from Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, p. 269:
What to my mind sets Wagner and Shakespeare apart from other artists is the fact that they deal with everything. Their works confront the totality of human experience, and present our emotional life as it is, in its wholeness. So much of even the greatest art is aspirational, concerned with, and aiming at, ideals. Bach said he was composing his music to the greater glory of God; Beethoven said he was trying to express the highest of human aspirations; and one could multiply these sentiments many times over by quoting from the mouths of some of the greatest of artists. Art that springs from such motives can be wonderful, but cannot articulate the realities of human feeling across more than part of its range. Wagner’s work, by contrast, is not aspirational but cognitive, truth-telling; and he tells it like it is, down to emotions we disown. Shakespeare does the same, across an even bigger canvas. If Wagner is enabled to go deeper it is only because his chief expressive medium is music rather than words.
Now me: I think Mahler was aspiring to do what Wagner did naturally (if not heedlessly,) but it comes off as self-conscious and pretentious in his music instead of id-driven and inexorable as in Wagner’s.
In other news, if you ever get a chance to hear Tchaikovsky’s conservatory dissertation setting of “Ode to Joy”, run for the hills. Aside from a precious few lovely moments, it’s just one primitive melody after another, set in a wandering morass of the blandest counterpoint. However, I find it deeply gratifying to know that the composer of Pique Dame and the “Pathétique” Symphony did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. Not every great composer had to start off that way, and that gives hope for the rest of us.
I mention this piece because we’re performing it on a concert with Beethoven’s 9th. Beethoven’s music, of course, completely overwhelms the text, tossing it around like a raft upon a stormy sea.
Luckily for Schiller, one musician set “An die Freude” perfectly, lending just the right wind to its sails: Franz Schubert.