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Composer Focus: Sir Antonio Pappano on Gustav Mahler

Nothing Concrete text
15 Apr 2020
24 min listen

In this episode of Composer Focus, Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, guides us through the life and music of Gustav Mahler.

It’s only when you start to go to the extremes, where there’s the extremes of the pastoral, lyrical qualities, the extreme dreaminess, the extreme dark side of things. And not only going to the dark side but probing the dark side, like putting your finger in a wound and keeping it there. Therefore, the music in a certain way hurts, and it’s supposed to.

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Composer Focus: Sir Antonio Pappano on Gustav Mahler

In this episode of Composer Focus, Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, guides us through the life and music of Gustav Mahler.


Barbican: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. This time, we have another episode from our Composer Focus series from November 2018, as Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, guides us through the life and music of Gustav Mahler.

ES: Today I’m joined by Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Our subject? Gustav Mahler.

ES: Tony, Mahler always said his time would come, and indeed it did and he’s been big box office for many years now, but even as late as the 1960s when people like Leonard Bernstein were advocating his music, the take-up was still quite slow and I wonder whether you think that was to do with simply exposure, or fashion because it was, it is, highly emotive music?

AP: Well it’s very interesting that Leonard Bernstein had to push the hardest in Vienna of all places, and with the Vienna Philharmonic. Somehow, it took a while for that institution to claim Gustav Mahler as their own. I think some of it has to do with the almost embarrassing rawness of some of the music, whereas somebody like Richard Strauss, the music is so even at it’s most violent or most dramatic or most neurotic, still has an element of, it’s more decadent. Always elegant, somehow always linked to the traditions of Mozart. Mahler is not, or when he is, he’s parodying.

ES: He takes all those Austro-German traditions to the nth degree, doesn’t he?

AP: Exactly.

ES: He pushes them as far as he can push them.

AP: I think the exhaustion one feels after conducting and certainly playing some of the music, is something that really was new. I mean to say you’re put through the ringers is surely an understatement. It’s only when you start to go to the extremes, where there’s the extremes of the pastoral, lyrical qualities, the extreme dreaminess, the extreme dark side of things. And not only going to the dark side but probing the dark side, like putting your finger in a wound and keeping it there. Therefore, the music in a certain way hurts, and it’s supposed to. All this coinciding with the development of Freud in Vienna’s time – why do we do what we do – nature, Wagner, the expression of the hero. Somehow autobiographical desires of composers like Mahler and Strauss, to use themselves as the picture of the hero, and to torture themselves.

ES: It’s one of the reasons why it’s such subjective music, you have to inhabit it in order to perform it. The annotations on the scores are so precise, he not only tells you what he wants, but how he wants you to achieve it in a way.
AP: Well this is one of the great composers of our, well of any time. One of the great opera conductors, theatre personalities. You’ve got to remember that the conductors of that time, especially the great conductors, also would stage, they would do the whole thing, so every facet of the theatrical experience and of the storytelling experience, was something that was a huge pre-occupation in Mahler’s life, not to mention his interests in anything literary, and the crowd, the company he kept. You know, constant discussion, often polemic to the nth degree, as everything in his life. But this autobiographical thing was something that they understood at that time, and Mahler more than anybody else, that to pit yourself against an obstacle was a fantastic storyline – whether it was for opera or it was even better for symphony because it could all be in the imagination, I mean there’s almost a donkey shot quality, it’s all in one’s mind. But I mean certainly Mahler had obstacles in his life: work, religion, his marriage, the death of his children, his condition – his heart condition, working at the state opera which was a job that nobody had survived. But this idea, for instance in the 6th Symphony - strangely enough written in a very happy period of his life, he just was married and wrote it on holiday in Maiernigg 1903/04, premiered in 1906 – but it is picture of him, this beginning. He would charge in to rehearsals this little guy with a big head and there’s a nihilistic quality often to his writing. But what’s most revealing in this symphony, which is why I mention the 6th, is the 4th movement, which is definitely the hero battling it out with the forces of life and society.

ES: And the hammer blows

AP: And the hammer blows; originally three then Mahler got rid of the third one.

Where am I? Am I in minor or am I in major – it’s like this fight between A minor and A major. There are also the two voices in one’s head, the two powers that are pulling on one individual – it’s psychologically, although it sounds basic, it’s quite fascinating. Because if you have a genius that’s thinking about this, what it brings out of him in terms of where music is pulling him. Music has poles, there’s a magnetic force, and this creates incredible conflict. But what I find fascinating is how Mahler, in this 4th movement of the 6th symphony, shows the fight that’s in him. ‘I will charge forward, I will be knocked down but I will go forwards.’

ES: The belief, my goodness.

AP: The belief in himself – OK, he loses the battle, Strauss would never lose that battle. Of course, in [Ein] ‘Heldenleben’ for instance, there is resignation but not a hammer blow that just fells him. That’s the difference of the two personalities. But it’s very, very interesting that we have... It’s hard to speak about Mahler without Strauss there as a counterweight.

ES: Well didn’t he famously come out of one of the early, maybe the 1st performance of the 6th – Strauss that is – and say to Mahler, you know, ‘Boy that’s depressing’. [Both laugh] Something along those lines, you know, in a very wry way. He was able to step back, Mahler never could, could he?

AP: No

ES: As a Jew, he may not.. There were all kinds of problems. He wasn’t particularly religious in that sense, he was more of a pantheist wasn’t he, with nature, and converted to Catholicism to get the job in Vienna. But the Jewishness is everywhere in his music, is it not? Particularly in the parody and irony.

AP: Yes, and you know, what does that mean? The link to a past, the link to folkloric or roots that are there, it doesn’t matter how educated you are, how intellectual, how high the circles that you inhabit. When you hear [sings a section of Mahler’s Symphony No 1]. And even there, even in that simple tune there’s minor, major, minor, major, weeping, tears, smiling, tears, that back and forth which is a part of... I mean, the Jewish suffering through the ages, and despite the suffering, the somehow able to in the end, be above it all.

ES: There is this balance between pathos and bathos all the time, he could switch in, you know, turn on a sixpence.

AP: Yeah, and do you know what? That music, if as a conductor, everybody knows how it goes, somehow it’s become that, obviously in the ear it’s a tradition. But you know if you undercook it, because you’re embarrassed by it, you’re really doing the music a disservice. It is true that Mahler wrote everything in his scores. But there is also a... you must approach his music with a tremendous heart, with tremendous sympathy.

ES: And a lack of inhibition as well.

AP: And a lack of inhibition. I think, you know, the challenge for the conductor is to balance the rigour of much of the music. The total inhibition that is required in other moments. Now you know, it’s hard, but a lot of conductors are great Mahler conductors. It’s funny, there are a lot more great Mahler conductors than great Verdi conductors. For some reason, in our modern era, we’re able somehow to accept his neurosis, his extremes, and therefore it’s a language somehow today we understand probably better than ever.

ES: There are still those who won’t go to his extremes, who won’t take him at his word: I’ve encountered those over the years on recordings certainly and it’s that, as you say, that fear of overcooking it that can lead to that, but that’s part and parcel of it.

AP: Yes, look, I come from a Southern Italian background, and there are similarities. There’s that melismatic singing that we share with the Hazzan, the cantorial traditions. Where it all came from, and how it’s related to the Middle East, you know I mean it’s a very, very strong thing. If you don’t know what that is, or you are not interested in where it comes from, there’s a whole dimension that you’re missing in Mahler’s music.

ES: Now here’s a question. You talked about his theatricality, the fact he was a great opera conductor – why didn’t he write an opera?

AP: That’s really a question that I’ve pondered. Because you know, he was surrounded by great librettist. Maybe his favourite librettist was Hofmannsthal and since Strauss already had him… Maybe that was it! I think he was interested in not defining himself to that point specifically with words. He does it in certain symphonies – I’ve got to be careful how I say this because I don’t want to contradict myself – I think Mahler is probably at his greatest when he’s writing for the voice. But there are things that he’s trying to express that are beyond, they’re universal, deeply human emotions which can only be subjective to the listener. The minute you put words, I think you narrow the level of interpretation, the level of feeling, the level of compassion – everything one uses to react to a piece of music. And he did say that his symphonies are worlds, he’s going beyond words, I think it’s a relief that you do have words in some of his symphonies – his 2nd Symphony, his 4th Symphony, his 3rd Symphony Das Lied von der Erde.

ES: His 8th of course, which is as close as he got, the second part of the 8th, to writing opera I guess.

AP: Yes, which is fascinating, it is actually the Faust story. Perhaps much more successful than the first part, which is full of pomp and circumstance, as it would be. So I don’t know why he didn’t write an opera.

ES: It could also have been simply a question of time. You know, he wrote during the summer holidays basically. But also I often thought that Wagner, he conducted a lot of Wagner, and he thought to himself ‘this guy knows how to do this. Maybe I’ll never be able to match that.

AP: Wagner was his own librettist, and as we know Mahler wrote but maybe he didn’t have confidence in his libretto writing skills. Maybe he wasn’t interested in myth and when you’re not interested in myth you’ve got to go to other subjects and you know, he was surrounded by this world of opera and maybe the right subject didn’t appear to him. He would have been extremely fussy. He would have made Puccini, who was notoriously fussy, he would have made him look like an omnivore or something. So he probably didn’t find the right universal subject.

ES: Finally Tony, what do you think draws people into this music? Is it the fact that they recognise themselves in it, all those neuroses that we have in the modern age – it’s interesting that it’s become such big box office in the 20th and 21st century, when he started in the 19th century.

AP: well, don’t take this the wrong way, his music is very loud. Therefore the visceral impact it often has is a spectacle in itself. And with our powerful orchestras today, I mean Mahler probably couldn’t have imagined the noise coming out of our orchestras today. He probably would have been thrilled by it. This, coupled with his Handelian ability to write adagios that just tear your heart out, that combination is a winning combination from a purely showbusiness point of view. He’s a great storyteller and we can all make up the stories for ourselves. The orchestras love to play this, you feel the relish because the orchestras are being challenged. In the 6th for instance, there are not many difficult violin passages like in the other symphonies, but the amount of bow pressure – how the instruments survive that – it’s very exciting to watch and to listen. So I think the extreme dynamics are something that is very, very interesting. You know, we’re interested in turning the knob up to 11, but he does the opposite too. I think that is a spectacle, it’s a psychological rollercoaster that we somehow masochistically want to put ourselves through. 

Barbican: Thank you to Sir Antonio Pappano and Edward Seckerson. Next time, Richard Tognetti, Artistic Director of the trailblazing Australian Chamber Orchestra, joins us to discuss the one and only Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

RT: None of us can imagine the sounds that Mozart put down, out of his head, directly onto the score. Pen to paper, he was copying out what he had in his mind.

Barbican: Thanks for listening to this episode of Nothing Concrete, from the Barbican, here to help more people discover and love the arts. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Spotify, Acast, or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to leave us a review if possible, to help us inspire more art lovers, old or new. 

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