Mahler's Voices: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies

Mahler's Voices: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies

Mahler's Voices: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies

Mahler's Voices: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies


Passionate and intense in one moment, ironic or brash in the next, Mahler's music speaks with a diversity of voices that often undermine its own ideals of unity, narrative struggle and transcendent affirmation. The composer plays constantly with musical genres and styles, moving between them without warning in a way that often bewildered his contemporaries. Ranging freely across Mahler's symphonies and songs in a thoughtful and thorough study of his musical speech, Julian Johnson considers how this body of music foregrounds the idea of artifice, construction and musical convention while at the same time presenting itself as an act of authentic expression and disclosure. Mahler's Voices explores the shaping of this music through strategies of calling forth its own mysterious voice--as if from nature or the Unconscious--while at other times revealing itself as a made object, often self-consciously assembled from familiar and well-worn materials. A unique study not of Mahler's works as such but of Mahler's musical style, Mahler's Voices brings together a close reading of the renowned composer's music with wide-ranging cultural and historical interpretation. Through a radical self-awareness that links the romantic irony of the late 18th-century to the deconstructive attitude of the late 20th-century, Mahler's music forces us to rethink historical categories themselves. Yet what sets it apart, what continues to fascinate and disturb, is the music's ultimate refusal of this position, acknowledging the conventionality of all its voices while at the same time, in the intensity of its tone, speaking "as if" what it said were true. However bound up with the Viennese modernism that Mahler prefigured, the urgency of this act remains powerfully resonant for our own age.


No matter how much you classify and comment on music, historically, socio
logically, aesthetically, technically, there will always be a remainder, a supple
ment, a lapse, something non-spoken which designates itself: the voice.

—Roland Barthes, “Music, Voice, Language”

The Idea of Voice

Mahler’s music presents itself as a kind of telling. It addresses us directly, demanding to be heard and intimating that it has disclosures to make: “Listen, I am going to play something such as you have never heard.” It is romantic in the sense that it demands that we, as listeners, identify subjectively with its musical voice such that it comes to speak powerfully for us. At the same time, it is modern, or even postmodern, in undermining our ability to identify with it by frequent changes of musical voice and critical deconstructions of its own materials. The identity of Mahler’s musical voice becomes elusive as soon as we try to catch hold of it. Not to hear this music as the projection of an expressive voice would seem like an act of willful mishearing. But which expressive voice? Mahler’s music speaks with many voices, even within the same movement. Music that appears to be solemn or heartfelt one moment is suddenly ironic or brash the next. So how do we make sense of this famous plurality of musical voices, and how do we understand a music that is urgently expressive and sincere one moment, but ironic and self-conscious the next?

Edward T. Cone once asked the pertinent question, “If music is a language, then who is speaking?” In answer, Mahler’s music seems to affirm the popular assumption that it is the composer who speaks. We, like Mahler, inherit this view from a nineteenth-century aesthetics of expression, and it is one that seems particularly apt for a music so often linked to its composer’s biography. Mahler himself subscribed to the idea and encouraged others to hear his work this way: “I have written into them everything that I have experienced and endured,” he remarked to Natalie Bauer-Lechner in 1893 of the First and Second Symphonies; in a letter of 1896, in . . .

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