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The world’s misery, distress, and irony: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Movement 3

“It’s not every day a nursery rhyme gets hijacked by a funeral march and a klezmer band. But then not everyone has the slightly warped mindset of Gustav Mahler, who somehow thought that plunking the children’s round ‘Frère Jacques’ into the funereal third movement of his very first symphony would impress the public. The pulse of Mahler’s march is set by two soft, alternating notes on the kettledrum. The melody, contorted into a minor key, is handed first to a solo double bass. A bassoon picks it up, then a tuba and a flute. Quietly building momentum, the tune is passed around the orchestra, with occasional sardonic commentary from the oboe. Later, the melody is elbowed out of the way, as if Mahler, in a nod to his Jewish roots, ushers in a raucous klezmer band to sashay through the orchestra. And, for good measure, he inserts a quote from a morose song, ‘The Two Blue Eyes of My Darling.’ It’s all ingeniously creepy, but Mahler’s early audiences were baffled. Crafting a funeral march out of a children’s song was simply distasteful.” (Tom Huizenga, “Mahler’s Twisted Nursery Rhyme“)

“The third movement used to upset audiences, and even today it’s puzzling to those hearing it for the first time. What are we to make of this odd assortment: a sad and distorted version of ‘Frère Jacques’ (Mahler knew it as ‘Bruder Martin’); a lumbering funeral march; some cheap dance-band music remembered by pairs of oboes and trumpets over the beat of the bass drum; and the ethereal closing pages of the Wayfarer songs — heaven and earth all rolled into one? No wonder people didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Mahler’s only clue is ‘The Hunter’s Funeral Procession’ — a woodcut made earlier in the century by Moritz von Schwind, a friend of Schubert — which he claimed was the inspiration for this music. About the vulgar band music Mahler leaves no doubt: ‘With parody’ he writes at the top of the page, just as the drum and cymbal join in.” (Philip Huscher, program notes for a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

“The third movement acts as the slow movement of the symphony’s four movement structure. The extra-musical idea inspiring the movement is taken from The Hunter’s Funeral, an old Austrian folk story. Mahler described the movement in a conversation with Bauer-Lechner in November 1900: ‘On the surface one might imagine this scenario: A funeral procession passes by our hero, and the misery, the whole distress of the world, with its cutting contrasts and horrible irony, grasps him’ . . . . In 1901 Mahler wrote in a letter to Bernhard Schuster: ‘the third movement . . . is heart-rending, tragic irony and is to be understood as exposition and preparation for the sudden outburst in the final movement of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart.’ ” (Funeral March Movement Analysis at GustavMahler.com)

Schwind_Begraebnis-The_Hunter's_Funeral_Procession-1850

Moritz von Schwind, “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession” (1850)

 

Teeming Links – July 25, 2014

FireHead

What happens in a world where war has become perpetual, live-reported popcorn entertainment? Answer: we’re as far as we ever were from understanding anything about it. “Far from offering insights into the mysteries of history and politics, these spectacles give us a sense that we are further away than ever from understanding their causes, their implications, and their consequences. Combat makes for a disappointing program — we approach it with great expectations, prepared to encounter essential truths of human existence, but we leave empty-handed.”

Novelist William Boyd reflects on how mortality shapes human existence: “I am convinced that what makes our species unique among the fauna of this small planet circling its insignificant star is that we know we are trapped in time, caught briefly between these two eternities of darkness, the prenatal darkness and the posthumous one.”

Philosopher and journalist Steven Cave meditates on the reality, mystery, and meaning of death, from humans to flies: “Perhaps, as Tennyson believed, death’s relentless reaping should lead us to question the existence of some higher meaning — one above, beyond or external to us. But whoever thought there was such a thing anyway? Not the frogs and tadpoles. . . . Because life is so teeming with intentions and meanings, the death of each creature really is a catastrophe. But we must live with it anyway.”

Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and co-author of Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, discusses his defeatist position on climate change and the liberation to be found in giving up hope.

Journalist Matt Stroud delves into the unbelievable life and death of Michael C. Ruppert: “After decades of struggle, the notorious doomsayer finally found fame and recognition. Then he shot himself.” (Also see my reflections, in a post published five years ago, on Ruppert’s startling ascent to mainstream fame via the movie Collapse.)

Historian and writer Rebecca Onion looks at how 1980s childhoods changed the way America thought about nuclear Armageddonwith an extended analysis of the role of the 1983 television movie The Day After, which utterly freaked out my 13-year-old self.

Jacob Silverman reflects on the dystopian plight of office drones in the digital tech age: “[They are] more gadgeted-out than ever, but still facing the same struggle for essential benefits, wages, and dignity that workers have for generations. . . . Such are the perverse rewards we reap when we permit tech culture to become our culture. The profits and power flow to the platform owners and their political sponsors. We get the surveillance, the data mining, the soaring inequality, and the canned pep talks from bosses who have been upsold on analytics software. Without Gchat, Twitter, and Facebook — the great release valves of workaday ennui — the roofs of metropolitan skyscrapers would surely be filled with pallid young faces, wondering about the quickest way down.”

Seriously? We’re now entertaining the possibility of robot caregivers? Sociologist and tech expert Zeynep Tufekci is right: this is how to fail the third machine age.

You’ve seen me mention my love of My Dinner with Andre many times here. That’s why I’m so pleased to call attention to this brand new interview from On Point with “The Inscrutable, Ubiquitous Wallace Shawn.” It’s highly recommendable both for the way it offends common radio sensibilities (the whole thing gets off to a rocky start as the interviewer adopts a somewhat glib approach that apparently annoys Mr. Shawn) and for the depth of Shawn’s carefully expressed thoughts on everything from the heady joys of being a writer and articulating things you never knew were in your soul, to the changing nature of conversation in an age when everybody is perpetually interrupted by phone calls and text messages. There is also, of course, some discussion of his portrayal of Vizzini in The Princess Bride. (Oh, and also see the recent pieces on Shawn, and also Andre Gregory, and their new collaboration, in The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, and Salon.)

When I was a kid, my mother actually walked out of the theater during the heart-ripping scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Well, guess what? George Lucas and Steven Spielberg hate that movie’s notorious grimness and violence, too. Grantland unearths the history of why Temple of Doom turned out that way.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net