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Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to his Music…

Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to his Music (1980)

by Deryck Cooke

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Deryck Cooke

Gustav Mahler:
An Introduction to his Music

Faber Music, Paperback, 1988.

8vo. viii+127 pp. Prefaces to First and Second Edition by Colin and David Matthews [vii-viii]. Index [125-7].

First published, 1980.
Second Edition, 1988.


Preface to First Edition
Preface to Second Edition

Mahler as Man and Artist

The Music:
Early Works
First Period
Middle Period
Last Period

Mahler's Report on Experience



This is yet another posthumously published book by Deryck Cooke for which we should be grateful to the Matthews brothers, Colin and David, who knew him until his untimely death in 1976. Unlike Vindications (1982), a multifarious collection of essays, this volume is limited to the music and personality of a single composer: Gustav Mahler.

It is a little unfortunate for me that a whole book in Deryck's dismaying small bibliography should be dedicated to a composer I cannot at all identify with, but that's the way it is. For what's worth, here are some observations from a Mahler neophyte (which is fine, for this is a book for Mahler neophytes) who is likely to remain one (which is not fine, for in this case one has no business reading books about Mahler). But such is my admiration for Deryck's writing that I would read even the menu of a snack bar if it were written by him.

This little book consists of one biographical essay, “Mahler as Man and Artist”, written in 1960 for the BBC, and extended liner notes about the music partly written at the same time but greatly expanded with material compiled from various later writings by the editors. Mahler’s virtually complete output is covered. It is especially important to note that the book contains all sung texts in the original German (occasionally Latin) with English translations. These include no fewer than 40 songs (organized into five song cycles, one of them in three volumes), the vocal parts in four symphonies (nos. 2-4, 8), and the monumental Das Lied von der Erde (which is something in between symphony and song cycle). It may be useful to give here a short list of the works. Skipping juvenilia and Das klagende Lied, an early cantata from 1880, Mahler’s three major creative periods include the following (all translations, except Lieder und Gesänge, Das klagende Lied and the excerpt from Goethe’s Faust used in Part II of the Eighth Symphony, are by Deryck Cooke):

First period (1880 – 1901)
Lieder und Gesänge, vol. 1 (five songs with piano)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (four orchestral songs)
Symphony No. 1 in D
Lieder und Gesänge, vols. 2 and 3 (nine songs with piano)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (ten orchestral songs)
Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” (for soprano, contralto, chorus, orchestra and organ)
Symphony No. 3 in D (for contralto, boys’ and women’s choirs and orchestra)
Symphony No. 4 (for orchestra with soprano solo)

Middle period (1899 – 1905)
“Revelge” and “Der Tamboursg'sell” (two orchestral songs)*
Fünf Lieder nach Rückert (five orchestral songs)
Kindertotenlieder (five orchestral songs)
Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Symphony No. 7

Symphony No. 8 (1906) in E flat (for three sopranos, two contraltos, tenor, baritone, bass, double choir, boys’ choir, orchestra and organ)**

Late period (1907 – 1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (for tenor, contralto (or baritone) and orchestra)
Symphony No. 9
Symphony No. 10 in F sharp

* The last two settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Note that Urlicht and Das himmlische Leben, the texts set to music, respectively, in the fourth movement of the Second Symphony and in the finale of the Fourth, also come from the same collection of poems and are sometimes recorded together with the rest as one cycle. So don’t be surprised if you find recordings which contain 13 songs (e.g. that of Bernstein and Hampson; only Urlicht included) or even 14 songs (e.g. Hampson with the Wiener Virtuosen; both included).

** Deryck considers the Eighth Symphony as standing on its own, part neither of the middle nor of the late period.


The song cycles are dealt with relatively briefly, but the symphonies enjoy a more robust treatment. Each one of them is adroitly put into the context of Mahler’s tortured mind and, considering the limited space and the target public, thoroughly analysed from a musical point of view. Writing on these matters doesn’t get much better than Deryck Cooke’s precise, concise and meaningful prose. I only wish more “liner notes” were written in such vigorous and compelling style. Deryck expresses himself in a very personal way, with frequent use of poetical and rhetorical devices, but he always preserves the impeccable clarity and, if you choose to believe, the utmost sincerity of his writing. Above all, he never wastes words with vacuous descriptions of pure form: one of the most often encountered and most hideous defects of liner notes. He always goes straight to the heart of the matter, the emotional content of the music, from which he then draws his conclusions about Mahler’s development as a composer or the expression of his outlook through music.

Those who are not familiar with Deryck’s other writings, most notably his only full-length book published during his life, The Language of Music (1959), may be surprised by his audacious, not to say highly controversial, symbolic interpretation of musical works, including purely instrumental ones, based on his theory that music is an emotional language of unparalleled power and versatility. For him, there is no such thing as “absolute” or “pure” music, by which it is usually meant an “expressionless” art that should be contemplated for its form, rather than enjoyed for its content. Indeed, early in the book, in the “chapter” about the First Symphony, there is an extremely important footnote which the reader would do well to keep in mind:

All the interpretations of the symphonies in this book are symbolic – the music expresses not actual events but the moods connected with them.

For my part, Deryck is one of the very few writers who is consistently convincing in the dangerous field that unites musical interpretation and amateur psychology. Not that I always agree with him. Of course, I don’t. One notable example is his discussion of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony as the “first genuine ‘tragic symphony’ to be written.” It contains a curt dismissal of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique since “its mood of breast-beating despair is far removed from the objective universality of tragedy.” I do not agree. First of all, speaking of histrionics, Mahler wears his heart on his sleeve every bit as much as Tchaikovsky does; virtually all of his symphonies contain moments of almost ludicrous excess. Second, there is no such thing as “universal” and “objective” tragedy. Tragedy is a personal experience. The best a great composer, or any artist, can do is to “universalize” it (or “objectivize” it, if you like). This simply means to convince a large number of people that his personal experience is of universal import. As the overwhelming popularity of both shows, Tchaikovsky certainly does that at least as powerfully as Mahler. It is merely a question of musical sensibility which one convinces you. If both do, I am awed by the catholicity of your taste.

But such disagreements are rare exceptions; indeed, they are almost more frequent with the less than two pages written by the Matthews brothers. When the editors remark, in their Preface to the First Edition, that the third section of the text about each symphony is a “description”, they are very wrong indeed. Deryck is almost entirely concerned with analysis here, and wonderfully comprehensible for the layman it is. Now, description is a very different thing than analysis. Musical description is quite useless. Just listen to the work in question, why bother to describe what the music says far better? Musical analysis is a personal interpretation; it may or may not be useful to the curious listener, but it certainly doesn’t waste your time with what you had much better listen to. Liner notes, when they deal with the music itself and not with history, usually combine a great deal of pedestrian description and a little superficial analysis. Let me try to show why this is not the case with Deryck. Here are just a few examples from his musical analyses; some of them, not surprisingly, come from the “biographical” parts of the essays:

The first movement [of the Third Symphony] is the most original and flabbergasting thing Mahler ever conceived. To express the primeval force of nature burgeoning out of winter into summer, he built an outsize, proliferating sonata structure out of a plethora of ‘primitive‘ material: a rugged F major – D minor march tune for unison horns, like a great summons to awake; deep soft brass chords, eloquent of hidden power; sullen D minor growls of trombones, like primordial inertia; bayings of horns, upsurgings of basses, shrieks of woodwind, subterranean rumbling of percussion, and gross, uncouth trombone themes, like monstrous prehistoric voices.

In the Fifth Symphony, although it has no actual programme, there are two manifest and utterly opposed attitudes which are set side by side, with so little reconciliation between them as to threaten the work with disunity. The symphony might almost be described as schizophrenic, in that the most tragic and the most joyful worlds of feeling are separated off from one another, and only bound together by Mahler’s unmistakable command of large-scale symphonic construction and unification.

All this explains why Mahler called the Sixth his ‘Tragic’ Symphony. It might seem strange for him to give this title to one particular work, when he is so widely regarded as altogether a ‘tragic’ composer. Yet after all, six of his eleven symphonic works – Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 8 – culminate in a blaze of triumph in the major; another – No. 4 – dies away in blissful serenity, also in the major; and three others – The Song of the Earth, No. 9 and No. 10 – fade out in resigned reconciliation, once more in the major. The Sixth alone offers no escape, ending starkly in the minor mode – that essential symbol of the nineteenth-century tragic composer.

[On the Eighth Symphony:]
Faust is, after all, Goethe seems to say, a symbol of questing humanity, and the various aspects of humanity’s quest cannot be separated from one another; if it leads at times to widespread folly and wholesale catastrophe, it still survives and continues, impelled by a desire to struggle onwards and upwards. And the belief of Goethe and Mahler – certainly hard to cling to in times such as ours – is that the quest will eventually succeed, by culminating in the metaphysical experience of absolute wisdom, power and love. It is in this sense that Mahler’s Eighth is the Choral Symphony of the twentieth century: like Beethoven’s, but in a different way, it sets before us an ideal which we are as yet far from realizing – even perhaps moving away from – but which we can hardly abandon without perishing.
The sheer size of the work might suggest megalomania, but Mahler needed it to express his tremendous concept. The huge forces (responsible for the non-Mahler title ‘Symphony of a Thousand’), as well as the large-scale forms, are handled with extraordinary clarity. What flaws there may be are part and parcel of a work which strives so heroically to elevate man to the stature of a god.

Makes you eager to explore Mahler’s symphonies, doesn’t it? It sure does. I have listened to all I could find on my shelves, namely Nos. 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9. Too bad I still find him tediously prolix and relentlessly chaotic. But that – I freely admit – is my own fault. And yet, though his music leaves stone cold, after listening to these five symphonies together with Deryck’s little book, I do claim I understand Mahler’s mind at least a little better. What a bizarre creature!

“Mahler as Man and Artist” and the biographical sections further in the book are the perfect complement to the musical analyses. Mahler was by all accounts an extremely fascinating bundle of contradictions, as improbable a human being as there ever was one. Deryck draws a vividly unforgettable portrait of him. He took himself a great deal too seriously and his behaviour often bordered on megalomania, yet he could on occasion be charming, witty and amusing. He was a workaholic and spared nobody, least of all himself, yet this propensity to burn the candle from both ends was backed up by musical genius that flourished both in creative (composition) and re-creative (conducting) direction. Mahler’s pathological obsession with suffering and death, Deryck argues, may be traced to his wretched childhood; he outlived five of his siblings during those years, including his favourite brother who died after a long illness. Mahler’s acute sense of loneliness, of permanent and irredeemable estrangement from the human race, probably had, in those fiercely anti-Semitic times, a lot to do with his Jewish descent. Again, few quotes in Deryck’s own words will show the unique quality, if not really the vast scope, of his writing better than I could possibly describe it:

Of all the late romantics, Mahler speaks most clearly to our age. An heir of Beethoven and Wagner, he was intensely preoccupied with this discrepancy between aspiration and weakness. His persistent theme is “The spirit is willing, but…’ – no, not ‘the flesh is weak’; rather, the spirit is willing, but is undermined by its own fatal weakness – faced by life’s frustrations, it is a prey to discouragement, bitterness, emptiness, despair. This general human dilemma was acute in Mahler’s case, as we can see by considering him as an individual.


Skipping over his schooldays, we see him next as a youth in Vienna, studying at the Conservatoire. Outwardly, he is normal (if specially gifted) student: he wins piano and composition prizes; revolts against authority and indulges in the customary pranks; gets to know Bruckner, a man of fifty-odd teaching at the University, and Hugo Wolf, a fellow-student with whom he shares rooms. But tension still surrounds him: his two closest friends are both mentally unstable (one, Hans Rott, a talented composer, later died in an asylum, as did Wolf). Mahler’s inner preoccupation with the riddle of existence, the inescapable facts of cruelty, pain and death, persists. He seeks an answer in German romantic literature, in the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and above all in the music of Beethoven and Wagner. In his darkest moments, he contemplates suicide.

Fortunately, life claimed him. His tension, never to be resolved, found an outlet in activity. Such was the wealth of his nature that this activity had to be twofold – creative and re-creative, composing and conducting; and he pursued both callings with heart and soul. No other musician, except Wagner, possessed in such equal measure the introvert’s capacity for self-absorption, the extrovert’s capacity for self-assertion, and the iron will to weld them together and force them to do its purpose.

[As a matter of fact, at least one other nineteenth-century musician possessed all these qualities: Franz Liszt. Never mind.]


[On the tricky subject of program music:]
Nevertheless, programmes were not just a game. The romantics intended their symphonies to be expressive of life; the difficulty was explaining in words just what they expressed. Thus Tchaikovsky, when Taneyev objected to the Fourth Symphony’s programmatic nature, replied: ‘I… don’t see why you should consider that a defect. On the contrary I should be sorry if symphonies that meant nothing flowed from my pen…. Most assuredly my symphony has a programme, but one that cannot be expressed in words: the attempt would be ludicrous. But is not this proper to a symphony? Should not a symphony reveal those wordless urges that hide in the heart, asking earnestly for expression?’

The trouble is that words tend to produce concrete images, and these distract from the music’s real purport, which is emotional or psychological. Hence Mahler, asked by a journalist for the ‘meaning’ of his Second Symphony, replied: ‘I believe I have expressed my intention clearly enough in the music. When I conceived it, I was in no way concerned with a detailed programme of events, but at most with an emotion.’ Yet he eventually gave the Second a programme – only to reject it later! But this is understandable: he wanted, he said, to leave the interpretation of the ‘individual insight of the listener’; finding little insight, he tried to explain in words; finding the words taken literally instead of symbolically, he withdrew them.


[Having quoted complete Edmund Blunden’s “Report on Experience” in the last section of the book, Deryck concludes:]
The report of a puzzled Englishman, reasserting against the grim realities of life the faith of his fathers. Mahler was just as puzzled: he had not seen war, but he had only too realistically imagined it; and he had seen too much madness, suicide and early death. What is worse, he had a destructive inner stress, which he could not resolve by asserting an inherited faith. He delved deep into the horror of life; he was forced to confront, with a divided and tormented mind, a possible ultimate nihilism. Yet through all his gruesome revelations of the abyss shine his love and praise of life, his noble and unquenched courage, and above all his utter integrity and fidelity to the truth – as he saw it. His report on experience, taken as a whole, may seem a disquieting one, but it was a true one, his own – could it have been anyone else’s? And in the end he too could say with Blunden: ‘Over there are faith, life, virtue in the sun’.

I don’t know how dated all this information is, but I do suspect it has survived the test of time pretty well; perhaps the few brief references to Mahler’s neglect (hard to believe today when his complete symphonies are as ubiquitously recorded as Beethoven’s!) are the only truly dated parts. After all, Deryck deals mostly with Mahler’s music. This hasn’t changed at all for the last 50 years so; our perception of it has, but that’s a different and largely irrelevant story: those who wish to explore seriously the works of given composer should be immune to pop fashions and academic propaganda. Much the same, I suspect, is the situation with Mahler the man. In spite of much new biographical material that has appeared since, the mammoth biography by La Grange for instance, I doubt there are any startling revelations among it. The basics must have been well known even 50 years ago. Deryck needs no more. He picks his apples directly from the tree. And he bakes a delicious apple pie.

I imagine this little book must be quite a treat for Mahlerian neophytes. As an introduction, obviously all it was intended to be, it is remarkably close to perfection. It is a pleasure to have it on the shelves as a reference; the lyrics alone are worth the price of admission, and there is so much more on these 120 pages. It must be said, however, that the book doesn’t quite supersede the rest of Deryck’s writings on Mahler. In Vindications, there are three essays entirely dedicated to the composer and they do contain some important material not to be found here. “The Word and the Deed”, for example, explains in much greater detail the historical background of the Eighth Symphony, its roots in the humanism of Beethoven and the French Revolution yet radical departure from it, and even goes into some additional detail about the music. In short, if you enjoy this book, be sure to have Vindications handy.

One last thing. With the possible exception of Wagner, this volume on Mahler is the only glimpse how Deryck might have applied his own theory of music as an emotional language on the whole output of certain composer in order to estimate his contribution to civilisation. If you are fan of Deryck’s writing in general, this is a priceless opportunity. The result eloquently explains why he was reportedly instrumental in the Mahler craze that started in the 1960s and led to major re-evaluation of his stature as a composer (as a conductor he had never been in such need). It also makes me sad that today, at least to my knowledge, there are no musicologists of Deryck’s calibre, able to evaluate the works of the great composers with his singular combination of burning passion and scientific impartiality, not to mention write with unfailing lucidity and arresting authorial voice. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Dec 21, 2013 |
This book is an amalgam of program notes and magazine articles, grafted onto a booklet that Cooke wrote in 1960 for the BBC, which has become the introductory essay "Mahler as Man and Artist." Cooke is one of Mahler's champions who helped to kindle the worldwide conflagration that became Mahler-mania. As always, his criticism is readable, although the occasional nature of the source material does not enable the detailed analysis that would have been so welcome. This is not the only one of Cooke's books that leave one wondering "what might have been," had he had a decent lifespan. ( )
1 vote jburlinson | Jun 21, 2009 |
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