A Musicological Study of Ken Russell’s Composer Films – Part 6 (Mahler).

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

Mahler (1974) and the Balance Between Personal Reception and History.

Mahler is an apt end for this period in Ken Russell’s musical exploration for a number of reasons.  It firstly completes the transition in the director’s popularity as well as the full fledgling of creative confidence.  It also manages to amalgamate all of the elements discussed so far into a new structural form that works as both biographically factual (for the most part) and as a canvas for Russell to explore his own personal ideas of the historical through symbolic montage and through the Russell prism.  This came only four years after the initial explorations into more eccentric ways of questioning classical music but it seems that the time has allowed Russell to fully express his ideas without sacrificing too much of any of the necessary elements to such a degree.

For the structure of Mahler is not one that is ambiguous as to when it is expressing history and when Russell is flexing his creative critiques; the very set up of the film allows the two to sit alongside each other, showing its various controversies as the opinions of Russell and not actually factual or blurred re-inaction as it occasionally comes across in The Music Lovers.  The film follows Gustav Mahler on a long train journey to Munich when the composer is ill.  The journey allows Mahler to day-dream, recalling various periods of his past (such as his childhood days and the numerous reasons for the crumbling state of his marriage to Alma) as well as obvious dreamlike interludes that allow Russell to overtly critique the historical and cultural situations which surrounded the composer (whilst of course being clear as to who is arguing the points raised).

This structure leads to some surprising innovations, both in the parts of history glossed over in more traditionalist musicological texts as well as the typical Russellian excess that abounded his work in the 1970s.  The first of these comes in a memory of the past, showing Mahler composing in his little cabin on an Austrian lake.  The film presents Mahler’s sensitivity and strong connections (or reconnection) with nature and world around him.  The scene has hints of this influence, especially the influence of bird call on Mahler’s 1st Symphony but Russell also shows that side-effect of having such personal emphasis on the natural world by portraying the character of the composer as a difficult individual rather than simply the sensitive genius that history often paints him as.

Robert Powell’s Mahler is almost antisocial and distant from those around him, especially his adoring admirers in his later life.  Alma is almost always a distraction to him when he is composing (in spite of her own compositional skill) and this obsession with the world around is shown to simply not extend to people, with the exception of those who can further his musical creativity and career.  There is a much stronger balance here between these moments and the dreams later on that again give rise to controversy, though this time on the part of Russell rather than the previous shift in blame to the composer.

The treatment of Alma in particular raises another aspect of Russell’s treatment of composers; that of actually showing their relationships with their partners, wives, mistresses and lovers.  Until new musicology sought to show composers as living creatures that had great personal faults as well as great fountains of genius, Russell was one of the few to actually acknowledge the presence of others around these lone, supposedly tortured geniuses.  With particular emphasis on the women that surrounded composers, Russell would occasionally obsess over the symbolic relationships that various composers had with women (especially the more sexually notorious composers such as Debussy).  While he would later go on to dedicate a whole television documentary film to the wives of deceased British composers (Classic Widows (1995)), Mahler presents a more interesting dynamic quite simply because of Alma’s repressed creativity.  It is not only shown to be the cause of Mahler’s marital breakdown but also allows Russell to convey several dreams of the composer’s almost as paranoid delusions (whilst also commenting on several of the composer’s aesthetically creative choices too).

Perhaps most shockingly, Mahler brings back the more controversial imagery from Dance of the Seven Veils in the form of Nazi paraphernalia.  In the more desperate stretch of Mahler’s career, he is shown to go so far as to denounce his Jewish heritage in order to please Wagner’s wife, Cosima.  This figure is built up to have some stranglehold on the musicians of the day, being the barrier to greater success, especially for composers who were Jewish.  This is yet another excuse of Russell to satire the absurdity of fascist tendencies though he does appear to be a little hypocritical in his general relationship with Wagner as will be seen later on.

To show Mahler’s transition between religions, he plants a short film in the middle of the feature to document this process in the same cartoon style of Seven Veils.  The Russell prism asserts itself most strongly here within the film and the segment in question, even in the context of some of the more surreal images and daydreams presented, stands out as an obviously auteur-driven vision and criticism.  Cosima is dressed in black dominatrix clothing with whips and swastikas emblazed on them.  She and Mahler are in some form of quarry where she is shown to drill Mahler’s Jewish identity out of him through rigorous, anti-Semitic army routines which eventually culminates in Mahler ravaging the snout off the head of a pig.

Russell links Mahler’s forced indoctrination of a new religion to the fascism that Wagner would later represent in the 20th century (for Russell, who served in the Second World War, this is of course in the past though this rarely matters when dealing with Wagner).  This is a continuing theme for Russell, starting from Dance of the Seven Veils and entering into various other films as well.  The aim of these segments seems almost cathartic on Russell’s part rather than trying to convey anything in particular about the composers themselves.  This segment seems to be equally about showing the grotesque ridiculousness of the situation that Mahler found himself in at the time as well as questioning the veracity of Mahler’s religious beliefs in the first place.

Wagner’s Ride of the Valkeryres plays while Mahler slays a symbolic dragon with a sword that has been recreated from a St David’s star.  Added to this mix is a host of popular culture references, from Powell portraying Mahler’s dismay in the same way as Stan Laurel from Laurel and Hardy to framing the process of Mahler’s change of religion in the form the cinematic transition between silent film and sound (Mahler’s transformation is signified by the advent of sound in the short, silent film; “and then came the talkies!”).  This could be construed as Russell deliberately provoking Wagnerian scholars, likening the culture that he formed to be prejudiced, difficult and easily portrayed as a joke though ultimately one that would be driven out through technological and sociological progress.

Mahler marks the end of Russell’s transitional period in portraying composers.  The films he would make after this have no barriers left for the director to cross having pushed several in the three composer films between 1970 and 1974.  Russell had gone from questioning classical music and its makers through innovative form to openly criticising it using symbolic montage and historical distortion.  While this montage technique has been shown to have other creative uses and meanings, in this transitional period, the technique is used for Russell to vent some clearly felt criticisms at both the actions of history and the treatment of composers during their time.  While scholars may look down upon this very bias and unbalanced way of portraying historical and cultural figures, it showed Russell to be more than just a director of drama but a new critical voice in the reception of classical music.

Part 7.

Adam Scovell

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