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Narrative Form and Mahler's Musical Thinking

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 November 2011

Robert Samuels*
The Open University


The close relationship between music and other art forms is a well-established feature of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Interdisciplinary study since the 1970s, of the relationship between literature and music, reflects among other things a recovery of nineteenth-century concerns. This article equates Mahler's development of symphonic form with a development of narrative form within his works, by linking three phases of his symphonic output with his literary interests. The first phase links the early symphonies with the early nineteenth-century author Jean Paul. His novel Titan provides the subtitle of Mahler's First Symphony, and correspondences can be discerned between the character of Albano, the hero of the novel, and Mahler at this stage of his career (1888). The opening of the Finale of the symphony shows narratological similarity to the opening of the final volume of the novel. The second phase links the middle-period instrumental symphonies with Dostoevsky, who became Mahler's greatest literary and moral hero. The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies exhibit narrative structures different from those of the earlier symphonies; rather than ending with indivdualistic triumph, after the manner of Jean Paul, they pose the Dostoevskian question of whether some sort of redemption of their material is possible. The third phase links the late works with Mahler's contemporaries Robert Musil and Marcel Proust. In this context, the ending of Mahler's Ninth Symphony can be seen as a adaptation of musical narrativity analogous to the Modernist extension of the lengthy novels of these two authors.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 Accounts of this evening exist from Alma Mahler, Alban Berg, Richard Specht and Paul Stefan. Alma gives the earliest date, 1907, shortly before Mahler's departure for America; her memories are of a considerably more raucous and lively occasion than those of the young musicians present. They all place it during the spring of one of the following years. The various accounts are well summarised in Lebrecht, Norman, Mahler Remembered (London: Faber & Faber, 1987): 219222Google Scholar.

2 See in particular Allan Janik, and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein's Vienna (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973)Google Scholar, and Schorske, Carl E., Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)Google Scholar.

3 See for instance the series Word and Music Studies, ed. Walter Bernhart, Werner Wolf and others (Amsterdam: Rodopi).

4 Newcomb, Anthony, ‘Narrative archetypes and Mahler's Ninth Symphony’, in Music and Text: Critical inquiries, ed. Peter Scher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 118136CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Samuels, Robert, Mahler's Sixth Symphony: A study in musical semiotics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Adorno, Theodor W., Mahler: Ein musikalische Physiognomik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1960)Google Scholar, trans. Jephcott, Edmund, as Mahler: A musical physiognomy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

7 Blaukopf, Kurt, Mahler, trans. Inge Goodwin (London: Allen Lane, 1973): 76Google Scholar.

8 The work was premiered in Budapest in November 1889. The title Titan was published, along with a programmatic description of the whole work, for the second performance, in Hamburg in 1893. Both these performances included as the second movement the later discarded Andante entitled Blumine.

9 Blaukopf, Mahler.

10 The whole programme is translated in Franklin, Peter, The Life of Mahler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 8990Google Scholar.

11 Schumann, Robert, On Music and Musicians, trans. Paul Rosenfeld (New York: Norton, 1946): 107112Google Scholar. Schumann's article dates from 1840.

12 Blaukopf, Herta, ‘Jean Paul, die erste Symphonie und Dostojewski’, in Gustav Mahler: Werk und Wirken: Neue Mahler-Forschung aus Anlass des vierzigjahrigen Bestehens der Internationalen Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft (Vienna: Vom Pasqualatihaus, 1996): 3542Google Scholar; Celestini, Federico, ‘Literature as Déjà Vu? The Third Movement of Gustav Mahler's First Symphony’, in Phrase and Subject: Studies in Literature and Music, ed. Delia da Sousa Correa (Oxford: Legenda, 2006)Google Scholar.

13 The foregoing description is based on the summary of the novel in Casey, Timothy J., Jean Paul: A reader (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992): 2227Google Scholar.

14 ibid., p. 22.

15 Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (‘Jean Paul’), Titan, 4 vols. (Berlin: Matzdorff, 1800–03). English edition: Titan: A romance, trans. C.T. Brooks (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862): vol. 2, p. 521 (Chapter given as ‘Thirty-fifth Jubilee, 146th Cycle’)Google Scholar.

16 ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu! allüberall und ewig, ewig blauen licht die Fernen, ewig, ewig … ewig, ewig … ewig, ewig … ewig!’

17 Paul, Jean, Titan, vol. 2, p. 499 (‘Thirty-fifth Jubilee, 143rd Cycle’)Google Scholar.

18 It is one of the problems with a cliché that its actual origins are not clear. The phrase is prominent, for example, in Newman, William, The Sonata since Beethoven (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969)Google Scholar; but it has general currency.

19 Franklin, , The Life of Mahler: 76Google Scholar.

20 The idea that the theme of the Finale takes up features of themes from the opening movement, while inverting them or reversing their significatory effect, is, however, clearly observed in later works by Mahler, and it is worth noting here.

21 This is Mahler's phrase. See Franklin, Life of Mahler, 76.

22 Franklin, , Life of Mahler, 90Google Scholar. The Symphony had five movements at this time, of course (see n. 7 above).

23 Paul, Jean, Titan, vol. 2, p. 187 (‘Twenty-sixth Jubilee, 102nd Cycle’)Google Scholar.

24 Adorno, , Mahler, 62Google Scholar.

25 Samuels, Mahler's Sixth Symphony; the novels discussed are, principally, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.

26 Adorno, , Mahler, 63Google Scholar.

27 Williamson, John, ‘Deceptive Cadences in the Last Movement of Mahler's Seventh Symphony’, Soundings 9 (1982): 8796Google Scholar.

28 Williamson, , ‘Deceptive Cadences’, 96Google Scholar.

29 Musil, Robert, The Man Without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (London: Picador, 1995), vol. 2 (Chapter 122): 707Google Scholar.

30 ibid, 709.

31 Proust, Marcel, In Search of Lost Time 1: The Way by Swann's, trans. Lydia Davis (London: Penguin, 2002 [1913]): 430Google Scholar.

32 This topic is explored in my essay ‘Mahler within Mahler: Self-reference or Metareference?’, in Self-reference in Literature and Music, ed., Walter Bernhart and Werner Wolf (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010): 33–50.

33 Adorno, , Mahler, 94Google Scholar.

34 Proust, , In Search of Lost Time 6: Finding Time Again, trans. Ian Patterson (London: Penguin, 2002 [1927]): 358Google Scholar.