Monday, October 10, 2005

Mahler's sweet 16th

There is a tradition, and not only a German dialectical tradition, of narrating the life of a composer as one with dramatic climaxes and a determined relationship between the life of the great composer and the course of music history. Beethoven wrote his nine symphonies and after that the number nine put a cap on the productivity of everyone who followed. Or: that, with the last great creative surges before their early deaths, Mozart or Schubert had said all that they possibly could have said in music, and music history duly noted the landmarks.

Mahler, of course, suffered both of these curses: dying at a mature but decidedly early age of 50 and the fatal number nine symphonies. (In avoiding the sum of nine, he ended up writing 10 (figuring in Das Lied von der Erde) or 11 symphonies (the almost-finished Number 10)). Mahler, unlike Mozart or Schubert, was a late bloomer as a composer, and his nine completed symphonies and Das Lied were composed in a curve of increasing productivity (his age at the completion of each: 28, 34, 36, 41, 42, 44, 45, 47, 48, 49). By the time of his death, he had hit his stride of just about one symphony every year.

The 2oth century music history industry, and the Viennese segment in particular, has a lot invested in the notion that with Das Lied, the Ninth, and the unfinished Tenth, Mahler had somehow exhausted the potential of his compositional talent. The conventional narratives of the careers of subsequent generations of Viennese composers inevitably depend upon this idea. Probably no notion of mine has made folks around here (Frankfurt) more uncomfortable than my speculation that had Mahler lived to a more actuarily reasonable age, we would now be going to concerts with Symphonies numbered into the twenties. The response is usually that that would be impossible, as Mahler had completed his earthly work, but some have more inventively answered that Mahler's symphonic work was complete and he would have had to turn to opera.

In Pale Fire, Nabokov amuses with the reverse alphabetical determinism of the names of Judge Goldsmith's daughters (Alphina, Betty, Candida, and Dee, aged respectively 9, 10, 12, and 14), but building the narrative of music history around the coincidence of a completed ninth symphony and an early death troubles the imagination more than it amuses. But comfort level be damned, I plan to continue to enjoy imagining Mahler's 16th.

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