The Romantic Problem & the Path to Modern Music

 Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

From the Summer 2017 Issue

Gustav Mahler had a problem of epic proportions.  He was clearly the inheritor of both of the great strands of musical Romanticism:  the increasingly chromatic harmonic language that started with Beethoven and led up to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, as well as the sonata form that had begun with Haydn and had been explored by all the great composers from Mozart to Bruckner.  Mahler knew, however, that it was all coming to a close.  He was going to be the last in a long progressive line of tonal composers.  He believed tonality and the sonata had finally become exhausted.  Every possible chromatic interaction had been tried, and the form had been stretched to the breaking point. In his 9th Symphony (his last to be completed), Mahler prophetically said goodbye to everything: to the optimism of the Romantic artist of the 19th century, to the tonality that he loved, and even to his own life (Mahler knew that he had a heart condition that would take his life the next year).  Mahler knew that the 20th century was going to be what Auden eventually calls “The Age of Anxiety.” The loss of tonality, and the end of the 19th century progressive optimism preceded the First World War through which came the loss of European civilization as it had been.

Listen to the last movement of the 9th Symphony, and note how each statement of the main theme attempts to rally meaning, but inevitably fails.  The resignation of the last 3 minutes of the last movement is a depiction of the end of an era where everything gets slower and softer until it disappears altogether.  (You may be reminded of the end of Eliot’s “Hollow Men”, written in 1925).

Two Responses

As the 20th century begins, there is a significant departure from the unity of previous centuries.  Arnold Schoenberg had written his cantata *Gurre-lieder *in 1900, which called for a giant Mahler-like orchestra, and offered daringly chromatic harmonic relations.  But by the time Mahler started his 9th Symphony in 1909, Schoenberg had already begun what was to become the first of two 20th century responses to Mahler’s dilemma:  Atonal music.  In the last movement of his Second String Quartet, Schoenberg calls on a soprano to sing what is considered to be the very first atonal melody in Western music, congruently setting the words, “I feel the air of a distant planet.”  Schoenberg’s atonal foray was simply the next step in a process of Romantic rule-breaking started by Beethoven 100 years earlier.  Progressive composers after Beethoven (Berlioz, Liszt, Chopin, Wagner, others) pushed the chromatic envelope a little farther with each work, until the century’s close, and for Schoenberg, the only thing remaining was to depart from tonality altogether.  Schoenberg’s followers pushed farther still, leading to works like Berg’s all-atonal opera Wozzeck, started in 1914, but first performed in 1925.  Listen to any scene and look for how Berg borrows the the musical forms of previous periods (sonata, theme and variations, chaconne, etc.), but pours into those forms atonal material.

The second school of thought in response to Mahler’s question was led by Igor Stravinsky.  If tonality has been exhausted, Stravinsky argued, what about combining tonalities together simultaneously?  It could be called “polytonality.”  Composers could write melodies that start in one key and divert to another. 

 In 1913 the musical world was thrown into near riots over the grandfather of polytonality, the ballet score Rite of Spring. Stravinsky composed three spectacularly famous ballets early in the century, just before the War, when he was between the ages of 27 and 31.  Firebird (1909), Petroushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913).  In the Rite, the opening eerie bassoon solo makes use of pitches from the C major scale, (or, ambiguously, could be in A minor, or E minor) but almost immediately, with a C# in the French Horn, it sounds like we could be in A major.  Chromatic runs from the clarinets lead to a new tonally ambiguous line from the English Horn, perhaps F# major, or some kind of G# mode.  Claude Debussy had inspired these sorts of harmonically ambiguous melodies long ago in his “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faune,” so Stravinsky’s melodies were not that astonishing at the beginning, but Stravinsky layers these lines on top of each other, each with its own ambiguous key, until the listener is surrounded by so many strange plants, each fairly normal in its own way, but chaotically growing up together to make this pre-historic Russian spring.  But then something new occurs.  When the Dance of the Adolescents begins, Stravinsky pushes multiple keys together into the same rhythm, and a new sound is born:  an Fb major chord combined with an Eb7 chord.  One might argue that in the “Eroica” Symphony, Beethoven forces our ears to hear the tonic theme over the dominant chord for a moment before the recap in the first movement, so again Stravinsky’s combination is not completely without precedent, however, both of Beethoven’s opposing chords were at least in the same key, while Stravinsky asks our ears to keep track of more than one tonal world simultaneously, creating a new sound spectrum altogether.

There are two other courses pursued by 20th century composers, neither of which takes much interest in the question Mahler raises.  Post-Romantic composers like Sibelius, Rachmaninov, and Richard Strauss (and eventually Americans Samuel Barber and Howard Hanson) simply continue in the Romantic tradition long into the new century, writing long romantic melodies with conventional chromatic tonal harmonies.  (though late in his life, Strauss does investigate the limits again, as Mahler did, in a work called Metamorphosen for23 Solo Strings in 1945.) The second is a course taken by composers like Holst, Bartok, Gershwin, and Aaron Copland, who draw on rhythms and melodies of the folk music of their respective countries, and incorporate those elements into their compositions.  You can hear English hymn tunes in Holst’s Planets, in particular the famous “Jupiter,” or Hungarian speech patterns in Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, or Jazz and Latin American tunes and rhythms in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and “Cuban Overture,” or Appalachian and American Western tunes in Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and Billy the Kid ballets.

These post-Romantic and Nationalist composers find greater general success among audiences due partly to their refusal to give up on tonality.  Tonality is rooted in God’s Creation, as consonant overtones are the natural result of all vibrating bodies.  Our ears hear these overtones even if we don’t notice them.  Tonality is rooted directly in our human experience.  It is unnatural for human beings to feel grounded in music that has no tonal center. Of course, this is no prescription for composers to refrain from composing atonal music—atonality is just another way that sound can be shaped to communicate the composer’s intent.  It is specially useful when trying to communicate despair or nihilism, and has many applications.

However, Mahler’s dilemma is real and needs to be addressed on theological, metaphysical, and philosophical levels, as well as aesthetic ones.  Clearly, the loss of meaning at the turn of the 20th century, reflected in Nietzsche and the horrors of WW I, and Eliot’s Waste Land, etc., is key to understanding the direction that music and art took in the first half of the century.