Monday, July 7, 2008

Geosong of the Week: The work of Gustav Mahler

I'm going to diverge a little from the pop/rock basis of the Fault Poking Playlist this week. This is because today, 7 July, happens to be the 148th birthday of Gustav Mahler, who happens to be my favorite composer (and the subject of my music MA thesis). Mahler was a composer whose creative output happened almost exclusively in spectacular geologic settings, and those settings had a profound influence on his work.

Mahler was essentially a "summer composer." From the age of 20 onward, he worked as a conductor for most of the year, taking the offseason months to do the bulk of his composition - the sketching short scores and drafts of works that he would flesh out and orchestrate during the rest of the year. Starting in the early 1890s, this summer work was done away from the bigger cities, nearly unfindable in the mountains.

The first summer home was in Steinbach am Attersee, in lower Austria. This is about an hour and a half outside of Salzburg; it is still small enough to not have its own train station. The Attersee is a large oblong Alpine lake and has the clearest blue water I have ever seen (I visited in the summer of 2005). Behind it rises the Höllengebirge, a sheer vertical limestone face, 1800 meters high. In his hut by the lake, Mahler composed a good dozen art songs, most of his Second Symphony, and all of his Third. When Mahler was visited in Steinbach by a friend, who asked him to give him a tour of the area, Mahler replied that he had composed it all into his Third Symphony, and that listening to that piece would be as good as getting a tour. The first movement of that symphony is meant to portray the rock that underlies the rest of the environment at Steinbach. Mahler described it as "lifeless, crystalline nature." The movement opens with a unison melody from ten french horns, majestic and solid as the mountain face (and, if you happen to be in the back of the viola section, sitting in front of all of those horns, like getting hit in the back of the head with a big chunk of said rock). Having seen the mountain myself, and having played the symphony, I think Mahler was absolutely right to say he'd captured the landscape in notes.
The Second Symphony, another Steinbach-era piece, has a different sort of geologic significance. Namely, its fifth movement includes a portrayal of an earthquake. In the storyline of the piece, this earthquake opens up the ground so all the senseless dead people can come out of the ground and gather together to be rejoined with their spirits and thereby fully resurrected. Mahler's earthquake is all percussion - rolls on the cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, and timpani, beginning pianissimo and crescendoing to fortissimo over the course of two measures, ending with a bang. To my ear, he got the rattling aspect just right, but at the same time, my experience with earthquakes tells me that even the small ones go BANGrattlerattlerattle rather than rattlerattlerattleBANG. The actual rupture, followed by the building response, not vice versa. My guess would be that Mahler never actually felt a quake (though news of the 1906 San Francisco one really upset him) - or is there a circumstance where the bang could come last?

The second summer home, occupied from 1900 to 1907, was at Maiernigg am Wörthersee, also in the Austrian Alps, not far from Klagenfurt. The setting here is similar to that at Steinbach: house and composition hut nestled in the woods between a wide Alpine lake and steep mountains. The only reason Mahler abandoned his first summer home was the fact that noise from other vacationers got on his nerves, so it makes sense that he would seek the same geologic setting without all the noise. Mahler composed another dozen songs here, as well as most of the Fourth Symphony, and the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies in their entirety. There is no concrete landscape scene for Maiernigg, like the Third provides for Steinbach, but there are still ample mountains and valleys in the verbal descriptions Mahler made of his works from this period. He even devised a very specific orchestrational device here - the low sound of offstage cowbells to represent looking out over the landscape from a high peak.

The third summer home was at Toblach, aka Dobbiaco, high (elevation of the valley in which the town lies: 4072 feet) in the Dolomites of Italy's Südtirol/Alto Adige region. Mahler moved there in 1908, after his young daughter's death in 1907 made the prospect of returning to Maiernigg too painful. Though there are lakes in the area, there isn't a single large one that characterizes the landscape like at Mahler's previous two summer homes. The mountains at Toblach, however, are perhaps more breathtaking than at Steinbach or Maiernigg - they are far higher, and consist more of points and spires and crags than continuous rock faces. Low clouds (of which there were plenty when I visited in 2005) may completely obscure even the lowest peaks in the area. Mahler did not speak so explicitly about working the specific landscape of Toblach into the music he wrote there (Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies), but he really didn't need to. The title "The Song of the Earth" says so very much, and the soundworld coupled with the text to the final movement paint a picture that can only be Toblach at night, if one has seen the place for comparison. That final movement, "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell") is a long and poignant farewell to life, which begins with the sun setting behind the mountains, and ends with praise of the Earth itself, which always renews itself in cycles. Perhaps those cycles are seasons, but for such an inhabitant of the mountains as Mahler, he would likely have been thrilled to know that mountains come and go in great cycles as well.

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