Friday, September 08, 2006

"It's our tradition to control"

Kenneth Woods writes,

Read by a sympathetic conductor, however, Mahler’s myriad instructions cease to be seen as marching orders, and instead, come across as the most lovingly thought out conducting lesson imaginable. In fact, in spite of his complexity and scope, I find his scores the easiest to study. It is as if he’s given you his score to look at, full of little notes- “please Ken, could you be sure not to drag here,” “be careful with the balance- though the violins are forte, the cellos and basses should only be piano so we can here the solo bassoon entrance,” “let this chord die away in the brass,” or “this is the climax, Ken. That is why I’ve brought 8 extra brass players on stage.”

I don't know if I take such a collegial view of Gustav Mahler, devoted to him though I am. His ego is legendary; while his "my time will come" nonsense isn't as prophetic as many would like it to be, he certainly made many more, equally egocentric, pronouncements. He was also a bit of a dictator on the podium, so one senses that he both wanted to correct for possible errors, but also to ensure that he was in control. At all times.

I suppose that this is where my Mahler-view comes into focus. I don't see him as an extension of Goethe's Werther, well, as an extension of the popular conception of the youngin', not Goethe's original cautionary tale. I see him as a thoroughly modern, thoroughly controlling genius. His symphonies are, if you accept his often-withdrawn programs, monomaniacal in their pursuit of his Konzept - none more so than the 3rd. Let's not hasten to make Mahler nice all of a sudden. He knew how smart he was, and he wasn't shy about it. Mahler's scores, even more than Wagner's, are triumphs of his ego and his genius. He wasn't being nice, he was being Mahler.

Mahler might have written conducting masterclasses into his scores, but don't confuse general conducting advice for "here's how to conduct my works so they sound like I wanted."

Double bonus points if you can identify, as precisely as possible, the source for the title.


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