Haitink was in no hurry — Mahler gives us, by proxy, some of our dignity back.  And he gives us the Nineteenth Century back, all over again. Hammer blows of fate doom the victim! The universe cares about us, even if its attitude is malevolent! And the unutterable hearbreak of Alpine beauty in the third movement! Nature is there to awe and move us, and furthermore, to co-operate with our emotional states. Our feelings matter! The third movement is so fabulously, extravagantly, jaw-droppingly beautiful that it verges on the unlistenable. 

Arnold Schoenberg was right, as usual, when he flatly stated “Gustav Mahler was a saint.” But let’s not kid ourselves, he is our past, not our present.  We can only hope that his vision will become our future.