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Volume 11 • Number 1

Spring 2004



On the Inner Dimension of Heroic Struggle in
Beethoven's Eroica: A Mahlerian Perspective
(and What That Might Tell Us)

by Raymond Knapp

Tradition ist Schlamperei!

Certain quotations attributed to Mahler have become isolated from their original contexts, to stand more generally for his aesthetic or cultural position in the manner of personal manifestos. "Tradition ist Schlamperei!" (Tradition is slovenliness) is such a phrase. Originally applied to operatic traditions, it has, like "Each repetition is already a lie" and "I am thrice homeless," been taken as an instance of Mahler's self-positioning, despite that its application is often difficult to reconcile with other aspects of his musical personality and ambitions. Although the phrase appeals to moralistic elitism and suggests a strong affinity to modernism, Mahler was elitist about traditions in only some respects, and only reluctantly cast as a modernist, for one tradition in particular mattered tremendously to him: the Beethovenian symphonic tradition, through which he strove as a conductor and with his own works to occupy the center of the larger Germanic musical tradition. It may well seem ironic, then, that he was not only criticized severely for the way he conducted Beethoven, but also regarded by many as a despoiler of the German symphonic tradition because of his own contributions to the genre. But his supposed railing against any and all traditions, his heightened veneration of this particular tradition, and the kind of criticisms he had to endure as conductor and composer may nevertheless be reconciled, or at least better understood, if we imagine that Mahler's Beethoven was not the same Beethoven that audiences had by the late nineteenth century grown accustomed to hearing, and that it was Mahler's Beethoven who was in some very basic ways the more directly grounded in Beethoven's scores—even keeping in mind Mahler's willingness to tamper with those scores.

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