Academic journal article Notes

Mahler on DVD: An Overview of Art Films, Documentaries, and Concert Videos

Academic journal article Notes

Mahler on DVD: An Overview of Art Films, Documentaries, and Concert Videos

Article excerpt

Several recent releases on DVD concern- ing Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) call atten- tion to the ways this medium has in dissem- inating his music not only to the current audiences, but also to future audiences who will benefit from the perspectives found in recent documentaries and various recorded performances. In fact, such an effect is not unique to DVDs, but forms a continuum with the ways in which recorded sound is a longstanding part of Mahler's legacy. The composer's strong presence in early twenty- first century culture relies in many ways on the film and broadcasting culture of the twentieth century, the renaissance of inter- est in Mahler occurred at the centenary of his birth.

While the renewed enthusiasm for Mahler in the mid-twentieth century bene- fits from the composer's champions at the podium, interpreters like Leonard Bern- stein brought the music to audiences be- yond those in attendance through telecasts that took Mahler's name to viewers who might not attend live concerts. Bernstein was not alone in this regard, since other conductors were also known for their broadcasts. For example, the televised per- formances of the Boston Symphony Orches- tra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf include Mahler's First Symphony in a concert from 1963, which is preserved on DVD.1 Several years later the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony received national attention when Bernstein conducted it at the funeral of the assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy on 8 June 1968.2

Events like these brought Mahler's music to various audiences in their homes, with- out involving the cost of concert tickets to hear these works. Beyond such televised im- ages, film became a vehicle for presenting the composer's life and works through mo- tion pictures, documentaries, and concert DVDs. If postmodern culture is familiar with Mahler, it is important to discern the ways in which film popularized the music by making the composer's works accessible outside the concert hall. While Mahler re- ception has been documented in various ways,3 the focus is often on the critical liter- ature. Yet it is important to emphasize the ways in which film has served in Mahler's legacy as the medium for conveying some images of the composer to a large interna- tional audience and also documenting per- formances for future generations. These ef- forts also gave Mahler's work a sense of currency, as his art remains part of the mu- sic culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and endures on DVD.

Biography and Biopics

While references to Mahler occur in vari- ous art films of the twentieth century,4 two works deal directly with the composer: Ken Russell's 1974 retelling of Mahler's life in the eponymously titled motion picture Mahler; and Lucchino Visconti's adaptation of Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice (1971).5 While the latter putatively serves as a film of the famous story, the director brought Mahler into the main part of the story through the transformation of Gustav Aschenbach from an author to a composer whose fictional life resembles in some ways that of Gustav Mahler. Beyond the use of the same given name Gustav, the connec- tion between Aschenbach and Mahler is not unique to Visconti, but part of Mann's intention to memorialize the composer in the description of Aschenbach's face.6 In his film Visconti made Aschenbach a com- poser, who resembles Mahler. Visconti also supported the association with music, by using Mahler's Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony throughout the film. The promi- nence of the latter made Mahler's music popular in film audiences, who might not have encountered the piece in motion pic- tures or even link it to Mann's novella. In a film which reached an international audi- ence, the use of both Mahler as a surrogate for Mann's protagonist, with the music un- derscoring this characterization, Visconti 4 5 6 gave prominence to the composer whose legacy was then being rediscovered, and made Mahler's name known to audiences beyond concertgoers. …

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