Friday, November 30, 2012

He was Austrian, you know

Yesterday I survived a Trifecta of Mad Viennese Men: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler. Yes, I know: Mahler was born in Bohemia, but he made his fame and his money in Vienna, and I think he was also infected with the Viennese Lunacy.

Wittgenstein, though. I've read enough of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to start work on Chapter 11 of my novel-in-progress, though even if my fictional characters will have left off reading at about section 5.6, I continued onward through the tract because, you know, I'm more curious than my fictional characters. Section 5, toward the end, and Section 6 deal with real philosophical issues (Wittgenstein would of course deny that these are proper discussion topics for philosophers--indeed he does deny this earlier in the Tractatus--but here they are anyway) like the knowableness of God, solipsism and the existence of the soul. For the record: we can't know if God exists though He might, solipsism is the only true experience of the world, and the soul does not exist. But then Ludwig goes further, implying (if I understand him correctly) that we have no proof that anything exists beyond our own solipsistic worlds, and even if it does, none of it matters because the only true thing is language, and the only true language is bounded by philosophical logic, and all philosophical logical statements are tautologies saying nothing, so the only true thing is nothing, and logic--which is reality--will go on expressing itself whether we are here to see it or not, and anyway we don't matter to the equation, and to sum up, mankind is superfluous. Which is, I think, where Wittgenstein is going all along, that mankind is unnecessary. That seems to reinforce what I know about his sad, lonely and misunderstood life. The whole of the Tractatus seems to be an argument in favor of nullity, and a scary argument at that once you get to the end. "Whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must be silent" is not a warning against careless thinking and speech, it's a call to death. A harrowing, solitary death. Wittgenstein is therefore the philosopher of bleakness, of nothingness. Everything is nothing, all is pointless, best to just lie down and die.

Alban Berg, on the other hand. I've long been a fan of his music, from the early songs for mezzo-soprano and piano through the symphonic works to Lulu and Wozzeck. It's all great stuff. Last night the Seattle Symphony played Berg's Violin Concerto, with Veronika Eberle as the soloist. Ms Eberle has some phenomenal chops, Ludovic Morlot (the Seattle Symphony's new conductor) had a great grasp of the structure of the piece, and it was all just gorgeous and spiky and cool, the Bach chorale section sounding like a church organ, the final ambiguous chord floating in the air for a long time, as if it had disconnected itself from the orchestra and had come alive in the room. Berg was thought to be crazy, being a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg and a founding member of the Second Viennese School (that's serialism and atonality), a writer of non-music etc etc. Not a crazy man, but labeled as such.

Gustav Mahler, as I note above, was born in Bohemia, in what's now the Czech Republic. But I still claim he had the Austrian Crazy in his head, and one proof of it is his Symphony Number 4 in G Major. It's an hour long, but it's only got 17 minutes worth of music in it. The rest of the time is taken up with repetitions of that 17 minutes of music. This would be fine if the 17 minutes was good music, but it's not. Mahler was a composer of effects and textures, but not of, say, melodies or variations on themes (or even themes). There's a great deal happening on the stage at all times, but not much of it's particularly interesting. I get the feeling that Gustav wanted to write something big and significant and Wagnerian, but he just didn't have the ideas, and so he'd drag things into the mix out of desperation. The Symphony Number 4 has woodwind players doubling on several instruments because, you know, it's not enough to have oboes; you have to have the oboes trade off and sometimes play clarinet, too, or whatever. The principal violinist trades back and forth between his normally-tuned violin and a fiddle scordatura during the third movement. Why? Because Mahler says so, that's why. The scordatura passages are repetitive (of course) and not particularly engaging. The first three or four minutes of the slow movement are restful but then the movement drags on and on and goes nowhere at all and then the orchestra runs into one of those pesky da capos and the whole movement starts again. I put my head onto Mighty Reader's shoulder at this point and prayed for sleep, which did not come. The finale is Mahler’s setting of Das himmlische Leben, which means that in the pause between movements, soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac walked onstage and placed herself beside the podium. She sings nicely enough but it was about when the hymn slowed down and began again, and Michel-Dansac fell into her half-crouched singing posture, that I suddenly felt as if I was sitting in a remote village meeting hall watching an amateur production of an operetta written by the eccentric church choirmaster and performed with baffled enthusiasm for a mystified audience of townsfolk. Yes, I thought, this is the music of a lunatic, of a man who was in pursuit of a vision but was denied that vision and filled reams of manuscript paper anyway, hoping against hope that somewhere in all of this noise he'd shake some real art out onto the face of the world. A crazy man, an eccentric mad scientist building machines full of flashing light and whirling appliances that achieved no practical purpose and had no off switch. Yes, that's Mahler, I thought. At that point, late in the performance, I began to enjoy it. The silence at the end of the symphony, as the last chimes of Mahler's sleigh bells died away, was held by orchestra and audience for a long, long time.

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