GUSTAV MAHLER: THE CONDUCTOR
THE WORKS, beyond description glorious, are bright, as on the earliest day." So, in Faust, the Archangel sings of God's creations. Mahler's reverence for the great works of music was of this exalted order. "Bright as on the earliest day" he felt them. Thus they sounded under his baton. Thus he made audiences hear them. A sense of something done for the first time, with first intention, spontaneous, was the chief characteristic in his interpretations.
Only penetration into the depth of the great creations of art, as well as those of nature, reveals that element of ultimate immeasurability which is the hallmark of greatness. Only he who enters deeply enough into the work to feel this can always arouse fresh interest and enthusiasm, while the superficial mind, which assumes that it understands all about a given work, knows it through and through, is likely to lose freshness and relapse into routine performance. Intimate knowledge strengthened Mahler's wonder and admiration for works "beyond description glorious," fed and renewed his first intention. He approached them like a lover, constantly wooing; he was always ready to reconsider, improve, plumb new depths. Nothing was routine in his performances; even if he was giving a work for the thirtieth time, he gave it as though for the first. Though his approach seemed free and impetuous, it was invariably governed by the most rigorous exactitude. He observed and demanded from all who worked with him, complete faithfulness to the score, its notation, tempos, agogic marks, and dynamics. Even the singers had to sing by the book; he was never content until absolute precision had been achieved "above and below"--on the stage and in the orchestra. The transparency of his conducting responded to his demand for absolute musical clarity. The precision of his exemplary beat was never impaired by emotion, however strong. At the innumerable performances I attended, I heard mistakes by singers and instrumentalists, but never any failure in precision or ensemble: the unfailing certainty of his beat always kept singers and orchestra together. But one never had the impression of mechanical precision, nor can I recall an occasion when audience or critics even mentioned his accuracy. With him, precision was a means to an end, the end being to bring the work to life. Talents, however high, were, if not controlled by a wellnigh pedantic sense of form, dismissed as mere sound and fury; only when his fiery hold over singers and orchestra had established an absolute clarity of interpretation did he permit himself the free flight of spirit which gave his performances the effect of improvisation.
His interpretation was never arbitrary. That he was accused of this was owing to the wide difference between his inspired renderings and what audiences were used to. When he made changes in the classics, they were designed to make the spirit live rather than reproduce the dead letter. Hence his much criticized retouching of the instrumentation of Beethoven's Ninth and other works in which, knowing as he did the resources of the modern orchestra, he used them to clarify and realize Beethoven's intentions. When attacked on this ground in Vienna he defended his action in a public statement in which he drew attention to the contrast between the power of Beethoven's conception and the limited instrumental capacities in Beethoven's day. He cited the example of Wagner and stressed the obligation on the conductor to let the voices soar out clearly.
I have noted his fanatical devotion to the score; it never blinded him to the paramount duty of realizing the composer's intentions. Now most people accept modifications of this kind, though there are still differences as to how they should be effected. In Mahler's case, they derived from his amazing ear for the inner meaning, even when contemporary instrumentation left it obscure. "Your Beethoven is not my Beethoven," he grunted to a well-meaning friend who took him to task for unfamiliar renderings. So in truth it was; he knew Beethoven by direct experience, and his performance of him was an experience. His Beethoven had nothing in common with the smooth classic presented in so many routine performances. His Fidelio, his Third Leonora Overture, and his indescribable Coriolanus Overture are vivid enough in my memory for me to testify to his spiritual kinship with the real Beethoven. He had within him his thunderstorms, his power, his love. Scrupulous as he was for detail, he had also the simplicity, the truthfulness, and the symphonic understanding that respect the primary claim of organic form.
Arbitrary or subjective renderings were incompatible with his penetrating divination of the depths of a work. The picture in his mind's eye was complete; there were no gaps to fill. The real explanation of arbitrary alteration and subjective transformation is sometimes mere pretentiousness and a craving for originality, more often the imperfection of the interpreter's vision, his lack of the seeing eye, of the penetrating divination which can reach the heart of a work. The poor man, eager not to appear shallow, has to compensate for his defects with his own meager resources.
Clarity ruled Mahler's interpretation of masterpieces. But it was not daylight clarity. Music is no daytime art; it does not yield its secret roots or its ultimate depths to the unshadowed soul. It comes out of the dark, and must be understood and felt in the dark; it is akin to the somber heave of the ocean, not to the clear blue of the Mediterranean. Darkness surged in Mahler's soul; his eye, native to the night, was born to realize the depths of music.
"The best in music," he used to say, "is not set down in the notes." This best, this essential, soul leaped forth with such passion from his conducting, with such an effect of personal confession, such elemental force, as to cause occasional doubt as to whether the composer was speaking or Mahler, whose stormy spirit compelled the voice of another to utter his own feeling.
Mahler's sole desire was indubitably to reveal the ultimate depths probed by another-in fact, the work itself. To ask whether interpretation such as his reveals the soul of the interpreter, or of the composer, or a mingling of the two, is to confront the very mystery of musical re-creation. In art, as in life, the fully personal voice, the complete "I," alone carries conviction and moves us to the depths. The well-meant but mediocre interpretation fails by never establishing identity between interpreter and composer. Not so with the genuine interpreter, whose enthusiastic abandon carries him over into a state where he is "beside himself." Then, ecstasy transcends individualism, and the re-creation of another becomes almost creation in its own right. Then, his talent becomes like that of Proteus; heart and imagination, flooded by "the other," generate a kind of fusion; the barriers between creator and re-creator seem to disappear, and the conductor might be conducting a work of his own. Then, he can speak as "I," feel as "I," and this "I-feeling" gives his interpretation immediacy, complete compulsion. So, in perfect re-creation, loyalty and freedom coincide. To understand that Beethoven's Ninth when conducted by Richard Wagner was filled with the spirit of Beethoven, but also alive with Wagner's personality--moreover, that the full expression of Wagner's individuality was necessary to set Beethoven's spirit free--is to know the meaning of musical interpretation.
Mahler's conducting was of this order. His powerful personality was wholly dedicated to revealing the work of another in all its clarity and strength; it was his joy to unite two spirits in such performances.
There are cases where difficulty of understanding and an alien approach impair entry into the mind of another. Even then, however, neither personal feeling nor a dominating "I" justifies distortion. Even of unsympathetic works, Mahler, often to the amazement of their composers, who knew the gulf between them and him, gave performances that were at once faithful to the composer and true to himself. What matters in such case is a direction of will toward the "other"; this, as interpreter, he never lacked. Where there is such a sense of service, the scholastic dictum quoted by Jean Paul--"Forty thousand angels can sit upon the point of a needle"--applies. The structure of a genuine work of art permits without contraction of its scope, any and every expression of the interpreter's imagination. There can, indeed, be no convincing performance unless this kind of spiritual collaboration exists.
As years went on, the picture Mahler presented on the podium was simplified. Böhler's excellent silhouettes, drawn in his first period in Vienna, show him in fierce, violent movement at the desk. He always sat to conduct, but in his first Vienna years, as in Hamburg, his mobility was astounding. But his movements were not excessive or superfluous--they seemed rather like some kind of fanatical conjuration. Gradually posture and gestures became quieter. The spirit behind his technique developed to a point at which he had no difficulty in securing a combination of force and precision by an apparently simple beat, almost without moving his body. A glance, a rare gesture would keep singers and players under his spell without any of the agitation in which he formerly indulged. In his last period in Vienna, the picture was one of almost uncanny calm, with no loss in intensity of effect. I remember a performance of Strauss' Symphonia Domestica in which the contrast between the wild storms in the orchestra and the immobility of the conductor who unleashed them made an almost ghostly impression.
At stage rehearsal with orchestra, despite intense preoccupation with purely musical matters, the dramatist in him was Argus-eyed; nothing that happened on the stage escaped his vigilance--action, lighting, and costumes were under perpetual observation. Through example and precept, sometimes tranquil, sometimes vehement, he got the result he wanted. Not because he wanted it, but because he had to get it. His own tremendous "must" exacted obedience from all who worked with him.
I want, however, to stress once more the fact that the decisive quality of his conducting and the source of its power was the warmth of his heart. That gave his interpretation the impressiveness of a personal message. That rendered unnoticeable the meticulous study lying behind the result he achieved: its virtuosity and accomplishment; that made his music-making what it was--a spontaneous greeting from soul to soul. Here, in the borderland between art and humanity, the nobility and potency of his mind were revealed. The secret of his lasting fame as conductor and director is his ideal combination of high artistic gifts with the ardent sensibility of a great heart.