ESR 2 Blog March/April 2023: Piu-Wai Chan

I thought I might as well stick with the same theme for the sake of coherence. I could write about how Philip Glass’s Dracula Suite is still my go-to writing soundtrack (If you have not watched the 1931 Dracula with the Philip Glass’ score, I am afraid that you definitely are missing out.) Or, how I checked my e-mail while listening to Music for Checking E-mail by Wolfgang Mitterer. And, when I was programming, I listened to… Well, you get the idea. But I am going to take us a bit further this time, not so much about ‘music’ music itself, but still music-related nonetheless. Let’s talk about Tár (2023.) Oh yes, and a spoiler alert.


I first heard of Tár due to its lack of box-office success despite the insane amount of critical acclaim. Some critics even asked Tom Cruise to do something about this![1] Anyway, I finally had a chance to watch it on the flight (which was a shame as it had such poetic cinematography. It must be incredible to watch it in a theatre.) Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a world-renown superstar conductor with a dazzling career and also a founder of a major scholarship for female conductors. The movies began with her preparing and rehearsing for the upcoming live recording of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony.


And of course, heavily featuring Mahler’s 5th Symphony is an intentional choice. It was composed between 1901 and 1902, during a particularly tumultuous time in Mahler’s life. Despite his success, Mahler was deeply unhappy in his personal life. He was struggling with the recent death of his young daughter, Maria, and was also dealing with marital problems with his wife, Alma.


The first movement begins with a funeral march, which is a sombre reflection of Mahler’s grief over the loss of his daughter. The second movement is a lively scherzo, which is meant to represent Mahler’s sense of joy and vitality in life, capturing the essence of Mahler’s personality.

The third movement is a slow adagietto, which is widely regarded as one of Mahler’s most beautiful compositions. It is a love song to Alma. It was written as a way for Mahler to reconcile with his wife. The fourth movement is a dramatic and intense affair. It is believed to represent Mahler’s internal turmoil as he battled with his personal demons. The fifth and final movement is a triumphant and joyful finale that represents Mahler’s ultimate victory over his struggles.


In other words, everything turned upside down when Mahler composed the 5th Symphony, just as audiences watch Tár’s life unravelled by the demon which comes with power. The movie slowly unpeeled how Tár historically manipulated, seduced, and threatened her students from the said scholarship programme through the promise of career advancement. As she carefully computed each move to chase muses, it becomes all too clear that they were merely in-humanised objects of desire to their mentor; akin to nameless maidens waiting to be sacrificed for the demon (Didn’t Tár discuss The Rite of Spring with one of her targets?) As many tales have already foretold, it is the kind of hunger that can never be satisfied; the hollow within that can never be filled. Tár’s demon finally ended up eating itself, leading to her ultimate downfall, against Mahler’s best wishes. And it is one such hollowness that I take pity for.


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