[A version of the essay below was used as a program note to a concert given by the DePaul Chamber Orchestra on April 28, 2015; it included Mozart's 3 Marches, K. 408 and selections from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn.]
Though this is hard to generalize about, chief among the important characteristics of musical modernism, whatever that means, is a certain sense of self-consciousness. Experiences are not un-thought; things are rarely what they seem, are hardly straightforward, and are never, ever innocent. This things-aren’t-what-they-seem-ness is an omnipresent aspect of Mahler’s music. A detail from the composer’s earliest memories, apparently recounted to Sigmund Freud (omg, can you imagine what that meeting must have been like!?) always seems significant to me:
[Mahler’s] father, apparently a brutal person, treated his wife very badly, and when Mahler was a young boy there was a specially painful scene between them. It became quite unbearable to the boy, who rushed away from the house. At that moment, however, a hurdy-gurdy in the street was grinding out the popular Viennese air “O, du lieber Augustin.” In Mahler’s opinion the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind, and the one mood inevitably brought the other with it.
Indeed, whether Mahler’s self-analysis is correct or not, certain topoi appear over and over in his works: popular music, klezmer styles, military fragments, and funeral marches. Popular is mixed with serious, banal juxtaposed with psychologically complex. It is music that thematizes the alienated subject’s interactions with and reactions to a world that cannot quite be made sense of. To be more obvious: there is a reason that his music has continued to speak to us, in 2015, a hundred years after his death.
Such is the milieu of Mahler’s vocal music as a whole, no less his settings of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”), a collection of poems published much earlier than Mahler's setting of them -- in the early nineteenth century -- by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. When they were published, the poems themselves were already ideological. Masquerading as folk lyrics, “old German songs” as the subtitle says, consistent trends emerge: military life, the innocence of children, love and desire, aimless wandering. They were designed this way, of course: Arnim and Brentano were both involved in the early days of the romantic response to the Enlightenment, certainly a strain of which was an uncomfortably reactionary nationalism that festishized a non-existent, mythical past. They were criticized even in their own day (indeed, by thinkers who may have been otherwise philosophically in line with them) for a certain myth-making, freely editing and altering old manuscripts, minstrels’ ballads, religious hymns, soldiers’ marches, tunes they heard on their Rhine journeys. The attempts to create a world, rather than record one, are not concealed. Whatever its ideological purposes, though, what Mahler seems to have related to in the poems is their rawness and unvarnished depictions. They do not shy away from humor, cruelty, euphoria, grim realities of day-to-day life, even if the realities themselves are fictionalized. Indeed, in Mahler’s settings, the life of a soldier is hardly glorious. The march topics are never presented without ambivalence of some sort, an irony that can be situational or dramatic, but that nevertheless renders the settings not unequivocal.
For this reason, it seems prudent to examine three much earlier pieces by Mozart in that genre. The march rigidly orders both musical material and movements of the body in space and time. Its very purpose is to enforce a discipline of motion. The movements of people doing the marching are radically circumscribed, and the music that goes along with it is equally formulaic and conventionalized. It is music that attempts to impose its structure on the world, and that it would be one of the primary topics of classical era music is no surprise. Despite the Enlightenment’s attempts to grasp human freedom, its implicit claims that the universe can be understood via rationality is (let us at least entertain the argument) no less hegemonic than the hierarchical social order it attempted to replace. Mozart’s three Marches, K. 408, are typical of music of the period written in that genre. All composed in 1782, just after Mozart had moved to Vienna, they are music for social occasions, indeed, just the sort of things that affirm civilization’s structures. The first and third, both in C major, were likely written for Mozart’s first concerts in Vienna. They are optimistic, confident in the way things are. Bright C major triads make up both the melodies (horizontally) and the harmonies (vertically). Both are in a simple ternary form, straightforwardly A-B-A. The D major march, the second, was written for a different occasion -- for the same concert as the premiere of Mozart’s 35th symphony, dedicated to the Haffners, family friends and patrons in Salzburg. (Salzburg -- literally “salt fortress” -- what name could be more bourgeois? Is not salt the very emblem of what one might spend surplus capital on?)
Where Mozart’s march settings are unequivocal and engage the culture of his day, Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs, from 100 years later, that use similarly military topics, are deeply, sometimes bitterly ironic, and usually in multiple senses. They reveal a resistance in the subject to the impositions of a rationalizing society, and they present an overall ambivalent interpretation of culture.
In Revelge (Reveille) the march topic is sounded relentlessly, insistently, unceasingly by the three trumpets while the soloist sings of soldiers doing their duty; but they seem to do it thoughtlessly and uncomprehendingly, no matter the cost to them. Insidiously, music itself is enlisted to keep the soldiers fighting, the beating of the drum and the mindless refrain “trallali, trallaley, trallala” serving to keep them motivated, or at least in action; the drummer boy even leads the successful charge. By the end of the song, even the skeletons of the defeated enemy (represented clearly in the orchestra) stand to attention.
The “Lost Labor” of Verlorne Müh refers to a maiden’s unsuccessful attempts to get a young man to be her lover. The orchestra’s evasive tempos and slithering passage-work seem to contain as much innuendo as the words the female protagonist sings.
Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The Sentinel’s Nightsong) is the other side of this. The unhappy sentinel sings about his duty to keep watch (the orchestra parts bearing clear resemblances both to Revelge and the Lied des Verfolgten im Turm), but the music melts all too easily into that of his sweetheart beguiling him with promises of their meeting in the rose garden. As the sentinel grows agitated, ordering a phantom threat to halt, the listener realizes that we’ve heard not his sweetheart herself, but only his desperate imagination of her.
The sermon to the fishes delivered by St. Anthony in Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt is the result of no one showing up in the church. St. Anthony, in an act of supremely self-deceptive anthropomorphizing, imagines how much the fish love his preaching, their physical characteristics all indicating their rapt attention. Just as the people, though, the fish all go back to their sinful way after the sermon is over -- making us wonder if he actually did ever leave the church, or, perhaps, if all of God’s creatures great and small simply behave the same. What’s the point of all this utterance anyway?
“Thoughts are free” declares the narrative subject at the beginning of the Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (Song of the Prisoner in the Tower); even from the outset it is unclear whether this is ironic or not. On the one hand, the 12/8 time signature allows for slippery, hard-to-pin down music to constantly attempt an escape. On the other, the march topics seems to rigidly enclose his physical and musical world. His sweetheart sings of summertime and freedom in nature -- is his renunciation of love at the end delusional? Self-serving?
The narrative subject is the other half of the pair in in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the fair trumpet sounds). To sleepy, laconic music -- reminiscent of far-off military fanfares -- the maiden is awakened by knocking at her door. Her lover wants to be let in to say goodbye. He’s off to war, where the fair trumpet sounds; only on his last line, “there is my house of green grass” do we realize that, having been killed in battle, he is now exists only in her thoughts.
To a slow death march Der Tamboursg’sell (the drummer boy) is being led to the gallows. We don’t find out why. Desertion? Cowardice? Has he been captured? Nevertheless, the march rhythm and death both make his path inevitable.
Though the Urlicht (usually translated, utterly unsatisfactorily, as “Primal Light”) may come across as ostensibly a child’s song, there is something too persistent and determined for it to be innocent. While mankind lies in great pain, the narrative subject would rather be in heaven (indicated by the octave leap in the voice part). Even when an angel threatens to turn her away, she insists “[she] would not be dismissed.” The work of Romanticism, the building of the self to transcend the world, the effort of art-making, is Mahler’s salvation. “What you have suffered will lead you to God,” as he would say in another context... well, at least at this stage in his career.