Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?

This year, the 150th anniversary of Mahler's birth, will see many a celebration of the great compose

A very long Mahler season may be upon us, as rather than waiting for next year -- the centenary of his death -- as I had rather imagined would happen, the celebrations are beginning with the 150th anniversary of his birth on July 7, 1860. There will be performances at the Proms (even more than normal), 27 concerts at London's South Bank over the next year and a new book, Why Mahler?, by Norman Lebrecht, the frequently testy but always terrific critic whose previous work on the composer, Mahler Remembered", has sat on my bookshelves for over 20 years.

"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?" as Maureen Lipman's character Trish says in the film Educating Rita, may be putting it a little strongly, but the reference worked both to underline Trish's Bohemian pretensions and the hysterical drama many associate with the great Gustav. Trish, some may remember, did in fact die -- by her own hand -- and an underlying sense, often a fear, of mortality runs through much of the symphonies as well as the song cycles, most obviously in the case of Kindertotenlieder, "Songs on the death of children". (While I still think it the best of his song cycles, the subject matter has always struck me as a bit morbid. No wonder his wife, Alma, was not best pleased when he carried on working on the cycle after they had children themselves.)

I was made aware of this connection very early on. When I was 15, I used to have weekly lessons in composition and orchestration with Alan Ridout, a professor at the Royal College of Music and a minor English composer who made something of a speciality of writing concertos for instruments that hardly anyone else did, such as the double bass and the tuba. One week I arrived and he asked me what I'd been up to. "I've been listening to a lot of Mahler," I told him. "Ah, I knew a young man who started to listen to Mahler," said Professor Ridout, fixing me with a smile and gaze I always found mildly disconcerting, as his eyes tended to bulge slightly behind his glasses. "He committed suicide shortly afterwards."

Although I remain indebted to Ridout for having introduced me to the music of Krzysztof Penderecki and Philip Glass, our discussion of Mahler, as you might guess, went no further. For him, Mahler's immediate appeal to the adolescent ear and mind was evidence of an immature, unsubtle oeuvre. Of course, the scale and drama of his music is undeniable. "The symphony must be like the world," he once said. "It must embrace everything." The orchestras for which he wrote were under a similar obligation, having to expand to hitherto unknown sizes and including a church organ (in the Eighth Symphony), a whip (in the Fifth) and cow bells and a hammer (in the Sixth).

Criticism of his work was widespread during his lifetime (particularly the claim that he could not write counterpoint), during which he was far more famous as conductor of the Vienna Opera and later of the New York Met and Philharmonic. Precisely how he should be rated is still hotly debated today. Aaron Copland once said that "the difference between Beethoven and Mahler is the difference between seeing a great man walk down the street and watching a great actor act the part of a great man walking down the street." Of one of Mahler's symphonies, however, Alban Berg had earlier said it was "the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral". I'm with Berg on this. The man about whose music one contemporary critic said, "one of us must be crazy -- and it isn't me", may not have been properly appreciated when alive, but Mahler the musical prophet also foretold his own future correctly. "My time will come," he said. It surely has, as the forthcoming celebrations will certainly show.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor to the New Statesman.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Show Hide image

Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era