Reading Mahler:  German Culture and Jewish Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Carl Niekerk.  Rochester, NY:  Camden House, 2010.  ISBN 978-1-5711-3467-7

Reviewed by John J. SheinbaumReading Mahler

For a composer once considered to be on the margins of the Germanic symphonic tradition, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) now enjoys an enormous discography, an ever-expanding corpus of biographical and musicological scholarship, and nothing short of a cult of followers ready to discuss and debate any detail that might suggest new paths to interpreting his lengthy and emotionally involving works.[1]  Carl Niekerk’s Reading Mahler is a notable addition to the composer’s bibliography because it counters conventional images of Mahler as a “nostalgic modernist” or a “neoromanticist” derived from the first-person recollections of the composer’s wife, Alma, and the conductor Bruno Walter. Niekerk instead places Mahler at the head of the “avant-garde” generation of composers that followed (212).  This is a Mahler concerned with nothing less than “reinventing the German cultural tradition” in a way distinct from the nationalist models most closely associated with the influential anti-Semitic opera composer Richard Wagner (218).  For Niekerk, then, Mahler’s “Jewishness is of importance, even though he said little about it in public” (12), and even though it plays little more than a background role in philosopher Theodor Adorno’s essential monograph on the composer.[2]  His reconsideration of Mahler thus encompasses much more than musical issues per se.  Niekerk aims to place Mahler securely within the intellectual context of his time by focusing on the texts that may have been formative in his thinking, and that often played direct roles in the construction of his songs and symphonies.

Niekerk organizes his study into two broad sections, the first of which explores how numerous early compositions engage with a “crisis of German culture” around the turn of the twentieth century.  Chapter 1 addresses the First Symphony, often called the “Titan” through Jean Paul’s early nineteenth-century Bildungsroman of the same name.  Though the “specifically German” Bildungsroman is usually thought of as a genre “that traces its hero’s development [and] his self-realization” (51), both novel and symphony are interpreted as “anti-heroic,” “skeptical,” and full of narrative “digressions, contradictions, intentional obscurities, and fundamental ambiguities” (31).  Niekerk posits in Chapter 2 that the folksong-tinged Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) are similarly “driven not by lighthearted nostalgia but by a critical agenda” (57).  Against the grain of nationalist interpretations of folksong, Mahler approaches the notion of das Volk less ideologically, and instead through a history grounded in heterogeneous people of “lower rank” rather than “mythological heroes” (81).  In Chapter 3, the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies are interpreted through Mahler’s close readings of the “rebel” philosopher Nietzsche (83).  From such a perspective, works of art could, on the one hand, counter an increasingly scientific and rational world, and on the other—in direct opposition to Wagner’s late Christian turn—“take on some of the legitimizing functions formerly assigned to religion” (84).  Thus the Second Symphony’s finale, its setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poem “Die Auferstehung” (The Resurrection) notwithstanding, is seen to use music and imagery with “roots in the Jewish world of the Old Testament” (97), as Mahler breaks with his source text by omitting Jesus (99).  Similarly, the heaven depicted in the Fourth Symphony’s finale “embraces earthly things” and thus “deconstructs traditional Christian iconography” (120).  Alluding to the home of Wagner’s annual festival, Niekerk concludes that “Mahler is very much a product of cosmopolitan Vienna and not of provincial Bayreuth” (131).

The second section of the book traces Mahler’s interest in various “Others” within German culture, and the roles they may play in the later works.  In Chapter 4 Niekerk traces Mahler’s interest in Dutch painting (142), and explores Julius Langbehn’s 1890 Nietzsche-inspired book Rembrandt als Erzieher (Rembrandt as Educator).  Niekerk argues that Mahler “was intrigued by Dutch culture as a symbol of what was marginalized and discarded within German cultural history,” and claims that this “search for alterity” provides a “framework” for exploring the Seventh Symphony (148), particularly the work’s intimate, chamber-music like “Nachtmusik” inner movements.  Chapter 5 focuses on Mahler’s use of Goethe’s Faust in the Eighth Symphony from the perspective of the nineteenth century’s binary opposition between Schiller as a “poet of the people” and Goethe as more of “an object of interest for a small aristocratic elite” (155).  Goethe had a “reputation as a favorite of the Jews,” and thus “Faust stood, above all, as an emancipatory figure for the effort to think German cultural history differently” (159).  In Chapter 6 Niekerk examines the Viennese fin de siècle fascination with the Orient.  Noting Friedrich Rückert’s “tangible scholarly credentials in Oriental studies” (183), Niekerk explores Mahler’s songs on Rückert poems and the Chinese poetry-based Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).  Against the backdrop of the thin “Orientalist clichés” and anti-Semitic stereotypes filling Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (195), the simultaneous multiple melodic strands of Mahler’s later style can be seen to “mirror . . . the multiple stories that these [Rückert] songs tell” (189).  The “contemplative” atmosphere of the extended Das Lied finale, moreover, stands in direct contrast to Strauss’s “exuberant Orient” (204)

As provocative and thought-provoking as Niekerk’s interpretations tend to be, this inherently interdisciplinary study needlessly positions itself against musicological approaches to Mahler.  Though Niekerk notes that in the scholarly literature that “one does find frequent references to Mahler’s literary and cultural interests,” he marginalizes these attempts as “primarily . . . to illustrate musicological points or as part of a musicological analysis” (6).  Instead of developing a dialogue between his interpretations and other approaches, consequently, he tends to assert the primacy of his own readings.  Thus while Niekerk seeks to “explain the radically divergent responses that Mahler’s music evokes” (2), he wonders whether “its audiences really understand the emotional narrative that it is telling” (3) [emphases added].  Such flourishes are particularly problematic given the sometimes slender evidence presented in establishing intertextual connections to Mahler’s works.  For example, Niekerk “assumes that Mahler himself was the source of [an] allusion” to Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” on conductor Willem Mengelberg’s score of Mahler’s Seventh; and he is “very tempted to read” a Nietzsche fragment “as a model” for that symphony’s first movement even though “there is, unfortunately, no direct evidence” (140-1).  In the discussion of Oriental influences, moreover, Niekerk links a high school essay of Mahler’s to compositions composed three decades later (178-9).

Niekerk’s discomfort with musicological approaches may be related to his occasionally questionable use of musical terminology.  Throughout Chapter 6 he conflates a polyphonic texture—where multiple melodies sound simultaneously, often imitating each other at distances a measure or two apart—with a heterophonic texture, where differently ornamented versions of a single melody sound at the same time.  The cultural meanings of these textures are normally in opposition—heterophony often characterizes “non-Western” or “Oriental” soundscapes, while polyphony usually implies a learned “Western” technique—but Niekerk’s discussion treats them as equivalent.  In a similar vein Niekerk uses Leon Botstein’s essay “Whose Gustav Mahler?” to assert that Leonard Bernstein’s Mahler interpretations “emphasized . . . contradictions, moments of dissonance, ambiguities and ironies” (3).  But Botstein instead argues something of the opposite, that in Bernstein’s approach “the aspects of negativity, rebellion, innovation, and resistance . . . are neither heard by the audience nor communicated from the stage.”[3]

These issues mainly concern rhetoric, though, and rarely strike at the heart of the discussion.  Overall, Niekerk investigates Mahler in a rewarding and challenging way.  His study also provides readers with a solid grounding in texts and sources that are not always considered in the field of Mahler studies.  Ultimately Reading Mahler is about “Mahler’s reading,” his “highly individual way of reading German culture, which nationalistic, conservative, or anti-Semitic critics deemed inappropriate” (220).  Mahler’s ethical engagement “with absolutely everything” not only works on “our rational faculties but our emotions as well,” and his resulting music “becomes a metaphor for humankind’s metaphysical homelessness, for its longing to find something that makes sense” (221).

[1] Recent collections of essays that provide a sense of current understanding of Mahler and his oeuvre include Mahler and His World, ed. Karen Painter (Princeton and Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2002); Perspectives on Gustav Mahler, ed. Jeremy Barham (Aldershot, Hants, and Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2005); and The Cambridge Companion to Mahler, ed. Jeremy Barham (Cambridge and New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler:  Eine musikalische Physiognomik (Frankfurt am Main:  Suhrkamp, 1960); trans. Edmund Jephcott as Mahler:  A Musical Physiognomy (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[3] Leon Botstein, “Whose Gustav Mahler?  Reception, Interpretation, and History,” in Mahler and His World, p. 3.

John J. Sheinbaum, University of Denver