150 years of Mahler

Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, which means that this year we will see an almost infinite number of Mahler symphony cycles put on by the great orchestras of the world, and probably all of his major works performed at the Proms in the summer. In fact, this will go on for two years, because 2011 is the 100th anniversary of his death. If you’re an artist who desires prolonged posthumous commemoration, 49 and 51 are good ages to die. Though in fact Mahler didn’t quite make it to 51.

Mahler was a passion of my teenage years. My eyes and ears were opened by the fifth symphony, which I listened to over and over again in my room. I might not have come to Mahler until later if not for the untimely death of my uncle, after which I was privileged to be able to choose several of his CDs for myself. Among them were Bernstein’s thrilling account of Mahler 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic, which remains my recording of choice, and also things like Anne Sofie von Otter’s ravishing Weill disc and the Emerson Quartet’s Bartók.

Where Death in Venice comes in, I’m not sure. I read Thomas Mann’s novella when I was 14, but can’t now remember whether I had seen Visconti’s film before I got to know the symphony that is used so heavily and to such great effect throughout. The film is an easy target for criticism. It lacks pace and muddles Mann’s story, though the transformation of Aschenbach from a writer to a composer clearly based on Mahler is at least understandable, if miscalculated – Mann became aware of Mahler’s death while he was writing the book, and consciously based Aschenbach’s appearance on Mahler’s. Still, for its flaws, it’s somehow mesmerising, the performance of Dirk Bogarde, the cinematography of Pasqualino (Pasquale) De Santis and the use of Mahler’s music – not just the fifth but also the third symphony – seem to me beyond reproach. Somehow, anyway, the book, the film and the music are all bound up together for me. When I reread Death in Venice last year in Venice, I had the Bernstein on in the background.

Growing up in Somerset, symphony concerts were not easy to come by, especially if you didn’t look for them. I finally saw Mahler 5 in concert at the Proms performed by the BBCSO and Leonard Slatkin, shortly after my 18th birthday. Also on the programme was a rather sweet arrangement by Britten of a movement from Mahler 3. While not the most groundbreaking performance, I found it thrilling. I don’t know whether there was a problem with the Albert Hall’s air conditioning, but I remember having to unbutton my shirt because of the heat, if not entirely then at least partially. I think I was probably wearing a T-shirt underneath, so the unspoken dress protocol was not breached.

My teenage passion for Mahler, as for Shostakovich, has lapsed in recent years. Ten years ago, the prospect of getting to know an enormous orchestral work was a source of excitement, but now it seems a chore. Not just with these composers but in general, I am coming to realise that I prefer shorter forms. Mahler’s orchestral songs continue to move me. Kindertotenlieder above all, I think, but here’s a ludicrously young-looking Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (now 85, then 35) singing “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Mahler’s setting of the final words, “Nein! Nein! Das ich mein, mir nimmer, nimmer blühen kann!”, is almost impossibly bittersweet. And what a fine actor Fischer-Dieskau is.

Perhaps, then, this is a good time to start listening to Mahler regularly once more. There is still much to be discovered, many byways unexplored. His music appears to lend itself to reinterpretation. I’ve often meant to try Canadian jazz pianist Uri Caine’s take on Mahler. And though I love Bernstein’s interpretation of the fifth symphony (and Barbirolli’s), I confess the one I listen to most often now is David Briggs’ majestic transcription for organ, which has all of the power and subtlety of the orchestral version.

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28 Responses to “150 years of Mahler”

  1. Evie Says:

    Thank you for, apart from anything else, that reminder of the glorious singing of Fischer-Dieskau. I too have thought about rediscovering Mahler, who I used to listen to a lot about 10 years ago – I hadn’t realised it was an anniversary. I love the exquisiteness of the lines of his music, even amid the huge orchestral sounds, and the delicacy of much of his music – delicacy in terms of progression of notes and the intervals between them – sorry, am no musician and don’t know the terminology to describe what I mean!

    Bernstein sounds like someone to pursue in terms of orchestral recordings – I know Himadri’s son recently mentioned his recording of Mahler’s 6th symphony as his favourite.

    • Gareth Says:

      Your terminology is fine. Your description of the delicacy of his music and the individual lines brings to mind the opening of the first song from Kindertotenlieder:


      Bernstein’s an enormous hero of mine, but as a conductor he has his sometimes unwelcome idiosyncrasies. His histrionics on the podium weren’t always a hit with audiences, and his tempi in Mahler can tend to be on the extreme side. I think his later recordings of the symphonies on Deutsche Grammophon are fairly reliable if you want to investigate further.

  2. Himadri Says:

    I must confess to still being in two minds about Mahler. Not that I have any doubt at all about his stature as a composr – that would be silly – but I cannot think of any other composer to whose music I have such widely divergent reactions. I love the 6th and the 9th symphonies, and “Das Lied on der Erde” more than I can say. And yet … I don’t get the 7th symphony at all; the 8th frankly bores me; even the 2nd – one of his most acclaimed masterpieces – has little effect on me: I was at a live performance of this last year (LPO/Jurowski) and it njust seemed to me like tub-thumping. And while I enjoy the first two movements of the 5th, I find my my attention wandering in the rest of the work: even that famous adagietto sounds to me like schmaltz.

    Yes, I know – the shortcomings are on my part, not Mahler’s. But I can’t help wondering how I can react in this way to so many of his works, and yet so deeply love so many others.

    I came to know these works through the recordings of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Kubelik, and naturally, I retain a strong affection for them: if I were to name a favourite Mahler conductor on record, it would be Kubelik, whose interpretations seem to underline the folk-like elements in these works. More recently, I have been listening also to Kiran’s (my son’s) recordings with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Lenny Bernstein (very intense performance, these: perhaps more than any interpreter, Bernstein takes you right up to the edge – some would say to the edge of sanity). And I have heard some fabulous live performances – including some terrific interpretations of the 9th (CBSO/Rattle, BerlinPO/Abbado, Philharmonia/Dohnanyi); a stunning performance of the 3rd (LSO/Haitink); and, perhaps best of all, a quite overwhelming performance of the 6th at the Edinburgh Festival, with LSO conducted by Pierre Boulez. With all of these performances, I came out of the concert hall feeling quite shattered.

    So how is it that the same composer can strike me in some of his works in so intense and so powerful a manner, and yet in some other of his works as a monumental bore? Well, who knows. I think I am happy to take Mahler as he comes, warts and all. Anyone who composed the 6th & 9th symphonies, and that unbearably moving “Das Lied von der Erde”, is amongst the very greatest.

    • Gareth Says:

      I think we all have blind spots like that. When I find myself tiring of Mahler during a symphony, I tend to attribute it to my own attention span, which really is quite short. I don’t find my attention drifting during operas or dramatic works, or in symphonies I know and love particularly strongly (Mahler 5, Bruckner 7, Brahms 4, Sibelius 4 and 5, Rachmaninov 2, Tchaikovsky 5), but in long stretches of music I don’t already know I often find my mind wandering. I’m not sure I always had this problem.

      A composer I have problems with is Berlioz, as I know you do too. Some of Berlioz I find quite marvellous. Harold in Italy never fails to mesmerise me. And yet I made one of my periodic attempts to ‘get’ the Symphonie Fantastique last week and found myself taken aback once again by how tedious it was, a couple of good tunes aside. I confess I fell asleep somewhere in the second movement, but my semi-conscious mind didn’t hear anything between that and the end to make me wake up and take notice. I fully expect I’ll come round to it in time, as I did with The Catcher in the Rye.

  3. Evie Says:

    Thanks for your reply, G. I have been tempted recently by the complete set of Mahler symphonies plus Das Lied von der Erde for £29 on Amazon – all conducted by Simon Rattle. I am sure that individual symphonies have their own ‘best’ recordings, and have wondered if I shouldn’t go down that path, but £29 for 14 CDs seems such a bargain, and overall the recordings get very good reviews. It’s a start! And I doubt very much if I am either knowledgeable or discerning enough to make as much of the differences as some. It would be fun, in this 150th anniversary of his birth, to work my way through them all.

    • Himadri Says:

      I really wouldn’t have thought you could go far wrong with Rattle’s recordings – especially at that price. I’m tempted by it myself.

  4. Evie Says:

    Oh, I replied in the wrong place, sorry… :0/

    • Gareth Says:

      That’s fine – I think WordPress only allows three strata of comments anyway, so I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to reply directly to your reply if it had been in the right place. Confusing.

      I’m sure the Rattle set is more than acceptable. There’s a similar and almost universally praised one by Gary Bertini that may also be worth a look – not as big a name as Rattle, but not by any means a lesser conductor.

  5. Mike A Says:

    I think Mahler is one of those composers who works live much better than recorded (I know this is generally the case, but I think it is all the more so with Mahler).

    When I saw the resurrection symphony at the Proms many years ago, the entrance of the organ was just spine-tingingly awesome. I can live with the longeurs for the sake of these immensely uplifting moments. (OK, I just like VERY LOUD music 😉 )

    He always strikes me as the natural heir of Beethoven, for reasons I cannot quite put my finger on.

    • Evie Says:

      Though thankfully I have yet to come across anything he wrote that is even half as bad as the appalling Ode to Joy!

      Funny you should say that, though, as I keep finding myself humming that lovely second movement of Beethoven’s 7th, even though I know it’s not Mahler and doesn’t sound like Mahler!

      I have only once heard Mahler live, I think – the 5th, at Birmingham Symphony Hall – can’t remember who the conductor was, but it was a rather flat performance, and yet wonderful to hear Mahler in a concert hall. And that’s a lovely concert hall.

    • Gareth Says:

      It’s strange to me that you think of Mahler as the natural heir to Beethoven, as I can’t think of anyone but Brahms in that role. His artistic aims seem to me the closest to Beethoven’s, and I’m not sure any composer after Beethoven achieved such mastery of form in the 19th century. This demands some more thought.

      I’ve never considered Mahler’s own influences properly – he forged a genuinely original style, but to listen to his music I think Beethoven and Wagner, and possibly Bruckner, who taught Mahler, are the most discernible influences.

      • Himadri Says:

        I seem to find a lot of Schubert in Mahler’s music. Like Schubert, Mahler loved country dances and folk tunes, and often incorporated folk-like elements into his music. Also like Schubert, there is a lot of nature music in Mahler. And again like Schubert, Mahler could compose music depicting sheer terror. Listen, for instance, to the central section of the slow movement of Schubert’s string quintet; or the terrifying music at a similar point in the A major piano sonata (D959); or to the lied “Doppelgänger” in the song collection “Schwanengesang”. Aren’t these foreshadowings of the nightmare music that surfaces all too frequently in Mahler’s music? And also like Schubert, Mahler was a wonderful songwriter.

        (And if you’re looking for music that expresses terror, I think you really have to go back to the supper scene in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”: that’s the earliest instance I know of music expressing terror, although no doubt you will have a few earlier examples…)

        I too think of Brahms as being Beethoven’s heir as far as the symphony is concerned, but Brahms was content to compose in forms that had already been established, whereas Mahler, like Beethoven himself, strove to expand the forms for his own expressive ends. In that sense, it is Mahler rather than Brahms who is Beethoven’s true heir as far as the symphony is concerned.

        • Gareth Says:

          Himadri, you’re right of course about the link between Schubert and Mahler, particularly in their use of folk idioms like the ubiquitous Ländler. I think, however, that their approaches to depicting terror, though they spring from a similar impulse, are quite different. Schubert’s terror always seems to me quite contained, claustrophobic even – “Der Doppelgänger” is an excellent example, and so are parts of the quartet Death and the Maiden – which makes the impression even more intense and stark. With Mahler the tendency is towards overblownness. I wouldn’t want to accuse Mahler of lacking subtlety, but I can’t immediately think of any moments of hushed terror in his symphonies. (I think I’m doing him a disservice, in fact – I don’t know the symphonies well enough to judge, and have half a mind to buy the Rattle box myself now). The texts of the Kindertotenlieder are all terrifying in their way, and yet the impression here, where Mahler uses sparser textures, is not one of visceral terror such as Schubert creates, but one of profound sadness and grief.

          As for pre-Schubertian expressions of terror, I’ve drawn a blank, though presumably there may be things in the operas of Lully and Rameau, even Purcell. The representation of Chaos from the start of Jean-Féry Rebel’s ballet Les Elémens, while not a depiction of terror per se, I find terrifying in the same way as the opening of Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, written 240 years later, because of its uncompromising unexpectedness.

          You say that “Mahler, like Beethoven himself, strove to expand the forms for his own expressive ends.” It’s certainly true that Mahler’s concept of the symphony is nothing like Brahms’s – Mahler famously said, when meeting Sibelius, that the symphony should be all-embracing, like the world, an attitude very different from that of Sibelius, and of Brahms, for that matter. Mahler’s symphonies, almost from the very start, bear little relation to the standard Classical symphony in terms of structure. Yet for all the lack of formal innovation, I feel Brahms is closer to Beethoven than any of Beethoven’s successors, perhaps most of all in his chamber music, the outlet for his most profound and personal thoughts. I see a meticulousness about Brahms and a dislike of excess that place him nearer Beethoven than Mahler is.

          • Evie Says:

            Interesting, seeing you both link Schubert and Mahler – again purely from the point of view of an uneducated listener, it is Schubert who comes to mind when I try to explain what I mean about Mahler’s exquisiteness and tunefulness – Schubert is, for me, the master of beautiful tunes, the kinds of lines of music that seem as though they must always have existed, they are too perfect to be man-made. With Mahler too, I feel that sense of profound tunefulness…can’t think of a better word, even though it has connotations of ‘Ooh, I like a good tune’, in that Radio 2 sort of way. (The other composer who falls into that category for me, and in terms of that thing about intervals between notes that I love in Mahler is Vaughan Williams, but I am not sure most people put him in the same league!) I know I am in danger of lowering the tone of this conversation, but I quite like it when my instincts in some way resonate with what you experts say!

          • Gareth Says:

            You flatter me, but the more I learn the less I feel I know. And I’d certainly never claim that just because I’ve studied music that means I understand it, because all too often it is patently obvious that I don’t.

            I think this feeling that some music is too perfect to be man-made ties in with Schenker’s ideas about organicism. The opening theme of Bruckner’s 7th comes to my mind as a melody that feels as though it has existed in nature before being written down by man. I think that illusion may be created through its initial basis on the tonic triad, and through its starting low down in the orchestra and rising up, like a spring or a well (as with the opening of Das Rheingold).

          • Evie Says:

            I need to get to know Bruckner better. The first time I had that sense of a piece of music sounding organic in that sense was when I first heard Schubert’s B flat piano sonata – it was as though that tune must always have existed, and Schubert was the one to hear it and write it down. It is still (the first movement) one of my very favourite pieces of music (Ashkenazy every time!).

            I am ‘uneducated’ in the sense that I am just a listener, and not a particularly discerning one – I do know a bit about music, having played the cello and sung at least into my 30s, and grew up going to concerts, etc – but I am still very much a listener-for-pleasure rather than an analyst, which is why I lack confidence when talking to people who know a lot! I used to be an avid Building a Library listener, but listen to R3 increasingly unfrequently these days, don’t know why.

            Starting to ramble, sorry…but getting back to Mahler, he is certainly a composer who, like Maureen Lipman, I would find it very hard to live without, even if I do listen to the same bits over and over again (hence the desire to get to know the rest of his symphonies).

          • Gareth Says:

            I rarely listen to Radio 3 nowadays, but I do listen to the Building a Library and Composer of the Week podcasts, which are usually reliable. The current Building a Library is presented by the composer Jeremy Thurlow, who supervised my dissertation. A wise and nice man. It’s the Schoenberg Five Orchestral Pieces, though – perhaps not the best time to start listening again!

          • Himadri Says:

            Yes – that Schubert B flat sonata really is astonishingly beautiful, isn’t it? As for Bruckner … Well, I’ll wait till Gareth writes something about Bruckner on his blog before displaying my ignorance!

          • Himadri Says:

            What am I doing – arguing about music with a music graduate? But that’s me – nothing if not presumptuous! 🙂

            Temperamentally, Brahms and Mahler are almost polar opposites. Brahms is a great personal favourite of mine, as you know, but there is about his music a sense of restraint – a “dislike of excess”, as you put it. That isn’t intended as a criticism: there is no shortage of passion, but the passion tends to be just below the surface, if you know what I mean. Occasionally, it comes out into the open (as in the finale of the 4th symphony – “Allegro energico e passionato”) and it’s thrilling; but far more frequently, it’s “…ma non troppo” or “… moderato” or “un poco …”. Brahms was generally not a man to wear his heart on his sleeve.

            In this respect, Mahler was completely the opposite. The second movement of the 5th symphony, for instance, is marked “With the utmost vehemence”: it is not possible to play this with any kind of restraint while remaining true to Mahler’s marking. The passion is all out in the open, and far from keeping the content within the restraints of classical forms, the forms themselves are determined by the nature of the content.

            Obviously, each major composer is different in his own way, but for me, Beethoven was temperamentally closer to Mahlerian excess than to Brahmsian restraint. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” wrote Blake: I can’t see Brahms agreeing with that, but Mahler, I think, would. And so, I think, would Beethoven, in whose works can I detect little of Brahms’ “dislike of excess”. Is there anything more heaven-storming than the Eroica symphony? Anything wilder than the Grosse Fuge, or the finale of the Hammerklavier Sonata? Where are the meticulous classical forms in the late piano sonatas, or the late quartets?

            For all that, Mahler I love at times, but Brahms I love always, without reservation. And speaking of classical forms, there *is* one symphony in which Mahler observed them – and that is the profoundly tragic 6th. The first movement is in sonata form (complete with an exposition repeat); the scherzo is in traditional ABABA form; and so on. But there seems to be a constant tension between the classical nature of these forms, and the increasingly wild nature of the music itself: one gets the feeling that the forms are simply not capable of containing the music. And in that extrardinary finale, lasting some half hour, the form itself seems to break down in the face of so passionate a torrent. Hearing the performance the LSO gave of that at the Edinburgh Festival some ten or so years ago (conducted by Pierre Boulez) is still among the most astonishing things I have heard live. I think I was literally shaking by the end.

          • Himadri Says:

            Oh dear – I think I put my last post in the wrong place!

          • Gareth Says:

            Please argue all you like – it’s not as if I have a monopoly on the truth where music is concerned. Quite the reverse… And you’re quite right – for the purposes of the point I wanted to make I conveniently (albeit inadvertently) forgot all of Beethoven’s moments of bombast like the interminable finale of the 5th. I had been thinking about the late quartets, where I do see parallels with the chamber music of Brahms, not perhaps in terms of form but certainly in terms of introspection and…searching, if that’s the right word. It can be great fun when Brahms does let his hair down, of course, as he does in the magnificent scherzo of the 4th, but it doesn’t always produce his best music. I like him when he’s clinical. The Grosse Fuge (excellent example), by contrast, whether in comparison with Brahms or not, is one of the most gloriously audacious pieces of music ever committed to paper. Not something Brahms could have composed, but that’s not to his detriment, just an indication of different temperaments.

  6. Mike A Says:

    Hmmm, I see this discussion has grown since my rather off-the-cuff remark about Mahler & Beethoven. I don’t have the wide-ranging knowledge needed to really engage with anything said (especially about Schubert and Brahms, both of whom I’m shamefully ignorant), but I was thinking less of technique and more of temperament and philosophy. In terms of pure sound, Mahler seems closer to Wagner than anyone, at least to my ear. But the sense of monumental human struggle and solidarity of communal experience seems to me there in both Beethoven and Mahler. It’s not, of course, something I can quantity; it may even only exist in my imagination. I’m afraid I tend to be purely instinctive in the way I react to music. O-level music was a *long* time ago!

    • Mike A Says:

      Hmmm, why did my response pop up here? Strange.

      • Gareth Says:

        WordPress has its vagaries, evidently, just like everything else.

        I think that’s quite a fair assessment of Mahler both in terms of sound and philosophy. Strauss fits in there too somewhere, but that’s probably a discussion for another day…

  7. Lizzy Says:

    I’m quite astonished by this article because I too was introduced to Mahler in my teenage years with the 5th symphony (Abbado though, not Bernstein), I also read and watched Death in Venice around the same time, and I have now grown out of my teenage-obsession with Shostakovich (but not Mahler).
    See you in the library..

    • Gareth Says:

      Yes, see you in the library! I don’t think it’s too much of a coincidence – at least, not the Mahler and Shostakovich. The emotional intensity and turbulence of their music must resonate with teenagers, if that’s not too sweeping a statement. And that’s not to denigrate their music at all, but of course one’s tastes change. I’m embarrassed to confess I don’t know Abbado’s Mahler at all. This is where Spotify may come in handy…

      • Lizzy Says:

        not sure I agree on the teenager=’emotional’ or even Mahler/Shostakovich=emotional theory. But that could be a long argument…
        I find Bernstein’s Mahler too American and exaggerated – Abbado has a subtler understanding of the music which is far more effective. I just checked Spotify and although it doesn’t have much it does have the amazing recording of the 8th with Abbado and the Berliner.
        (the 7th with Abbado&Chicago is also worth a listen, especially if you’ve heard Rattle’s snail’s pace version and never want to hear it again)

        • Gareth Says:

          No, I’m not sure my theory holds water. I am handicapped by only being able to write from personal experience. I suspect the exaggeration of Bernstein’s Mahler is one of the things I found attractive when discovering it. The audacity and the confidence of Bernstein’s own music I have always found infectious, and there is much of his personality that communicates itself in his conducting. The best and worst of him, perhaps. I may try the Abbado 7 later on – it’s a work I saw in concert a few years ago (BBCSSO/Volkov – good performance) and didn’t really get, but I must give it another go.

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