Friday, 2 August 2013

Gustav Mahler: British Criticism from the 1930s.

Over the weekend I was reading Norman Lebrecht’s excellent book Why Mahler? (Faber & Faber Limited, 2010)  In his introduction he notes that until the Mahler revivals of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, musical criticism in Britain claimed that his works were ‘laboriously put together and lacking that vital spark of inspiration.’ I checked out the references which are to The Musical Companion. This was a ‘compendium for all lovers of music’ edited by the great critic A. L. Bacharach. It was published by Victor Gollancz in 1934 and was subject to many impressions. The critic Dyneley Hussey contributed an essay on ‘Vocal Music in the 20th Century. The first brief chapter is devoted to Debussy, Strauss and Mahler. He writes, ‘It is not improbable that, of Mahler’s music, posterity will cling to the songs and let the rest go. Mahler’s task was essentially literary, but since it was also profuse, his music is at its best when restricted by the limits of a poetic form.’ He considers the ‘long orchestral magniloquence upon some trivial texts of the fourth symphony’. However, Hussey is impressed by the songs in Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the settings of the Five Poems by Rückert. He considers that the Kindertotenlieder reveal the composer’s tenderness towards childhood in...a gloomy aspect.’
However Das Lied von der Erde receives less enthusiastic priase. He notes that these six songs from Hans Bethge’s ‘Chinese Flute’ have been ‘transformed...from miniatures into a work of symphonic proportions.’  He dislikes the imposing finale of the Eighth Symphony where the Latin hymn ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’ as well as words from Goethe’s Faust are ‘allotted eight solo voices, a double chorus and a boys’ choir the performers numbering, together with the vast orchestra, about 1000. Finally he considers that with Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, ‘the megalomania of Central Europe reached its apex.’
Elsewhere in the Companion the composer and author Julius Harrison deals with Mahler’s Symphonies in one sentence – these are ‘works of enormous size, interesting at time, but laboriously put together and lacking that vital spark of inspiration that made Beethoven’s nine the only nine springing direct from the Nine Muses.’

How team deals with critics! Arkiv lists 803 recordings of Mahler’s symphonies. This includes 81 of the ‘Symphony of a Thousand.’ 

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