Absolute power, misconduct and decline: the classical music pieces that unlock Tár

In his controversial film, Todd Field foregrounds melancholic works by Mahler and Elgar. Are they a requiem for Cate Blanchett’s supremely powerful conductor?

• This piece contains spoilers for Tár

Earlier this month, director Todd Field was interviewed for Radio 3’s Private Passions about his new film, Tár. The presenter Michael Berkeley had seen it the night before and commented: “It’s the kind of film you want to see with friends and have a good argument about. Is that perhaps what you wanted?” Field replied with a confident “yes” before bursting into laughter.

At its root, Tár is a study of power. Field might have conjured up a ruthless politician to make his film about, but he chose to go one step higher – picking a figure of absolutism. It features Cate Blanchett in imperious form playing Lydia Tár, the first female chief conductor of one of the world’s top orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic. A real-life predecessor of the fictional Tár was Herbert von Karajan, who held the helm at the Berlin Philharmonic from 1956 until his death in 1989. Margaret Thatcher admired him greatly and they became friends, no matter that he was a former Nazi party member. “She envied me,” Karajan once said, “that people always did what I requested.”

Much is left unsaid in Tár, resulting in a great deal of critical analysis. With regards to the music in the film – or, more specifically, the two works that Lydia Tár intends to conduct with her orchestra – there’s plenty to stew on, too. We hear in an opening scene that she intends to complete a cycle of Mahler’s nine symphonies (10 if you count his unfinished last symphony) by recording a live version of the Fifth. Needing a work to perform on the night alongside the Mahler, she opts for Elgar’s Cello Concerto, allowing her to promote her latest grooming victim, the young Russian cellist Olga Metkina (played by Sophie Kauer), from orchestra newbie to soloist.

Tár seems to follow its protagonist’s descent from supreme power to near-irrelevance, her career and private life destroyed by a slew of allegations of misconduct. So why put Mahler’s Fifth at the heart of this psychodrama? Field told the LA Times that it was his “gateway drug into a lot of classical music”, but also that it fitted his narrative. Written in 1901–1902 and premiered in 1904, it’s a five-movement work beginning with a funeral march. “The first movement of the five is about death, and Lydia is undergoing a sort of artistic death, a personal death and a potential rebirth,” Field added. “It’s almost like it’s haunting her, coming for her.”

Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No 5 – video

The first movement alone clocks in at 12 or 13 minutes. In the film, there’s much discussion about the different lengths at which conductors play the famous fourth movement, the Adagietto (anywhere between seven and 12 minutes). In total, the symphony runs for well over an hour, pulling in many sonic and thematic directions. It’s a wide-open work, ripe for individual interpretation and impeccably suiting a film that doesn’t provide easy answers.

Mahler said: “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” He was caught on the cusp of the Romantic period in music and the forward charge of modernism. His symphonies both look back and drive onward, creating ambiguity, consciously and subconsciously. “Music, before Mahler, had a lexicon of simple emotions: joy, sorrow, love, hate, uplift, downcast, beauty, ugliness, and so on,” music critic Norman Lebrecht wrote in his 2010 book, Why Mahler? “Mahler, in his First Symphony, introduced the possibility of parallel meanings.”

Mahler met and married his wife Alma, also a composer, while writing his Fifth symphony. The Adagietto is his love letter, but that’s not how it’s always perceived. In the film, Lydia Tár is portrayed as the protege of the American conductor Leonard Bernstein. In 1968, Bernstein conducted the Adagietto at Robert F Kennedy’s funeral – performing it like “a mass’’, as Tár says – which began the process of it becoming an American national anthem of mourning. Post-9/11, it was played repeatedly by orchestras and radio DJs across the US.

After her brother-in-law’s funeral, Jackie Kennedy wrote to Bernstein: “When your Mahler started to fill (but that is the wrong word – because it was more this sensitive trembling) the cathedral today – I thought it was the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I am so glad I didn’t know it – it was this strange music of all the gods who were crying …” Such is the power of Mahler’s Fifth, a piece that becomes reborn each time new listeners stumble upon it. Field told Private Passions that the first time he heard the work he thought he’d “personally discovered it”. Mikhail Gorbachev, who first heard it in 1991, commented: “I had the feeling that Mahler’s music somehow touched our situation, about the period of perestroika with all its passions and struggles.”

It’s an irony of both Mahler’s Fifth and Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1919) that they barely resonated when composed, percolated over time and then came into dazzling fruition in the 1960s. Bernstein was essential to Mahler’s success in the second half of the 20th century; Elgar has an English cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, to thank for turning a failure into a standard. Her electrifying, boundless 1965 performance of the concerto – recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli when Du Pré was 20 – transcended genre. It hit the zeitgeist, sold like a pop record and made a star of Du Pré. Her death in 1987, aged 42, after multiple sclerosis had ended her performing career 14 years earlier, remains one of English classical music’s most appalling tragedies.

Jacqueline du Pré performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto – video

In Tár, the blackly comic character of Olga Metkina says she was introduced to the Elgar Cello Concerto by Du Pré, but through a live performance on YouTube, not the recording. There is a correlation between the free-spirited natures of Metkina and Du Pré, but you guess also that Field specifically needed Elgar’s Cello Concerto in his film. Like Mahler’s Fifth, it’s a wildly popular piece frequently used by Hollywood, thereby providing a reachable access point for anyone new to classical music. But perhaps there’s further intent on Field’s part. Like Tár, whose affection for the old masters is scoffed at by progressive students in a class she teaches at New York’s Juilliard school, so Elgar was written off as stuffy, reactionary and provincial – later in his own career and in the decades that followed his death in 1934.

By the time Elgar began writing his Cello Concerto in the aftermath of the first world war, he was already considered old-hat and he knew it. Furthermore, the carnage of war had affected him deeply and his beloved wife Alice was ill (she would soon die). He was lonely, depressed and he wouldn’t go on to write another major orchestral work. Later, when preparing a catalogue of his music, he wrote “Finis RIP” next to the Concerto, although he lived for 15 more years and published many more, smaller pieces. The plaintive, autumnal concerto is considered to be a lament for war, but perhaps Elgar was writing a requiem for his own death. In that sense, it couldn’t more perfectly suit Field’s narrative arc for Lydia Tár as she unwittingly orchestrates her own demise.


Phil Hebblethwaite

The GuardianTramp

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