Katarina MarkovicNew England Conservatory President Tony Woodcock traces the idea for NEC's Mahler celebration to a casual conversation with music history chair Katarina Markovic back in the spring, calling her "a mainstay in all our planning" for Mahler Unleashed. Markovic teaches NEC's course on Mahler, and writes here on what compels a scholar to argue passionately for his contemporary relevance.

Mahler Unleashed100 Years Later,
His Time Is Now

When in 1902 Mahler wrote to his future wife Alma “My time will come!” he perhaps arrogantly, yet accurately touched upon the discrepancy between the contemporaneous misunderstanding of his artistic vision and the later identification on the part of artists and people in general with his music and his persona.

While there were always intellectuals and artists who appreciated Mahler’s work—composers of the Second Viennese School, visual artists Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, the literary critic Karl Krauss, musicologist Paul Stefan, conductors Bruno Walter and Walter Mengelberg, etc.—Mahler’s music had to wait until Leonard Bernstein finally established it as a staple of orchestral repertoire in the 1960s. It was only after the ’60s that the multilayered and often fractured fabric of Mahler’s musical worlds captured the imagination and emotions of wider audiences and became the litmus test for the deeply painful and accelerating experiences of modern humanity.

And with the fact that “our” modern Mahler was unleashed by Bernstein’s Mahler Festival with the New York Philharmonic in 1960, marking the centennial of his birth, we enter the world of curious synchronicities, both during Mahler’s lifetime and today.

Mahler’s birth in 1860 in a small Bohemian village, Kaliště, coincides with the rise of Austrian Liberals and massive social, urban, and constitutional reforms, symbolized by the inauguration of the Ringstrasse project in Vienna. This was a new, hopeful era for a conservative and inert society, and the start of a human life that exemplified the overcoming of the conventional social, ethnic, and artistic status quo. That a Jewish boy of modest economic background, from the eastern provinces of the Monarchy, could rise to occupy one of the most sought-after positions in the musical world of Europe, was arguably an incredible trajectory in fin-de-siècle Austria, but quite a Hollywood cliché in fin-de-siècle America.

Then, we have the year 1897—the year when Mahler converts to Catholicism and becomes the director of the Vienna Court Opera. That same year, the city of Vienna finally fell into the power of the openly anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger, an early inspiration for a young aspiring art student in Vienna: Adolf Hitler. Gustav Mahler and Karl Lueger, one a Jewish convert to Catholicism, the other an Austrian Catholic, both of modest backgrounds, therefore, simultaneously started their reign over Viennese public life from two different sides of the Ringstrasse—Mahler from the Opera House and Lueger from the Rathaus—and from two different sides of human existence.

To this day, the Rathaus section of the magnificent circular boulevard bears the name Karl Lueger-Ring, resonating with another monument to the (in)famous and beloved Mayor, while there is no major street, no museum, no monument, no memorial site with the name of Gustav Mahler in Vienna.

But even without monuments and memorial sites, Mahler’s music lives in the creative imagination of today’s audiences; audiences that widely differ in age, social and economic status, and profession. Mahler’s music and persona found their way into popular culture, film, fiction, artworks, interdisciplinary scholarship, and modern music of all genres.

What his music and his life embody—a reassurance that contrasts and oppositions can coexist, that desperation and hope, “high” and “low” art, convention and innovation, Bach and Klezmer, Romanticism and Modernism, breakthrough and transition, death and redemption, faith and doubt, war and serenity, dream and reality, Judaism and Christianity, adults and children, adversity and success are not mutually exclusive concepts—this is what we seize upon today. We today accept, unlike most inhabitants of fin-de-siècle Vienna, that one can have mixed religious feelings; that spirituality, ethnicity, sexuality, and personality are not of distinct, but rather murky, mixed colors; we thrive in the multiplicity of styles—both personal and cultural—and take in the richness of our heterogeneous, disunified, and sometimes fractured reality.

It is this diversity and richness of Mahler’s music that NEC as a community is inspired by and is celebrating in 2011, 100 years after his death. NEC itself is a mirror of it, with such a range of styles and approaches that coexist and interact in our daily creative lives: from opera to theory, from classical piano to Contemporary Improvisation, from musicology to jazz, from orchestra to composition, from Music-in-Education to violin, just to name a few.

Performers, scholars, composers, and educators walk our hallways carrying within them, perhaps unknowingly, the spirit of Mahler’s music: the child’s lullaby, the Viennese waltz, the Neapolitan 6th over a dominant pedal, the major key/minor key clash, the military brass fanfares and great breakthroughs with harp glissandi, the fragmentations and motivic shuffling, the soaring violin melodies, cuckoo calls, mandolin serenades, pentatonics, trombone laments, double expositions, cowbells, and string harmonics.

All of this, and much more, lives side-by-side, without a need to influence or suppress each other, and co-exists in Mahler’s music as a mirror of us, reflecting into the future a reality that he, perhaps in a dream only, realized as the new, modern state of humanity. And indeed, in one of his dreams, he saw himself looking from the cold and dark outside into a brightly lit interior; perhaps then, he saw that indeed, 100 years later, his time has come.

Katarina Markovic will speak on specific Mahler works at performances of Symphony No. 1 on September 26 and Des Knaben Wunderhorn on November 9, and will moderate Mahler symposiums on November 30 and December 4.