Kristallnacht in Vienna


It wasn’t planned, but there can hardly be a more appropriate work to remember the 75th anniversary of ‘Kristallnacht’ (in German: ‘Pogromnacht’), than Mahler’s IX symphony. I’m recording it at the moment in a series of concerts with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Fabio Luisi. The work seems to anticipate this unimaginable event and as a result, I can’t help imposing my own programme when I hear it. Quite apart from its quintessential valediction, it seems prescient in knowing and expressing musically the horrors that were to come. The first movement recalls the Vienna of Mahler’s youth, a place with the largest Jewish population of any German-speaking city. Its Jewish population was second only to Warsaw in Europe. Within its 24 districts, it housed 22 synagogues. Jews made up 12% of the population yet were overwhelmingly represented in the city’s many conservatories, making up over a third of the entire music student body. They also made up a majority of the liberal professions of law and medicine and were disproportionately present within academia. It was a city that historically was welcoming to Jews while at the same time harbouring a deadly anti-Semitism. The Austrian-fascist dictatorship of 1933-1938 banned the Nazi party and drove it underground. Following the Anschluß of March 1938, the resentment, frustration, bigotry, ignorance and hatred were stoked by the Nazi government and a submissive press. The horror of Austria’s pogroms in March 1938 and November 1938 was explained to a complacent outside world as “Bad, but it would have been far worse had it not been officially sanctioned and organised. Otherwise, it would have been uncontrolled rioting, pillaging and murder.” The world looked on at the rioting and murderous mob and could hardly imagine how it could have been worse.

The Vienna in the First Movement of Mahler’s final symphony is melancholic and in the view of Stephen E. Hefling, a recollection of the composer’s youth with quotes from Johann Strauss’s ‘Freuet euch des Lebens’ Waltz. It was composed by Strauss in 1870 to commemorate the opening of the Golden Hall of the Musikverein, exactly the location of our current recording. Over the waltz’s most prominent citation, Mahler inscribed the words ‘O Jugendzeit! Entschwundene! O liebe! Verwehte! (Oh vanished youth! Oh Love! All lost to the wind!) All four movements are additionally built on the motive of the descending third to the second within the scale, meaning, from ‘mi’ to ‘re’. It’s the same musical gesture that we find in ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ with the repetition of ‘ewig. . . ewig’ in its final ‘Abschied’ movement. It is Vienna as everyone who has ever loved this city remembers it. The two middle movements are grotesque parodies. The first offers a caricature of a typical Lederhosen Ländler. Yet Mahler presents it as the sound of Schubert being sodomised, indeed, all of German culture being defiled. The following ‘Rondo Burleske’ is a depiction of the brutality and ugliness of a murderous mob in an orgy of looting and burning everything in its path. Only in the middle is the listener allowed a moment of sadness and reflection with some of the most poignant, yet noble music Mahler composed. To me it suggests the serenity that even sadistic brutality cannot defeat. With the signal voluntary of the E-flat clarinet, this momentary serenity is dashed against the wall as the orgy continues. The final movement needs no explanation. It is the ashes of what was, and what can never be restored. It is, unknown to Mahler, the ashes of the 21 synagogues burned to the ground on November 9th 1938. It was the moment when Jews either fled, or remained to be slaughtered. There can be no works that are quite so heartbreakingly sad as these final 27 minutes. Today’s Vienna Symphony under Fabio Luisi plays with sublime beauty and a control of sound that appears to evaporate into thin air. It remains an open sentence – without completion and therefore presenting the listener with an image of eternal finality. The effect is transcendental and takes us beyond ourselves, our place and our time.

It was not always thus. Misha Horenstein was kind enough to link me to Jascha Horenstein’s performance with the same ensemble in 1952.

The orchestra today is a modern and international ensemble, young and highly professional. It can’t be compared with the orchestra of the post-war years. Nevertheless, Horenstein’s performance is telling, if only because he later explained how resistant he found the ensemble to Mahler. Listening to the performance, it’s hard to believe. It’s a fantastically difficult piece for each and every individual and to my ears, they play with more engagement than the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter in their post-war recording of ‘Das Lied von der Erde’.

Nobody in Vienna would have had the foresight to have planned this work for this occasion. But in this city, it’s impossible to avoid the past. It hangs on every lamppost. If the public is unaware of the significance of an occasion that overtly needs to be recalled, Mahler’s IX symphony subversively reminds everyone of what they would prefer to forget.