April 2010

Arts & Letters

Classical complex

By Anna Goldsworthy
The Sydney Symphony’s Mahler Cycle

In the summer of 1910, Gustav Mahler consulted Sigmund Freud, seeking advice on his troubled marriage. “Mahler gave me the impression of being a genius,” Freud recalled, “yet at the same time somehow curiously apelike.” Over the course of their four-hour conversation, Freud diagnosed a Holy Mary complex or mother fixation. Mahler had retrieved a childhood memory of running from his home to escape a parental argument, and stumbled upon an organ grinder playing a hurdy-gurdy. This might not have solved his marital problems, but it did provoke an epiphany: “Now I understand something about my music!” he cried out. “I have often been criticised for crude changes from the noblest melody to one that is banal.”

These “crude changes” offended some of Mahler’s contemporaries, but they lend his work a postmodern currency. His music is cinematic in its scope: at once epic and personal, transcendent and ironic. “The symphony should be like the world,” Mahler told Sibelius. “It must embrace everything.”

During his lifetime, Mahler was better known as a conductor, particularly for his pioneering role with the Vienna State Opera. He crammed his composition into summer holidays, working from various countryside “composing huts”. And yet there was nothing part-time about his ambitions: he knew he was composing for the future. “I am to find no recognition as a composer during my lifetime,” he complained to a critic, aggravated at the success of his rival, Richard Strauss. “My time will come when his is up.”

In 2010, Mahler’s time has certainly come, even if Strauss’s time is not yet up. To celebrate the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of his birth, orchestras all around the world are programming Mahler cycles. In Australia, every major symphony orchestra except Melbourne’s performs Mahler this year. The Sydney Symphony began its two-year “Mahler Odyssey” in February, with performances of the Symphony No. 1, the Songs of a Wayfarer, and the gargantuan Symphony No. 8, under the baton of conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. “If you are a musician you can’t avoid Mahler,” explains Ashkenazy. “He has an unbelievable gift. And of course the challenge is tremendous, and one wants to have challenges.”

Ashkenazy is one of classical music’s most revered musicians. Midway through a stellar career as a pianist, he moved into conducting, and his appointment in 2009 as Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the Sydney Symphony was a great coup for the orchestra. But the coupling of Mahler and Ashkenazy is not an obvious one; where Mahler’s music is drenched in ego, Ashkenazy exudes humility. Offstage, he dresses in white and, with his shock of white hair, the effect is luminous: he seems a small, bright pilot flame of music.

“I wouldn’t listen too much to Mahler myself, because it’s all about himself,” he admits. “Basically it’s all about me – how much I suffer. But this doesn’t matter, because the music grips me. When you conduct it you are defenceless and become a slave of it, basically.”

In the years after Mahler’s death, his works fell out of favour with the public, until Leonard Bernstein spearheaded a revival in the 1960s. But his influence remained strong on a generation of successors: from Berg and Schoenberg to Britten and Shostakovich. Stravinsky, characteristically, resisted his pull, referring to him as “Malheur”, or misfortune. Mahler’s music delivers an endorphin hit and provokes a fandom unusual in the classical music world. (Paul McCartney claimed that “Mahler was a major influence on the music of The Beatles. John and me used to sit and do the Kindertotenlieder and Wunderhorn for hours.”)

Before marrying Alma, Mahler sent her a letter instructing her to abandon her musical ambitions and reminding her that “you have only one profession from now on: to make me happy!” Perhaps the entire future of their marriage was contained in this letter. Alma found such a profession difficult, describing her husband as a “perpetual grief-seeker”, but in fact grief stalked Mahler throughout his life. Born in Bohemia in 1860, he was one of 14 children, seven of whom died young. The death of his brother Ernst as a teenager troubled Mahler deeply; later, another brother, Otto, committed suicide. His marriage was fraught from the beginning, but the couple had two daughters, the eldest of whom died of scarlet fever in 1907. At her deathbed, the devastated Mahler asked the doctor to check his own heart and was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition. Despite his great success at the Vienna State Opera, he was the victim of anti-Semitic attacks and so in 1907 he left for the US, to take up roles with the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic. Four years later, he died, aged 50.

“He was a very tragic personality,” says Ashkenazy. “He had a terrible experience with his wife who was unfaithful to him, very openly, and not once – she was collecting famous personalities. And who knows what he was driven to? Maybe in a way he elevated or graduated or managed to find himself in another sphere of spiritual existence.” Ashkenazy feels this graduation most keenly at the conclusion of Symphony No. 9, which Sydney Symphony will perform on 18 May next year to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Mahler’s death. “There is nothing else like this in musical literature,” he remarks. “I myself cannot help being absolutely taken by it. I always quote a friend of mine, who said that the last note in Symphony No. 9 makes him feel as if the last strain of matter disappears in the universe. And if there’s no universe, what is there?”

In Symphony No. 8, composed three years earlier in 1906, the universe remains very much in existence. Mahler directed a friend to “imagine the whole universe beginning to sing and resound. These are no longer human voices, but coursing planets and suns.” Characteristically, Mahler uses these planetary forces to address his wife. The symphony was dedicated to Alma and stems from a period of truce in their marriage. “Mahler began at that time to have a new and stronger feeling for me,” she remembered, “a conscious feeling in contrast with his earlier self-absorption.” It is a work that idealises the feminine, concluding with Goethe’s lines: “The eternal feminine draws us upwards.”

Nicknamed the “Symphony of a Thousand”, the work was completed in just eight weeks. It begins with a rousing first movement for choir, orchestra and soloists, in which the creator addresses God: “Veni, Creator Spiritus”. In the second movement, the unnamed soloists move into focus, becoming the protagonists of the second part of Goethe’s Faust, and the symphony turns into a virtual opera of the virtual play. Faust’s soul is borne aloft by angels and finally granted salvation by Mater Gloriosa, or the Virgin Mary. It does not take a first-rate analytical mind to uncover Mahler’s Holy Mary complex: Mater Gloriosa is given only two lines to sing, but they are of climactic importance.

Sydney Symphony performed this work with hundreds of performers (rather than 1000), but there was still voltage enough. The first movement was a robust invocation to creativity: a demand more than a prayer. In the orchestral opening to the second movement, the orchestra was at its most ardent, as though driven onward by the Eternal Feminine. When she finally appeared, as a bell-voiced Sara Macliver high in the organ loft, it felt like a blessing. It was not a flawless performance – threatening to come unstuck several times – but as it concluded the large auditorium seemed to take flight, as thousands of people in the audience and on stage were borne aloft by the power of this music. And at the centre of it all, like a tiny Wizard of Oz, was the figure of Ashkenazy: defenceless, enslaved, beaming us up.

Afterwards, there was a reception in a room overlooking the harbour. A corporate sponsor concluded his speech by thanking Vladimir “Ashkena-ry”. “Did I get that right?” he laughed. “I practised and practised and practised!” Ashkenazy did not seem to mind. “This orchestra is so attentive. They saved about three moments of danger – I won’t say whose fault! You know, we lost half a bar here, half a bar there, but there are so many bars in this symphony.”

If a symphony can embrace the whole world, surely it can contain a few flaws. Human enterprise has rarely seemed grander to me than on this evening, in this building, its walls vibrating with the music of hundreds. “We raised the roof tonight – yes?” He grinned. “But the sails are still there!”

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. She is the director of the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Kissinger & Burchett

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Strictly speaking

‘Solar’ by Ian McEwan

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.


More in Arts & Letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”

More in Music

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Photograph of Oren Ambarchi

While my guitar gently bleeps: Oren Ambarchi’s ‘Shebang’

Another mesmerising album from the itinerant Australian, in collaboration with some of the biggest names in experimental music

Photograph of Richard Dawson

Once upon a time in Helsinki: Richard Dawson & Circle’s ‘Henki’

The Geordie singer-songwriter joins forces with Finnish experimental rock band Circle and invents “flora-themed hypno-folk-metal”

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality