1. The ambivalences of the First Symphony leave us with much the same basic questions as those of the Second Symphony, centering on Mahler’s allegiances within the cultural conflicts he presents in his music. Clearly, he ends in both cases in full alignment with the oppressive/seductive, Germanic/Christian element earlier resisted. Yet—to return to a set of questions asked earlier—how much more vital is a reading that gives pride of place to the starkly heroic image of a resisting outsider fighting against the tide of absorption into the dominant flow of a hostile culture? To this there is unlikely to be a definitive answer, for even today, a century later, this is precisely the tug-of-war that continues to play out, center-stage, in Mahler reception. Here is the opening sentence of a front-page Calendar review from a recent Los Angeles Times:
    For some conductors, Mahler’s massive Second Symphony is a problem of cohesion—making hundreds of small parts and five extended movements into an organic entity that flows, that moves through disparate emotional and spiritual states without contradicting or distracting itself. (Cariaga F1)
    This concern for “cohesion,” for projecting “an organic entity that flows … without contradicting or distracting itself”—the very notion, indeed, that a musical work must have a single “itself”—may be read, as we’ve indicated, as an acknowledgment that Mahler’s music resists full assimilation into the Germanic mainstream, that it bears throughout the trace of that resisting scream from the Scherzo of the Second Symphony, of that moment of serene disengagement late in the funeral march of the First. And we don’t quite know what to do with that resistance, particularly since it is the dissonance provided by those “disparate emotional and spiritual states” that more than anything else makes us care about Mahler. Surely, a large part of what we value in Mahler goes beyond the fact that he is a Jew who has nevertheless resurfaced within the mainstream of our concert halls; it is not so much that he provides yet another master for the post-Wagnerian Germanic canon, but rather that he stands antagonistically apart from that mainstream despite outer conformity.

  2. And so we are left, like Leonard Bernstein, with a double image, of a Jewish composer who gives an overwhelmingly convincing performance of conversion to Christianity, but who does so within a narrative inflected indelibly with the perspective of Jewish resistance. It is almost as if the conscious self cannot escape unconscious affinities. It is almost—well, how else to say it?—it is almost Freudian. Perhaps, even if Freud had little use for music, the workings of music are not so different from the universe he did so much to open up to us, the world behind the conscious self. In any case, that’s where we seem to find Mahler’s Jewish identity, stubbornly unconverted and unassimilated, deeply embedded in what we might term his music’s unconscious.

    1    2    3   4    5    Works Cited   Endnotes

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Ubiquitous Listening

Draughon and Knapp:
Mahler and the Crisis of Jewish Identity

Photo Essay

Review Essay

Allen Forte