Sometimes an artistic experience can assume an elevated sense of urgency due to its context. After 9/11, the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies at Carnegie Hall felt like a triumphant assertion of a civilizational inheritance in the face of lethal attack. Last month, German baritone Christian Gerhaher’s recital of Mahler songs at Lincoln Center seemed no less momentous. While not as cataclysmic as 9/11, the current assault on the tradition that gave birth to those Mahler songs may prove more devastating over the long run. Gerhaher’s transcendent performance was a reminder of what is at stake.

A few markers of our present moment: every arts institution in the United States is under pressure to discard meritocratic standards in collections, programming, and personnel, in favor of race and gender preferences. When the Museum of Modern Art opened its renovated headquarters in New York City this October, a Wall Street Journal art critic noted that the new MoMA had been able to “correct, and even make reparations for, its heretofore almost exclusive parade of white male superstars.” Gender and race bean-counting is now the key to evaluating a collection’s worth. “Previously, only about 1/20th of the art in the museum’s permanent collection was by women,” wrote the Journal’s Peter Plagens. “That fraction now exceeds a quarter and is moving toward a third.” Another Journal critic congratulated MoMA for “rethinking its outdated history of modern art, which elevated white, male Americans and Western Europeans above all other artists.”

This July, the Ford Foundation’s president labeled America’s museums “guardians of a fading social and demographic order.” Writing in the New York Times, Darren Walker urged museums to “resist reinforcing biases, hierarchies and inequalities”; instead, they should “redefine excellence and relevance.” That redefinition entails hiring curators and other staff based on race. The goal is “installations and institutions” that represent “people whom the system excludes and exploits.” The museum establishment hardly needed Walker’s prodding; it has already enthusiastically embraced “diversity” as its artistic lodestar. In 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, will acquire works only by females and will stage only “female-centric” exhibits.  “This [is] how you raise awareness and shift the identity of an institution,” proclaimed Christopher Bedford, BMA’s director. “You don’t just purchase one painting by a female artist of color and hang it on the wall next to a painting by Mark Rothko. To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical.”

In October, the Times’s classical music editor announced that Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes, set in Turkey, Persia, and Peru, “is a piece that needs some help.” Zachary Wolfe magnanimously conceded that Rameau’s libretto “may not break the toxicity meter.” Nevertheless, “it is uncomfortably populated by stereotypes, with colonial order valorized as the peaceable solution to a world out of joint,” Wolfe warned. “Something must be done with a work whose final act is called ‘The Savages.’” And the director and choreographer for a new Paris Opera production provided just such help by shifting the work’s “power dynamics substantially toward egalitarianism,” Wolfe reported approvingly, above all by permeating it with “street and club dance . . . to empower the work’s ‘others’ to represent themselves on their own terms” and to triumph over the “white gaze.”

Narcissistic opera directors have been inflicting their political ideology on defenseless operas for several decades now, but the revisionism is only going to get worse, especially with the rise of #MeToo. From here on, it will be almost impossible to mount Don Giovanni, Rusalka, Turandot, Madama Butterfly, Carmen, and much of the rest of the opera repertoire without similar directorial “help” to purge these works of their toxic masculinity, cultural appropriation, and incorrect attitudes toward the “Other.”

In spring 2018, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross triggered outrage against the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra by tweeting that they had programmed no female composers in their upcoming seasons. Never mind that at the same moment, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was at Carnegie Hall performing Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Low Brass, a work commissioned by the Chicago and Philadelphia orchestras, undoubtedly at inflated cost. The Philadelphia Orchestra hastily corrected its error; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will certainly not repeat it.

Announcers on New York’s sole remaining classical music station, WQXR (down from three in the 1990s), railed against the predominantly white-male identity of classical composers during this year’s women’s and black history months. It thus taught any potential new listeners to view the art form through the lens of identity politics. Juilliard professor and critic Greg Sandow advocates an assault on colorblind orchestra hiring practices, organized around the hashtag #OrchestrasSoWhite. The League of American Orchestras pressures orchestra staff, management, boards, soloists, and conductors to obey diversity metrics. Performing ensembles, such as Sphinx, are organizing around skin color. The American Guild of Musical Artists, a union, has its pitchforks out for classical music’s greatest performing artists, who have run afoul of the #MeToo enforcers.

When Christian Gerhaher and his long-time accompanist, Gerard Huber, stepped onto the stage of Alice Tully Hall on October 29, in other words, they were entering what university precincts call a “contested” space. Their featured composer—Gustav Mahler—is a dead white male; Gerhaher and Huber are themselves white and male. And they were offering works that represent the pinnacle of a civilization routinely denounced in the academy and the political arena as the font of the world’s racism and sexism. Gerhaher and Huber demonstrated why the preservation of that inheritance is the most pressing imperative of our time.

Mahler’s songs (there are only 46 of them) cap one of the richest traditions of Western art: the German art song, or Lied. No other European musical culture has plumbed its national literature as deeply as German composers did. To be sure, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Victor Hugo have all been beautifully set by late nineteenth-century French composers. Italian poetry got shorter shrift due to the dominance of opera; and the English Romantics—Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley—lie tragically untouched due to the drought in British music that began in the eighteenth century. The sustained attention to Germany’s greatest authors—including Goethe, Schiller, and Heine—by Germany’s greatest composers, however, produced a body of work unlike any other, giving a musical reality to the dominant themes of German romanticism: the intense absorption into nature; solitariness (die Einsamkeit); and yearning (die Sehnsucht).

Gerhaher’s October program featured Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), with texts written by Mahler, himself an enthusiastic poet; selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), whose title refers to a nineteenth-century collection of German folk poetry, some authentic, some written by such luminaries of German literature as the Brothers Grimm and Joseph von Eichendorff; and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), which draw on hundreds of poems written by Friedrich Rückert in the 1830s to mourn the deaths of two of his children.

To be present at this recital was to witness a profound act of communion—between Mahler and his musical forebears and between Mahler and his interpreters, all engaged in that dialogue across time and space that constitutes what Robert Maynard Hutchins called the Great Conversation. Several songs, with their simple strophic structure, invoked the greatest of all Lied composers: Franz Schubert. Rheinlegendchen (Little Rhine Legend) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn could more accurately be titled “Homage to the Schubertian Ländler,” thanks to its cheerful dance rhythm. Schubert’s song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise, echoed throughout the program, whether in the recurrent green imagery or the eerie drone of the Winterreise’s organ grinder in Wo die schönen Trumpeten blasen (Where the beautiful trumpets blow) and Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald (I went with joy through a green wood). Mahler shares Schubert’s bittersweet interpenetration of major and minor keys, but pushes those diaphanous harmonies toward even more unbearable poignancy, sometimes to the point of sardonic mockery.

The fugal accompaniment of Wenn dein Mütterlein tritt zur Tür herein (When your mother walks through the door), from Kindertotenlieder, reached back to Bach, as did the extended melisma on “weinen” from Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, recalling the St. Matthew Passion.  The unsettled orchestral ornament of Dio! Mi potevi scagliar (God, you could have rained upon me) from Verdi’s Otello was transformed to embroider a beloved’s reassurances to a departing soldier in Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The watchman’s night song).

Unlike other Lied composers, Mahler transcribed almost all his songs from piano accompaniment to orchestra, sometimes stripped of the voice, as in the First Symphony’s absorption of several Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen. Conventional wisdom views this transformation as teleological, resulting in a superior product. Gerhaher himself sounds defensive about the original piano settings, which he calls, in the liner notes for his first recording of Mahler songs, “more than just fair-copy short scores whose essence lies in their orchestration.” Rather, they are “works with an artistic integrity and significance all their own,” he writes. In fact, it is the piano versions that are superior (as are most piano Ur-scores of subsequent transcriptions), since they reveal the structural essence of a song and make tangible the dialogue between interpreter and composer that the Gerhaher recital embodied.

The most striking aspect of Gerhaher’s voice is its naturalness, as if at times he were speaking rather than singing. But he also marshals a carefully calibrated variety of vocal beauty, from a dramatically intensifying vibrato to deliciously aristocratic rolled R’s, sweetly vulnerable high notes, and an erotic covered sound that seems primed to explode. In an orchestral setting, much of this variety, especially Gerhaher’s hushed nocturnal palette, must be cast aside in favor of a more operatic register to carry over the instruments.

The greatest advantage of the piano settings, however, is how they foreground the interpretive choices made by singer and pianist. At every moment during Gerhaher and Huber’s program, they were listening for Mahler’s intent. Their concentration was palpable; nothing in the world at that moment seemed more important than this loving realization of Mahler’s musical greatness, to which Gerhaher and Huber surrendered themselves completely.

That intense focus was particularly acute in Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (My darling’s two blue eyes), the final of the four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The cycle’s narrator, a rejected lover, sets off in exile (as in Die Winterreise), sent “into the wide world” by his beloved’s glance. The song, marked “mysterious and melancholy” (mit geheimnisvoll schwer­mü­tigen Ausdruck) is pervaded by silence; Mahler introduces 5/4 measures into the 4/4 meter to add an additional moment of stasis, suggesting the narrator’s halting gait. Gerhaher began the song with a flat, emotionless tone. As the work proceeded, his voice gained color and body, keyed to the pathos of Mahler’s sighing melodies and harmonic ambiguities. The song’s cathartic third section begins out of another silence from which rises a barely perceptible tolling of bells in the piano part, played with silken resonance by Huber. The poet takes refuge under a linden tree (yet another Winterreise reference) and the song settles into F major before dissolving into F minor and a series of ever more heartbreakingly chromatic diminished and half-diminished chords. Ultimately, the poet reaches a state of mystical peace, in which “love and sorrow and world and dream” become indistinguishable, and the song fades back into silence.

Gerhaher and Huber’s concentration was overpowering; one hesitated to breathe for fear of breaking the spell of their musical devotion. Hector Berlioz captured a like moment of transcendence with his usual rhetorical brilliance. In a welcome relief from the abysmal musical standards of France and Italy, he had arrived in Germany and attended, among other musical events, rehearsals of Hanover’s Bohrer Quartet. The quartet championed Berlioz’s musical deity: Beethoven. “Urhan [the violist] worshipped in silence, eyes averted as though from the radiance of the sun,” Berlioz wrote in his Memoires. He continued:

He seemed to be saying: “God willed that there should be a man as great as Beethoven, and that we should be allowed to contemplate him. God willed it!” . . . But with Anton Bohrer, the first violin, it was a sublime passion, an ecstasy of love. One evening in one of those unearthly adagios where Beethoven’s spirit soars vast and solitary like the huge bird above the snows of Chimborazo, Bohrer’s violin as it sang the heavenly melody seemed to become possessed with the divine fire and, suddenly taking on a new force and eloquence of expression, broke into accents unknown even to it, while his face lit up with the light of pure inspiration. We held our breath, our hearts swelled—when he abruptly stopped, put down his bow and rushed from the room. Madame Bohrer, worried, went after him, but Max [Anton’s brother and the quartet’s cellist], still smiling, said, “It’s nothing—he couldn’t contain his feelings, leave him to clam down a little, then we’ll start again. You must forgive him.” We forgive you—dear, great artist.

This sublimation of the performer’s ego to the composer’s genius became a key feature of classical music in the nineteenth century. In a world dominated by identity-based narcissism, when individuals obsess over ever more arcane aspects of their allegedly victimized selves, to witness Gerhaher and Huber’s all-consuming commitment to a mind outside of themselves reaffirmed our common humanity and inducted the audience into a higher realm. Their recital was a triumph over the tribalism and hatreds of identity politics.

Photo: wdstock/iStock


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