On the Relationship between Music and Literature
in Gustav Mahler’s and Richard Strauss’ssymphonic works
Many of the titles of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems and Gustav Mahler’s symphonies refer to literary works. For a long time this fact has sustained a debate about programme music in general and the programmatic aspect of Mahler’s symphonies in particular. Now before using the term “programme music”, one should wonder about the link that can aesthetically be established between a musical work and a literary work. The present study shows precisely that one should not consider programme music as a simple translation of literary works into sounds, but rather as a form of literary criticism in the sense defined by Schlegel. Based on Liszt’s theory about programme music (expounded in his essay on Berlioz’s Harold), the author highlights this critical relation and applies it to Strauss’s symphonic poems. This allows him to reinterpret the musical form and on this basis transcend the traditional categories of sonata form.
In Mahler’s symphonies, by contrast, the relation between music and literature is rather of an “analogical” nature: Mahler does not criticise the literary work, which actually does not function as a subject for him. Instead he reveals, through the titles or subtitles of his symphonies, some stylistic or more generally aesthetic correspondences between his compositions and the literary works to which he alludes. Thus the numerous references to Jean Paul, Hoffmann, or the Wunderhorn collection in his first symphonies only betray the fact that Mahler imitates the “fantastic” style of these authors. Consequently, this study undertakes to show how Mahler adopts literary devices and uses them in his music. The aim is to demonstrate that the fantastic style in Mahler’s symphonies is the means which enables him to create a stylistic continuity between the vocal and the purely instrumental movements of his symphonies.