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Beauty and Sadness: Mahler’s 11 Symphonies
By David Vernon
405 pages, including appendices
ISBN: 978-1-7396599-0-5 (paperback); 978-10-7396599-1-2 (eBook) Candle Row Press
A few weeks before I received my review copy of this book, I spotted a Twitter post by its author, David Vernon: “One cold, wet Saturday afternoon in February 2000 I went into Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford and this little box caught my eye. I was instantly hooked – on the exquisite pain and tremendous joy of this music”. The little box in question was Sir Georg Solti’s Mahler symphony cycle for Decca, made with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That boxed set kindled a passion for Mahler’s music; now, some two decades later, and following (as I know from other Twitter messages I’ve seen) engagement with the work of many other Mahler conductors, David Vernon shares his passion for Mahler in this new book.
Vernon is a writer, academic and author. His specialism is literature, not music – his doctorate was on the subject of Shakespeare’s tragicomedies. I mention that not in any way to diminish his authority when it comes to Mahler – it’s evident that he has a deep knowledge of the music - but because, as we shall see, his literary background has a significant and beneficial influence on the way he writes about these symphonies. This is not his first book on a musical subject: he is the author of Disturbing the Universe. Wagner’s Musikdrama (2021).
From the title, it will be evident that David Vernon has not confined himself to a discussion of the nine numbered symphonies that Mahler completed. Very rightly, he views Das Lied von der Erde and the Tenth Symphony as essential elements in the canon.
The structure of the book is sensible and straightforward. After a general introduction, consideration of the symphonies is divided into three parts: ‘The Wunderhorn Years’ (symphonies 1-4); ‘The Middle Period’ (symphonies 5-8); and ‘The Final Trilogy’. Within this scheme each symphony is accorded a separate chapter within which there’s an outline, including biographical context, of how each work came into being, a full discussion of the symphony and, to conclude, a movement-by-movement commentary on the symphony in question.
Vernon has a deep knowledge of the symphonies – and a great enthusiasm for them. His descriptions of the works are detailed and, clearly. the product of extensive and careful listening – as well as wide reading around his subject. He can bring the music to life through vivid and enthusiastic turns of phrase. So, for example, he describes the first movement of the First as “a sonic staging of genesis…” Writing of the Second Symphony he opines “there is a gothic grandeur and an almost Victorian morbidity to this new work’s first movement’s grim tread”. In discussing the Third, he pays due regard to the work’s links with the natural world. I love the way he refers to the very opening (after the initial horn fanfare) as “music as geology”. Writing such as this grabs the reader’s attention and leads him or her on. I’ve selected just a few examples that leapt off the page for me in the early chapters; these are typical of the enthusiasm and understanding with which Vernon approaches all of the symphonies.
Not only are his descriptions excellent; there are also perceptive points a-plenty. For instance, in discussing Maher’s novel use of orchestral colourings in the Seventh he references, as so many other commentators do, Rembrandt’s painting, The Night Watch. But Vernon goes rather further, comparing Mahler’s scoring to the paintings of Whistler. He’s by no means the first writer to comment that Mahler’s early symphonies in particular benefitted hugely from the composer’s extensive practical experiences as a conductor. However, I was intrigued by a point he makes in discussing the links between the First Symphony and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. All Mahler enthusiasts will be aware of those links, of course. Most will also translate the title of the song cycle as ‘Songs of a wayfarer’. But Vernon points out that the word ‘Gesellen’ “more properly relates to a journeyman…Such journeymen tended to travel from town to town looking for work and to gain further necessary experience from a range of masters. We might, therefore, see the title of Mahler’s first masterpiece as referring to his own status as an itinerant conductor, moving from opera house to opera house.”
The mention of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen brings me to what I see as a prime strength of this book. I mentioned earlier that David Vernon’s academic background lies not in music but in literature. That has had a profound influence on this book, for where I think Vernon excels is in his discussions of the inextricable links between Mahler’s symphonies and his songs. This is, naturally, very relevant to his consideration of the first four symphonies. All four of these works are permeated with references to and links with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (the First) and Das Knaben Wunderhorn; Vernon explains these links with the discerning eye of someone expertly versed in poetry. Furthermore, in his commentary on the Third his literary knowledge is a decided asset in referencing the several authors who Mahler admired and by whom he was influenced in his philosophical approach to the composition. (Vernon views the Third as “an overwhelming cultural certificate and an extraordinary exploration of the natural world and humanity’s place within it”.)
Given his literary expertise, it will be no surprise that Vernon is highly successful when he approaches both the Eighth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. Indeed, I don’t recall reading a commentary on either work in which the texts which Mahler set are so keenly linked to the description of the music. For example, he presents strong literary arguments to show why the texts of ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’ and Goethe’s Faust are such apposite choices for Mahler to set in the Eighth. If I have a criticism of this book – and it’s a mild one – I wish that space had been found to print the texts and translations of the various vocal works described in these pages.
Vernon brings out strongly the links between the Fifth Symphony and Kindertotenlieder, the Rückert-Lieder and Mahler’s last two Wunderhorn settings, ‘Revelge’ and ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’. Indeed, as I read his thoughts on the spiritual upheavals expressed in the Fifth, I was struck by the fact that in the pre-Covid days it seemed as if a tendency had arisen whereby touring orchestras and their conductors used the Fifth almost as an orchestral showpiece: as David Vernon reminds us, there’s infinitely more to that symphony than showmanship.
One aspect of these works that is covered in some detail is the darkness within much of the music. Readers may be surprised by the extent to which Vernon regards the Fourth as a work which focuses on the dark side of childhood. As he puts it: “For Mahler, childhood is a site of primal trauma, as well as innocent joy, and this symphony explores the way these aspects interact”. Some readers may find Vernon’s focus on the troubled side of the Fourth is a bit overdone, though I
found his thesis persuasive. Even more surprising may be his statement that, by comparison with the Sixth, “the Fourth is the much bleaker work, a brilliant examination of malignant memory”.
Those of us who have experienced, in particular, Klaus Tennstedt's
shattering exposition of the Sixth may find this a contentious argument. If, however, you read what he has to say on both symphonies you may well feel he has made his point – he feels that the moniker ‘Tragic’, which has become attached to the Sixth, is misleading.
The chapter on the Sixth includes an intelligent discussion of the vexed question of the ordering of the two inner movements. Part of the conclusion he reaches about this issue is that “it is enjoyable to have two very distinct ways to perform the Sixth”. Is this a case of sitting on the fence? I don’t think so; as he fairly points out, there are arguments both ways. For myself, I used to prefer the scherzo-andante ordering, though I readily concede that this was probably because that’s how I first experienced the work. It was only relatively recently when I heard Sir Simon Rattle’s 2018 recording, in which he took the finale almost attacca from the scherzo (and heard him talk about the question of key relationships between those two movements) that I became much more convinced than previously that the andante-scherzo ordering really does work (review).
David Vernon’s writing about the Ninth is highly persuasive. That’s unsurprising since he clearly considers it to be the pinnacle of Mahler’s symphonic achievement. Even by the standards of this book, he is exceptionally eloquent – even poetic – in his description of the four movements of this masterpiece. I was particularly struck by two comments. Writing of the magnificent, compelling first movement, he says that the music is “thinking in three tenses”, recalling (and I paraphrase heavily) past happiness, expressing joy at the present and yearning towards the future, despite all its uncertainties. Later on, he says of the symphony as a whole that it “surveys a breakdown in mental harmony brought on by the jarring predicament of loving life amid looming death”. There speaks someone who loves and has pondered deeply this immense symphony. But it’s not the end of the Mahler canon. While acknowledging that the performing versions of the Tenth, by Deryck Cooke and others, can’t be regarded as the finished article, he contends that the Tenth is “music that demands to be heard”. How I agree.
As I hope I’ve made clear, I’ve found this an absorbing book. It is provocative at times – in a good way – and even though I’ve known Mahler’s symphonies for many years I’ve learned much from reading it, not least because Vernon has challenged some of my previous thinking about the works and has consistently made me reappraise the music through his insights and detailed knowledge. I don’t think the book should be regarded as an introduction to the symphonies – and the author hasn’t positioned as such: you have to know the music already, but reading it will enhance your understanding and appreciation of these constantly rewarding symphonies
When I began work on appraising this book, I thought it would be a good idea to listen to a recording of each symphony so that the music was fresh in my mind while reading David Vernon’s views on each work. In case readers are interested, I have appended to this review a list of the recordings in question. I hasten to say that this is not a “best of Mahler” list – though I happen to believe that some of the recordings are the best I’ve heard of the scores in question. I’m painfully conscious of omissions: how can one not have a recording of Janet Baker in Das Lied von der Erde, for example, or leave aside the headlong hedonism of Bernstein’s first New York recording of the Third? But I selected these as recordings which have given me particular pleasure and/or enlightenment over more than fifty years of listening to Mahler and collecting recordings of his music.
The book benefits from a foreword by Mahler’s granddaughter, Marina Mahler. She introduces the book with excitement; her words are a strong endorsement of its contents.
This is an important contribution to the Mahler bibliography. David Vernon has written a perceptive, insightful and thought-provoking book. Mahler devotees will find much in its pages to enhance their understanding of these ever-fascinating works in which we can always find something new to excite us.
Personal listening shortlist
Symphony No 1 Bavarian RSO/Nézet-Séguin (review)
Symphony No 2 City of Birmingham SO/ Rattle (review)
Symphony No 3 London SO / Horenstein (review)
Symphony No 4 Bavarian RSO / Kubelik (review)
Symphony No 5 Vienna PO / Bernstein (review)
Symphony No 6 London PO / Tennstedt (review)
Symphony No 7 Budapest FO / Iván Fischer (review)
Symphony No 8 Chicago SO/Solti (review)
Symphony No 9 Bavarian RSO / Haitink (review) Das Lied von der Erde Mitchinson/Hodgson/BBC Northern SO / Horenstein (review)
Symphony No 10 (Cooke performing edition) Berlin Philharmonic / Rattle (review)