Mahler and Irony

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Tarantella
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Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Wed Mar 26, 2014 11:45 pm

My friend presented a lecture today on Mahler; in particular, the Mahler Symphony No. 3 - First Movement.

Firstly, some comments about Mahler in general. He is not a composer to whom I've warmed, but I was eager for the chance to feel some affection and understanding after today (we started with the first movement of Symphony No. 5). Our lecturer went to great lengths to explain elements of the Symphony No. 3 as it was playing. A friend sitting next to me said at the end, "I wanted to understand what it is about Mahler which people talk so much about; today all I feel is that he needed an editor". I have to agree with that sentiment myself and how any of it conforms to symphonic form baffles me. (Heresy alert: it sounds like film music!)

We were handed lots of notes and my eye was drawn to one particular sentence: "Norman Lebrecht identifies Mahler as the first composer to write ironic music". I think this is worthy of further exploration. The first thing I thought of when I read this was that Bach used tonality ironically in his Passions of St. John and St. Matthew when word painting and creating ambiguity. (And I'll bet some composers before and since Bach also used irony in music.) Indeed, this aspect of Bach's music was the subject of a specific lecture in 3rd year Musicology. But, no matter; I kept my ears open and my mouth closed for today's Mahler lecture. Many people I like and respect appreciate Mahler.

Am I completely Baching (sorry!) up the wrong tree about Mahler and irony?

What do people think about Lebrecht's assertion?

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by John F » Thu Mar 27, 2014 12:08 am

Lebrecht has got it wrong, typically. Tarantella has mentioned Bach. Another kind of irony, exemplified in Sophocles' "Oedipus," is exemplified in "Die Walküre" Act 1, when Sieglinde doesn't know who plunged Nothung into the tree, but we do because the orchestra tells us it was Wotan. Yet another kind, in which we hear something deliberately contrary to what we might expect, happens frequently in Mozart, who built the finales of violin concertos on popular songs and dances of his time and rounded off the exposition of the Jupiter Symphony's majestic first movement with a tune from one of his opera buffa arias. Haydn was even more reliant on this kind of irony for his famous humor, and another Bach (P.D.Q.) even more so. I suppose that's the kind of irony Lebrecht means (I haven't read his writings on Mahler). Mahler is famous for the incongruous materials in his music, which used to be condemned as banal as if Mahler didn't know better, and are now understood differently.
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Tarantella
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Thu Mar 27, 2014 12:27 am

John F wrote:Lebrecht has got it wrong, typically. Tarantella has mentioned Bach. Another kind of irony, exemplified in Sophocles' "Oedipus," is exemplified in "Die Walküre" Act 1, when Sieglinde doesn't know who plunged Nothung into the tree, but we do because the orchestra tells us it was Wotan. Yet another kind, in which we hear something deliberately contrary to what we might expect, happens frequently in Mozart, who built the finales of violin concertos on popular songs and dances of his time and rounded off the exposition of the Jupiter Symphony's majestic first movement with a tune from one of his opera buffa arias. Haydn was even more reliant on this kind of irony for his famous humor, and another Bach (P.D.Q.) even more so. I suppose that's the kind of irony Lebrecht means (I haven't read his writings on Mahler). Mahler is famous for the incongruous materials in his music, which used to be condemned as banal as if Mahler didn't know better, and are now understood differently.
Wonderful!! Thanks. One suggestion about irony in Mahler - which we heard today - was that he could use, say, a 'quote' from a song (Schubert, himself, anybody) and then undercut that 'paraphrase' by using the musical motif in a sense of foreboding etc. which is counter-intuitive to its original meaning.

But, as you so accurately point out, irony can have many different guises and functions.

You obviously are familiar with Lebrecht's writings for you seem to display some cynicism towards him. I, on the other hand, know next to nothing about Lebrecht.

(May I take this opportunity to make an observation after nearly 2 years on CMG: some people have criticized JohnF (myself included) for being pedantic. This is only partly true because he usually backs up his arguments in a vigorous way. (I hope he doesn't mind me referring to him in the 3rd person!) Personally, I'd much rather engage with a person who has a strong belief system that he's willing to support/defend with reason, respect and logic than a person who blows with the breeze and will assume any position, depending on the person being spoken to.)

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by John F » Thu Mar 27, 2014 1:31 am

Pedantry is in the eye of the beholder. As far as I'm concerned, it isn't pedantry to try to get things right and, when necessary, to set the record straight. :)

Norman Lebrecht is most notorious for a series of books in which he twisted or just invented "facts" to support controversial views that, though questionable or actually untrue, were marketable. They include "The Maestro Myth," "Who Killed Classical Music," and "Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry." The latter prompted a lawsuit against his publisher by the founder of Naxos Records for defamation of character which was settled out of court to the publisher's great disadvantage. That was in 2007 and since then no publisher has issued a new book by Lebrecht except the presumably uncontroversial and at least not actually libelous "Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World." (Typical Lebrecht hype.) They have good reason: Lebrecht simply can't be trusted to get the facts right. I'm not "cynical" about him, I'm downright opposed to him, and nothing I've read in the gossip he peddles in his current newspaper column and blog give me the slightest reason to change my mind.

For more, if you wish:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Lebrecht
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Thu Mar 27, 2014 1:45 am

Lebrecht the polemicist, then? Or is that too high-falootin an appellation for the man?

I'm unsure about whether to discuss this with my friend who lectured today, as he's obviously read and agrees with some of Lebrecht. At some point friendships have to take precedence over musical differences of opinion and I may have a judgment call to make on this one. (He has a splendid musical intellect and vigorous enthusiasm for anything new, so he might actually be interested.)

Any other examples of musical irony, if anybody knows more, would be great - that might be the more subtle approach. Thanks for the background information, John.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by jbuck919 » Thu Mar 27, 2014 2:26 am

Irony seems to embrace a great deal, as John F implies. The Oedipidean irony of everybody knowing what is going on in a Wagner opera except the characters themselves is one thing; the use of materials that would have evoked (humorous?) associations from contemporaries that are mainly lost on us is another kind of irony, and it does go way, way back. Consider for instance the secular origin of some of the cantus firmi of medieval and Renaissance masses (e.g, the popular tune L'homme armé).

Then I would argue (until John F tells me I'm wrong :) ) that the irony in Mahler is still a third kind, because it involves passages containing unabashedly untransformed (though beautifully orchestrated) non-art music or imitations of such. That presents a completely different kind of challenge to the listener, and if Lebrecht was thinking only of this, then perhaps it is easier to understand why he gave some kind of priority to Mahler (though in general I agree with John F about Lebrecht regularly being full of something I can't mention on CMG).

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by John F » Thu Mar 27, 2014 2:47 am

Maybe Lebrecht's writings on Mahler deserve to be taken more seriously than his other stuff. I wouldn't know. Tarantella, if your friend is a Lebrecht fan, or if he's not one to read and think critically, it probably isn't worth picking a fight with him. But maybe he'd be interested in some examples of musical irony before Mahler, and that might give him a hint.

You don't really need more examples of musical irony from me; with the various aspects of irony in mind, I'm sure they'd come crowding in unasked. :) But I'll beg off. Just now I have Bruckner on my mind - a less ambiguous and ironic composer can hardly be imagined - because the 9th symphony is to be performed Friday by the New York Philharmonic and I'm definitely in the frame of mind for it.

jbuck919, it seems to me that "materials that would have evoked associations from contemporaries" and "unabashedly untransformed (though beautifully orchestrated) non-art music or imitations of such" are aspects of the same thing, or can be. They are in Mozart's violin concertos and, getting back to Mahler, the use of "Frere Jacques" as a funeral march in the 1st symphony. Lebrecht is not wrong to say that Mahler's music is sometimes ironic, obviously it is, but Mahler was certainly not "the first composer to write ironic music."
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by lennygoran » Thu Mar 27, 2014 6:58 am

Tarantella wrote: Firstly, some comments about Mahler in general. He is not a composer to whom I've warmed, but I was eager for the chance to feel some affection and understanding after today (we started with the first movement of Symphony No. 5). Our lecturer went to great lengths to explain elements of the Symphony No. 3 as it was playing.
Sue there was a series on PBS I DVRed and watched from a conductor who loves Mahler--I enjoyed the set of shows and the one on Mahler was very informative for a guy like me very deficient in familiarity with Mahler--it's problably on Youtube?

http://www.keepingscore.org/

Regards, Len

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Thu Mar 27, 2014 4:09 pm

Thanks, Len, for that link. And thanks to the two Johns for their valuable comments.

Just another thing....a friend asked yesterday whether Mahler was the only other 19th century composer since Beethoven to use a choir in a symphony. I have a vague idea that same thing had already been done by either Liszt or Berlioz? Any ideas?

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by barney » Thu Mar 27, 2014 6:59 pm

This thread sparked off a round of website visits connected with Lebrecht. He's certainly controversial. I think he's a bit like Wikipedia - often useful, usually entertaining, but requiring further checking. I certainly don't share JohnF's contempt.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by lennygoran » Thu Mar 27, 2014 7:47 pm

Tarantella wrote:Thanks, Len, for that link. And thanks to the two Johns for their valuable comments.

Just another thing....a friend asked yesterday whether Mahler was the only other 19th century composer since Beethoven to use a choir in a symphony. I have a vague idea that same thing had already been done by either Liszt or Berlioz? Any ideas?
Sue don't know how well this applies but wiki says:
"A few 19th-century composers, notably Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt, followed Beethoven in producing choral symphonic works. Notable works in the genre were produced in the 20th century by Gustav Mahler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich among others. The final years of the 20th century and the opening of the 21st century have seen several new works in this genre, among them compositions by Tan Dun, Philip Glass, Hans Werner Henze and Krzysztof Penderecki."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choral_symphony

And speaking of Mahler just tonight while preparing dinner I listened to Mahler Sym 1--always enjoy it. Regards, Len

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by karlhenning » Thu Mar 27, 2014 9:13 pm

lennygoran wrote:Sue don't know how well this applies but wiki says:
"A few 19th-century composers, notably Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt, followed Beethoven in producing choral symphonic works...."
Not your fault, Len . . . but how weird of the Wiki-woose to gloss over Berlioz!

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by John F » Thu Mar 27, 2014 9:56 pm

Tarantella wrote:a friend asked yesterday whether Mahler was the only other 19th century composer since Beethoven to use a choir in a symphony. I have a vague idea that same thing had already been done by either Liszt or Berlioz? Any ideas?
Right - Liszt's "Faust Symphony" and "Dante Symphony" and Berlioz's "Romeo and Juliet" symphony. Also Mendelssohn's Symphony #2, "Lobgesang." And doubtless others by lesser composers.
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by jbuck919 » Thu Mar 27, 2014 10:06 pm

Interjecting for whatever it's worth, I looked up dates, and Mahler's first (1888) was only three years after Brahms's fourth, and nine years before Brahms died. Yet I have great difficulty thinking of Mahler as a 19th century composer, though of course I know that he died in 1911 in middle age. Aesthetically, whether he would have wished it or not, he belongs with Debussy, Schoenberg, and Strauss, all composers who had to cope with the "anxiety of influence" after Brahms and Wagner, and there is at least as great a gulf between him and Brahms as between Brahms and Beethoven.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by John F » Thu Mar 27, 2014 10:14 pm

Some call the composers of that transitional period "post-Romantics."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-romanticism
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Thu Mar 27, 2014 10:29 pm

jbuck919 wrote:Interjecting for whatever it's worth, I looked up dates, and Mahler's first (1888) was only three years after Brahms's fourth, and nine years before Brahms died. Yet I have great difficulty thinking of Mahler as a 19th century composer, though of course I know that he died in 1911 in middle age. Aesthetically, whether he would have wished it or not, he belongs with Debussy, Schoenberg, and Strauss, all composers who had to cope with the "anxiety of influence" after Brahms and Wagner, and there is at least as great a gulf between him and Brahms as between Brahms and Beethoven.
I tend also to regard Mahler as more of a 'modernist' composer - whether Post Romantic (as in JohnF's link) I'm not so sure (since it includes Puccini in that list: go figure!). To me "post" anything doesn't tell us much except, possibly, the act of 'looking back'. But that's problematic too, because many composers continued to write in classical sonata or symphonic form (Prokofiev, for example).

These comments are entirely my own opinions: Mahler suits the zeitgeist. Everything about our world is large and somewhat grand in style - large TV screens and wide cinematic aspect ratio, huge public spectacles (fireworks, sport and the like), grand opera, over-the-top rock performances in an arena, large rock festivals and big, noisy megaplex films. Everything is BIG these days and that sensibility can easily accommodate the VASTNESS of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony (just to name two composers). The era of the intimate (chamber music, plays etc.) seems to have advanced to the rear (if you'll pardon the paradox)!

I do not think history will necessarily be kind to the grandiose in kunstmusik; well, maybe Wagner will endure because of his huge influence. But I think of these gargantuan symphonic works of Mahler and Bruckner as the musical equivalent of that cordial that you buy from the supermarket where you add water and get 10 times more. For me, Brahms is that original 'concentrate' as also is Beethoven. We will, as a society, inevitably return to the "concentrate". And this will, of course, include contemporary composition or those from the more recent past. As I say, these are my personal opinions and I have a snowball's chance in hell of being here to know whether I'm right or wrong..

Life is a series of cycles and I'm an acolyte for the "less is more" aesthetic.
Last edited by Tarantella on Thu Mar 27, 2014 10:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by jbuck919 » Thu Mar 27, 2014 10:47 pm

John F wrote:Some call the composers of that transitional period "post-Romantics."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-romanticism
I suppose I'm opening a can of worms, but you can't be serious about that article, which is inadequate to say the very least. Here is how it reads in full (except for notes, etc.):

Post-romanticism or Postromanticism refers to a range of cultural products and attitudes emerging in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, after the period of Romanticism.

Herman Melville and Thomas Carlyle are post-Romantic writers.[1] Flaubert's Madame Bovary is a post-Romantic novel.[2] The period of post-romanticism in poetry is defined as the late nineteenth century, and includes the poetry of Tennyson.[3]


Post-Romanticism in music

Post-romanticism in music referred to Romantic composers who would use forms that were found typically in the Classical and Baroque while still retaining aspects of the Romantic era. Among the most well known Post-Romantic composers are Giacomo Puccini and Sergei Rachmaninov. Arthur Berger describes the mysticism of La Jeune France as post-Romanticism rather than neo-Romanticism.[4] Hans Pfitzner also wrote post-Romantic works such as his opera Palestrina.

Quite unlike Late Romantic composers such as Richard Strauss and Alexander Scriabin, the composers of the Post-Romantic created music that would use either or both traditional form and harmony. Béla Bartók, for example, "in such Strauss-influenced works as Duke Bluebeard's Castle," may be described as having still used, "dissonance ['such intervals as fourths and sevenths'] for purposes of post-Romantic expression, not simply [always] as an appeal to the primal art of sound" - unlike Arnold Schoenberg and Strauss himself, who both believed in "a mythology of historical progress in Western music".[5]


I would forgive anyone who stopped reading this explication of "post-Romanticism" when she encountered the "information" that Melville, Tennyson, and Flaubert were post-Romantic writers, though a group of poets are always separated chronologically between Romantic and Victorian in anthologies. The Victorian poets were clearly continuations of English Romanticism if somewhat (and perhaps necessarily) inferior to its greatest masters. Melville was as deeply a 19th-century (Romantic if you must) writer as the US produced, and I never saw Flaubert on any syllabus for a course entitled "French Post-Romantic Writers."

The situation with regard to music may be even more complicated, but I deliberately limited the list in my previous post to composers who struggled to find their own creative voice while dreading the dip of their toes into the necessary transition to modernism, yet ended up creating that phenomenon whether they wanted to or not, even when they wrote tonal music. (Maybe I should have left off Debussy with his self-confident idiosyncratic anti-Germanic solution to the problem.) Obviously, those composers figured things out differently for themselves, but I would take issue with anyone who thinks that even Mahler's First Symphony belongs with Brahms the way Tennyson still belongs with Keats.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by John F » Thu Mar 27, 2014 11:52 pm

The Wikipedia article may not be very satisfying, but it affirms the existence of a category called post-Romanticism in music, and I'm serious about that. When I was at WHRB doing classical music programming, we varied music by period and texture, and post-Romantic/Impressionist was one of the periods we varied between. Perhaps there's no intellectually rock-solid definition of post-Romanticism to distinguish it from what came before and after - yours is as good as any - but then the same is true of Modernism. For us, Mahler was as definitely a post-Romantic as Debussy was an Impressionist.

As for post-modernism in literature, we never encountered this term when I was studying English in college, but there was indeed a period between the English Romantics and Modernists, and it was called Victorian literature. (In the literatures of other countries it doubtless had other names and I don't know what they are.) Romantic and Victorian literature were taught in different courses using different anthologies, and the division wasn't merely chronological. That's all I'll say about literature, as the topic here is music.
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Lance » Fri Mar 28, 2014 1:39 am

Sue, I did a search on "irony" to, perhaps, have a better understanding how it relates to music. This is it (courtesy of Wiki):

Irony (from Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία (eirōneía), meaning "dissimulation, feigned ignorance", in its broadest sense, is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or event characterized by an incongruity, or contrast, between what the expectations of a situation are and what is really the case, with a third element, that defines that what is really the case is ironic because of the situation that led to it. The term may be further defined into several categories, among which are: verbal, dramatic, and situational. Verbal, dramatic, and situational irony are often used for emphasis in the assertion of a truth. The ironic form of simile, used in sarcasm, and some forms of litotes can emphasize one's meaning by the deliberate use of language which states the opposite of the truth, denies the contrary of the truth, or drastically and obviously understates a factual connection. Other forms, as identified by historian Connop Thirlwall, include dialectic and practical irony.

That said, it took me a long time to enjoy the music of Mahler, whom I would not do without in my listening practices today. (Under age 20, his music was tough to take.) Mahler's Third Symphony is a masterpiece and one of the longest symphonies in the entire literature for orchestra. Early on, it was only the Symphony No. 1 ("Titan") that first caught my ear in an early Dimitri Mitropoulos/Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra recording from the days of 78s (since stunningly remastered for CD). That was my first exposure and that symphony stuck ever since. In the two-sectioned/six movements, the other devices Mahler used, a singer, usually a mezzo-soprano, sings and the use of a posthorn (or sometimes trumpet) was another special feature. The most "mysterious" movements are the third and fourth sections (Comodo - and Sehr langsam). [My reference recording has always been the one conducted by James Levine/Chicago Symphony Orchestra on RCA though there are many brilliant recorded performances.]

I took the following from Wiki, once again, but whilst doing that I was wondering what YOU were interested in finding in the music of Mahler. I suppose you might find ultra-sensitivity and touching compositional writing in either of his two song cycles: Song of the Wayfarer and Kindertotenlieder (Songs for Dead Children). Talk about a heart in music ... it's there.

Here's the Wiki article, in part:

In its final form, the work has six movements, grouped into two parts:

1) Kräftig. Entschieden (Strong and decisive) [D minor to F major]
2) Tempo di Menuetto (In the tempo of a minuet) [A major]
3) Comodo (Scherzando) (Comfortably, like a scherzo) [C minor to C major]
4) Sehr langsam—Misterioso (Very slowly, mysteriously) [A minor]
5) Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck (Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression) [F major]
6) Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden (Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt) [D major]

The first movement alone, with a normal duration of a little more than thirty minutes, sometimes forty, forms Part One of the symphony. Part Two consists of the other five movements and has a duration of about sixty to seventy minutes.
As with each of his first four symphonies, Mahler originally provided a programme of sorts to explain the narrative of the piece. At different times, he shared evolving versions of a program for the third symphony with various friends, including Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a close friend and confidante, Anna von Mildenburg, the dramatic soprano and Mahler's lover during the summer of 1896 when he was completing the symphony, and Max Marschalk, a music critic. In its simplest form, the program consists of a title for each of the six movements:

"Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In"
"What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me"
"What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me"
"What Man Tells Me"
"What the Angels Tell Me"
"What Love Tells Me"
____________________________________________

Indeed, there are more performances and more recordings of all of Mahler's symphonies available (I have many myself), and the public seems most fascinated with this music, more than I ever thought they might.

And as for Norman Lebrecht, few music lovers in the know that I know do not take him seriously. He has the ability, however, to be very convincing at times.

Anyway, just my two cents about Mahler and his "irony", the Third Symphony, and Mr. Lebrecht. My suggestion is to keep listening and you will be magnetized to this music the more you listen.
Lance G. Hill
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Fri Mar 28, 2014 2:24 am

Thanks so much, Lance, for your thoughts on this. I do have some of this information from yesterday's lecture, as it happens.

You ask what I expected to find in the music of Mahler: I guess my answer would be I was listening out for the reasons so many people enjoy these symphonies and why they speak so highly - and which has alluded me for over 50 years of listening!! Those song cycles you mention of Mahlers are very dear to me. I just prefer more concision in my symphonies.

I listened to your program on Sunday (10am EADT) on Antonio Meneses and Maria Pirez. Lance, it was great to hear your lovely, rich speaking voice!!!!

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by lennygoran » Fri Mar 28, 2014 4:39 am

karlhenning wrote:Not your fault, Len . . . but how weird of the Wiki-woose to gloss over Berlioz!
Karl thanks--would that be the work John F refers to in the following message:
"Berlioz's "Romeo and Juliet" symphony."

Never heard of this but I love Berlioz. How embarrassing--just checked my records and I have the symphony--I'll definitely play it this weekend. Regards, Len :)

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Marc » Fri Mar 28, 2014 5:50 am

Tarantella wrote:[....] These comments are entirely my own opinions: Mahler suits the zeitgeist. Everything about our world is large and somewhat grand in style - large TV screens and wide cinematic aspect ratio, huge public spectacles (fireworks, sport and the like), grand opera, over-the-top rock performances in an arena, large rock festivals and big, noisy megaplex films. Everything is BIG these days and that sensibility can easily accommodate the VASTNESS of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony (just to name two composers). The era of the intimate (chamber music, plays etc.) seems to have advanced to the rear (if you'll pardon the paradox)!
If these were really the only signs of the Zeitgeist, then it would be hard to explain the popularity of HIP, small ensembles and OVPP in Renaissance, Baroque and Classical (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al) music.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Fri Mar 28, 2014 6:19 am

That's the beauty of it though - we're capable of experiencing more than one thing at a time! My argument is that the spirit of the age has lent itself to things BIGGER in scale than ever before.
Last edited by Tarantella on Fri Mar 28, 2014 7:19 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Marc » Fri Mar 28, 2014 6:22 am

Tarantella wrote:That's the beauty of it though - we're capable of having more than one time at a time!
Exactly!

We're capable of almost anything!

:)

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by karlhenning » Fri Mar 28, 2014 8:54 am

jbuck919 wrote:Interjecting for whatever it's worth, I looked up dates, and Mahler's first (1888) was only three years after Brahms's fourth, and nine years before Brahms died. Yet I have great difficulty thinking of Mahler as a 19th century composer [...]
I have the opposite difficulty: he doesn't strike me at all as a 20th-c. composer : )

Cheers,
~Karl
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by arepo » Fri Mar 28, 2014 9:43 am

For some wonderful insight into Mahler's 3rd symphony, I would get the recording of this masterpiece by Ben Zander on Telarc, which includes a full CD on Zander's analysis of how the composer formed this work and highlights with great success what to listen for.

Thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile listening. Of all the symphonies, the third is still my favorite.



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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by sans maitre » Fri Mar 28, 2014 10:01 pm

karlhenning wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:Interjecting for whatever it's worth, I looked up dates, and Mahler's first (1888) was only three years after Brahms's fourth, and nine years before Brahms died. Yet I have great difficulty thinking of Mahler as a 19th century composer [...]
I have the opposite difficulty: he doesn't strike me at all as a 20th-c. composer : )

Cheers,
~Karl
C'mon he is as much a 20th century composer as his greatest musical heir and imitator, Shostakovich

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by barney » Fri Mar 28, 2014 11:00 pm

Tarantella wrote:Thanks so much, Lance, for your thoughts on this. I do have some of this information from yesterday's lecture, as it happens.

You ask what I expected to find in the music of Mahler: I guess my answer would be I was listening out for the reasons so many people enjoy these symphonies and why they speak so highly - and which has alluded me for over 50 years of listening!! Those song cycles you mention of Mahlers are very dear to me. I just prefer more concision in my symphonies.

I listened to your program on Sunday (10am EADT) on Antonio Meneses and Maria Pirez. Lance, it was great to hear your lovely, rich speaking voice!!!!
How do you feel about other 20th century composers - Shostakovich or Britten or the Vienna school, for example? Does Mahler alone elude you or does the breakdown of established structure cause distress?

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by barney » Fri Mar 28, 2014 11:04 pm

Marc wrote:
Tarantella wrote:[....] These comments are entirely my own opinions: Mahler suits the zeitgeist. Everything about our world is large and somewhat grand in style - large TV screens and wide cinematic aspect ratio, huge public spectacles (fireworks, sport and the like), grand opera, over-the-top rock performances in an arena, large rock festivals and big, noisy megaplex films. Everything is BIG these days and that sensibility can easily accommodate the VASTNESS of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony (just to name two composers). The era of the intimate (chamber music, plays etc.) seems to have advanced to the rear (if you'll pardon the paradox)!
If these were really the only signs of the Zeitgeist, then it would be hard to explain the popularity of HIP, small ensembles and OVPP in Renaissance, Baroque and Classical (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al) music.
It seems to me a mistake to "dismiss" Mahler as an epic composer. Like Wagner, his vast canvasses include plenty of intimate sections or moments, lots of quiet beauty. And the orchestras are big but the textures are often fine, even translucent.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Fri Mar 28, 2014 11:18 pm

barney wrote:
Marc wrote:
Tarantella wrote:[....] These comments are entirely my own opinions: Mahler suits the zeitgeist. Everything about our world is large and somewhat grand in style - large TV screens and wide cinematic aspect ratio, huge public spectacles (fireworks, sport and the like), grand opera, over-the-top rock performances in an arena, large rock festivals and big, noisy megaplex films. Everything is BIG these days and that sensibility can easily accommodate the VASTNESS of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony (just to name two composers). The era of the intimate (chamber music, plays etc.) seems to have advanced to the rear (if you'll pardon the paradox)!
If these were really the only signs of the Zeitgeist, then it would be hard to explain the popularity of HIP, small ensembles and OVPP in Renaissance, Baroque and Classical (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al) music.
It seems to me a mistake to "dismiss" Mahler as an epic composer. Like Wagner, his vast canvasses include plenty of intimate sections or moments, lots of quiet beauty. And the orchestras are big but the textures are often fine, even translucent.
Of course, you are quite right - Mahler concentrates on sections of the orchestra rather than the whole orchestra most of the time. But I think you would agree that, by sheer timing alone, these are works on a huge scale. I'm not dismissing Maher as I have said I enjoy his song cycles very much. It's those mammoth symphonies which annoy me. And I do think that our particular period - where bigger seems to be the order of the day - is part of his renewed importance. But, never mind - this is my opinion entirely and you obviously don't share that.

I love music which is atonal, tonal, modal - it doesn't matter. But I don't like sprawling symphonies which just go on and on and on and I agree with my friend who observed that "Mahler needed an editor". These thoughts don't arise from a position of ignorance - God knows I've tried with Mahler and Bruckner, if only to placate those who might suggest philistinism is behind my antipathy. I've made the move to Wagner, recently, and am really enjoying that.

Let me try and explain this better. I listen for structure in symphonies and this sense of there being a structure - a coherent whole - is a significant part of my enjoyment; inter-relationships or the 'contest' between keys which constitutes the 'narrative arc' (if you like) of sonata allegro, or 'first movement sonata form'. Motivic development, in the case of the classicists, or thematic transformation in the case of the 'romantics', is part of that and I don't get any sense of it at all with Mahler, which comes across to me as a collection of tunes/themes. To my ears, the music meanders and it was not without reason that many participants observed last Thursday that "Mahler's music sounds like film music". It is 'descriptive'; highly 'programmatic', though Mahler eshewed this by discarding his 'program' after construction of his works. In short, Mahler's symphonies sound more like extended tone poems to me rather than symphonies. That is not to detract from his magical skills as an orchestrator. And symphonies with 1,000 participants? Less is more. (I said the same thing to my English lecturer about "Paradise Lost". So I have "form"!!)

Brahms, on the other hand, is often accused of writing thick, overly-dense textures; I find the opposite because I hear him working within a tight framework of logic, no less than Shakespeare did when he created little worlds in that extraordinary 14 line vessel known as the "Sonnet".

Thanks for taking an interest in this discussion.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Fri Mar 28, 2014 11:35 pm

John F wrote:Maybe Lebrecht's writings on Mahler deserve to be taken more seriously than his other stuff. I wouldn't know. Tarantella, if your friend is a Lebrecht fan, or if he's not one to read and think critically, it probably isn't worth picking a fight with him. But maybe he'd be interested in some examples of musical irony before Mahler, and that might give him a hint.
John F, my friend has emailed me in response to this issue of irony (I couldn't help relaying what you'd said) and this is his contribution:

The Sophocles example is indeed an example of dramatic irony, but in Die Walküre the irony is not wholly musical as it depends on the on-stage action. But it is certainly dramatic irony. The Mozart example is provocative: it could be described as irony in the sense that the meaning of the popular song is different from the meaning of the violin sonata. I do recognise and enjoy the humour in Haydn, and believe that we really can’t understand him in any depth without recognising the humour. I’m not ready to say whether or not his humour is ironic, but – like Lebrecht’s opinion about Mahler – it makes me think of the music in a new way, and that is what I like. P.D.Q Bach: I’d need to listen again! It’s been a long time since he was around. Funny, he seems more old fashioned than J.S. Bach. Not that I think J.S. is old-fashioned!! Funny isn’t it that Bing Crosby and P.D.Q. seem old fashioned when – to my mind at least – Louis Armstrong and, say, Monteverdi – do not. Is this a case of irony? Here newer music seems older than older music.

Thank you for this stimulating conversation. For me music is a thinking activity as much as just a listening activity. I now feel a bit more confident in using the word irony.


Well!!

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Music and Irony

Post by SONNET CLV » Fri Mar 28, 2014 11:53 pm

Tarantella wrote: "Norman Lebrecht identifies Mahler as the first composer to write ironic music". I think this is worthy of further exploration.

In some real sense, all art is ironical. Recall Plato. In Poetics the philosopher reminds us that art imitates nature. That is a basic irony – that we humans, whose consciousnesses have torn us out of the rhythm of nature (represented by instinct), attempt to reconnect to nature through art, attempt to remake nature (through artifice) by way of our “art”.

The Sophocles Oedipus was mentioned a time or two in this thread. That play remains a classic study of irony, one in which irony may well be the sole point. It’s a play about a man who only sees when he becomes blind. The wise prophet of the play, blind Tiresias, tells Oedipus as much early in the play. “When you are blind like me,” he says to Oedipus, “then you will see the truth of who you are.”

Not only does blindness allow us to see the truth of ourselves, the truth of ourselves (our consciousness) is that thing that makes us blind.

That’s what humanness is all about – that basic irony that we must become blind (lose the instincts that propel the rest of the natural world through its daily existence, quite effectively, too) in order to see ourselves (in other words, to be conscious, sentient, aware). At the moment we recognize who we are (when we say “I am”) we become blind (lose the instincts that previously got us by), and when we become blind we know who we are. We are all Oedipus.

The Genesis story is the same story as Oedipus. In fact, as Robert Graves in a wonderful poem titled “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” reminds us: “There is one story and one story only.” The Genesis tale features a man who, like Oedipus, kills his father (sins against God) and, again like Oedipus, marries his mother (embraces the Earth as a planter of seed, one who will have to bend his back and toil the soil in order to eat). His name, fittingly, is Adam, from the old Hebrew for “clay” or “earth”. And that is indeed what Yahweh made him from – clay. If Yahweh is Adam’s father, the clay is Adam’s mother. Adam symbolically kills his father (sins against God, rejecting him) and symbolically marries his mother (embraces the earth and its foodstuffs in order to survive outside Eden). Recall that poignant moment when Adam and Eve first partake of the forbidden fruit; the very next line in the text informs us that “They saw that they were naked.” One asks, why didn’t they see that before? Of course the answer is, they were not conscious. The story itself is a metaphor for those greatest mysteries of humanity – why do I exist? And why do I know it?
Adam and Eve must sin against God (step outside the Garden, the natural, the instinctual) in order to become human. I’ve often wondered why so many of the Christian persuasion lament the sins of these two Genesis characters. Had they not sinned, they would still be wandering around Eden naming animals, and we would not exist. I, for one, like existing; and I especially enjoy knowing the fact.

The irony of our consciousness is that it provides us with suffering. The non-aware do not suffer. And I talk about suffering in the deepest, most profound sense – contemplation of our own demise. Had we remained creatures of instinct, we would get along quite well (In fact, as a species we did, without awareness of our being, for some good million or so years!) And we wouldn’t worry about death, or of preserving our memories for posterity.

Which brings us to art. The ancient cave bison painter, among the first generations of conscious humans, spent time applying pigments to a wall in order to capture the essence of a creature in his scope of being. Why? He couldn’t eat the thing, he couldn’t use it to clothe himself, it provided no shelter against elements. And no other “animals” were wasting time creating art. (Spiders do not spin artful webs – they unconsciously manipulate strands of protein crystals and amino acids as their unknowing DNA instructs them to. And they create exactly the same web each and every time, each and every generation – until a mutation happens, but that’s another story.) The artful human was attempting to create the natural, to become part of nature, to join with that which he in his consciousness had lost, to revere the thing lost, that sacredness of the natural. And also, ironically, to attempt to preserve himself beyond that great suffering thing called death.

My painting will be here when I am not. My art, music, poem will preserve my consciousness when I am gone.
Every artist is wrestling with the irony of creation – to fashion the lost web, to create in consciousness what we did not need or know in our prior unconscious state. To create ourselves (as if we are not already in existence). To maintain ourselves against the inevitable demise.

It’s ironic that this most unnatural stuff, art, is what most naturally defines us as human. Could we even be human without art?

A final note on the irony of music. Let’s talk about Mozart. Mozart is often called “the most natural of composers”, or we say his music is “the most natural”. Yet, the irony is that Mozart, in his human perfection as a composer, remains the most unnatural musician. Birds produce a natural music, not Mozart. Yet, a bird’s song is not music at all. It is designated music only by us, conscious human beings for whom naming things is “natural”. (What was Adam’s first job?)

Beethoven takes his cue for the Ninth Symphony from Schiller’s 1785 “Ode to Joy”. Recall the opening lines: Freude, schöner Götterfunken,/ Tochter aus Elysium,/ Wir betreten feuertrunken,/ Himmlische, dein Heiligtum! How not to reflect upon that ancient myth of Prometheus, the fire stealer, when we hear “we enter Heaven fire drunk”. Even Joy itself is “a spark of the gods”. Beethoven’s great symphony recognizes the very irony of human existence. Prometheus stole fire in order to civilize his creations (men). (Recall Beethoven also wrote The Creatures of Prometheus. He was fascinated by the Promethean myth, as were many Romantic artists. Mary Shelley, anyone? Her Frankenstein Creature was animated with a spark of lightning, fire from the heavens.) Zeus warns Prometheus that man will use fire to destroy the gods. Which they do. (That original Greek fire was techne, craft/art, the basis for our term technology, the “science” that we use to “destroy the gods”.) But Prometheus disobeys Zeus and suffers a terrible punishment – he is impaled on a mountain side and every day he is de-livered by a predatory bird. (It’s interesting to note the parallel to Christ – crucified, impaled in the sky, mid-way between Heaven and Earth, his side plucked open by a Roman spearman.) Of course, the punishment for Prometheus is wise – Zeus duplicates in Prometheus the sensation of being human, to be chained to existence, to be limited and meant to suffer daily. Beethoven spends three fourths of his Symphony extolling the motif of “sad tones” (human existence) before we come to the apotheosis of joy, which is always a human expectation – to return to the Garden. Yet it is only ever a hope; there can be no definitive knowledge. Schiller reminds us: Brüder, überm Sternenzelt/ Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen! That hope that some god must reside beyond the stars is the most ironic of human aspirations. It is in defiance that man becomes man, steps away from the natural, the instinctual, the godlike, to become a creature of consciousness – a bison painter, a writer of lyrics, a composer of music. All our attempts at creation, the very thing we despised according to our myths.

Art cannot exist without its necessary link to irony. So, all music is ironic. But we knew that, didn’t we?

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Re: Music and Irony

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Mar 29, 2014 1:31 pm

SONNET CLV wrote: The Genesis story is the same story as Oedipus. In fact, as Robert Graves in a wonderful poem titled “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” reminds us: “There is one story and one story only.” The Genesis tale features a man who, like Oedipus, kills his father (sins against God) and, again like Oedipus, marries his mother (embraces the Earth as a planter of seed, one who will have to bend his back and toil the soil in order to eat). His name, fittingly, is Adam, from the old Hebrew for “clay” or “earth”. And that is indeed what Yahweh made him from – clay. If Yahweh is Adam’s father, the clay is Adam’s mother. Adam symbolically kills his father (sins against God, rejecting him) and symbolically marries his mother (embraces the earth and its foodstuffs in order to survive outside Eden). Recall that poignant moment when Adam and Eve first partake of the forbidden fruit; the very next line in the text informs us that “They saw that they were naked.” One asks, why didn’t they see that before? Of course the answer is, they were not conscious. The story itself is a metaphor for those greatest mysteries of humanity – why do I exist? And why do I know it?
Adam and Eve must sin against God (step outside the Garden, the natural, the instinctual) in order to become human. I’ve often wondered why so many of the Christian persuasion lament the sins of these two Genesis characters. Had they not sinned, they would still be wandering around Eden naming animals, and we would not exist. I, for one, like existing; and I especially enjoy knowing the fact.
Mother Earth is parallel to Jocasta? Disobeying God is the same as killing your father? You've been reading the wrong exegesis/explication. :) (Robert Graves + the BBC also would have had us all thinking that all sorts of things he made up about the Augustan period of the Roman Empire are historical truth.) There is irony in the Genesis story, of course, which is that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, yet ended up spawning a race that as often as not behaves as if it did not know, or cannot be sure of, the difference between good and evil. That is very profound, but not the same as Oedipus. In fact, it is rather the opposite, since when Oedipus realized what he had done he knew exactly how evil it was. In one story, people's eyes are supposedly opened but they are still morally blind, though unexcused of culpability because they can no longer plead ignorance. In the other, a man blinds himself because his eyes have been truly opened, and he is guilty in spite of being excusable on the grounds of ignorance.

I leave it at that one comment. I did enjoy your post.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Music and Irony

Post by SONNET CLV » Sat Mar 29, 2014 3:32 pm

jbuck919 wrote: You've been reading the wrong exegesis/explication.

...the Genesis story, of course, which is that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil...

...Oedipus. In fact, it is rather the opposite,...

Frankly, your comment attests to the power of great literature -- that it lives, that its frustrates any single interpretation, much as does a human consciousness, and that it allows for an expansive exploration and ever new discoveries. Had these works, Genesis and the Oedipus, been lesser, we would not be still reading them (and debating them!) today.

My own observations derive from years of reading the works, of researching and teaching them, of rethinking and reevaluating my thinking of them. I'm pleased to report that I do not feel satisfied I have arrived at the end point of knowing these works, and I shall continue reading and rethinking.

But the root metaphor remains the same, regardless of the plot patterns in the two works. An explanation for humanness. Killing of one's father proves a common theme throughout literature, though it is more often than not symbolic rather than literal. And so is the marrying of one's mother. In order to gain consciousness, awareness of ourselves as beings, we had to eschew instincts. That is a primary symbolic means of slaying one's originator. We then had to embrace a new way of existing, one full of conscious decision; we had to be re-born, yet we had to do so within the world given us -- Nature. It's no accident that we call Nature by the term Mother. So, without our instincts we are like new born babes in a dangerous and threatening place, and only by wedding ourselves to the rhythms of Nature, embracing the Mother, can we survive.

The Oedipus story has ancient roots in Egypt where analogues to the Genesis tales can also be found. Both tales, taken as religious statements at various times, speak much for the creative thoughts of our ancestors who had many more questions than answers. I'm pleased to think that we today have even more questions and even fewer answers. That's a good reason to go on.

I do not read Genesis religiously, and I believe it has been perverted nearly beyond salvage by those over the centuries who have. Its unfortunate that we lie too many redactions, editions, and translations away from what must have at one time been the most moving and elemental of stories. I lament that we shall never see the pure version of that story. But we do have a somewhat more secure manuscript with the Sophocles play. Let us continue to read both.

I must say that when I opened the Chatterbox this afternoon I was playing Bach. A new recording just arrived in my mail. The Freiburger Barockorchester on the harmonia mundi label -- HMC 902176.77 -- of the Brandenburg Concertos. And stunning performances they are. Brilliantly etched sound from what seems authentically tooled instruments. The French horn blasts in Number One rocked my listening space.

This acquisition marks my umpteenth version of the Brandenburgs. I've long lost count. Which serves to remind me why I and you visit such places as this Chatterbox, and why we can disagree on works of art. I search aurally for "the perfect Brandenburgs" realizing all the while that such can never be and should never be ... and yet, in some significant way, always is. Bach wrote for living beings who could never blow, pluck, hammer the same note twice the same way. We like living things, don't we? But to be able to hear so many differing interpretations ... that is certainly something worth living for.

I mentioned the Bach because Bach appears in your signature line. Thank you jbuck919 for reading my post.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by John F » Sat Mar 29, 2014 4:44 pm

SONNET CLV wrote:I search aurally for "the perfect Brandenburgs"
For me it's the opposite. I want different recordings and performances to reveal different aspects of the music and/or different aspects of the performers. A performance ought to be a learning experience about the music, about music generally, and also possibly about myself. Naturally I'd like it to please me too. :) What interests me least is a literal and precisely accurate reading of the musical text, which for me is redundant (at least in familiar music) though for others it may seem like a "perfect" rendition.
John Francis

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Mar 29, 2014 5:02 pm

One might think that we would search in vain for irony in the Brandenburgs, but if we extend the definition far enough, we find it in the second one. What could have been more beautifully weird to people hearing it for the first time than the entry of the trumpet in the first movement? I can just imagine people keeling over in surprised laughter to hear this outburst from the town trumpeter in a piece where they had been led down the primrose path to expect anything but this.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by John F » Sat Mar 29, 2014 6:17 pm

Seems to me that in this thread "irony" has become a catch-all term for anything at all unusual or unexpected. The word for that is "surprise."
John Francis

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Mar 29, 2014 6:52 pm

John F wrote:Seems to me that in this thread "irony" has become a catch-all term for anything at all unusual or unexpected. The word for that is "surprise."
Yes, but I don't find the use of "pop music" in Mozart (or Bach--Goldberg Variations quodlibet) to be truly ironic either. The correct word for that might be "funny." I just didn't want to argue the point after your first post here.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by lennygoran » Sat Mar 29, 2014 7:23 pm

jbuck919 wrote:
Yes, but I don't find the use of "pop music" in Mozart (or Bach--Goldberg Variations quodlibet) to be truly ironic either.
Well I had a surprise tonight--my first listening ever to Mahler's 3rd--not ironic at all, just surprising--interesting work with some stuff I could connect to--still it is rather sprawling and all over the place--I heard enough to make we want to hear it again--didn't get through the whole symphony--dinner was ready before the symphony finished--I think I like Bruckner better? Regards, Len

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Mar 29, 2014 7:56 pm

lennygoran wrote: I heard enough to make we want to hear it again--didn't get through the whole symphony.
I frequently have the same problem with Mahler, even after multiple hearings. I just didn't say so because I don't want to open yet another can of worms. :)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by SONNET CLV » Sat Mar 29, 2014 9:08 pm

jbuck919 wrote:One might think that we would search in vain for irony in the Brandenburgs, ...

I wonder ... Bach apparently presented the six concerti to the Margrave of Brandenburg, one would think with some hope that they would be performed. So why would the composer produce music so advanced that the Margrave and his musicians would find it impossible to play? Certainly the composer, who one can imagine was well tuned to the abilities of musicians, knew better. The concerti apparently were never performed by the Margrave's band. It seems there is some irony there.

If not, perhaps one will find some in the following sentence from Bach's dedication to the Margrave?

Code: Select all

As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness's commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness's most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by SONNET CLV » Sat Mar 29, 2014 9:11 pm

John F wrote:
SONNET CLV wrote:I search aurally for "the perfect Brandenburgs"
For me it's the opposite.

I suggest we are not in opposition at all.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Sat Mar 29, 2014 9:13 pm

SONNET CLV wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:One might think that we would search in vain for irony in the Brandenburgs, ...

I wonder ... Bach apparently presented the six concerti to the Margrave of Brandenburg, one would think with some hope that they would be performed. So why would the composer produce music so advanced that the Margrave and his musicians would find it impossible to play? Certainly the composer, who one can imagine was well tuned to the abilities of musicians, knew better. The concerti apparently were never performed by the Margrave's band. It seems there is some irony there.

If not, perhaps one will find some in the following sentence from Bach's dedication to the Margrave?

Code: Select all

As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness's commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness's most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.
I submit that the irony is not contained in the music per se, but is an extra-musical idea to do with Bach's subservience to some minor member of the aristocracy. This is Bach playing politics.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Mar 29, 2014 9:29 pm

SONNET CLV wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:One might think that we would search in vain for irony in the Brandenburgs, ...
I wonder ... Bach apparently presented the six concerti to the Margrave of Brandenburg, one would think with some hope that they would be performed. So why would the composer produce music so advanced that the Margrave and his musicians would find it impossible to play? Certainly the composer, who one can imagine was well tuned to the abilities of musicians, knew better. The concerti apparently were never performed by the Margrave's band. It seems there is some irony there.
Well, that would not be irony inherent in the music. (Edit: I just checked the previous post and Tarantella said pretty much the same thing.) Setting aside Bach's usual nauseating sycophantic style of addressing nobility, which was necessary at the time but must have given him a dyspeptic night every time he had to do it, I don't believe for a minute that he ever "smarted up" a composition. It seems to me obvious, lacking evidence to the contrary, that for most of his career Bach's instrumental performers by and large adored him for giving them a challenge. Every serious musician understands the thrill of being stretched to the limits of what he or she can perform, and this cannot have changed since the 18th century. After finding literally everything else presented to them to be sight reading material, undoubtedly any proficient force of the time faced with a Bach score would have found themselves in heaven at the challenge.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

SONNET CLV
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by SONNET CLV » Sat Mar 29, 2014 9:40 pm

On the topic of Mahler and irony ....

Mahler famously remarked to Sibelius: “A Symphony must be like the world - it must contain everything”.

If so, why did Mahler need write more than one all encompassing symphony? If the symphony contained everything ...?

The First Symphony seems to arise out of utter silence, kind of like birth. Appropriately enough, the Ninth recedes into utter silence, kind of like death. What was Mahler up to with that unfinished Tenth? It seems he had the perfect "symphony" if one views numbers one through nine as a single gargantuan work. Was the Tenth a look beyond into the silence? Is it an irony that it remains unfinished, or is that something else?

Strangely, or ironically, Mahler loved Nature and attempted to convey it in the symphonies. One must wonder why? Nature exists with a grand perfection of purity on its own. And it contains everything! Surely a mere human composer cannot think to capture it in the confines of even a "wastefully large" symphonic band score. Shouldn't one who loved Nature and believed that a symphony should contain everything be content to leave well enough alone in the realization that Nature contains everything and exists as the perfect symphony? What was Mahler doing trying to write a symphony that could only be lesser than Nature and never be close to containing all there is to contain?

Of course, Mahler could never compose a symphony that contained everything. How could he? How could a single work contain everything?

It's ironic that Mahler's "everything" turns out to be quite a drop in the bucket, especially if one surveys each of the composer's symphonies one by one. Each is huge, wonderful, and unique, but certainly not a world containing everything. Otherwise they would be annoyingly repetitive, the same from one to another. Or they would resemble Nature! Alas, Mahler failed to achieve his own design. Mahler a failure as a symphonist? Ironic, indeed.

barney
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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by barney » Sat Mar 29, 2014 9:57 pm

Tarantella wrote:
barney wrote:
Marc wrote:
Tarantella wrote:[....] These comments are entirely my own opinions: Mahler suits the zeitgeist. Everything about our world is large and somewhat grand in style - large TV screens and wide cinematic aspect ratio, huge public spectacles (fireworks, sport and the like), grand opera, over-the-top rock performances in an arena, large rock festivals and big, noisy megaplex films. Everything is BIG these days and that sensibility can easily accommodate the VASTNESS of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony (just to name two composers). The era of the intimate (chamber music, plays etc.) seems to have advanced to the rear (if you'll pardon the paradox)!
If these were really the only signs of the Zeitgeist, then it would be hard to explain the popularity of HIP, small ensembles and OVPP in Renaissance, Baroque and Classical (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al) music.
It seems to me a mistake to "dismiss" Mahler as an epic composer. Like Wagner, his vast canvasses include plenty of intimate sections or moments, lots of quiet beauty. And the orchestras are big but the textures are often fine, even translucent.
Of course, you are quite right - Mahler concentrates on sections of the orchestra rather than the whole orchestra most of the time. But I think you would agree that, by sheer timing alone, these are works on a huge scale. I'm not dismissing Maher as I have said I enjoy his song cycles very much. It's those mammoth symphonies which annoy me. And I do think that our particular period - where bigger seems to be the order of the day - is part of his renewed importance. But, never mind - this is my opinion entirely and you obviously don't share that.

I love music which is atonal, tonal, modal - it doesn't matter. But I don't like sprawling symphonies which just go on and on and on and I agree with my friend who observed that "Mahler needed an editor". These thoughts don't arise from a position of ignorance - God knows I've tried with Mahler and Bruckner, if only to placate those who might suggest philistinism is behind my antipathy. I've made the move to Wagner, recently, and am really enjoying that.

Let me try and explain this better. I listen for structure in symphonies and this sense of there being a structure - a coherent whole - is a significant part of my enjoyment; inter-relationships or the 'contest' between keys which constitutes the 'narrative arc' (if you like) of sonata allegro, or 'first movement sonata form'. Motivic development, in the case of the classicists, or thematic transformation in the case of the 'romantics', is part of that and I don't get any sense of it at all with Mahler, which comes across to me as a collection of tunes/themes. To my ears, the music meanders and it was not without reason that many participants observed last Thursday that "Mahler's music sounds like film music". It is 'descriptive'; highly 'programmatic', though Mahler eshewed this by discarding his 'program' after construction of his works. In short, Mahler's symphonies sound more like extended tone poems to me rather than symphonies. That is not to detract from his magical skills as an orchestrator. And symphonies with 1,000 participants? Less is more. (I said the same thing to my English lecturer about "Paradise Lost". So I have "form"!!)

Brahms, on the other hand, is often accused of writing thick, overly-dense textures; I find the opposite because I hear him working within a tight framework of logic, no less than Shakespeare did when he created little worlds in that extraordinary 14 line vessel known as the "Sonnet".

Thanks for taking an interest in this discussion.
I know you are very far from ignorant. That's why i wondered whether it was the form (lack of) that bothered you, and I see that is partly so. Sometimes it's as arbitrary as whether a composer speaks to you (as Mahler does to me). You may not be able to rationalise exactly why, or why not, but that doesn't render the effect any less potent. And an interlocutor might ask probing questions to draw out your reaction, but I don't think there is anything wrong with saying "I can't explain it, I just do/don't love it." And music, even more than poetry, has this effect.

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by Tarantella » Sat Mar 29, 2014 10:25 pm

I'm the kind of person who always likes to try and understand and explain why (to myself) I dislike something, particularly when it has value for others, though I absolutely take your point about the validity of saying "it doesn't speak to me".

I used to teach my students the art of film appreciation and criticism. Part of that process was teaching them that it was never OK to simply say "I didn't like it" without supporting evidence. This isn't easy, but after a while it became easier for teenagers to express their appreciation or dislike once they had the 'tools' they needed to deconstruct and evaluate film. Without that metalanguage all is lost. Some were downright resentful: "Miss, we went to the movies on the weekend and we couldn't enjoy it because all were were thinking about was wide shot, diegetic sound, cross-cutting..."

Then there is personal prejudice; that's a horse of a different colour. I don't know how many times I showed a film - for example, sometimes a 50's black and white drama, another time "The Birdcage" to a group of parochial, macho boys) - to have them complain loudly at first, then settle down to real enjoyment and "play it again miss; we enjoyed that". How many of us have said we didn't like something solely on the basis of personal prejudice?

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by John F » Sun Mar 30, 2014 12:39 am

SONNET CLV wrote:Mahler famously remarked to Sibelius: “A Symphony must be like the world - it must contain everything”.

If so, why did Mahler need write more than one all encompassing symphony? If the symphony contained everything ...?
That's possibly the most famous thing Mahler ever said. But he didn't say it unprovoked. Sibelius had just said to him, "I admire the symphony's style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives." At the time, Sibelius was composing his 3rd symphony, turning away from the expansive Romanticism of his earlier works to Classical forms and methods. Mahler had recently premiered his own 6th symphony, which is certainly expansive and Romantic but formally the most Classical of his symphonies, and if Sibelius knew the piece (he probably did), he might have thought Mahler was on a similar path to his own. Mahler disabused him of that.

Anyway, Mahler didn't say that every symphony must contain everything, of course. Obviously he was speaking of the symphony as a genre, and considering what I've just said about Sibelius's and his own recent work, perhaps he was admonishing Sibelius that the symphony should exclude nothing. His 3rd and 8th symphonies exemplify this attitude; in the years since the Kullervo Symphony, Sibelius had left it behind.
John Francis

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by lennygoran » Sun Mar 30, 2014 5:53 am

jbuck919 wrote:
lennygoran wrote:
I frequently have the same problem with Mahler, even after multiple hearings.
Well I'll continue listening where I left off last night--dinner was ready before the symphony even finished--I'll definitely keep at it--I really want to appreciate him better-I love Sym 1 and 2. Regards, Len

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Re: Mahler and Irony

Post by SONNET CLV » Sun Mar 30, 2014 12:11 pm

lennygoran wrote:... for a guy like me very deficient in familiarity with Mahler....

I envy you as you begin your Mahler quest -- for having an opportunity to actually hear the symphonies for the first time. Mahler's music has been part of my consciousness for fifty years. I seek out new music in order to perhaps capture the delight and wonder I recall upon first encountering so much of Mahler. But seldom do I get that same sense.

I understand you've experienced Symphonies 1 and 2 and have just made acquaintance with No. 3, a profoundly beautiful and vast work. I turn often to the Fifth Movement of that sublime symphony -- where the Knabenchor (Childrens Choir) sings "Bimm bamm bimm bamm." The alto line of that movement contains a lovely passage that anticipates its expansion in the Fourth Symphony, which I take is your logical move from the Third. You may come to cherish the Fourth more than any of the others; it's Mahler at his most delightful, and it's the Mahler I revisit most often (partly due to its shorter length -- it takes some great devotion and time space to settle in for a listen to a Mahler symphony, especially the Third). The Third Symphony ends with a most obvious nod to Beethoven (one of Mahler's gods) and presents a sublime rendering of a portion of that composer's final completed work, the 16th String Quartet in F Major , op 135. It won't surprise me if you turn to that quartet following your listen to the Mahler Third. It's the quartet where Beethoven seems to have arrived at the very answer to the meaning of life. "Must it be? It must be," Beethoven writes into the score at the start of the final movement, a final movement full of dancing laughter and joy. It suggests that Beethoven realized what in the end we should all realize -- that life is a grand joke we must enjoy with laughter or we have simply wasted the experience of being alive.

When you turn to that Mahler Fourth you'll be in the land of laughter and joy. It's not a bad place to be in this age. Savor it a bit before you continue your journey onward. Mahler can't rest where Beethoven finally resides. He moves out of the heavenly realm to explore more and more the corners of the human experience, and he has plenty left to say in the remaining symphonies.

Settle back and enjoy. You will never be the same.

By the way, Mahler is one of those composers whom listening to is especially enhanced with a score in hand, simply because there is so much going on, and if you're not in the concert hall to actually see it the score helps focus on details even the most astute of music playback systems will miss.

Too, you might enjoy reading the following web page before you move forward from Symphony No. 3:

http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/2010/02/0 ... shout-out/

Enjoy.

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