Mahler, Consciousness and Temporality

By Roman, Zoltan | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1984 | Go to article overview
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Mahler, Consciousness and Temporality

Roman, Zoltan, Canadian University Music Review

David B. Greene. Mahler, Consciousness and Temporality. New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1984, x, 314 pp.

In company with only a few other composers, Mahler speaks to us directly about joy and finitude. courage and ordinariness, love and emptiness. He confronts us with matters that are too momentous to grasp at once and too important to be allowed to slip away. If we are to tighten our grip on them, we would do well to begin by describing the vehicles by which lhey come to us: Mahler's musical processes .... To this end I have analyzed in detail four of Mahler's symphonies ....

Music analysis does not have a vocabulary for ultimate matters. For help in pointing toward the vision that the music carries, I have turned to the phenomenologists of our century - particularly Husserl. Heidegger and Sartre - who have concerned themselves with many of the same matters as Mahler. They have systematically thought about the nature of human existence, and, in that context, about the experiences of finitude and joy. The particular meaning they give to consciousness and temporality encapsulates their thinking.... (p- ix).

Thus the prefatory statement of the premises and procedures of this book. The Preface is followed by an Introduction, and four chapters dealing with, in order, the Fifth, Third, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies (several other works by Mahler are discussed in interpolated excursions of varying length). The book concludes with a detailed Subject and Name Index; it is richly illustrated with musical examples and diverse figures and tables. The text is not as free of typographical errors as one might have hoped for from "science publishers"; the worst one of these (the omission of a passage of unknown length on page 13) renders a key section of the Introduction unintelligible. Misprints and other production errors, though, turn out to be the least of this work's flaws.

For those of us who had welcomed David Greene's initial venture into the application of the principles of phenomenology to musical analysis and interpretation (see Greene 1982) as a tentative but promising - even exciting - "first" in a new field, the book before us cannot but be a considerable, and in some respects downright vexatious, disappointment. For in the earlier work, even though its 200-odd pages incorporated a survey of the relevant philosophical thought from Kant to McLuhan, and from Langer to Beardsley, musical concerns and aims were seldom lost from sight, and were invariably paramount in the positing of conclusions, however tentative or, in some cases, surprising. After all, the author himself stated in the Preface to that work that "insights into temporality offered in musical works cannot be exhaustively translated into verbal terms" (p. viii) (my italics). However, that is precisely what Greene now appears to have attempted to do in Mahler, Consciousness and Temporality. Regrettably, all balance between philosophy and music is thus absent from this book, and phenomenology is allowed to run amok. In the end - to the great disservice of the author and the reader, but most of all of Mahler - the music serves only the purpose of supporting the author's philosophical tenets. (As I will show later, this process not infrequently degenerates into making the music fit the idea, if it does not do so readily through analytical observation.)

I could not just yet say whether I will ever become an unreserved champion of the phenomenological exegesis of music. This is due as much to an admittedly less than complete grounding in philosophical thought and process, as to the seemingly unshakable sense of discomfort I have with that original and most basic principle of the method, namely. Husserl's insistence on phenomenology as an a priori investigation rather than as an empirical technique. At the same time, I am by no means an advocate of cut-and-dried (dare I say, sterile) musical analysis. On the contrary, I have always found the best of the hermeneutical studies of Mahler's music, from Bekker (see Bekker 1921) to Floros (see Floros 1977), a source of pleasure and enlightenment.

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