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The Fox & the Monster
on 14 November 2016
Inspired by Cannae - the battle of battles – I hereby attempt a double pincer movement. As per usual, I apologise to those among my friends who appreciate this music in a way that I fail to do so.
First, the Einstein Principle states that the profundity of a work has nothing to do with its dimensions, recourse to minor keys, chest-beating, theatricality, subtext or noisiness in general. A composition either gazettes Real Presence or it does not. It’s linked to Blake’s insight that one can see a world in a grain of sand. The Principle is named after the prominent Mozart scholar, Alfred Einstein, who stated that K 448, with nary a bar in the minor, is one of the profoundest things that Mozart ever penned. It’s likewise applicable to the slow movement of the Flute and Harp Concert and its counterpart in K 545, the Sonata for Beginners. They’re underwritten by Otherness. Arise they do in something beyond the mundane. Form is more important than shape.
Second (and here I paraphrase a website of the Old Firm) Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay called “The Hedgehog and the Fox” which is grounded on a maxim of Antiquity: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In Berlin’s estimation, foxes are “eclectic, scattered or diffused” in thought where they “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory”. Hedgehogs in contrast have an “unchanging, all-embracing . . . . unitary inner vision”. Berlin listed Shakespeare, Montaigne, Pushkin, Goethe and Balzac as Foxes; among Hedgehogs, he listed Dante, Pascal, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Proust. There’s much to be said for either category, both of which feature dreadnoughts. Berlin’s scheme is applicable to music. Bruckner is an uber-hedgehog. He refracts his creativity through the prism of faith where his own neuroses rarely wander into frame. On the other hand, Mahler is a Fox and indubitably so. Cleverness and inquisitiveness are his leitmotivs. Their translation to the field of battle brings dangers of their own, not least artifice and insincerity.
In the M3, Mahler the Fox scurries down plenty of rabbit-holes in pursuit of nourishment and many a time to theatrical effect. Where inspiration is fitful, mere energy comes to the rescue (“Immer dasselbe Tempo March” in Part 1). When that fails, he turns to atmosphere (“Etwas zurückhaltend” in Part 2). For reasons known to himself, the inevitable “military marches from the microwave” make an appearance, variants of which are summoned from the grave whenever the pulse threatens to flat-line. The M3 is Rodin’s Thinker writ large where the knots in his being are broadcast clinically for all to see, ponder, contemplate and mourn. Will he ever discover the meaning of life (God, I hate that phrase)? Should we shout in response? Should we scream? Should we revert to childhood or summon Doctor Sigmund for a session on the couch? Mahler knows how to be parodic without irony even if his handiwork in the M3 is smothered in neurotic titanism or saccharinity of variable inspiration (to wit, Des Knaben Wunderhorn). Everything short of the kitchen sink is thrown into the mix, all with the aim of negating the Einstein Principle above by sheer bombast – be still and know that a Sinai-like revelation is upon you! Not a bar is spared from philosophic overlay, however much the idiom might appeal to Barnum and Bailey . . . .
To my mind, the M3 is a fake in an artistic sense – a clever one for sure, penned by the musical equivalent of Hans van Meegeren - but a fake nonetheless. It demonstrates how far intelligence will take one, even if the Promised Land lies beyond reach. If the Emperor Joseph II declared that the Abduction from the Seraglio had “too many notes” one could say of the M3? That it was penned by a young Fox too eager to impress? That it drowns in the shallowness of its own pretentions? Trust me: weave in a few verses from the Bhagavad Gita and the forgery would have been perfect. Here’s an anecdote worth remembering: when Uncle Gustav asked Alma to rate the “pantheistic hymn” that is the finale of the Third, she told him to leave such things to Bruckner. Woman, your sins are forgiven! Indeed, apply the Einstein Principle to the big croc of a finale and its shallowness of vision and meretriciousness are manifest. In my estimation, this faux-Bruckner pastiche connects with nothing. It’s metaphysics by correspondence. The simplicity and ordnance of the Einstein Principle elude it. Ludwig Wittgenstein (a man who had much in common with Uncle Gustav) once stated: “I can never really believe Gustav Mahler. I believe every note of Anton Bruckner.” In all probability, he must have been referring to M3’s finale at the time.
Don’t mistake bigness for importance or cleverness for revelation. The dandelion, not the doomsday machine, is testament.
Performance-wise, this is clearly a 5 stars performance and the engineering is excellent. Herbie’s Berlin Phil would've imparted more of a golden glow to the finale – not that it matters.