Gustav Mahler – Against Nihilism

Listening to Gustav Mahler’s ninth symphony recently, having heard a number of contemporary pieces utilising orchestral ‘sample libraries’, I was struck by just how clear and precise Mahler’s orchestration is, in a way I’d not fully appreciated before. It brought to mind the fact that, with all our technology and means of reproducing sounds in a computer (sampling live orchestras for that purpose), ease of use cannot compensate for lack of skill. Now a young composer can download these sounds and play directly into his computer, recording as he goes the sounds of a vast ensemble, but without, perhaps, mastery of the true art of composition.

The means available to composers now are indeed to be celebrated, for making the process that much more streamlined and accessible to so many, but they cannot replace that mastery that comes only through hard graft and years of experience. Mahler had no ‘playback’ feature when he composed – he never even heard his ninth performed – yet he used each instrument of the orchestra to perfection, if perfection can ever be found in a work of art. Being a conductor, he knew the individual instruments intimately, with all their quirks and particular qualities. This intimacy could only come through hearing live players, and enabled him to write works that require no trickery with equalisers, microphone placements and mixing in order to sound balanced, harmonious and natural.

Many, and even most, composers working digitally would agree that we are nowhere near to capturing the dynamism and freshness of live instruments, but I think few would be able to account for why we consistently strive to do so. Like all advances in technology, convenience is a factor, but a poor end in itself. No one would wish to abolish all live orchestras and performances. Instead, costs are a compelling factor in this age driven by the acquisition of wealth for its own sake. Encouraging real people, real collaborations and groups such as orchestras is far too inefficient from a monetary perspective. Why not have one person alone in a studio writing music and scoring it themselves; better still, couldn’t we program a computer to produce the music by itself?

This seems to be the direction “entertainment” as an industry is headed. Music is required, not for its aesthetic, heuristic or social value, but as a complement to various products – film, television and games. Film composers churn out more and more bland, derivative ‘cues’ that are solely designed to excite tension in the audience – to keep their heart rates up like fairground rides1 – with fast rhythms, dense, heavy textures and noisy, aggressive timbres. Hans Zimmer’s style of repetitive ostinato-driven pieces is still in high demand, because they relentlessly ramp up the pace of a scene to the point of exhaustion, thereby holding the attention of fickle film-goers. The ambition of such scores is to produce a definite effect in the audience, and the cheaper the means by which this can be achieved the better – profit is all.

I want to question the way this industry is headed, not least because in our times such entertainment has replaced art and community engagement in the general population. I think there is still hope left for art (true art – that is creatively engaging with beauty), because as far as we have gone towards unmeaning, we still cling to what makes us human.

How? First, in the way that the old tropes, archetypes and traditions are still the things that move us. The fact that the orchestral sound still resonates with us is, I believe, because it is deeply connected with our past, our cultures and our traditions. What the modern orchestra represents is a progressive evolution of so many ‘families’ of instruments that are ancient in origin – flutes, harps, trumpets, bowed-strings et cetera have existed in some form for millennia. This is chiefly because there are in reality a limited spectrum of sounds that can be produced, both organically and artificially, and the modern orchestra covers a surprising amount of them. Synthesisers, when they came into use, were imagined to have some revolutionary significance for music. In truth, they are far too simple and unsophisticated even to faithfully replicate organic sounds, and at their best they only imitate known instruments. They have great scientific and experimental uses, and much charm in their simplicity and more novel features – but they lack the true warmth of natural sounds. The most flexible of all instruments, which can imitate almost all the others and do far more besides, is of course the human voice – the exemplar and prototype of all instruments. Thus however much we might strive to revolt and break away from it, we cannot escape our humanity.

As we see now, the trend is for technology more and more to ape reality. Simulation is apparently the goal for computer generated graphics, synthesised sounds and “artificial intelligence”. For what purpose? Why are we seeking to remake the world artificially? What is it about life that we so long to escape, and yet are so attached to that we would wish to mimic it perfectly?

It is the Faustian wager, the desire to escape death, that motivates all this industry and technology. Yet the fear of death provokes a revulsion towards organic life which is utterly misplaced. It is a devilish trick which makes us mistake this death in which creation is imprisoned, for life. ‘Reality’ – by which is meant our fallen state – is seen as a prison, in a gnostic way. That is the spur for the transhumanists. The hatred of organic life has led us down this path of gnosticism, not a spiritual form of gnosticism, however, but a virtual one. Wealth is sought after above all else (except deathlessness) and it has become virtual – not tied to anything real. Humanity is going beyond the mere material world, which has no value any more under the present economy (no more than an individual human life has value to the economy) and is marching into realms beyond even the superficial – towards virtual signs and symbols of status and prestige. Taking music as our example, we can see how the music industry places no value on anything except “image” and status.

I think Mahler’s music can serve as an antidote to this present morass of nihilism. In saying so, I have taken much inspiration from David Holbrook’s book on Mahler’s ninth symphony, entitled Gustav Mahler and the Courage to Be. Holbrook, as an existentialist, set out to demonstrate how Mahler’s music can help us to find meaning in the face of nihilism and death. I have found his arguments very influential; as powerful now as they were when he wrote the book in 1975. Back then, he noted the breakdown of ‘the Arts… fleeing from life problems, or taking refuge in black or barbarous lies, [which] are left with nothing to say and seek only futile ‘technique’ in a schizoid breakdown of communication. Some painters are left with only paint, composers dwell on the possibilities of new sounds, to no purpose than to exploit aural potentialities – but not, apparently, human ones.’2 Small wonder that so few are the least bit interested in modern art these days.

Holbrook takes a mostly psychological approach to his analysis of the ninth, influenced by psycho-analysis. He sees the problems of the modern world being of a ‘schizoid’ nature. As he writes:

From Laing’s studies of how schizoid individuals fear human contact, because it can bring loss of self, can we not understand the pathology of a great deal in modern ‘experimental’ art that simply avoids human ‘meeting’ and so can offer nothing essentially creative? Because of this, it cannot enrich the lives of others, as Mahler’s music enriches us. To enrich the lives of others is an act of love. By contrast, the avant-gardist shrinks from anything so human: often (as with the painting that stuns us, sadistic pornography, and theatre that makes people vomit) we merely suffer, from the impact of hate.

Donald Mitchell quotes from a pompous chronicle about avant-garde music: ‘of new works of more “human” character heard during the festival…’ and comments, ‘I wish I could assume that those quotation marks round “human” were ironic.’’3

Thus this aversion to the human arises out of fear, or, as Holbrook puts it:

Both love and hate are manifestations of the urge to survive, and of the urgent and hungry urge in us to find our existence confirmed… While we are alive our deepest anxieties about the meaning of our lives thus focuses on the mystery of death.4

Mahler is particularly relevant to this schizoid problem, since he himself suffered from traumas and existential angst his entire life:

When Mahler explored love he found it menaced by death, and that this menace was too appallingly like hate – his own hate, his father’s hate, the destructive elements in all experience.’5

Mahler uses symbolism and association in his music to represent his own existential struggles, and thus offers us a way of confronting our own. The face of hate is presented in many guises throughout the symphony – in mocking laughter; violent outbursts; sharp, biting dissonances and cold ironies – but is ultimately defeated by love. The great revelation of the ninth is precisely that hate is a distorted form of love, and that by loving, and patient acceptance, hate can be overcome and the fear of death defeated. For Holbrook, ‘to transmute hate into love is to overcome nothingness’6, thus in the first movement we hear the ‘hate’ motif transformed into a complementary figure to the ‘ewig’ motif, which may be said to represent the mystery of life itself, and the hope of eternity.

Nevertheless, Mahler’s nature is such that he cannot lightly rely on these revelations, but they must be tested to see if they hold true. The next three movements of the symphony are a kind of trial by fire for love and hope. Can love really resist the assaults of hatred and suffering?

Listen, in the following extract from the third movement, to the way the tender, sorrowful motif – first played by the solo trumpet and then taken up by the strings – is built up into a tragic climax before ebbing away. Then, following those flourishes from the harp, it appears again in the clarinet section, breaking up in peals of mocking laughter; next, it is aggressively rebutted by dissonant barbs from the brass section. At last it is sounded out again by the trumpet, with all its former noble ardour, and the strings take it up, as before, this time even more tragically – but alas, the brash main theme of the movement (‘Rondo Burleske’) forces it out of the way callously, building up steam for its own mad raging which lasts until the end of the movement.

Mahler’s 9th Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The extract starts at 51:15.

Despite this apparent triumph of the inhuman, of schizoid rage, that plaintive motif returns to form much of the material for the fourth and final movement of the symphony. Technically, it is a type of figure called a ‘turn’ because of the way it doubles back on itself. In effect it is one of classical music’s popular clichés, used mainly for ornamentation at least since the Baroque period. Mahler, however, in characteristic brilliance, spins it into a motif of extreme pathos and power – representing, in Holbrook’s view, at last the victory of love over hate. Its final instances, at the very end of the symphony, are like the last gasps of a life lived in the face of death, the life of one who has ultimately found peace in gratitude for having lived.

What is the significance of Mahler’s using such a common trope to end his final complete symphony? He wrote it in the knowledge that he had only a very short time left to live, and thus it must have had great significance to him, as did all his work. We cannot know for sure, but I would suggest that it shows how committed he was to the whole classical tradition, and that the tradition itself represented the beauty of life, which Mahler could only fully appreciate through this medium of music.7 It is the beauty of the commonplace, which stands firm and is ennobled by its opposition to death and dissolution.

That is but one interpretation, though I think it does shed some light on the piece as a whole; it may also have something to teach us now. If Mahler had been making a meta-statement about music itself in the ninth, we might read it as this triumph of tradition and even the commonplace over a new, avant-garde art which seeks to dissolve all those old associations, symbols and clichés (built up over the centuries) which make up that tradition. Holbrook has no reservations about drawing links between the psychology of love and hate, and modern approaches to tradition, art and its communicative power – neither should we. Mahler’s ninth has proven that music has a power to symbolise these kinds of conflicts which concern the very soul of our “civilisation”, the same conflicts going on within the souls of every individual living in it. If we know how to listen and interpret the music, we can follow the path it highlights and choose to lead a virtuous life, choosing love over hate. Even if we cannot interpret the ninth so directly, it retains the power of truthfulness which transcends the need for speech – music is its own language, and it can move us without our knowing why. It is the kind of music that we need to hear right now, not as a palliative but as a call to transcend, and to overcome hate with love.

I wish to end with a quotation from one of Mahler’s letters to his wife Alma which puts this work in context, and reminds us that our real work takes place outside the realms of art and artificiality – that we have a duty towards reality, with all its perils as well as its joys:

‘The ‘works’ [of a creative artist]… are, properly speaking, the ephemeral or mortal parts of him; but what a man makes of himself – what he becomes through the untiring effort to live and to be, is permanent. That is the meaning, my dear Almschi, of all that has happened to you, of all that has been laid on you, as a necessity of the growth of the soul and the forging of the personality… exercise yourself in beauty, in goodness, grow unceasingly (that is the true productiveness), and be assured of what I always preach; what we leave behind us is only the husk, the shell.8

1 Martin Scorsese used this analogy for recent Marvel films.

2 Gustav Mahler and the Courage to be, David Holbrook (Clarke, Doble and Brendon Ltd, 1975) p.47

3 Ibid, p.50

4 Ibid, p.26

5 Ibid, p.127

6 Ibid, p.79

7 He wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘Strange! When I hear music… even while I conduct – I can hear quite definite answers to my questions and feel entirely clear and sure. Or rather, I feel quite clearly that they are no questions at all!’ Holbrook, p.51

8 Gustav Mahler, Memories and Letters, ed. D. Mitchell (John Murray, 1968) p.322


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