Michael Tanner: Mahler’s time has been and gone

The veteran Spectator critic lets rip with a rant:

Mahler said his time would come; the question now, for me, is when it will go. For the symphonies, up until the last, are all flawed; in different ways, but primarily because they peddle sentimentality as courage, heroism, defiance and piety. Furtwängler, who only conducted any of the symphonies fairly early in his career, told his second wife that when he got to the end of the Third Symphony he felt as if he had slept with a meringue in his mouth.

Read on here.

Furtwängler’s hostility to Mahler is well documented, and he’s entitled to his view. But if Mahler’s symphonies are flawed, compared to Furtwängler’s windy symphonies they are the greatest works of mankind.

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    • “Someday, some real friends of Mahler’s will … take a pruning knife and reduce his works to the length that they would have been if the composer had not stretched them out of shape; and then the great Mahler war will be over … The Ninth Symphony would last about twenty minutes.” – Deems Taylor

      • The 9th symphony is a good example of the problem: all there is to ‘say’, has been concentrated in the 1st movement; all that follows it, is superfluous and would have been better spent on other pieces. (The 1st mvt is around 20 minutes as well, and a complete symphony in itself.)

        • The opening movement is considerably longer than 20 minutes: virtually all reasonable interpretations are longer than 24 (Walter) and some are almost 30 (Bernstein). The concluding movement is not “superfluous” at all, because it adds quite a lot of unique great qualities to that symphony. The middle ones are weaker, but even they have their own inspired moments.

          • With some license, ‘around 20 minutes’ can also mean 24 minutes. The point is, that the movement is – in comparison to other mvts in Mahler – quite concise.

            Also should be mentioned the enormous sophistication of the orchestral writing in the 1st mvt, many details of which hardly ever come across in a performance or recording. The other movements are much simpler in writing, they almost have a different style and different orchestral vision.

          • That is a huge amount of “license” you are allowing yourself. When something varies between 24 and 30, calling it “around 20” is either ignorant or dishonest, but in any case grossly misleading. The average duration of 27 minutes is 35% longer than 20 (50% longer in Bernstein’s version). Even the most shameless salesman would not be justified in advertising something to be sold for “around 100” (pounds/euros/dollars – whatever) when the actual price is 135 and can be as much as 150! Therefore your point about that movement being “concise…in comparison” is factually incorrect as well, because most of Mahler’s symphonic movements are actually shorter than 27 minutes on average. Anyway, musical quality of a piece can never be measured by its duration.

          • To M2N2K above: I was wrong, the mvt is ca. 30′. But it feels like 20′ because it is so information dense.

        • Ah JB, how I’ve missed your nonsense. The 2nd is by far my favourite movement of the 9th.

          • I meant: superfluous to what is ‘said’ in the 1st mvt. Disconnected from the 1st mvt, the other movements have their own merits. The 1st mvt is such a complete and all-embracing statement, that it is nonsense to hear any more music after it for quite some time.

          • Interesting you should say that. In the 19th Century it was a not uncommon practice to include individual movements of a symphony in a concert program. That’s probably an idea worth re-visiting.

      • A lousy movie with badly-fitting wigs but the creation of the emperor is great, as is the role of Salieri.

        Both Mahler and R. Strauss suffered from note-incontinence; both had a busy conducting career, and suffered from neurotic wives; both wrote their music in between other occupations and marital quarrels; both suffered from megalomania; both respected but did not understand each other. It’s a bit much of everything.

    • The trouble with Mahler’s Boa constrictors compared to Bruckner’s is that they are all overloaded with kitsch, kitchen sink and all. There is no sincerity in any of them, no definite endpoint, at least with Bruckner who was a practising RC, he eventually reaches St Peter’s gate in his 8th by the last Himmelflug bus, Mahler on the other hand appears to have well and truly missed the last bus and ended up stuck with the clock of the dead.

      • ….. as most people in the last century. Bruckner however, was a medieval character, a simple village organist of genius. But his music is often as incoherent as Mahler’s.

    • They never needed editing to attract listeners before. And the listeners are legion. I’ve never understood this notion that a certain composer should be tampered with. If you want to turn Mahler into e.g. Sibelius then just listen to Sibelius.

  • I think the 4th and 7th are flawless too, and the 5th and 6th overcome their flaws. But if I never hear the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 8th or Das Lied again, that will be fine!

    Less Mahler means lots more play time for non-sentimental music.

    • To think that the 1st symph and Das Lied are sentimental, is missing the musical point of anything entirely.

      • When used in moderation, sentimentality in itself is not such a horrible quality to have in music. Excessive sentimentality is certainly bad, but a lot of that depends on interpretation of the performers and personal tastes of the listeners. When Pierre Boulez conducted Mahler, there was not much sentimentality left there. And the very fact that he did conduct some of those symphonies many times in his conducting life means that he did not see excessive sentimentality in their texts.

        • All true….. PB sported a personality flaw as an asset and with some music that may be an advantage.

          • I had PB’s 6th for a long while and eventually gave it away. It was different, a tightly played, but just not true to the composer.

            Mahler is never abstract.

          • As I noted in my remark below, Tanner changed his mind a lot. His review of Boulez’s Mahler 6th was ecstatic at the time.

      • Sentimentality is the empty gesture without the content, it is superficial, an imitation of true feeling, and therefore better be avoided in what is intended as serious art. Sentimentality is for Christmas cards, Hollywood, musicals about Anne Frank, country & western music and the like, the things that are easy for consumption and easy to sell and therefore hughely popular in the market place because of the number of people preferring the derivative to the real, the fake to the authentic.

          • No, because in Mahler and Puccini sentimentality is only one ingredient and not the most important or most conspicuous, and in Mahler the context is complex enough to offer more than one explanation of the banal bits (like ‘irony’ although it does not work for me). Puccini’s sentimentality is a kind of perfume penetrating whole works which otherwise are brilliant like La Bohème which is absolutely gorgeous and virtuosic and in the same time, unbearably sentimental; but Tosca has hardly any sentimentality, maybe ‘Fisi d’Arte’ a bit. Even Stravinsky who was neurotically allergic to any whiff of sentimentality, respected and admired Puccini, as did Debussy, the most fastidious composer who ever lived (although he also occasionally dipped into the sentiment he loathed in some short piano works like ‘Poissons d’Or – but with a knowing wink). In fact, the whole idea of sentimentality in music would be a worthy subject for a book, a ‘tear jerker’ in inverted commas, and in the category of psychological aesthetics. Roger Scruton wrote about it perceptively in ‘Modern Culture’ (Continuum 1998, 2000).

          • Mahler’s attitude towards sentimentality was complex. I suppose another way of saying that is that in him, you’re never sure whether a possibly over-sweet passage is meant as irony. And then you have the curious case of the 4th. The last movement is a shamelessly syrupy vision of a chocolate box heaven and yet I think that Mahler intended it to be played without irony.

        • Oh by the way, since you like to define things in a certain way, here’s a definition OS sentimentality from the Webster dictionary: a marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism.

          Music without it is an empty box of cerebral on onanism.

          • The piece by Maurice Ravel that has this dreaded s-word all the way up there in the title is nevertheless a very fine piece of music.

          • To M2N2K above: I had to think for a while where this could refer to, but no doubt that was ‘Valse nobles et sentimentales’, which is a master piece without the slightest sentimentality about it. The title is ironic. The bitter-sweet music is, in fact, quite profound under the surface, as the last episode demonstrates more openly. Instead of being sentimental, the music is rather like ‘whistling in the dark’.

          • Merriam Webster:
            * marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism
            * resulting from feeling rather than reason or thought
            * having an excess of sentiment or sensibility

          • To JB: of course I used that example with tongue in the vicinity of cheek. There is nothing ironic about the title – both adjectives simply had a somewhat different connotation in French of that time than they do in contemporary English. A much more recent English-language example (and therefore more curious one) would be Naive And Sentimental Music by John Adams where he used yet another meaning of the word so that the title feels closer to “simple and sophisticated”.
            To olassus: the farther you go from the very first definition of the word the farther you get from the very core of its meaning and into unfortunate misuse. This third “definition” does not make much sense because if sentimental means “excess of sentiment” than how would you describe sentiment that is not excessive? I prefer using words more carefully.

          • It’s actually 1a, 1b and 2. And I don’t believe M-W or any dictionary for that matter assigns distance from “core” meaning using its numbers. This is not a question of etimology.

          • OED refers to “having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way.”

            I would say sentimental always implies a fault.

          • I also think this is a peculiarity of our weird hybrid language.

            The point about Ravel’s use is right. In Italian too, explaining Gianmaria Griglio’s reaction, sentimentale probably means nothing more than “to do with sentiments.” He could not see a fault — and, as JB or you said, Ravel was not suggesting one. But Michael Tanner was!

          • Olassus is correct, so it might be a language difference in the term that I do not get. Sentimental as in coming from a sentiment, an expression of a feeling (as exaggerated as it may be) it’s not faulty. It’s what makes us human beings instead of machines. I’ll go for that any day of the week and twice in Sundays. Hence, there cannot be any excess of sentimentality in music which is the pure expression of human feelings.

          • To Olassus: something that comes after the first two is third, no matter how it is numbered. Dictionaries reflect languages as they are used, sometimes unfortunately including misuse. That is why even moronic “irregardless” made its idiotic way into some dictionaries, as was discussed in another thread on this same blog just about a week earlier.
            To GG: you are correct. Music is created and interpreted by humans for humans, thus reflecting human condition. Sentimentality is a part of it. Some of us are more sentimental than others but that does not make us better or worse than others – just different. Additionally, there are moments in our lives when all of us feel more sentimental than usual. That is deeply human too, and music reflects it as well. We can argue about excessive sentimentality when we believe that a piece is nothing but relentlessly sentimental to the detriment of other musical qualities. But having sentimentality as one of such qualities is legitimate and valid.

  • I feel sorry for Mr. Tanner that he is so wrapped up in some self-important mind game of understanding that he can’t just simply enjoy the music,

    This truly is saddening.

    As soon as I see such phrases as “If the greatest Dionysian art” warning lights go off in my head as I remember the many dreadful concerts I endured simply because a critic praised them.

    Nothing and no one is perfect: heaven knows I am not but at least my friends can overlook those imperfections and see what is valuable within me.

    • If Mr. Tanner doesn’t respond to Mahler’s work then may I suggest the following?

      1) Don’t purchase recordings of his music.

      2) Don’t attend concerts featuring his music.


      • Well, quite. Too many critics these days think the rest of us live and die by their pronouncements. We don’t.

  • Tanner is lacking sophistication in his sweeping arguments. But he has one important point:

    “It is largely because of the ramshackle, anything-might-happen-next quality of many of his works that they generate such enthusiasm — they don’t need comprehending because they can’t be comprehended.”

    In a way, it is ‘easy listening music’ that you just have to undergo, not to take in. But in that quality lies also its deeper meaning and attraction: its inner fragmentation reflects a general life experience of 20C man, so the music is quickly recognized as a confirmation of an emotional experience which is mostly deemed to be an isolated thing, which it is not, it is shared by millions in silence and the music brings it out into the open. That is why Mahler is typical 20C music and in a way, therapeutic.

    There are enough wonderful movements among the symphonies to be claimed as enduring great works, so there is not much to complain about. With the slow withdrawel of the last century into the past and new challenges of the present coming into focus, Mahler’s popularity will wane, but – as long as orchestral music performances will exist – not disappear from the repertoire.

    • Well said Mr. B. Mahler is, at least for this listener, somehow therapeutic. For many others too I would venture to suggest.

      The posting begins an interesting discussion, which we are witnessing. I fully expect something along the same lines about Bruckner at any moment – perhaps featuring Thomas Beecham’s line to Cardus as he left some way through a Bruckner Symphony that he had “already counted three pregnancies and as many miscarriages”…………….

  • More likely it is that Tanner’s expiry date has come and gone. Whatever the compositional problems, Mahler will persist. Anyone with an inclination to prune his works or anyone else’s should first understand their own underlying philistinism and barbarity.

    • You go too far, as usual. Tanner is simply putting forward his own view as a proposition for discussion. And here we are discussing it. His book on Wagner did the same thing, and that book has been rightly much acclaimed as a valuable contribution to the literature.

      Bear in mind that many, many performing artists and others have said rather a lot that certain of Schubert’s works are too long. I’ve certainly felt that and wondered if something in his psyche made it difficult for him to conclude works. Sir Adrian Boult’s recording of the Symphony No. 9, the ‘Great’ C major, is one of classic ones. But Boult said in an interview that in preparing performances of it he wanted to shout at Schubert words to the effect of “Stop! You’ve already said it!” Of course, he didn’t prune it, but obviously had the inclination. The idea of Sir Adrian as a barbaric Philistine is a bit of a hoot. But note that re Schubert he was hardly alone in his view. The same applies, e.g., to certain of the piano sonatas. Also barbaric Philistines, in your world, were Heifetz, Milstein, et al., for they played the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as ‘pruned’ by Leopold Auer, the well-known Berserker. I wish they hadn’t myself, but I don’t chuck over-the-top ad hominems at them.

      • Schubert 9 was for a while (as a teenager) my favourite work and back then it was not unusual for me to play it to the end, turn the record over and play it again. Boult’s is one opinion, Schumann described it as having “heavenly length”. Having listened to it that one too many times, I don’t feel it any more but I do remember loving the way it rises so gradually, majestically to its peaks in the 1st movement. Always seemed perfect to me. What were we talking about? Oh yes, Mahler…

        • The lengths of Schubert’s symphonies are a means of creating a dreamy, mesmerizing effect, which is one of the characteristics of Romanticism: the intention is to find a way to express ‘infinity’. A forerunner is the slow mvt of Beethoven IX. Regularity, repetition, all on an even plane, can be hypnotic as in Indian classical music or in the best contemporary Western minimal music. It can also be found in baroque music, as for instance in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto nr 5, 1st mvt with the long predictable sequence and very long harpsichord cadenza.

      • If it’s brevity people want, there’s always Webern’s “Symphony,” which even stretched out lasts little beyond 12 minutes and 30 seconds.

        • This reminds me of a statement made by the late Maestro Giuseppe Sinopoli around three decades ago. When conducting our orchestra in a program that included music by both Webern and Mahler, he suddenly declared the following during one of the rehearsals: “The only problem with Webern is that his pieces are too long; the only problem with Mahler is that his symphonies are too short.”. In my opinion, this statement did not have any profound meaning in it and he knew that, but he made it anyway in an attempt to be deliberately provocative in order to keep the orchestra awake and make sure we were paying attention. Apparently he succeeded, considering that I remember this pronouncement quite vividly so many years after hearing it.

  • I agree with much of the above: read the reviews in the Gramophone or anywhere else for that matter and there is never a word of criticism of the music itself: indeed if a passage seems banal, trite, sentimental, bombastic and/or harmonically ludicrous we are duly informed that he is being “ironic”. Which is a bit of a win win situation for him. Some pieces, Das Lied for example are truly great music but I still painfully recall, over 40 years ago, being battered to hell by the dreadful 7th symphony.

    • The Seventh was my least favorite of the nine. But when I heard it live in concert by Berlin Phil with Simon Rattle just a few years ago, I realized how much wonderful music is even in that one. It probably still is my least favorite, but by a much smaller margin now.

      • The 7th is an odd piece indeed, and indeed there are beautifuil moments in it, and some fine music in the Nachmusiken. But the finale is a thoughtless abberation. Interestingly, in the 1st mvt Mahler makes use of chords formed with fourths instead of thirds, and at the time of composing he had close contact with Schoenberg and they both discussed the movement. Soon after, Schoenberg wrote his 1st chamber symphony where one of the common harmonies is a chord made-up of fourths, and at the climax of the music such chord resolves into a major triad, an obvious but brilliant idea that Mahler did not have. Many composers at the time were exploring possibilities to extend the boundaries of tonal coherence and Mahler made an immense contribution to that process.

        • Thoughtless aberration? Couldn’t disagree enough. When done correctly I think it’s a brilliant piece of orchestral writing. It’s a Rondo after all, but instead of just alternating themes back and forth, why not styles? Mahler demonstrated quite clearly a superior skill in writing for orchestra. It’s full of color, variety and yes, some cheekiness. The finale fails when the the conductor takes it too seriously (Klemperer, Masur) and won’t let the thing just rip along at a merry pace. There were some older conductors who just “got it”. Hans Rosbaud, Herman Scherchen and Kiril Kondrashin played the heck out of it and proved the movement works. The 7th has finally thrown off the mantle of being the “Cinderella” of the symphonies and is astonishingly popular among Mahler fans and conductors. The New York Philharmonic is playing it in Vail of all places in a couple of weeks. I’m looking forward to it!

          • I’ve often felt that Mahler – more than most – is a composer whose music gains a lot by cross referencing i.e. considering various pieces in the light of each other. And the 7th came after the work which most disturbed Mahler. In the 6th – he effectively “destroyed the world”. During preparations for the first performance of this work, Mahler paced around sobbing. This is how seriously he took his music. And the 7th seems to me to provide an answer to the question, “What happens after the total annihilation of everything?” The answer turns out to be a retreat into a strange nocturnal dream world. The first movement of the 7th seems to me to be almost a kind of liquefaction of the 6th’s finale. And the life-or-death angst of the 6th’s trudging march (first movement) seems to become reduced to a kind of comic wandering in the 7th’s 2nd movement.

  • The problem is that Mahler has gone from being neglected in the first half of the 20th C, to being one who now saturates worldwide orchestral programming year after year after year. It’s just too much.

    I’m not saying he shouldn’t be performed, but just not so often, by everyone. How often do you hear Profofiev symphony cycles, or Martinu, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Nielsen, Bax, even.

    Just look at the frequency with which the BBC Proms has programmed his symphonies in their online archive: https://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/events/composers/8d610e51-64b4-4654-b8df-064b0fb7a9d9/works

    And the pieces are so long, by and large, that there’s little room in the rest of the programme for any rarities…

    • True.

      It is easy programming to get the hall full.

      But: it is great stuff for conductors, since they can demonstrate all their capacities to the full.

      And: there are most wonderful things in Mahler which will keep it worthwhile.

      I sometimes think: if Mahler had not put so much efforts in a conducting career and had given himself much more time for composing, maybe his symphonies would be shorter (!) and more sophisticated. Much of the music sounds as if put together quickly and without much reflection. He wrote it in the summer spans and worked-out the scores in the winter season in the spare free time that his work at the opera allowed him. Not the best conditions for producing masterworks. It is very impressive that he did write as much as he did.

      • “Put together quickly and without much reflection”? That anyone could allow themselves such a glaringly false statement about Mahler, makes me inclined to think that his time has not passed but has yet to come.

        • Don’t be shocked…. there is enough evidence of hasty work methods. Just to be able to write down all the notes of a hughe symphony in its first 2- or 3-stave sketch in only a couple of weeks in summer time with a nagging and frustrated wife in the background who would LOVE to compose herself but has not been allowed to, is only possible if you write down feverishly anything that comes to mind and don’t stop to ponder what you have written. If an experienced copyist would be given the task to merely write down a piano score of one of the symphonies – by hand, pencil on paper, he would manage that in the said couple of weeks.

      • Try not to forget that except for his diseased heart, Mahler might have had at least ten to twenty-five more years of life in which to produce even more output. And today we have Mike, who with all his genius, can “edit them down” to make them better. (Then let’s go after Eugene O’Neill, dammit! And that Wagner dude, man!)

  • Your musical taste is a matter of personal preference. If Mr Tanner hates all Mahler except the Ninth and Das Lied, that’s fine by me. But plenty of people feel a certain connection with Mahler’s music and he just needs to understand that…

  • Who cares what Mr Tanner, or any other music critic, thinks?

    Music is more accessible than it was. Their time has been and gone.

  • I will always love the first and fifth symphonies, and the final movement of the second. But Iong for the day when Bruckner’s monstrosities disappear from the repertoire entirely.

  • There’s no doubt that Mahler’s music isn’t the big draw it was 40 years ago. We’ve heard it all – many times. The sense of discovery is gone. But that doesn’t mean it’s going away. There are several recorded cycles in progress. Mahlerfest in Colorado is going strong. If anything is going to ruin Mahler it’s this current generation of young conductors who look on the Mahler symphonies as a Concerto for Orchestra so they can pose and prance around. They have little understanding of the music behind the notes. In the hands of an understanding, sympathetic conductor any of the symphonies can be a thrilling, life-changing event. I am no so certain that we will ever see the likes of Tennstedt, Bertini, Kubelik, Bernstein and some others again. It’s too bad that Klemperer, Walter, Leinsdorf (just to name three) didn’t fully appreciate Mahler’s work and said disparaging things about some of the symphonies. Why the poor 7th gets such a bad rap is beyond me. Mahler hasn’t run its course, not anymore than the entire classical canon has.

    • I agree with the poor reception of the 7th i.e. that this symphony is underrated. I think it was Tennstedt’s favourite. And Schonberg had a high opinion of it. I consider it to be a fascinating work. On the other hand, I have never cared about the 8th. And the popularity of the 5th puzzles me.

    • I agree to many things you say. Michael Tanner is in my opinion always a good read, precisely because one sometimes disagrees with him. Coming from a jewish family my father played no Wagner to me (except “Flying Dutchman”) and I read no Nietzsche. There are lively, brillant books by Tanner about both. It was a good way to find my way to them, it was like speaking to a friend about all aspects, downsides too, of musician and philosopher.
      Michael Tanner really loves music in a way that is rare – thus he for example nearly never fails to tell readers if some directors of operas or musicians are pompous, arrogant, “deconstruct” as posers rather than love and serve masterpieces.

      Many here, like me, disagree with Tanner about Mahler. But I never had any problem with people not liking Bruckner and Mahler, for example. Tanner praises Mahler 9 and Lied von der Erde under Bruno Walter, even in the article we talk about. He doesn’t like the 2. So what? I love it in numerous recordings by Klemperer, Kubelik, Walter and others.

      In the end music counts, not fashion and lifestyle. (There could be much said about this from Germany, alas, but this is getting too long^^)

      Concerning Klemperer: parts of the symphonies he didn’t record were thought of as maybe no commercial success around 1955-65 by EMI; others he did not love as much, 3 and 5 come to mind. And, I like the following: he admitted he could not understand the 6th good enough. This is simply wonderful, and you can’t find such a view nearly anywhere – “let others do t!”. Klemp always did fight heavily for his mentor Mahler throughout his career (as he did for Bruckner. No setback could stop him, especially in the UK 1929, 1932 and later). To restrict himself to around a dozen wonderful versions of “2”, and 4 7 9 and Lied von der Erde was good. I think, all, sadly enough live performances often were not recorded, are still wonderful. The past had so many exceptional Mahler conductors. Bruno Walter and Klemperer, so extremely different, show aspects of his work. Yes, Mahler could be nostalgic, sentimental too – why on earth should he have hidden that?

      If a composer “survives” depends on true lovers. It doesn’t matter now that Klemperer had a hard time persuading US-american public around 1935 to accept Mahler. It matters that he showed them. It is strange that nowadays many go to “events” rather than to Mahler, and the conductors are often precisely like you say. But Us music lovers with open ears decide.

  • There is real wisdom here. Mr Tanner clearly has made the case for a Global Commission for the Abridgement of Excessive and Lengthy Art. Perfect for an age in which most people’s attention starts to wander after the length of a typical twitter tweet.

    Real benefits would follow. For example I like that ceiling in the Sistine Chapel…colorful and all, but so big and sentimental! Imagine how many more people could grasp it if it were only 50% as large. And that Monet guy. So many water lilies, and each so long. I think we’d get the point with only one. And don’t get me started on that Proust chap. Or Tolstoy. Or Sir David Lean for that matter. By the way, moose bites can be nasty. My sister was hit by a moose once.

    • Adorno said somewhere that Mahler’s excessive length was intended as an admonishment to the modern sensibilty that wanted to get everywhere fast and just didn’t have the time for taking things in.

  • The 10th finished by Cooke is fascinating with its polytonality almost a precursor to Schoenberg. It should be programmed more often and not just as an oddity.

    • Hmmm…not sure I agree. Bruckner uses repetition not unlike some successful minimalists: over time, the subtle changes are there if you listen.
      But to each his own; I prefer Bruckner over Mahler just about any day, but I enjoy them both.

  • Utter nonsense!
    To each his om!
    Mahler’s music is universal and eternal. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it or play it!

  • I feel pretty similarly to Mr. Tanner — I love the 4th, Das Lied, and basically all the songs, but the rest of his symphonies just wear me out. Nevertheless, I obviously have to respect the fact that his music does speak very powerfully to a huge number of music lovers, both laypeople and professionals.

    A friend of mine — wonderful musician and Mahler devotee — told me once that if you haven’t been bitten by the Mahler bug by the time you’re 18, it’s pretty much too late for you. I wasn’t. Oh well.

    I liked Borstlap’s comment that his music reflects the fragmented inner life of 20th-Century Man. Fits with Tanner’s observation that “it doesn’t need comprehending because it can’t be comprehended.” Sounds dismissive but IMHO it isn’t necessarily: too vast, not necessarily too sloppy, and actually may not need to be “comprehended” in the way that a Beethoven symphony can be, in traditional terms of structure, harmony, thematic development, etc.

    Anyway, there seems to be an idea here that the job of critics is to tell us what we should or shouldn’t like; and if the critic doesn’t agree with our opinions, then he’s an idiot and what’s the use of critics anyway. IMHO a critic’s job is to provide a lens through which to look at works of art in a new way. If a critic makes his preferences clear, and his reasons for them (as Mr. Tanner does), then the reader knows what they’re dealing dealing with and can take the critic’s opinion into account and, even if they disagree, not write him off as an idiot (if they so choose).

    I bought one of the most beautiful recordings I own — Beethoven late string quartets with Bernstein and Vienna — based on a scathing review I heard on the radio. The critic even played excerpts to illustrate his points, and every example, while backing up his opinion, convinced me that I must have this recording. Was the critic an idiot? No. Am I? Well, maybe, but that’s not why 😛

    • Bruce I don’t want to scare you, but I totally agree with you about das Lied, the 4th and the songs. Perhaps bits of the other symphonies are worth a look though, especially the inner movements of the 3rd if you like the 4th. I’ve said it before on SD but in my opinion Mahler is at his best when he’s ‘at play’.

      • I’ve played [in] all of them except #7 and 8, more than once. They all have lovely moments here & there, but I would never listen to one of them for fun. He seems to be getting along just fine without my adulation, though, so that’s great.

    • I much favour your comment, but I’m a bit puzzled by the “Beethoven late string quartets with Bernstein and Vienna”???

    • “…..if you haven’t been bitten by the Mahler bug by the time you’re 18, it’s pretty much too late for you.”

      I was 25. I was watching a James Caan movie called “The Gambler” and there was this piece of music that stunned me. I’d never heard another piece that seemed to convey such an eerie sense of two voices disputing. It turned out to be the opening of Mahler’s 1st. I was hooked after that.

  • It should be noted that Mahler’s revival was concurrent to the castration of the German culture. Since then, the more traditional composers like Franz Schmidt, Hans Rott and Hans Pfitzner have been almost completely out of the spot light.

    Compositional quality has never been the single decisive factor for a composer’s success. The preference and taste of a few chosen ones decide what the rest of the folks are going to listen. People will like what they get served and what they are told to be good. Theodor W. Adorno said Mahler was good, Sibelius was bad. People followed him blindly, often without being aware of it.

    Mahler’s work was underrated, nearly ignored, then rediscovered and overhyped. Gradually people will get tired of this over exposure and find the right place for his work. Most importantly, the industry will try to find some new cows to milk. That’s the real motivation behind this Tanner’s article.

    In my opinion, it’s time to play more Felix Mendelssohn, Antonio Vivaldi, Olivier Messiaen, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc and Edgard Varèse.

    • I wish Franz Schmidt was in the spot light – a tremendous composer who should be better known. Alas, a certain political decision of his condemned him forever. I think that practically all of our composers on the regular concert schedule are over-exposed and need to be given a long, long rest. Then maybe we could hear neglected works. I wouldn’t be too excited about any more Mendelssohn, but Poulenc, Honneger certainly. And Bax, Arnell, Balakirev, Schmidt, Schreker, Raff, Schmitt, Widor, Stanford, Parry…and dozens more. But Erich Leinsdorf was quite accurate when he said that any orchestra, if it wants to survive, must build its programming around Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and the gang. If all you play is obscure stuff, the audiences won’t show up. Sadly, he was right.

    • Schmidt and Pfitzner were discredited after WW II for their associations with the nazis, Rott died very young before he could mature. Other traditionalist composers like Bertold Goldschmidt, Walter Braunfels and Ernst Bloch, all of them of impeccable ethical record, had to flee Germany, but got their second condemnation after WW II for not being modernist enough (Goldschmidt and Braunfels had their posthumous rehabilitation though). Mahler was a traditionalist composer and was in the advantageous position that he had helped inspire Schoenberg, Berg and Webern into their musical adventures, so when these three got their postwar rehabilitation, also Mahler got his share for being their musical ‘father’. The castration of German culture was first achieved by the nazis in the thirties, and after the war by modernism, with the result that the German musical tradition is ‘cordoned-off like a crime scene’ as Alex Ross writes in his ‘The Rest is Noise’. Braunfels and Goldschmidt wrote truly interesting music, but by far not as lively and intense as Mahler’s, in spite of the latter’s flaws. When you hear Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Gurrelieder and 1st Chamber Symphony, you realize that – had his wife not run away with his friend and had the 1st world war not happened, and had he not been such a pretentious academic on the side, he would have turned back to the German classical tradition and put all those other traditionalist composers, and all the modernists, into the shadow, and would have recreated something of the German classical tradition (the chamber symphony is a truly Beethovian work).

  • The central point that should be kept in mind is that Michael Tanner’s opinion is of no importance whatsoever. The half-life of a musical masterpiece is measured in centuries. The half-life of music criticism is measured in minutes.

    • Much of the best music, and maybe most, was recognized as such in the composers’ life time, maybe not fully understood, but surely appreciated and performed. Even Beethoven’s notorious ‘late quartets’ had a following at the time.

  • I believe it is just the opposite. Mahler’s symphonies and his other assorted works, such as Kindertotenlieder, have become part off the bedrock of what we now know as the repertoire of orchestral music.

    If this critic wants to see a pruning of the orchestral repertoire, then perhaps let’s look to the countless other works that are overplayed, less meaningful, and sugar sweet. Let’s start with the remaining Tchaikovsky symphonies that are still played, the last three, with the first three having already been discarded.

  • @ CUBS FAN
    You are absolutely right. For most of the musicians, just like ordinary people in the world, their first and foremost task is to make a life. You can’t just take idealism as meal. On the other hand, I do wish those “leading orchestras” to have more adventurous programming, which can justify their self-proclaimed status as ARTISTS. I don’t think one can just repeat the routine stuffs and call herself an artist. Unfortunately, most of the musicians nowadays are just taking music-making as their profession without being an artist in its real sense.

    I think, in a certain sense, Mendelssohn is like Schumann. Yes, they are very famous and their works are played very often, many of them without doubt too often. But a non-negligible amount of their true masterpieces are still relatively rarely performed. Both composers have magnificent oratorio and choral works.

    The composers you named above certainly deserve far more visibility. However, regarding the current market of performing art, maybe we could only hope that orchestras could first take the initiative to play more unknown works of well-known composers …

    But luckily, we have recordings. In fact, I don’t agree that the recording industry is having a bad time, at least not for true music lovers. Numerous masterpieces, either being too old, too impractical or due to whatever reason, would never make into the regular repertoire of mainstream orchestras, ensembles and soloists. But thanks to recordings, many of them produced in very high quality by independent and small labels, we can enjoy these works almost in their whole glory. I think what the recording industry actually complains about is that they can no longer fool their customers like in the “golden era”, when they could make a lot of money by doing little work.

    Der Zeit die Kunst, der Kunst die Freiheit.

  • Tanner and Furtwangler are both correct on Mahler. Mahler the Moravian outsider is the very embodiment of the Leopold Bloom of the symphony. His symphonies have no particular national character or identity, they are a real pastiche of kitsch, funeral marches juxtaposing Ländler, it is as if he is mocking his own origins, rather like Bloom.

    Bloom’s Jewishness embodies the sharp challenge posed to unitary concepts of statehood, for almost two millenniums, by the presence of a people who retain a separateness without having had a state of their own to back it up. Actually, his Judaism like Mahler’s is of the most vestigial kind, much more a matter of racial origin than of religion: both Bloom and Mahler are “converts” non-believers, non-practising and sceptical about Zionism. Bloom’s racial origin has no effect on his sense of Ireland as being his country (when asked what his nation is he replies simply “Ireland. I was born here. Ireland”).
    But none of that saves either of them from their predestined role as the embodiment of difference, of otherness, among a people whose homogeneity is all too obvious. “One of those mixed middlings he is”, the “Cyclops” narrator remarks, admittedly in a different context, but it is the blurring, the crossing-over of borders that is the source of Bloom’s alienation from the other characters. For example, in the Cyclops episode in Barney Kiernan’s pub.

    Bloom was talking and talking with John Wyse and he quite excited with his dunducketymudcoloured mug on him and his old plum eyes rolling about.
    —Persecution, says he, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.
    —But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
    —Yes, says Bloom.
    —What is it? says John Wyse.
    —A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
    —By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.

    The penitent Bruckner’s symphonies on the other hand are the very embodiment of obedient Upper Austrian “Volk”, humble servants of Kaiser Franz Joseph I. In Ulysses, this has a parallel in the Telemachus episode, Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack. Hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too.
    —I pinched it out of the skivvy’s room, Buck Mulligan said. It does her all right. The aunt always keeps plainlooking servants for Malachi. Lead him not into temptation. And her name is Ursula.
    Laughing again, he brought the mirror away from Stephen’s peering eyes.
    —The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If Wilde were only alive to see you!
    Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:
    —It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant.

    After hearing Bruckner, improvise in the Imperial Court Chapel, Franz Josef remarked, “is music really meant to be so serious? I thought it was supposed to cheer you up”

    The folk on this site needs to lighten up.

    • By coincidence, I just read this from Jonathan Carr’s Mahler biography yesterday. Page 95: “Like schoolchildren in dread of a choleric headmaster, people quickly learned to be quiet the moment Mahler appeared. ‘Is music such a serious business?’ the emperor asked in wonder on hearing of these innovations. ‘I always thought it was meant to make people happy.’ ”
      BTW, the book has a nice tribute to NL for his assistance.

    • I find Joyce unreadable, it may be full of linguistic complexities but I don’t think that is the aim of literature. Complexity should be in the narrative and the subject, not in the language which should be as clear and as accessible as possible (compare with Proust: complex writing, complex narrative and subjects, but clear and musical writing). To put Mahler back into the box of the Jewish outsider, is really too much. If anything, Mahler’s music is accessible to anyone and popular from Kentucky and Talehassee via Buenos Aires to Hong Kong and Fokoshima (not to forget London), because of addressing universal themes, including kitsch and fragmentation. One can debate the purely artistic results, but it is definitely not ‘Jewish music’, it is typical middle-European, i.e. Austrian / German. M’s being an outsider is not more outsiderish than other greatly talented composers feeling an outsider. I think someone like Debussy was feeling his position as much more outsiderish than Mahler who, after all, made a successful conducting career in the real world. You don’t even have to be an artist to be an outsider (as shown by Mr Bloom). The whole comparison with a Joycean non-existent figure seems contrived to me.

    • Mahler’s music is surely profoundly “national” – the embodiment of the multinational Habsburg monarchy, aka the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which he was both a subject and a state official. Like the state itself, it has elements of many different European musical cultures (Viennese, Germanic, Slav, Jewish, Magyar, Italianate, Magyar; popular and “serious”; marches and dances, sacred and profane) colliding, jostling and interacting within an overall framework that has a Germanic flavour (but is never dominated by it). The closest literary parallel that I can think of is with Joseph Roth.

      We don’t hear it as “national” because that particular nation-state, with all its diversity, compromises and contradictions has passed from living memory (you might argue that this fact is the source of many of the problems facing Europe today). Mahler might be its most potent surviving embodiment, even if we don’t realise it as we listen.

  • Has anything of lasting importance ever been written by a sour critic who failed to write any remarkable music at all, because he considered himself a fine composer but was not? Or perhaps, worse, such a critic considers himself a very fine conductor, but, alas, he flunked music school, and thus he chafes at “Kapellmeistermusik” – which, thank heavens, he himself has never been able to compose? I prefer Mahler and am happy to forget Tanner.

    • There are critics who dream of a world where the statues of great composers will be replaced by statutes of critics. But I do not think Tanner is one of them, he wrote very perceptively on Wagner.

    • Apart from ETA Hoffmann, Schumann, Wagner, Debussy, Weber, Berlioz, Balakirev, Virgil Thomson, Robin Holloway, Michael Nyman (I could go on)…you mean?

      Dr Tanner is not a composer and makes no pretence of being one. He’s an extremely distinguished philosopher and writer on music (which no more requires practical expertise in the field than a food critic needs to be a cordon bleu chef in order to spot when a steak has been burned).

  • Mahler is long dead, but his music lives on.

    Tanner is still alive, so I gather. Will his criticism live on?

    I happen to love performing Mahler. Then again, I’m a bit biased, for he wrote well for my instrument.

    • Whether players love playing Mahler is irrelevant. What matters is whether audiences still love hearing him – and there is evidence (falling audiences for some of the symphonies) that this we may be approaching a tipping-point on that front. Routine performances (and orchestras are doing some Mahler symphonies on 3 hour rehearsals these days) do no favours to pieces of music that are supposed, by their very nature, to be exceptional, life-changing phenomena. Less is more.

      • Well, it’s relevant to us.

        Furthermore, it’s relevant to me as an audience member. I enjoy hearing performances of Mahler.

        Audiences seem to enjoy performances of Mahler’s music.

        Orchestras today are good enough (the article notwithstanding) to be able to play a Mahler symphony on three hours of rehearsal. Is this optimum? Of course not, but that’s the direction that classical music has taken. That’s not Mahler’s fault; in fact, he as a conductor, would be appalled at this if he were alive today. Oh well.

    • Dr Tanner actually has extremely powerful ethical reasons for disliking Turandot, and I have never yet heard his arguments convincingly answered (by which I mean a coherent philosophical argument about the content of the drama, rather than just “oh but it sounds nice and everyone loves it”). Do you have an answer? Because I would be genuinely interested to hear one. I haven’t yet.

      • The plot of Turandot is unethical, and pretty awful and primitive. But the plot of Stravinsky’s Sacre is as awful (human sacrifice). Many of Wagner’s plots are awful and unethical. As long as plots reflect something of the human condition, which is often awful and cruel, and the music is capable of making the audience experience the emotiones involved, it’s OK.

      • I’m afraid, as John Bortslap pointed out, Mr. Tanner has no argument whatsoever. Ethical argument? Really? Then we should ban most operas in history, from Rigoletto to Salomé. There is no argument that needs to be made in favor of Turandot: its music speaks for itself for those who want to hear. It’s all about feelings and emotions. Everything else is meaningless cerebral bs.

  • Tanner also hates Sir Georg Solti and that has always put him beyond the pale as far as I’m concerned.

    • He doesn’t “hate” anyone: he holds strong, sometimes provocative but often powerfully argued views on the social and moral role of art. I wish more people discussed the subject with the seriousness and profundity he brings to it.

  • I disagree with Tanner, even though I have enjoyed his writing in the past. Some of this idea of “being done” with Mahler can be blamed on the sheer number of performances and recordings there are throughout the world. One can love something, but consuming it every day, especially works as substantial as a Mahler symphony can be simply too much. I love the 9th with all my heart and soul – it is a piece that has effected me deeply from the first moment I discovered it… but I listen to it rarely. The reasons for that are obvious.

    I would like to pose the question to those enumerating all the faults of each Mahler symphony – Which are the perfect symphonies? Which ones fit this seemingly desirable ideal of being “just right”? Not too short, not too long – emotional, but not sentimental – etc. I can’t think of many.

    Please. This is Art. Works of art can be messy, even the classics. Life is messy. Certainly the “Eroica” doesn’t fit this ideal. Does it need trimming? Not every symphony can have the seemingly perfect balance of the “Jupiter”, nor would I want them to. We are allowed to love both Mahler and Sibelius, both Brahms and Wagner, if we choose to.

    Leave the composer be. Let them write what they want. Let them go down paths that might lead nowhere, or to heaven… Either it pleases others, or it doesn’t. Mahler isn’t Mozart, or Beethoven, or even Brahms. And isn’t that wonderful?

  • From Alistair Hinton:

    If I want intelligent and enlightening music criticism, I do not visit a tannery for the purpose of finding it. Mahler’s time has GONE? Where is the evidence for this? Yes, Mahler’s work (or most of it) long suffered from being underperformed (and accordingly underrated) before becoming arguably overperformed (though not overrated); is that the fault of Mahler himself or the way in which he wrote? Of course not. Tippett is sorely in need of a revival these days; he used to be performed more often that he has been of late. Is that the fault of Tippett himself or the way in which he wrote? Of course not. In USA, Schönberg can often be guaranteed to empty concert halls in spite of his having been one of the past century’s greatest masters of music – and this is two thirds of a century after his death; is that Schönberg’s fault? No, decisions to overplay or underplay music usually have little to do with the composer or his/her music; value judgements of it ought not, therefore, to be made on the basis of factors that are not directly connected to the composers and their music. The concert going public has warmed to Mahler since around the time of the death of his protegé Schönberg and no doubt would have done much earlier had conductors performed his works with greater frequency during the first half of the past century. Mr Tanner’s musings (and I’m being polite here) tell us something about Mr Tanner but almost nothing of any use about Mahler.

    • Agreed. It was also the development of stereo recordings which helped the Mahler cult, since the music shows-off the new technique in a most advantageous way.

      The way in which a ‘canon’ develops, is a very complex trajectory where very different forces are at work and not all of them are related to the quality of the music. Seeing concert programs of the twenties, for instance, can give the feeling of another planet.

  • Some day someone will say the same about Shostakovich. I can’t wait for a Shostakovich over-saturation. But Mahler sells tickets and Shostakovich doesn’t. I remember when Shostakovich died, and the Israeli Philharmonic was going to play some of his works with Zubin Mehta, Mehta said in an interview to an Israeli daily: “it’s garbage, but we have to play it.” He would not have dared to say that to an English language paper, or even to an Israeli one today. Anyway, times change.

  • Mahler and Trump, Trump and Mahler…two galumping out of sync blowhards, neither
    at their best with women, both outstanding in the bland breezy phoniness of demagoguery… how’s that for a fearful symmetry?

    But too many words have been wasted on the two.
    Let’s see them off with the brevity both deserve….

    That trumpet tongue which taught a nation
    Loud lessons in vituperation
    Teaches it yet another, viz.:
    How sweet the noise of silence is.


    Cliches with worn wit combined
    From the old-clothes shop of his mind,
    Shake out their moth when Gustav chatters,
    And chatters on, of pointless matters.

    Pull the chain,
    And Gustav’s talk goes down the drain.
    O pull the chain,
    And let the tank fill up again.


    Donald Trump, in dressing-gown, without his teeth,
    Appears a nasty kind of beeth,
    But properly dressed, and with his droopy-droopy smile,
    The merely nasty alters into vile

  • I have been reading Mr Tanner’s writings ever since I first encountered him in the magazine “Classic CD” (starting in the early 90s I believe). He was always great fun to read – very strong in his opinions, very lively. And he had a habit of upsetting people though not in a deliberate adolescent kind of way. But over the years I noticed definite changes in his opinion – especially in his view of Mahler e.g. while once reviewing a box set of Bernstein’s Mahler, he said it was a pity that LB could not accept any of the performing editions of the 10th since, if you view Mahler’s compositional life as a journey in search of peace, he achieves that peace at the end of the 10th as he never achieved it anywhere else. But later on, Tanner seemed to adopt a more condescending view, thinking the 10th not to be fit for a place in the repertoire. Tanner also raved about the 6th – especially as conducted by Horenstein.

    Furthermore, my copy of Adorno’s book “Mahler: a Musical Physiognomy” has, on the back, a quote from Tanner: “Consistently wonderful …. No-one who is fascinated by Mahler’s music, perhaps even more, no-one who finds it insufferable, can afford to ignore this book.”

    So if you are annoyed by Tanner’s essay here, then just wait a few months and he’ll have changed his mind again.

  • And as a final rebuke to Mr Tanner – let me just note that this post, dating from only a month ago, has already gathered 125 comments. Admittedly a few of them were mine. But it is clear that there are large numbers of people who, whether for or against, still care deeply about Mahler.

  • To think people get paid for their opinion on Mahler and Bruckner et al. I could weep. The English have to give up on such criticism – although, as a nation, they’re already down the drain and largely because there are just too many reckless and silly critics – it’s a way of life there (it is my native country, which I left years ago for good reasons!). Mahler’s symphonies are for the ages – for some they’ll always be wonders! You go away and then come back – it’s in the nature of life to have variable opinions but for Mr. Tanner to say what he has said can only be described as foolish. You just don’t know when something that you have thought awful will jump out you one day as you fall in love with it once more or for the first time. It reminds me of some of the embarrassing stuff on Music that Colin Wilson wrote in the 1950’s (in “Brandy of the Damned”)where he confesses to being indifferent to Bach – I mean, such blind spots (in Tanner’s case, Mahler) must ever disqualify one from writing on music.

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