A funeral march for the Revolution

If approached from the literary background of its title, the 3rd movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Titan (premiered in 1889), intones a funeral march that haunts the Left Melancholy inspired by α procession burying the hopes and expectations of the Revolution. Its mood is not despair but bitterness, its source is not defeat but betrayal. The Revolution has not lost the battle; it has withdrawn its conviction, and is bidding farewell to its youth, its ideals, its passion. It’s putting an end to something it never had the courage to fight for.  After the opening two-bar ostinato in the timpani, the main theme of the movement arrives in the contrabass, and an inexorable tension begins to build.

As Mahler described the 3rd movement, a funeral procession is passing by (“solemn and measured without dragging,” says the score) accompanied by a band of bad musicians playing in a canon form the famous children’s song Bruder Martin/ Frère Jacques, with which some Bohemian/klezmer musicians briefly interfere, mixing lamentation with gaiety, loss with triviality, canonicity with parody into a deeply ambivalent mood of “tragic irony” (Mahler’s words).  Like the aspiring revolutionaries, everybody plays in an endearing but clumsy way. Oboes, clarinets, flutes, and a piercing trumpet duo spread an affectionate sarcasm all over the large orchestra, driving it to a contrapuntal excess and then letting it fall apart at the end of the movement.

The five-movement/chapter symphony No. 1 is a musical Bildungsroman named after Jean Paul’s magnum opus, Titan, written in 1792-1802 and published in a four-volume, 900-page first edition in 1800-3. The novel is a grandiose Bildungsroman whose twenty-year old hero, Albano, undergoes during the 1790s a series of experiences which show that the enthusiasms of youth are illusionary, and prepare him for manly maturity and the responsibilities of enlightened rule. At the end of the story he discovers that he is a Prince, marries a Princess, and becomes the philosopher-king of a petty German municipality.

Jean Paul considered calling his novel “Anti-Titan” since it conducts an exhaustive critique of Romantic idealism and passion. In its course all the great individuals whom Albano admires perish because they cannot exercise self-restraint and temper their titanic personalities. He himself, the only survivor of his group of lovers and friends, came to maturity during the early years of the French Revolution and adopted liberal principles. He dreamt about becoming a Plutarchean great man of action but was dissuaded from joining the Revolutionary army, thus taking another step toward his destined aristocratic mission in life. He has been compared to many German Romantic protagonists, like Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, and especially Hölderlin’s Hyperion, another hero of an unfulfilled Revolution.

I picture Albano marching to the enthronement ceremony when he suddenly runs into Mahler’s morbid funeral procession and is overcome momentarily by a brooding Left Melancholy: He recalls that he could have joined the Revolution, fought for a great cause, start history anew. Instead, he is turning into a benevolent and fair ruler, not very different from his predecessors, seeking prosperity for his tiny kingdom whose people will quickly forget about rebellion, and go about their usual business. The promise of a new era fades away with the stark drum at the very end of the funeral march.

The possibility of such an era is a conversation we always have with pianist Pantelis Polychronidis, my enthusiastic, youthful “other self,” about the future of his noble hopes and ambitious plans to remain part of collaborative efforts that promise to change people’s lives.

 January 31, 2016

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