Intertextuality in music since 1900

  • Rebecca Day (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


'Because Mahler said so..!' The 'narrative impulse' and construction of biography in the reception of Mahler's 'Tragic' Symphony

In the reception history of Mahler's symphonies, the autobiographical is inextricably tied to the programmatic. Information gathered from the composer's letters, autograph scores, and revisions is presumed to offer a vital window into the composer's psyche, used to directly decode personal messages left for the listener within the musical material. The interpretation of these documentary sources, however, tends to lead to the construction of convenient narratives, with feigned connection between the composer's written word and the musical score that priorities the word simply because it can be more easily claimed that the composer "said so". This is certainly the case with Mahler's Sixth Symphony; decontextualized extracts of the composer's letters have been taken to represent musical 'truth', and as such the contested movement order and the superstitious 'fate' narrative surrounding the position of the hammer blows have each gained undue significance in the construction of this 'tragic' autobiographical programme.

Twentieth-century literary criticism however, moves away from the possibility of a definitive 'text' towards a more dynamic process of interpretation. Barthes's 'Death of the Author' construes the reader as a space in which the 'text' is recreated upon each reading, a concept that has, even in the case of Barthes himself, failed to move across to musical criticism. This paper will read the documentary sources presumed to offer autobiographical 'truth' in the symphony alongside such literary theory to expose the construction of autobiography as example of the 'narrative impulse' - the temptation to ascribe meaning solely through grasping traces we find. It is hoped that this will further highlight the tensions between construction and expression in musical reception, to suggest that 'the musical work' exists in a constant state of flux and is recreated by the listener upon each interpretation, just as Barthes attributes authorship of a literary text to the reader.
Period6 Mar 2015
Event typeConference
LocationLisbon, PortugalShow on map