Mahler within Mahler: allusion as quotation, self-reference, and metareference

Samuels, Robert (2010). Mahler within Mahler: allusion as quotation, self-reference, and metareference. In: Bernhart, Walter and Wolf, Werner eds. Self-Reference in Literature and Other Media. Word and Music Studies (11). Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 33–50.



The music of Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) is ideal as a focus for discussion of the role of self-quotation within musical works. Although self-quotation is not in a technical sense the same thing as a narrow usage of self-reference, these two terms converge in the case of Mahler, through his creation of a semiotic ‘idiolect’ or vocabulary of musical signs which define his works as a single system. This contribution traces a progress from self-quotation, through a more semiotically potent kind of self-reference, to a situation in Mahler’s last completed symphony in which one can speak of metareference within the musical text. Mahler quotes constantly and copiously from other composers and his own works throughout his oeuvre. The most thoroughgoing examination of this habit to date is a 1997 article by Henry Louis de La Grange, whose observations are summarised and discussed here. The concern of this contribution is to focus on Mahler’s self-quotations, and to investigate whether these are a special case, in semiotic terms, and whether their use develops over time. The most straightforward case, in terms of sign functioning, is provided by Mahler’s First Symphony and its quotation of his own song, “Gieng heut’ Morgens über’s Feld”. This is a use of quotation to incorporate the suppressed text of the poem within the semiotic economy of the symphonic narrative. A more tangential and allusive technique is seen in the Fifth Symphony, where the relationship to pre-existing songs and their texts is more distant, and their function within the symphony is indirect and subtle, whilst remaining undeniable. Finally, the present contribution discusses the closing bars of the Ninth Symphony, hearing in them a Proustian representation of the operation of memory through Mahler’s use of fragmented units, which are self-referential within the Mahlerian idiolect. This way of composing attains a modernist, metareferential form of signification.

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