It should be no surprise to regular readers that Mahler is one of my favorite composers. In a post called “Tightrope”, I recounted a performance of the Second Symphony in which the brass section (during the chorale early in the last movement) was able to get louder and louder, with the sound quality never suffering. The post goes on to liken this thrilling aspect of performance to tightrope walking—the level of the risk/stakes involved can be an important aspect of the performance.
I’m drawn to art and artists whose work/life involves risks and high stakes. Mahler’s life and music embody the tightrope effect—the stakes are high, something is risked. As Director of the Vienna State Opera, Mahler put his stamp on all aspects of a production, ensuring he would get blamed for failures as well as being credited for successes.
His music is full of risk. Its demands on performer and audience alike are well-known, and those demands alone raise the stakes—if your more-than-hour-long symphony fails, the chances of connecting with the next one (especially if it, too, is demanding) are seriously curtailed.
But beyond the audacious length of his symphonies, Mahler’s music is risky in its content as well. He frequently juxtaposed transcendent, other-worldly passages with stretches of quotidian vulgarity, and didn’t privilege the transcendent over the vulgar. His music creates a narrative of life as it is lived, both in everyday existence, and in the life of the mind.
His risks are the same risks we take in putting ourselves out in the world. He takes these risks, our risks, leading us out onto the wire, and makes them art.