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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Roll Over "Mahler" and Tell the Intellectuals the News

I am not quite sure how to articulate this post, and I know I am taking some serious chances here--but what the heck, you only live once.  I feel I am becoming Isherwood by way of "bitchiness" and criticism of my associates.  What I mean to say is that there is a dispirited type of negative energy hovering over most scholarly circles.  In various conversations I've had with college and university professors, it has become apparent to me that those residing in the upper echelon of academia abide by a code of "royal" artistic enjoyment versus the "commoner" appreciation.  Case in point: One mustn't dare (especially during the refreshment part of the after-lecture setting) to argue, even for one second, that the music of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven is not blas√© compared to that of Gustav Mahler or Richard Wagner.  At the mere mention of Van Gogh or any of the Impressionists, people around me cringe with displeasure while they almost whisper to me, "Oh, but you haven't heard of Gerhard Richter, or Jean-Michel Basquiat."  And of course, no matter how many times I try to defend my preferences to more traditional expression of art (both in visual art and music), they promptly sail away seeking another, more artistically sophisticated conversation partner.  This has happened to me several times, and, just recently, with a very tall level of displeasure.  Perhaps I should stick to topics more mundane, such as the quality and preference of one cat litter brand to another. (Yes, I realize I work with strange people... or perhaps I am the strange one).

I am not here to pass judgment but rather to try and come to terms with an idea that has been stabbing my side since I was in high school.  If it really is like Harold Bloom states ("Shakespeare is beyond criticism") who then decides when art becomes blase or commoner?  Borges also chimed in years ago regarding that "what is good in literature belongs to no one."  I've played both Mahler and (by way of comparison) Rachmaninoff (with the Washington Symphony), and both express those sweeping waves of strings instruments consistently throughout their pieces.  Mahler prefers a bit more brass than Rachmaninoff, but why do so many people prefer Mahler?  Is it more a sophisticated taste?  Is baroque music really as one of my most recent colleagues argued that it was "bah-roke" and couldn't be fixed.  (Yes, I also shunned at the joke).  I don't say this to take away from Mahler's music--as a matter of fact, playing a Mahler symphony (the 4th or the 5th especially) can take the air out of any of the top orchestras in the world.  I remember finishing rehearsals for both of these Mahler symphonies and feeling like I'd just finished a five hour work out at my local Bally's Fitness.  Is it really that difficult to understand that Mahler is Mahler and Bach is Bach?

Is it part of the discourse, or how people like to listen to themselves sound at such gatherings?  The phonetically deficiencies of "J.S. Bach" as opposed to "Gustav Mahler," or "Van Gogh" not as smooth a pronunciation as "Basquiat?"  I really don't know what to make of it.  I find myself perhaps a stranger in a strange land among these academics.  Funny world we inhabit.  Next thing you know, we'll be arguing that art is not really blue.

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At 8:21 AM, Blogger Seymour said...

As a longtime classical music person and Mahler fan, I think I can understand what you are saying. So-called "high culture" makes a lot of us Americans feel intimidatd. Many want to be sure they express the "correct" opinion, they don't want to come across as Philistine or unsophisticated. So Mahler is the composer of the moment. Since I happen to love his music, this is not a problem for me. But I agree with your suggestion that Rachmaninov is also good, even though many "educated" classical people will cringe at the mention of his name. Both these composers express extreme emotional stated in their music, both do it well, even brilliantly. Both have been accused of being long-winded and sentimental. In truth, Rachmaninov remains a popular composer, and certain of his works are accepted even by the snobs, but Mahler has for a long time meant a great deal more to some of us, and it's almost impossible to say exactly why. He's melodic, orchestrally colorful, dramatic, passionate, lyrical, philosophical, all that good stuff, but so are many other composers to varying degrees. By the way, I don't feel that J.S. Bach is undervalued in any musical circle: he remains a very popular and respected genius as far as I know.


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