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"People were not yet bold enough to attribute values --- even infinite ones --- to the immediate, unforeseen, unforeseeable, and unimportant products of the moment. The principle that you win at every throw had not yet been enunciated."
-- On Mallarmé, Paul Valéry
If we could summon the temerity to speak of Mahler's oeuvre in programmatic and biographical tones, we could sum up their thrust by saying they are concerned with the unanswered question of life and death: how is it that a human being is called to life's immense menagerie of experience — to live its beauty, sorrow, exhilaration and suffering, its stillness and serenity; only always to face, hovering inescapably throughout, the spectral shroud of death which must end these things?
This theme perhaps finds its fullest promulgation in the Ninth symphony, whose first three movements, in a vast struggle, aim to depict all the varieties of life's experiences. We are presented with passionate longings, alongside the naive, filthy, and grotesque, recreated and etched with a vehemence aiming at immortality. They pave the way for the final movement, Mahler's own attempted concilement with death, whose omnipresence and fear haunted his life. Its principal melody constructed out of the first three chords of Beethoven's Lebewohl sonata, the protagonist struggles to bid farewell to the life he loves, in a series of climaxes — the last of which falters, unwillingly. The music thereafter grows quieter, yielding at length to the surrounding silence, and the long-sought rapprochement is only reached at the very end, pressed by the inevitable.
It was in this rarefied and respectful condition, pondering over such and related thoughts at a concert of the New York Philharmonic a few days ago, that I was witness to a most singular occurrence. As the last, bitter, fortissimo climax ebbed away, my ears became aware of the plucky, cartoon-tribal sounds of a marimba ring-tone — property of some vagrant iPhone — shamelessly chiming away, in defiant counterpoint to the musical elegy. The sounds superimposed — now the marimba, now the dying mentations of the strings — for several minutes, at which point the conductor could take no more, and unprecedentedly arrested the orchestra.
A long, confused and tense encounter ensued. The culprit was sought by all eyes; the unassuming audience suddenly transformed itself into a vengeful Leviathan, its various mouths yelling out for the hide of the criminal. Finally, the ringing ceased: the conductor made his apology to the audience, receiving a rousing, bloodthirsty ovation, and the performance resumed, though its interrupted spirit could no longer be revived.
The debacle of the iPhone received its allotted brief coverage in the tertiary news press, but its sting will soon be forgotten, no more than a fading minor irritant to the memories of that audience.
And yet it seems to me there is some higher, poetic faithfulness which this unique occurrence offers, a kind of meta-aesthetic commentary which can be properly interpreted as congruous with Mahler's vision.
Imagine a dying man, sick with disease, readying himself for the last journey, detaching from all earthly things. Who would choose for himself the lapidary tones of the iPhone marimba to serenade off into the hereafter? Would it not be some ultimate Satanic joke, to bear this final indignity which turns all acts into farce?
And yet such black irony is quintessentially Mahlerian. As the well-known story goes, he had once ran out tearfully into the streets to escape a terrible argument between his parents, only to be confronted by an itinerant performer playing some funny polka. It left an indelible impression, and in that moment the tragic and the farcical, the serious and comic, the lofty and the vulgar were forever inseparably commingled in his mind.
Was it not this bipolar nature, this alternation and combination of hysterical and incompatible extremes, which mystified early audiences, and still perturbs us today? From the funeral march suddenly to the Viennese dance, the earnest lament of the hero accompanied and then shouted down by a chorus of banal cackles, the jubilant religious chorale thwarted by perfidy — all this occurs repeatedly in his symphonies, with an unexpectedness and defiance of classical musical logic which mirrors the unexpected calamity and absurdity of life, and its fullness of experience. "The symphony must be a world, it must have everything", he insisted to Sibelius.
Mahler was not alone in his mission to embrace the totality of the world into his art. Charles Ives, the great American pioneer, also aimed to recreate the polyphony of the universe in his scores. Ives' love for the interplay of sounds emanating from two, distinct marching bands is well-known, but Mahler had a parallel fascination, as recounted in a story from La Grange's biography:
"One day, on the path leading to Klagenfurt, the sound of a barrel organ upset Mahler considerably. However, when a second, independent barrel organ struck up and threatened to drown out the first, Mahler began to enjoy himself, while his companion became exasperated at this caterwauling. A military band soon joined in the fun, while Mahler stood listening in ecstasy, as though rooted to the spot. Recounting this incident later, Mahler added that his reaction should not surprise anyone who liked his symphonies. Thereafter, he often returned to the same spot to hear distant melodies, military bands, and male choruses mingle with the noise of merry-go-rounds, shooting booths, and puppet-shows, which came across the lake with prodigious clarity. 'Can you hear it? There's polyphony for you!', Mahler exclaimed."
Gustav Mahler, Charles Ives, two men on distant continents, of vastly different personalities and techniques: but do they not seem strangely brethren in this postmodern aim? And do they not stretch their arms, in some unconscious prescient gesture, past the age of modernity to another postmodern: John Cage, who argued for the acceptance of all sounds as independent entities, each on their own, undeciphered paths?
The root of the art of John Cage lies in the philosophies and attitudes of the East, where peace is arrived at only through the relinquishing of the desire to change and to order the world. Here the intersection with Mahler, and above all the Mahler of the Ninth grows in pertinacity: for what is this last movement other than a coming-to-terms with fate, a relinquishing of life's desires? The second half of the nineteenth-century was a time in which classic texts of the East, the philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism and ancient China first permeated the consciousness of European artistic circles — above all in Germany, and Mahler was not alone in evincing exceptional interest and enthusiasm for these ideas.
The listener of the Ninth Symphony's final movement is confronted with a structure wherein two sections of differing characters alternate: a Lebewohl-themed music of passion and yearning, which unabashedly cries out for the affirmation of life and inveighs against man's powerlessness over death; and quieter, dispassionate, almost cold episodes marked occasionally and extraordinarily by Mahler with the directive: "without expression". Leonard Bernstein interpreted these alternations as transitions between Western and Eastern philosophy, from life's restless desire for control and achievement, to the sublime, unattached meditative state which Krishna teaches Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:
"Do not rejoice in good fortune;
Do not lament at bad fortune;
Lucid, with the mind unshaken,
Remain within what is real."
In spite of Mahler's love for the natural polyphony of the world, it is unlikely he would have found acceptance for the intrusion of iPhone marimba tones into his last-completed work — for Mahler was not yet at the point of Cage, in the renunciation of the Western composer's ego and his right to form the material. For Mahler, it yet remained the artist's responsibility to yoke the threads of disparate themes into a harmonious whole. But harmony is a relative concept, and what Mahler considered the harmony of disparate strands would have seemed but nature's unordered cacophony to a previous generation. And perhaps this partial renunciation finds an affinity in the symphony's own unknown protagonist, who stands at the door of the East but is not yet able to go through, for whom the meditative state is but transient, terminated each time in a raised defiance, and whose final submission comes more from the fatigue of the struggle, rather than the pure, utmost acceptance.
And yet, even if Mahler the fastidious performer would have reacted with his customary rage to the "egregious" interruption occasioned by this little debacle, there is something in the loftier spirit of this unique happening which Mahler the composer would have approved. This supernal idea could be expressed as an awakening to the totality of nature, and an acceptance and embrace to the chance and paradox of life, antinomies fundamental to the ethos of Mahler's character, his art and this last movement.