Mahler: where to start with his music

Conceived on a massive scale, Gustav Mahler’s seismic symphonies draw on the folk poetry of his native Bohemia and include the longest ever written by a major composer

During his lifetime and in the decades after his death, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was primarily regarded as an outstanding conductor. It has only been in the last 60 years or so that his significance as a composer has been fully appreciated. Now, his symphonies are seen as perhaps the most important since Beethoven’s, linking the romanticism of the 19th century with the modernism of the 20th, and only rivalled for originality among his contemporaries by those of Sibelius.

The music you might recognise

Mahler’s symphonies and songs have regularly been plundered to accompany visual images: research in 2008 found over 120 examples of his music being used in cinema and television. The most famous example is on the soundtrack to Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice in 1971, which uses both the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony and the fourth-movement setting of Nietzsche from the Third, while an episode in the second season of the TV series Fargo (“Fear and Trembling”) features an arrangement of the opening of the Second Symphony and an excerpt from the finale of Das Lied von der Erde.

His life …

Mahler was a Bohemian, born in Kaliště, a village now in the Czech Republic but then in the Austrian empire. He was the second of 14 children; a few months after his birth, the family moved to the town of Jihlava, where his father opened a distillery and tavern. The Mahlers were Jewish and German-speaking in a region where most people spoke Czech, and Gustav thought of himself as an exile, “always an outsider, never made welcome”. But the sounds of his childhood – folk tunes, street songs and military bands – haunted his music for much of his life. By 10 he was already recognised as a musical wunderkind, and in 1875 he went to study at the Vienna Conservatory. He was primarily as a pianist, but he also took composition lessons and started to conduct.

Mahler began his conducting career in 1880, working in provincial opera houses across Austria and Germany. He reportedly discarded most of the music he composed during these years (there’s a theory that some of his early manuscripts were destroyed in the allied bombing of Dresden in 1945), but one large-scale work – the cantata Das klagende Lied, completed in 1880 – survived.

Mahler as a child, circa 1865.
Mahler as a child, circa 1865. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

Though orchestras apparently disliked his authoritarianism, appointments in Prague and Leipzig from 1885 to 1887 confirmed Mahler’s rising reputation as a conductor. During this period he completed his first orchestral song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), with texts modelled on poems in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, an early 19th-century collection of German folk poetry that would dominate his music for more than a decade.

In 1888, he completed his First Symphony, conceiving it as a five-movement symphonic poem under the title of Titan and incorporating melodies from his song cycle; eventually he dropped one movement, creating the work we usually hear today. That same year, he sketched a single-movement symphonic poem, Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), which became the opening movement of his Second Symphony, the Resurrection. Conceived on a massive scale, the Second followed Beethoven’s Ninth in requiring vocal soloists and a chorus, as well as a huge orchestra.

In 1894, when Mahler finished work on the Second, he was living in Hamburg, where he’d been chief conductor at the Stadttheater since 1891. Composing took second place to conducting, though he did complete more Wunderhorn songs, and conducted the premiere of his Second Symphony in Berlin in 1895. He’d already begun a Third Symphony, conceived on an even more expansive scale than its predecessor. At around 100 minutes, it’s the longest symphony ever written by a major composer. Of all his works, it’s the one that most completely confirms what he told Sibelius in 1907: “A symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything.”

The Third Symphony was not premiered until 1902, after he had finished the Fourth Symphony, the last one linked to the Wunderhorn world. Mahler had settled in Vienna, having been appointed to the Hofoper (the Court Opera – today’s State Opera) in 1897 after converting to Catholicism, aware that a Jew would not gain such a prestigious post.

And times …

Vienna was about to become one of the centres of modernism in Europe, perhaps rivalled only by Paris as a centre of radical art in the years before the first world war. In 1897, the painter Gustav Klimt helped found the Vienna Secession, while the seeds of expressionism were sown with the publication of Sigmund Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams two years later, and taken up in the next decade by poets such as Georg Trakl. Mahler found himself feted by the composers of the Second Viennese School, headed by Arnold Schoenberg, who with his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern viewed Mahler’s symphonies as signposts to the direction their own music would take.

Duties at the Hofoper restricted his time for composition to summer breaks. He’d begun his Fifth Symphony in 1901 at his new lakeside villa in Carinthia, completing it there the following summer. By then, his personal life had changed utterly. The previous autumn he had met Alma Schindler, who was then a student (and lover) of the composer Alexander Zemlinsky; within four months she and Mahler were married, Alma was pregnant with their first child and the Fifth’s famous Adagietto became a declaration of love for his new wife. During their marriage, Alma surrendered her own ambitions to be a composer, whether voluntarily or at her husband’s insistence remains unclear. (Her account of their relationship in her memoirs has been questioned.)

The Fifth was the start of a trilogy of purely orchestral symphonies, which Mahler completed by 1905, along with settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert that became the orchestral song cycles Rückert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children).

If the Seventh Symphony remains one of Mahler’s most enigmatic works, the Sixth is one of his greatest achievements, with a finale punctuated by three huge hammer blows – the third of which, according to Alma, fells the hero of the symphony “like a tree”. The superstitious composer removed the third blow from the score after the first performance in 1906, but Alma identified the blows with seismic events in Mahler’s life the following year: the death of their daughter Maria, his own diagnosis of a potentially fatal heart condition, and his forced resignation from the Hofoper, supposedly because he was spending too much time composing.

By the beginning of 1908, Mahler was conducting in New York. as director of the Metropolitan Opera. His performances there were generally successful, but he resigned the following year to take up a post with the New York Philharmonic. Summers were spent back in Austria composing, with Das Lied von der Erde beginning a final trilogy of works premiered after Mahler’s death. But the massive, choral Eighth Symphony, the so-called Symphony of a Thousand, which he’d completed in 1906, stands apart from the works on either side of it. Its premiere in Munich in 1910 was one of the biggest triumphs of Mahler’s life, and the last time he conducted the first performance of one of his works: he died eight months later in Vienna.

Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which Mahler superstitiously avoided describing as his “ninth symphony” because so many composers had died after completing nine symphonies, is a song cycle with the dimensions of a symphony, ending with a half-hour movement, Abschied, that seems a very conscious farewell to life. Yet having lived to complete it, Mahler did write a Ninth Symphony – his astonishingly moving acceptance of the inevitability of death – and began a Tenth too, a much more autobiographical work riven with fears and doubts after his discovery of Alma’s affair with the young architect Walter Gropius.

Mahler died having completed two movements of the Tenth and made extensive drafts for the other three. A number of completions of the whole work have been made from these drafts, of which that by the British musicologist Deryck Cooke has proved the most convincing and widely performed.

Why does his music still matter?

Mahler was revered by Schoenberg and his pupils, but his influence extended much further into the 20th century. Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies and Benjamin Britten’s orchestral writing both owe it a significant debt, and composers of the post-1945 avant garde admired him too. Pierre Boulez recorded all the symphonies, while in the third movement of his Sinfonia, Luciano Berio used the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony as the framework for a virtuoso collage of musical quotations ranging from Bach to Stockhausen.

Great performers

For more than 30 years after his death, only a few conductors bothered with Mahler’s music. The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg ploughed a solitary furrow promoting his cause at the Amsterdam Concergebouw – though other than a performance of the Fourth Symphony, none of Mengelberg’s Mahler seems to be available on disc. Leonard Bernstein was one of the leaders of the Mahler renaissance when it began in earnest in the 1960s, while Bernard Haitink continued the Mahler tradition at the Concertgebouw. In the digital era, the cycles by Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon) and Riccardo Chailly (Decca) have been pre-eminent. Other great conductors such as Otto Klemperer and Herbert von Karajan were more selective in the works they tackled, though some of their recordings – Klemperer’s accounts of the Second Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, and especially Karajan’s elegiac version of the Ninth – are among the finest Mahler recordings of all time.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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