My Dearest Gentlefolk,
This week I turn to one of the many forgotten corners of this century's darkest hour. The conflagration that consumed Europe just as it was beginning to find its way into republican government touched virtually all aspects of life. The conflagration to which I refer is that peculiar barbarism and frenzied insularity that gripped Germany, and much of the European continent to its east. National Socialism was, as much as we may seek to deny it, an ideological affirmation of popular government. Fascism was, in a like manner, a movement of the "common man", directed against aristocratic impulses of all kinds.
Was barbarism inevitable? Some have suggested that the Holocaust was the result of a flaw in the German character. Others have suggested that economic depression opened the door to an opportunist elite, who together forged a new false consciousness among the German people in a desperate grasp for power and immorality. We may like to believe these stories, but they belie the degree to which the seeds had been sown before the great powers came to blows in 1914. In his profoundly insightful novel "Doctor Faustus," Thomas Mann gives us a fascinating and deeply troubled look at the tenor of public discourse in Germany as it rounded the fin-de-siecle. In that spirit, I offer the following passage, drawn from the pages of ordinary criticism.
In Vienna, the curtain was falling on the Hapsburgs, and life was changing irrevocably. 1897 witnessed Gustav Mahler's triumphant rise to the directorship of the Opera. He was widely considered the finest conductor in Europe: brilliant but tyrannical. It is scarcely surprising that his own compositions were not entirely understood or applauded, and continued to be the subject of derision well into the 1960's. ("What a fuss about nothing!" a Boston commentator wrote in 1924. "The drooling and emasculated simplicity of Gustav Mahler!" quipped New York's Musical Courier in 1904.) But in 1907, Mahler was forced from his directorship by quote another force entirely. While his absolute devotion to his own musical ideas earned him few allies, and his compositions were more likely to baffle audiences than stir them, it was his Jewish heritage that ended his career in Vienna and sent him to New York.
"Wenn Mahlers Musik jüdisch sprechen würde, wäre sie mir vielleicht unverständlich. Aber sie ist mir widerlich, weil sie jüdelt. Das heisst: sie spricht musikalisches Deutsch, aber mit dem Akzent, mit dem Tonfalle und vor allem auch mit der Geste des öslichen, des allzu östlichen Juden. ... Denn auch dem, den sie nicht gerade beleidigt, kann sie doch unmöglich etwas sagen, und man braucht von der künstlerischen Persönlichkeit Mahlers noch keineswegs abgestossen zu sein, um die völlige Leerheit und Nichtigkeit einer Kunst einzusehen, in der der Krampf eines ohnmächtigen Schein-Titanentums sich auflöst in das platte Behagen an gemeiner Nähmädel-Sentimentalität."
Rudolf Louis, Die Deutsche Musik der Gegenwart (1909). This has been translated as follows:
"If Mahler's music would speak Yiddish, it would be perhaps unintelligible to me. But it is repulsive to me because it acts Jewish. This is to say that it speaks musical German, but with an accent, with an inflection, and above all, with the gestures of an eastern, all too eastern Jew. So, even to those whom it does not offend directly, it can not possibly communicate anything. One does not have to be repelled by Mahler's artistic personality in order to realize the complete emptiness and vacuity of an art in which the spasm of an impotent mock-Titanism reduces itself to a frank gratification of common seamstress-like sentimentality."
Translated by Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective 121 (1994).
It is difficult, if not impossible, to read this passage without the knowledge of what was to come. The conflagration that consumed Europe, and destroyed most of European Jewry is now indelibly etched across our mass-consciousness. But to get a sense of what was going wrong, we must try to think past history's subsequent course. The equivocation of sentimentality, inauthenticity, emptiness and "accent" seems strange. Coupled with the obvious inferences of vulgarity and unintelligibility, one wonders why Louis even bothered to compose this little bit of invective. What does it tell us about the nature of public discourse that such a style of criticism was considered valid, or even meaningful?
It is not simply a sort of "political correctness" that prevents us from recognizing Louis' critique as an actual analysis of Mahler's musical talent. If a critique were to pen such words today, there would surely be an uproar. But it would be a mistake to think that our difference with Louis lies primarily in our reluctance to cause offense, or in his willingness to speak his mind. "Racism" or "anti-Semitism" is too easy a charge to bring against him. Rather, ask yourself: Does Louis offer an analysis at all? Do his words amount to a critique?
The third movement of Mahler's First Symphony opens with a march. Musically, it is based on "Bruder Jakob, schläfst du noch" (the German version of the French nursery rhyme "Frère Jacques"). Mahler's inspiration was a funeral procession, described by E.T.A. Hoffmann, in which the animals take part. It is ironic, pungent and decidedly odd. It is also fantastic (in every sense of the term). It is also this passage that, more than any other, may have provided the seeds for Louis' derision. It is Mahler's self-titled "Titan" symphony. It captures and re-fashions a recognizably "German" folk melody. And in its refashioning, it injects a clarinet, piercing the air above the melody; mocking, laughing, crying. With its slides, the clarinet carves out a space foreign to the ear: new, and yet strangely old.
This was Louis' "eastern" sound. This was his "Yiddish" accent. This was the subject of his derision? Let us not give Louis short shrift. He surely felt the revulsion he put in words. I do not doubt that he thoroughly believed his words amounted to coherent criticism. I also doubt that Louis believed his words to condone the death of Mahler or any Jew.
The exercise in reading passages such as the one provided above is enlightening for the way in which it exposes the fabric of presumptions and value commitments that underlie all demonstrative declarations. Those we find most obvious here are exposed because they are broken (or so we hope). Their magic has been dispelled, and we no longer take them as granted. Louis makes sense only if we agree that Jewishness is a valid measure of aesthetic virtue. Louis makes sense only if we agree that music is capable of (recognizably) nationalist intonations, and that these intonations can be "accented" for better or worse by oriental overtones. Louis makes sense only if we agree that analysis need not clearly differentiate inferences drawn on geographic dislocation ("eastern"), sexual deviance ("impotent" and "frank gratification"), or musical intelligibility ("If Mahler's music would speak Yiddish, it would be perhaps unintelligible to me."). Most importantly perhaps, Louis makes sense only if we agree that the mixing of things familiar and foreign is properly characterized as vulgar, and that this vulgarity must be opposed by every means necessary if the integrity of our national life is to be preserved.
In his music, Mahler argues that we grow by taking in the oriental. He argues that sentimentality -- properly mixed with curiosity, sarcasm, irony, and humor -- is the very stuff of life. He argues that death is best faced tearfully, but honestly. He argues that for all the evil to which the human spirit is prone, it is the power within itself to find redemption -- to seek and achieve justice, even where the evil to be cured is its own -- that makes us worth preserving.
Listen again to Mahler tonight. For he has truly won the argument.
David Robert Foss
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© 2000 David Robert Foss
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