In the course of my studies of history, music, and culture, the last half of the nineteenth century is somewhat lacking (the two notable exceptions being Impressionist art and the American Civil War.) I had always thought of this period, for whatever reason, as terribly conservative (read: boring). Everything had gotten big and unwieldy and stuffy and Victorian. The passion of the earlier Romantic era had calcified into a mere verisimilitude of feeling. Houses were full of fripperies and stuff all over the walls, symphonies were full of melodrama and lush but empty harmonics that went on for entirely too long, English literature was dull and verbose, and even the clothes were overdone. All the Western European nations were trying to build empires and sticking their noses in the air at the “natives.” None of this really roused my curiosity.
But yet: there were the little flashes, particularly in the last two decades of the nineteenth century that made me wonder: Scientific discoveries. The eruption of Krakatau. The explosion of new technologies, some of which flowed from these discoveries. Cities began to build infrastructure such as sewers, streetlighting, railways, and bridges. The first skyscrapers begin to point to a future based on a steel infrastructure. In Chicago, a young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Louis Sullivan and designed his own houses on the side.
A few years ago, I went through a period of interest in steampunk aesthetics and clothing, sparked by a fascination for early industrial machinery (the same interest that makes the massive reciprocating engines my favourite part of Titanic.) This was part of what made the Impressionism in the Age of Industry exhibit so appealing to me. And that exhibit started further widen that crack of curiosity. Paris during those last decades of the nineteenth century was no sedate place filled with the cafes and shops we picture when someone says “Paris in the springtime.” It wasn’t quite there yet. There wasn’t even an Eiffel Tower until 1887. Late 19th century Paris was full of turmoil and upheaval as society transformed, spurred on by technology, becoming…In the centre of it all, Notre-Dame-de-Paris, the old cathedral, once allowed to deteriorate, recently spiffed up by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who built it a new spire.
On Monday, I watched that spire burn and fall, and I had no music for it. Nothing seemed quite right. Until not one, but two friends posted that what they reached for was Mahler, and specifically, his Second Symphony, the Resurrection.
On the train home on Tuesday, listening to my traditional Shostakovich 4th Symphony, that final movement, so often described as “Mahlerian.” And then the ad on my Facebook feed: The Toronto Symphony, performing that very same Second Symphony in just a few days.
I bought a ticket.
I was tempted to write that I had a complicated history with the works of Gustav Mahler, but in fact, what I really had was no history. Mahler’s works had fallen into the great gulf of Late Romanticism for me, just one of that pack of “German guys” who wrote long, overblown symphonies. There were a few Russians in that pack, too, but at least I could tell Tchaikovsky from Mussorgsky. The German speakers? I couldn’t have really have identified any particular work by any of them–except maybe Wagner, who I associated with very longwinded operas. I blame my general music class in the seventh grade, where, as I recall, the push was to get on to the Impressionists (like Ravel and Debussy) and the early modernists (like Stravinsky). Romanticism was portrayed as having run its course by the 1880s or so, dying with Tchaikovsky.
So I decided I didn’t much care for Mahler without even really listening to it. Why bother? It wasn’t to my tastes. Life is too short to listen to hour-long symphonies I wouldn’t like.
But then, there was this. Once, as a teen, I had decided I did not like Shostakovich. And then, I actually heard a Shostakovich piece performed live. A seed was planted. It took fourteen years to actually push up through the dirt, and then another 19 to burst into an unstoppable stampede of flower. And Shostakovich’s 4th, that beautiful, doomed, contradictory symphony had been birthed after the composer was first introduced to Mahler. So, sitting on that train, listening to that symphony, hearing the words of friends who had found in the Mahler Second the right music in the wake of the burning of Notre Dame, and then seeing that ad for that very music…well, I couldn’t not.
In 1876, Gustave Caillebotte painted Le Pont de l’Europe, the painting that led me down a rabbit hole upon first seeing it in the Impressionism in the Age of Industry exhibit. Friday, I returned to the exhibit a second time, specifically to watch the film and the VR exhibit specifically about this particular painting, and to immerse myself once again in how Paris in the last three decades of the 19th century would have felt. Watching the early films that are part of the display, seeing the photos of the construction of the Eiffel Tower, and the guide books detailing the explosion of new railways in the area, I began to appreciate how new this all once was. Caillebotte died in 1894.
Yesterday, I attended an exhibition at the Fashion History Museum entitled Made In France. The first four garments in the display illustrated the development of the fashion industry in Paris that, at the time, was radical and new: Haute couture, as pioneered by Charles Frederick Worth, the couturiers who were inspired by designers such as Worth, the off-the-rack garments that would eventually evolve into what we now call “ready to wear”, and the department stores–of which Paris had the first and finest, where the middle classes could acquire fashionable, readymade clothing. Worth died in 1895.
Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony was composed starting in 1888. It premiered in 1895.
Once I had purchased the ticket, I resisted the urge to listen to it before the concert. Instead, I listened to the chords of history. I let paintings evoke sound, and the more recent images of toppling spires and rising hope from the ashes prepare me.
Saturday’s concert was led by guest conductor Matthew Halls, an almost-last-minute fill-in for the scheduled Juanjo Mena, who had apparently taken ill. It was clear, however, that Halls had had plenty of time with the orchestra to prepare a succinct and passionate performance of the work. The way for me had been paved by this review of Wednesday’s performance. Since I had almost purposely kept myself in the dark about what this work might sound like, or is supposed to sound like, or the like, my own thoughts will not be about that–although I will mention that I have seldom seen a work work so well in Roy Thompson Hall as this one. Not even Beethoven’s 9th. The review indicated that Halls may have had something to do with knowing how to handle the accoustics in RTH.
Here it is, then. I will never, ever, think of Mahler as “boring” or “too long” again. The concert lasted just under 90 minutes with no intermission, with a short break between the second and third movements and no break at all between the final three movements. It just flowed, and told its story. And to me, it was the story of transformation–not of a person, but of society itself. To me, it was the simple, flowing second movement that evoked what had gone before, and then the third movement seems to be going in a similar direction but then begins to distort and twist before releasing. And suddenly I am elsewhere, not quite on earth, hanging in between, guided by Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s rich voice, singing out over top of the orchestra, in the fourth movement, titled Urlicht (Primal Light), one of those German words I could say over and over and over again because they sound like what they are. The review called it angelic; to me, it was simply not of this world. In fact, I knew where the world was. It was outside. We could even hear a brass band playing out there, passing us by, but inside, as we moved into the final movement, only the response of a flute. The world has gone on, as it will. And gradually, rising up from the lowest voices through the highest, and then ascending even higher, the soprano Joelle Harvey, phoenix-like, building inexorably. Mahler said of this: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.”
And then, the organ kicked in.
I did not even need to read the lyrics to know what this music meant.
Change alters all things. There will be darkness, pain, confusion, but there can be light as well, radiant, resplendent. Resurgent.
It shall rise again.
And one last link. While writing of the fire at Notre Dame, I recalled the ruin of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The image above is from Wren’s building, and the story behind it is as follows:
“Set on the pediment which, carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber, sits above south portico off Cannon Street, the memorial depicts a phoenix rising from clouds of smoke (ashes), a symbol of Sir Christopher Wren’s new cathedral which rose on the site of the old Cathedral in the wake of the fire. Below the phoenix is the Latin word, ‘Resurgam’, meaning “I Shall Rise Again”.
The story goes that Wren had this carved after, having called for a stone to mark the exact position over which St Paul’s mighty dome would rise, the architect was shown a fragment of one of the church’s tombstones which had been inscribed with the word.”
When next you consider the second half of the XIX Century, remember the expansion of Prussia 1864-71, the collapse of the Second Empire, the Paris Commune, and the establishment of the Third Republic. Remember too, at exactly the same time, the effort that led to “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Say what you will about colonialism and Imperialism, the fact remains that the late XIX Century saw the very first systematically accurate maps of the entire globe. Or, turning to visual arts, consider VanGogh and all the other Impressionists. The literature is verbose and boring? I take it that Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain don’t appeal. I suggest you read Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”, or pretty much anything by Wilkie Collins. I agree that there is a certain fat and satisfied tint to the era, but I would suggest that it’s because nearly everything in sight was working, or at least visibly improving. Everything in Western Civilization past 1914 has pretty much not been working correctly, or has been issuing loud and disquieting groans. Frankly, I envy the people of 125 years ago.
This post is really about examining my own long-held preconceptions of the era (particularly its history and music), and examining my own dismissive attitude. It wasn’t an era that got a lot of play in either my American history classes in high school, or the very high-level Western Civ classes in university. Frankly, it’s just a period I didn’t study much, and as such, there was a lot to misunderstand, particularly (as noted) the enormous impact of technological change and rapid industrialization. It’s never going to be my favourite period to study (for modern history, I’m very firmly in the period starting with WWI and ending with WWII) but the least I can do is not dismiss it outright as boring without going a little deeper.
I’ll certainly be listening to more Mahler, though. And the Impressionist painters–which I have studied in some depth–will remain a favourite.
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