More importantly, the movie inspired me to put on some of Mahler’s symphonies for the first time in years. I’ve been especially drawn to his sixth, which he wrote soon after marrying Alma Schindler. It’s puzzled many that Mahler would write one of his darkest works (the sixth is nicknamed the “tragic symphony”) at one of the happiest times of his life. It doesn’t ruffle me all that much; I always assumed that symphonies and memoirs were two separate things.
One of the most enduring problems of the artist biopic is the genre’s tendency to reduce creative output to veiled autobiography, to suggest that every artistic triumph has a corollary event in the artist’s life. Mahler on the Couch doesn’t quite commit this error: rather, the movie argues that Mahler was so infatuated with his own genius that he expected his wife to treat him like a god. As a psychological portrait, it’s slightly more nuanced than Chaplin’s interpretation of Adolf Hitler and roughly as forgiving. The movie makes it hard to believe that Mahler had any melodies in him other than military marches; his innovations in symphonic form (like his experiments with epic duration) go virtually undiscussed.
I’m not familiar enough with Mahler’s biography to debate the Adlons’ interpretation of it. But listening to the sixth symphony makes me more inclined to listen to his music than to research the conditions in which he wrote it. Over 80 minutes, the sixth charts a staggered course from triumph to defeat, moving across passages of enthusiasm (much of the first movement) and poignancy (much of the third) before an unexpected turn in the last movement drags the work toward a climax described by some scholars as one of the most brutal moments in symphonic music. It’s an epic portrait of tragedy striking down a life at its most hale; the conclusion feels so devastating because it stands in such contrast to the cheer, delicacy, and warm feeling of the earlier sections.
Along with Dmitry Shostakovich, Mahler is the composer I think of most often when I hear Bernard Herrmann’s music in Hitchcock’s films. Mahler’s complex, sometimes clashing instrumentation manages to suggest a variety of ideas yet a single, recognizable emotional trajectory. He was a grand-scale storyteller; and had he lived another few decades (he died in 1911), I’m sure he would have responded to the art of movies in fascinating ways. Imagine Mahler scoring a film! I’d much rather do that than imagine him browbeating his wife.