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"Inescapable" Coherence and the Failure of the Novel-Symphony in the Finale of Mahler's Sixth

"Inescapable" Coherence and the Failure of the Novel-Symphony in the Finale of Mahler's Sixth Critics have long viewed Mahler's Sixth Symphony in A Minor (1904) as the composer's consummate essay in musical tragedy or negativity, one with deeply personal implications. Its enormous finale draws together materials from all the preceding movements and enacts a terrible conflict ending in failure. Yet few studies have looked beneath the work's bombastic rhetorical-expressive surface to explore how its negativity might be reflected in its tonal, formal, and thematic processes. This study sets out to link that negative expressivity to a breakdown of what Adorno called the "novelistic" character of Mahler's symphonies. For Adorno, Mahler pioneered a new, emancipatory symphonic idiom, one that liberated its musical materials from the dictates of preconceived formal totalities. Unlike the Classical symphony, where the parts exist for the sake of a symmetrical, tightly knit whole, the "novel-symphony" follows no predetermined path. Instead, it unfolds according to the dictates of its constituent elements, realizing its unique form from the "bottom up" rather than the "top down." Yet (as Adorno suggests) in the finale of the Sixth this integrating totality returns with a vengeance. We can read the movement as a clash between Adorno's novelistic and Classical paradigms, a showdown between the impulsive freedom of certain recalcitrant thematic elements on the one hand, and the increasingly punitive demands of rigid minor-mode sonata on the other. This drama--one that caricaturizes "classicism" itself as a repressive or stifling force--plays out on both formal and thematic levels. Several writers have noted the claustrophobic effect created by Mahler's incessant recycling of certain key motives, an "inescapable" coherence in which the organicist imperatives of the grand tradition themselves become corrupt and, ultimately, corrosive. As these generic, subthematic particles proliferate, the movement's "novelistic" themes--those seeking to subvert the strict sonata--are systematically denuded of the differentiating features and dissolved beyond recognition. In the end, the movement's infamously brutal minor-mode conclusion reveals itself to be the culmination of a musical plot spanning the entire movement, one that gathers its many details into an inexorably tragic narrative whole. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png 19th-Century Music University of California Press

"Inescapable" Coherence and the Failure of the Novel-Symphony in the Finale of Mahler's Sixth

19th-Century Music , Volume 31 (1) – Jul 1, 2007

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Publisher
University of California Press
Copyright
Copyright © by the University of California Press
ISSN
0148-2076
eISSN
1533-8606
DOI
10.1525/ncm.2007.31.1.053
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Critics have long viewed Mahler's Sixth Symphony in A Minor (1904) as the composer's consummate essay in musical tragedy or negativity, one with deeply personal implications. Its enormous finale draws together materials from all the preceding movements and enacts a terrible conflict ending in failure. Yet few studies have looked beneath the work's bombastic rhetorical-expressive surface to explore how its negativity might be reflected in its tonal, formal, and thematic processes. This study sets out to link that negative expressivity to a breakdown of what Adorno called the "novelistic" character of Mahler's symphonies. For Adorno, Mahler pioneered a new, emancipatory symphonic idiom, one that liberated its musical materials from the dictates of preconceived formal totalities. Unlike the Classical symphony, where the parts exist for the sake of a symmetrical, tightly knit whole, the "novel-symphony" follows no predetermined path. Instead, it unfolds according to the dictates of its constituent elements, realizing its unique form from the "bottom up" rather than the "top down." Yet (as Adorno suggests) in the finale of the Sixth this integrating totality returns with a vengeance. We can read the movement as a clash between Adorno's novelistic and Classical paradigms, a showdown between the impulsive freedom of certain recalcitrant thematic elements on the one hand, and the increasingly punitive demands of rigid minor-mode sonata on the other. This drama--one that caricaturizes "classicism" itself as a repressive or stifling force--plays out on both formal and thematic levels. Several writers have noted the claustrophobic effect created by Mahler's incessant recycling of certain key motives, an "inescapable" coherence in which the organicist imperatives of the grand tradition themselves become corrupt and, ultimately, corrosive. As these generic, subthematic particles proliferate, the movement's "novelistic" themes--those seeking to subvert the strict sonata--are systematically denuded of the differentiating features and dissolved beyond recognition. In the end, the movement's infamously brutal minor-mode conclusion reveals itself to be the culmination of a musical plot spanning the entire movement, one that gathers its many details into an inexorably tragic narrative whole.

Journal

19th-Century MusicUniversity of California Press

Published: Jul 1, 2007

Keywords: Mahler's Sixth Symphony Adorno novelsymphony sonata theory musical plot

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