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Introduction: Literature, Philosophy, and Images in Mahler's Music

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 2023

Carl Niekerk
Affiliation:
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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Summary

THIS IS NOT A BOOK LIKE OTHER BOOKS about Gustav Mahler. It is different in that it does not approach Mahler's oeuvre from a musicologist's perspective, but rather focuses on his interest in and use of literature, philosophy, and the visual arts. Reading Mahler is meant as a companion to Mahler's music that helps its audiences understand its literary and cultural roots. Mahler's view of German cultural history is of great importance for understanding his music in the context of its time. Only if we reconstruct this history and Mahler's perspective on it will the true polemical points underlying Mahler's compositions become clear. The goal of this study is therefore not a comprehensive view of Mahler's entire oeuvre. Not all of Mahler's symphonies, for instance, contain literary, philosophical, or cultural references that can be reconstructed. While the ambitions of this book are modest, my claim is that the perspective offered in this book will challenge and perhaps even change our view of Mahler's music.

Much has been said from a musicological viewpoint about Mahler's use of musical forms and content in relation to musical history. The assumption, implicit or explicit, is often that Mahler's interest in literature and culture merely mirrors his musical preferences. Someone with traditionalist musical preferences will probably like a figurative painting more than an abstract one. But does music history simply mirror other parts of cultural history, or is it rather that one can make us see the other in a different light? Literature and the visual arts in Vienna around 1900 underwent an intriguing period of self-reflection and renewal that manifested itself, for instance, in a critical and highly eclectic attitude toward their own past. What if Mahler's strong interest in German cultural history does not simply affirm traditions but rather seeks to take traditions apart and to reassemble them according to different priorities? If that is the case, interpreting Mahler's work in its cultural contexts may shed some new light not only on its underlying intentions but also on our current ways of looking at his work and life. Or a cultural reading of Mahler can point to innovative or critical aspects of his music that have hitherto gone unnoticed.

Type
Chapter
Information
Reading Mahler
German Culture and Jewish Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna
, pp. 1 - 26
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2010

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