Mahler: Character and ‘mere simultaneity’

Reading through Adorno’s book on Mahler. Lots of wonderful things, his characterisation of Mahlerian polyphony is very useful. There’s some detail to it, which I’ll have to come back to, and which gives the specificity of Mahler’s counterpoint (relation to harmony, to bass progressions, role on global form, relation to learned contrapuntal techniques, etc), but for now the main point is the idea of polyphony as characters and also as ‘mere’ simultaneity. Adorno quotes a often-cited story from Natalie Bauer-Lechner:

The following Sunday, we went on the same walk with Mahler. At the fete on the Kreuzberg, an even worse witches’ sabbath was in progress. Not only were innumerable barrel-organs blaring out from merry-go-rounds, swings, shooting galleries and puppet shows, but a military band and a men’s choral society had established themselves there as well. All these groups, in the same forest clearing, were creating an incredible musical pandemonium without paying the slightest attention to each other. Mahler exclaimed: “You hear? That’s polyphony, and that’s where I get it from! Even when I was quite a small child, in the woods at Iglau, this sort of thing used to move me strangely, and impressed itself upon me. For it’s all the same whether heard in a din like this or in the singing of thousands of birds; in the howling of the storm, the lapping of the waves, or the crackling of the fire. Just in this way—from quite different directions—must the themes appear; and they must be just as different from each other in rhythm and melodic character (everything else is merely many-voiced writing, homophony in disguise). The only difference is that the artist orders and unites them all into one concordant and harmonious whole. (Bauer-Lecher, quoted in Adorno, p. 112)

This naturalism, this almost ‘documentary’ style, is something really novel at the time, and to my mind still very relevant. Of course the final line of this text demonstrates that it’s still a pre-twentieth century conception (requiring a resolution into a “concordant and harmonious whole”), but at base the idea points towards contingency as the starting point for relations between musical lines. Adorno writes: “Counterpoint for Mahler was the self-alienated form of music that imposed itself on the subject, in the extreme case mere simultaneous sounds” (p. 112).

This is quite close to what Charles Ives would go on to do shortly after in a more radically dissociated fashion.

In both composers lines are often differentiated by characteristics: “The distinguishing definition of themes becomes in many cases absolute, embracing their autonomous nature; character is simply difference” (Adorno, p. 114). It’s not hard to go from ‘characteristics’ to ‘set of identifiable parameters and parametric procedures’.

We can link it also to Mozart’s operatic ensembles or Carter’s string quartets where each line is a character in a drama. In fact counterpoint itself was thought of at least for a number of theoreticians of the 18th century as a multi-affective compositional approach, rather than as a non-affective, academic and totally unified style, as Frobenius explains:

In addition to Koch’s definition of this technical feature of polyphony (i.e. that ‘several parts can claim the character of a main part’), his observation that ‘the feelings of several people are expressed’ also deserves emphasis. This is not simply a description of the way music is experienced in general. Even genres such as the fugue were felt by Forkel, Sulzer and Koch to carry a heightened expression of feeling (it was only in the course of the 19th century that they came to be pronounced in general ‘objective’, that is, emotionally neutral). Koch’s remark applies more specifically to the kinds of music he cited as examples of polyphony: operatic ensembles, duets, trios and quartets. (Frobenius, ‘Polyphony’, New Grove Dictionary)

So there’s an entire mode of thinking about polyphony in the history of Western Art Music that has to do with character and difference, beginning (?) from these theorists, through Mozart to Mahler and Ives to Carter and then perhaps Michael Finnissy today.

However, there are very crucial differences between these composers (and not just the obvious historical stylistic ones): between character as abstract parameters, and character as somehow derived from the world; between interactions between characters as somehow driven by a drama, or emerging contingently via their ‘mere simultaneity’.

Also interesting in all this is the fact that Mahler didn’t feel he had a good grasp over academic or ‘strict’ counterpoint, just as Schubert before him (a similar feeling motivated in part my own current research):

as far back as I can remember my musical thinking was, oddly enough, never anything but polyphonic. But here I’m probably still suffering from lack of strict counterpoint, which every student who has been trained in it would use at this point with the greatest of ease. … Now I understand why, as we are told, Schubert still wanted to study counterpoint even shortly before his death. He was aware of what he lacked. And I can feel for him in this, as I am myself deficient in this technique, having missed a really thorough grounding in counterpoint in my student years. Admittedly, intellect makes up for it in my case, but the expenditure of energy needed for this is out of all proportion. (Mahler quoted by Bauer-Lechner in Adorno, p. 111)