Academic journal article German Quarterly

Mahler contra Wagner: The Philosophical Legacy of Romanticism in Gustav Mahler's Third and Fourth Symphonies1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Mahler contra Wagner: The Philosophical Legacy of Romanticism in Gustav Mahler's Third and Fourth Symphonies1

Article excerpt

In recent years, scholars working in the held of German Cultural Studies have produced a substantial number of texts about Richard Wagner and the cultural-political dimensions of his work. In practice, the Cultural Studies movement reproduces thereby, in spite of its critical ambitions, hierarchies which have dominated middle-class German culture for a long time. The cultural interests of the German middle class in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century decidedly included Wagner and excluded Mahler. Other contemporary composers such as Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Hugo Wolf or Alexander Zemlinsky, who worked within the same literary, political and cultural tradition as did Wagner and Mahler, shared Mahler's marginality.

But why did Wagner become such a prominent figure in German culture? Several factors are at play here. His popularity can certainly be attributed to his use of mythological texts with considerable canonical status in the German cultural tradition.2 Simultaneously, he published many theoretical essays on important cultural and political issues. From his earliest writings, he declared himself a political thinker and a cultural critic. His essays explicitly articulated political interests that were initially progressive, but grew increasingly conservative and nationalistic after the failure of the revolution of 1848. Last but not least, Wagner suggested that his art possessed redemptive qualities, accessible only to a carefully selected elite. Wagner's aesthetic-political agenda is nowhere clearer than in his last work, Parsifal, the opera Nietzsche hated most (and which Mahler quotes at the end of his Third Symphony).3 More than any other work by Wagner, Parsifal contains the call for a new, purified community.

The current interest of German Cultural Studies in Wagner's music and theoretical writings shows a remarkable lack of concern with the issue of agency behind the materials it analyzes. The relationship of Cultural Studies to Wagner is marked by a double bind. On the one hand, the dominant attitude is highly critical towards the composer and his audience at the time. On the other hand, however, Wagner remains the focus of intense scholarly interest. German Cultural Studies, in other words, seems unable to move beyond the canon of previous stages of German culture. To put it bluntly, scholars of the German cultural tradition love to hate Wagner.4 Although they are interested in the power dynamics underlying Wagner's work and will reconstruct that work's political agenda in detail, there is a remarkable indifference to, and perhaps even ignorance of, attempts from outside the late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century middle-class canon to subvert the power hierarchies inherent therein.

In contrast to Wagner, Gustav Mahler has drawn little attention from German Cultural Studies to date, despite the fact that his orchestral works are nowadays at least as popular and as frequently performed as Wagner's. From the beginning, prejudices against Mahler often concerned the literary material which his compositions employ. Even a contemporary critic complains that the texts Mahler selected were second-class literature: "Fragwurdige Lyrik Friedrich Ruckerts und fragwurdige Wunderhorngedichte im angeblichen Volkston."5 Some of these prejudices may still resound in contemporary scholarship, but there is more to this problem than simple bias. Unlike Wagner, Mahler did not leave any essays about the cultural, philosophical, and aesthetic ambitions informing his work, even though he spoke about these issues often to friends and colleagues. There are clear reasons for Mahler's reticence in these matters. During his lifetime, Mahler was famous as a conductor, not so much as a composer. From 1897 to 1907 he was musical director of the Wiener Hofoper, where two specific factors made his tenure controversial. First, there was the fact that he was a Jew. 1897, the year in which Mahler started his work as musical director of the Wiener Hofoper, was also the year in which Karl Lueger was elected mayor of Vienna after running on an openly anti-semitic agenda. …

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