On Musical Theft and Mahler

Of all things, the subject of musical ethics became a slightly controversial topic last week during my first talk on Gustav Mahler. I was asked this interesting question: “How did Mahler get away with 'stealing' from other composers of the time? Weren't there any repercussions? And since he was such a stealer, how did he become so famous amongst those that love as opposed to hate him?”

Where did this come from? While discussing Mahler’s first symphony, I pointed out his many direct references to other well-known pieces. Both the introduction of Beethoven’s 4th and 9thsymphonies sound eerily similar to the introduction of Mahler’s 1st..Mahler’s cuckoo birds are clearly a quote of Beethoven’s birds in the Pastoral symphony. The finale theme of Haydn’s “London” symphony is similar in shape and mood to the main theme in Mahler’s 1st movement, which itself quotes one of Mahler’s earlier songs. The folk tune Frère Jacques literally structures Mahler’s funereal 3rd movement, along with tunes written in klezmer style. In the last movement, Mahler specifically quotes themes from Liszt’sFaust symphony and Wagner’s operas.

So here we have a symphony by one composer that at some level expects listeners to be familiar with Beethoven, Haydn, Liszt, Wagner, and Bohemian folk music. I think the question about whether Mahler’s audacious and prolific musical theft had negative repercussions for his contemporaries is worth considering. His own wife Alma Mahler described dismissing his fourth symphony as simply restating Haydn! And perhaps his many musical references had some people thinking he was more a conductor assembling together all the other music he knew, rather than a composer creating original works.

 Mahler continually complained that people misunderstood the emotional thrust of his music. He was shocked when one critic found the klezmer street music in his funeral march “boisterous.” He wrote at length about the pathos he intended by juxtaposing an amateur street band with a funeral procession. Irony is certainly the key concept in Mahler’s musical references. Just as counterpoint is the layering and combining of multiple melodies to create a new music, Mahler combined all these different musical references to create new musical meanings. His reference is never the thing itself, but its relationship to the music around it. The quotations of Beethoven’s 4th and 9th symphonies in the introduction of Mahler’s 1st symphony are not there to remind us of Beethoven, but to conjure a common theme, namely the genesis of a complete sonic universe. The quotations of Wagner’s fanfares are not to borrow the greatness of Wagner’s music, but to instantly identify the idea of struggle and heroism. In hearing the reference, we are not instantly placed in the worlds of Siegfried or Parsifal, but instead understand that Mahler’s symphony has at its center its own hero engaged in titanic struggle. Similarly, Mahler often quotes the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony not to conjure Beethoven’s music, but to evoke the universal connotation we have for that music as a personal battle against fate.

 For us in the postmodern age, this use of reference is practically the bread and butter of art. We are accustomed to both art and entertainment that derives much of its material and meaning by juxtaposing and assembling elements from other artworks. Assemblage in visual art and sampling in music are widely accepted and understood. But in Mahler’s time, many listeners probably considered excessive use of outside reference derivative or indulgent. To be sure, musical quotation was hardly an innovation. Beethoven “ripped off” both Mozart and Haydn in many of his pieces. The themes in the opening of his first piano sonata are clearly modeled after Mozart’s late C minor sonata.  Schubert also “ripped off” Mozart, using a nearly identical theme in his own violin sonata to one of Mozart’s. But these borrowings came from positions of artistic strength, not weakness. The artistic genius was in the way Beethoven and Schubert developed Mozart’s themes. Using these themes was a form of tribute and a point of departure for original invention. A good case in point is Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. Diabelli’s theme is a marvelous piece of music  in its own right. But there is no sense of “stealing” in Beethoven’s 33 variations on this tune.

The issue of musical theft is murkier with Handel. Handel not only frequently quoted other music, but occasionally even pasted portions of other composer’s music into his own pieces! Handel’s defenders sometimes fall back paraphrasing Stravinsky’s dictum that talented composers borrow whereas great composers steal. They declare Handel’s genius was determining just what other music would artistically fit between sections of his own music. Sometimes they also add that Handel’s theft immortalized music that otherwise would have been forgotten. I find those arguments pretty weak, and so did many of Handel’s critics during his own time (though none of this obviously detracts from the accomplishment of his innumerable masterworks).

But Stravinsky’s famous line is not about literal theft. He is making a powerful distinction between appropriating other music merely for its sound and effect, as opposed to appropriating its deeper essence and structure—a far greater theft in scope, but one that requires the greatest imagination and impeccable artistic integrity.  To quote Beethoven’s 5th in order to recall the excitement and grandiosity of that piece is merely to borrow in a feeble attempt to lend excitement and grandiosity to one’s own music. But to use it as Mahler does, to have the listener recall the total experience and history hearing Beethoven’s 5th, and then relate its larger themes of heroism, struggle, accumulation, and disintegration to Mahler’s own world all in one instant—that is true stealing!

When considering Mahler’s musical references, I can’t help but be reminded of his American contemporary Charles Ives. Ives was also “notorious” for his musical borrowings, but we now hear those borrowings as an essential stylistic component of his music, whether it be the collision of two marching bands playing separate tunes or an evocation of someone practicing a Beethoven piano sonata in the parlor. The juxtaposition by musical reference to different worlds, sentiments, and ideas is at the root of our modern world. It is a primary tool for injecting meaning into aesthetic articulation. The problem by far is not whether it is ethical to borrow from other art, but actually whether it will be apprehended.  Is it a reasonable expectation that audiences come to concerts with a thorough familiarity in the classical and popular repertoires, even as both continue expanding? When I teach high school students, I’m painfully aware of having to explain any musical references, say, to the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan, let alone Bach.  So the real trick for the composer employing musical reference is to make it completely convincing as an integrated part of an entire musical structure as well as a handle for external meaning.

To return to the original question, a precocious musical “stealer” like Mahler depends on listeners who will relate and connect musical ideas to each other. If we are not obsessed making those connections, then Mahler’s symphonies may seem like a silly or even random collection of famous and obscure tunes from other music., an indulgent romp down memory lane by a really smart conductor talented at orchestration. In other words, those of us without a craving for irony need not apply.