22 OCTOBER 1937, Page 26


Gustav Mahler. By BrunoValter. Translated from the German by James Galston. (Keganyaul, ts.) • .... , COMPOSERS, more than other kinds of artist, tend to be of retir- ing;inactive disposition. The glaring exceptions are obvious : Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Wagner. Each in his different way was moved by the romantic spirit to fight for his own view of music in other ways besides that of notes. Mahler was the last of this line. No object is served by pretending that he was not the quintessence of the romantic artist ; as Herr Walter says : " A purely musical valuation will never be able to do justice to his work, which is also the history of his inmost self." And one look at that fine, aggressive profile suggests the man of action. In England he has been, and continues to be, the object of an obstinate misconception, chiefly owing to the fact that, for some unknown reason, his music did not arrive in this island, until the neo-classical revival had created a distaste for late romantic music. So that his symphonies are invariably dis- missed by English critics as verbose, ill-constructed, over- orchestrated and naively sentimental. Naturally there is some excuse for this view : the Second Symphony is indeed all those things—but then so (I venture to say) is the Cesar Franck, surely the worst symphony that ever won universal acclaim. The Fourth has had some slight success here, and few people have remained insensible to the heart-rending beauty of Das Lied von der Erde and the Kindertotenlieder, on the all too rare occasions when they have been allowed to hear them. But the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies are virtually unknown here, while the Eighth and Ninth have had but one or two performances.

Herr Walter's book, then, is timely. One only wishes that it were twice as long and that he, who worked with the master for years, had written, instead of only a personal reminiscence, a • full-length biography. For it is difficult, from so little data and so much that is mere vague panegyric, to distinguish the springs of action and of emotion, and their interrelation, in this passionate, tormented, man of saint-like artistic integrity. The spiritual scaffolding, however, emerges clearly enough : a religious character who never attained to conviction. " For, such was his nature that, because of its inconstancy, he was unable to hold conquered spiritual positions." But Herr Walter fails to give us the details of this struggle. The literary influences in Mahler's life indeed afford us some help : Nietzsche and Schopenhauer (not lasting), Goethe, Holderlin, Jean Paul, Hoffmann (lasting). And in music, Schumann, but above all Mozart and Schubert. (The Wagnerian influence was superficial and affected only Mahler's orchestration.) To the very end his music expresses the pathetic lyricism of the child lost amid the forces of nature, avid of safety, yet adven- turous and possessed of that power over the world which an obstinate purity of heart alone confers. At a superficial hearing, his music may appear the essence of eclecticism (Wagnerian rhetoric, Schubertian minuets, pseudo-folk-song simplicity) ;


closer acquaintance reveals a truly individual genius, whose originality goes deeper than that implied by startling harmonic or formal innovations, and reaches us through the perfect communication of some overwhelming, though never esoteric, emotion—as in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony and the first, second and last of Das Lied von der Erde..

Of Mahler the interpretative artist, Herr Walter vouchsafes us a fuller view. His energy ; his abruptness, which I fancy must have seemed ruder to Austrians than it would have to English people, who really delight in the sallies of Sir Thomas Beecham ancl.gir Hugh Allen ; the inspiring enthusiasm with which he directed the Vienna opera ; his temperament as a conductor and intetreter of other people's music : Herr Walter was witness of all this and describes it deftly. Mahler seems to *have considded opera predominantly from the dramatic point of vie*-; this caused him to be much criticised, especially when it led to his choosing singers more for their dramatic powers than for their voices ; ' and his " editing " of certain operas, with a view to making them more dramatically effective, laid him- open to the same charge as that which has weighed upon Rimsky-Korsakoff for his version of Boris Godunov. Mahler was not the man to take anything lying down, and one gets the impression that the fur must have flown pretty freely in musical Vienna, during the years of his directorship of the opera ; yet there is no one who remembers those years who does not pay unstinting tribute to Mahler's superb performances, many of which were in the truest sense revelations.

In one point only Herr Walter would seem to carry his panegyric too far : Mahler was quite obviously without real humour. This is not an indispensable quality, and men of Mahler's type necessarily lack it, for it would dilute their passionate integrity. The stories which Herr Walter inevitably tells, in witness of the master's humour, are merely embarrass- ing, being best described by that horrible word, droll.

A great man, then ; of whom Herr Walter has only told us enough to whet our appetites for more. But that, no doubt,