Mahler and the mouth-organ


More on the European taste for exotic orientalism (see Berlioz, and Ravel).

Stimulated by the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the 1889 Exposition universelle in Paris, I was interested to read

Among composers she discusses are Purcell, Debussy, Puccini, and Stravinsky; but here I’d like to continue my series on Mahler by reflecting on his possible exposure to Chinese music. While the “imitations” of Tang poems by Hans Bethge that Mahler used for Das Lied von der Erde have been much discussed, Kang discusses the oboe lines of Der Abschied (see also here):

One can ponder whether Mahler may have heard the reedy timbre of the traditional and popular Chinese instrument called the sheng on the wax cylinders given to him by his friend Paul Hammerschlag. M. De La Grange gives an account of an event which may have strongly influenced the Chinese dimension in Das Lied:

During the last fortnight [of the summer of 1908] Mahler had a visit [at Toblach] from Paul Hammerschlag and his wife. Later, the banker recalled two memories of that summer, particularly one of a lively discussion during which, to his great surprise, Mahler suddenly threw up his table napkin so that all the guests could see that he had slashed it with his knife as it was on his knees. Another, more interesting, concerned some cylinders of Chinese music, recorded in China itself, that Paul Hammerschlag had bought in Vienna in a shop near the cathedral, and that he had given to Mahler at that time. This makes it quite certain that Mahler had not only read, but actually heard music from that far- off land before composing Das Lied.

There is no evidence with regard to what types of music the cylinders contained, and whether it was instrumental, percussive, or vocal music. And one can only speculate whether it was popular, celebratory, religious, or funeral-like.

57 shengguan trio

Indeed, I don’t know why Kang chooses the sheng mouth-organ here, rather than the guanzi oboe that accompanies it in north Chinese ritual; after all, Mahler didn’t feature the organum characteristic of the sheng. Still, it makes an equally intriguing speculation. Unfortunately, neither the shengguan ensemble nor the deafening shawm bands make likely candidates: several scholars have been studying early recordings of Chinese music, but most were vocal, with chamber ensemble of plucked and bowed strings. Had Mahler heard early recordings of the solo qin zither, such as those among the wax cylinders made by Herbert Müller in China between 1903 and 1913, that meditative sound-world might have appealed more to him.

Anyway, Kang goes on:

Traditional Chinese music tended to be categorized according to social function. Aside from the possible influence of the wax cylinders, there was also research being undertaken in Vienna on non-Western techniques (as in other major centres of musical creativity). This was no doubt as a result of current fashion, thinking, and growing academic interest in sinology and ethnomusicology as we have already witnessed in France in chapter 3. Guido Adler’s article “Uber Heterophonie” (1908) is a prime example of the fascination with and thinking about non-Western traditions that was common in Vienna at that time. Adler writes:

Although there is as yet a very incomplete, and largely unreliable body of exotic music extant, it is, nevertheless, possible—thanks to reliable material on music for several voices, whether vocal or instrumental—clearly to distinguish one kind of treatment that is essentially different from both homophony and polyphony. We may then sum up the main corpus of the kind of exotic music just referred to as follows: the voices begin in unison, in harmony or in octaves, only to separate from one another subsequently. The main theme is paraphrased and distorted, so that secondary and transitional melodies arise to join the main theme, now consonantly, now dissonantly. This paraphrasing and distorting, then, lead one to suppose that the instrumentalists and singers wanted to add something of their own, whether in individual deviatory sounds or merely in grace notes. But these deviations soon give the impression that the instrumentalist or singer has only unconsciously deviated from the right path, that the deviation is merely a coincidence, either because the performers have had a mental aberration or because they do not consider these middle sections worthy of their attention. As at the beginning, the voices then approach the end almost invariably in unison, or in a regular parallel movement. This kind of movement of several voices is the main branch, even the stem, of heterophony.

Today Adler’s comments hardly stand up. Anyway, I wonder if anyone can now find further clues to those wax cylinders. Still, whatever sounds they captured, I doubt that they were the ethereal transcendent tones of Mahler’s imagination. However timeless anyone might suppose Chinese music to be, he was seeking neither to reproduce the Chinese music of his own time nor to recreate that of the Tang. So in all, any precise links with actual Chinese soundscapes remain elusive; like Bethge’s poems, his fantasy of the Mystic East is uppermost—which is fine by me.

All the same, how I wish I could have introduced Mahler, and Berlioz—not to mention Bach—to the exquisite shengguan ensemble of the Li family Daoists, who only managed to perform  in France and Germany long after they were gone.


4 thoughts on “Mahler and the mouth-organ

  1. Pingback: Mahler, the exclamation mark, and John Wayne! | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Mahler in Chinatown | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Guide to another year’s blogging | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: Berlioz and the not-so-mystic East | Stephen Jones: a blog

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