Mahler’s melancholic marches

While attending recently a performance of Mahler’s 6th, and comparing the driving march that launches the opening Allegro energico to the heroic march launching the Finale (here 51:10), I started going through the composer’s symphonies until I suddenly realized that this genre appears in every single one of them!

There is no Mahler symphony without at least one march!  Solemn, sarcastic, sepulchral, or sardonic, marches intone the composer’s steps toward success and salvation.  Yet these marches sound so striking and so different that, until now, I had not noticed how common they are in his symphonies and the rest of his work.

I now realize that the march was an ideal vehicle for the deconstructive uses of tradition that Mahler practiced with such virtuosity.  Whether in his native garrison town or in fin-de-siècle Vienna, that “city of paradoxes,” this genre exalted the local and national rituals of an empire in decline which would dissolve just seven years after the composer’s death in 1911.  Everything around him was escaping from the rigid disciplinary march into some liberal variation of it.  Mahler would take its commanding ceremonial music, reconfigure its beat, deform its regularity, and put it to unpredictable uses steeped in reverential parody, prefiguring the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

Looking back at post-World War I Austro-Modernism, Marjorie Perloff writes eloquently about the combination of diagnostic nostalgia and retrospective irony that permeates the depiction of the three von Trotta generations in the novel Radetzky March (1932) by Joseph Roth, an admirer of the Habsburg dynasty and its Catholicism.  Yet the authentic soundtrack of this and other nostalgic novels, like Sándor Márai’s Embers (1942), is the Mahlerian marches that preceded the fall of the empire.  Cruel or emotional, desperate or triumphant, they break apart an entire cultural tradition to expose its brutality and artificiality, and do it with wrenching respect and affection for it.

In every other symphonic movement, Mahler’s marches mimic and mock the melancholy of monumental might long before the empire was gone.  I can now hear their echo in our rigorous footsteps as Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, and I pace in the Ringstrasse.

10 April 2019

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