Mahler's Body | The Nation


Mahler's Body

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Hardly a raving Jewish anti-Semite like Otto Weininger, Mahler nevertheless perceived his Jewishness to be an encumbrance, even a physical disability. He told a friend that being a Jew was like having one arm shorter than the other. As it happens, Mahler did have a physical impediment. His right leg twitched uncontrollably, leaving him with a notoriously unsteady gait that was seized upon by others as a stereotypical marker of Jewish bodily degeneration: caricatures of Mahler at the podium portrayed him as a puppet pulled by strings, lacking any kind of spine. His appearance was protean to an uncanny degree. Even people close to Mahler described him in contradictory ways: old, young, sickly, strong, pallid, swarthy. His face was grotesque, a cross of the features of Beethoven and Goethe. His body appeared either divine or demonic. Schoenberg called him a saint; Oscar Fried called him a messiah of music. Alma once found his white flesh Lucifer-like; but near the end of his life she wrote of "his naked, painfully emaciated body. No one felt any shame. It was Christ's Entombment. This was the thought that came to all of us."

About the Author

David Schiff
David Schiff, a professor of music at Reed College, is the composer of the opera Gimpel the Fool and author of books on...

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Mahler's life and work were ruled by a double bind: the more he distanced himself from whatever aspects of his Jewish background society found debased, the more strongly people saw his Jewish identity inscribed forever, as in Kafka's story "The Penal Colony," in the flesh. Mahler was snared by this infernal trap many times during the last years of his life, the most public episode being the premiere of his Eighth Symphony in the fall of 1910, one month after the revelation of his wife's infidelity.

The Eighth, immediately dubbed by promoters the Symphony of a Thousand, was unprecedented, even though it drew on Beethoven's Ninth and Liszt's Faust Symphony. A summa--at once symphony, oratorio and opera, and even a mass, as Mahler told his friend Alfred Roller--it deployed vast choral and instrumental forces to set two texts, the seventh-century Christian Pentecost hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus" and the closing scene from Part II of Goethe's Faust, ending with the "Chorus Mysticus" in praise of the Eternal Feminine. Never before had Mahler set a text of Christian liturgy, but by coupling it with Goethe's heterodox vision of redemption he created an ecumenical musical cathedral (the first sound is made by an organ) consecrated to the totality of European (German) culture from the early Middle Ages to the present, a culture based in Christianity but transcending it.

Despite the audience's ecstatic cheers, Mahler's musical embrace of Germanness, even on such an unprecedented scale (or perhaps because of it), was quickly assailed. De La Grange notes: "The general feeling throughout Germany and Austria was that the overwhelming reception accorded to the Eighth had been largely a Jewish phenomenon." As the composer Max Reger said at the time, "This Mahler affair is becoming a problem--all these on whom the Lord has bestowed a Semitic nose are naturally enthusiastic supporters of Mahler, since the Jews have urgent need of a great composer!" Never mind the sublime notes; it all came down to the nose. Even Adorno could not separate the music from the countenance: he titled his close reading of Mahler's music, written in 1960, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy. Yet Adorno's harsh assessment of the Eighth as a formulaic example of the "genre chef-d'oeuvre" is also a valuable reminder that not all of Mahler's critics were anti-Semites. Or wrong.

Infirma nostri corporis. These words, reiterated so as to rise from the hymnal text, inspire one of the few personal moments among the hollow hosannas of the Eighth Symphony. Our bodies are weak. Mahler was proud of his athleticism, but he was short and slight. People said his coffin could have held the body of a child. Yet like Leonard Bernstein, who was similarly built, Mahler loomed large: he conducted expansively with his entire body, unlike his tall friend Richard Strauss, who never sweated on the podium.

Infirma nostri corporis. Mahler knew of bodily weakness early on. His older brother died in his first year from an unexplained accident. In all, eight of Mahler's thirteen siblings would die in early childhood: of his three surviving younger brothers, one died in early adolescence; one was mentally unstable and fled, untraced, to America; and the last committed suicide. Mahler had to live with the dual legacy of the survivor: a sense of guilt and an equally burdensome sense of inexplicable luck. From his very first composition, a funeral march introduced by a polka, Mahler's music would be death-ridden, but defiant rather than elegiac. The first three symphonies employ the familiar musical archetypes of the funeral march and the hymn to map an ascendant route from death to life eternal. In the First, the grotesque dirge of the third movement leads directly to an affirmative finale in which the brass section blasts the tune from Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" over the words "And He shall live forever and ever." The Second, whose first movement was originally titled Totenfeier, or funeral rite, repeats the journey but more expansively, adding a chorus and offstage brass to transport the listener beyond the end of days to general resurrection. The Third inflates the pattern once more into a two-hour musical ascent through the great chain of being, from mere matter to divine love.

Repeated and magnified in these three symphonies, growing ever longer and louder, the journey to life everlasting begins to sound like a desperate fixation, or maybe just a bad musical habit. Perhaps this was Mahler's point as he retraced the archetypical plotline of the nineteenth-century symphony, a journey from doubt to faith heard in Beethoven's Ninth, Brahms's First and Tchaikovsky's Fourth and Fifth. For Mahler's audience, the plot was familiar but the style new and unsettling; Mahler, like Strauss, was a musical realist. Both composers thought of their sophisticated techniques of orchestration, thematic development and polyphony as quasi-scientific tools. Mahler aspired to both the condition of the novel, with its power of psychological analysis, and the photograph.

Also like Strauss, Mahler wrote that all of his symphonies were autobiographical. Strauss struck an autobiographical note in an opera and two tone poems, but with the same clear-eyed objectivity he applied to Don Juan or Salome; he enjoyed painting himself as a card-playing everyman, an ordinary guy who happened to be a genius. Mahler's autobiographical presence is far more devious and elusive. Memories of loss and rejection are secreted away in the texts of songs whose melodies have become wordless themes. The funeral march of the First Symphony quotes a tune from "Songs of a Wayfarer": "The two blue eyes of my sweetheart have sent me out into the world." The funeral march of the Fifth alludes in passing to the song cycle Kindertotenlieder: "Now will the sun rise as brightly as if no misfortune had befallen in the night."

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