OK, after much hemming and hawing, it’s time.
The symphonies of Gustav Mahler represent perhaps the apex of the symphony itself as a musical form. These are enormous works that make enormous demands on the listener. They are dense in concept and epic in scope, with musical architecture that is so complex that it calls to mind the large-scale works of JS Bach.
Mahler’s symphonies are also deeply human, reflecting the loves and hopes and dreams and despairs of one of classical music’s most driven and tortured figures. Mahler’s vision was almost Herculean, and there is scarcely a moment in any of his symphonies when he is not plumbing deeply personal depths. In his symphonies one encounters entire worlds, with sunrises and songs to nature and starry skies and loves both found and lost. One also finds meditations, both fearful and elegiac, of death and what lies beyond. Mahler’s art is a testimony to a depth of feeling that is only found in the greatest artists, and his ability to translate that feeling meaningfully into musical terms is one of art’s great mysteries.
Mahler lived a relatively short life, from 1860 to 1911. He was a late Romantic, and thus did for the symphonic form what Richard Wagner did for opera. Where Wagner’s work was lionized and celebrated and nearly worshiped, though, Mahler’s was largely rejected and did not start to gain serious traction until after World War II, partly as the musical pendulum began swinging back from the modernism that was already astir as Mahler’s life drew to a close. This was partly due to the very enormity of many of his works and the demands they placed on huge orchestral forces; the rediscovery of Mahler probably owes something to the arrival of long-playing recording technology in the middle of the 20th century. It’s also hard not to suspect that the world’s reluctance to embrace Mahler’s music was partly due to anti-Semitism (Mahler was a Jew). It seems fitting that one of Mahler’s greatest interpreters and champions was Leonard Bernstein (whose work we hear today).
Mahler’s compositional output is relatively small, not consisting of much beyond his symphonies. This is not due to laziness, but because he was actually one of the hardest working musicians in history. In addition to his composition, Mahler focused strongly on conducting, serving for a number of years as the head of the Vienna State Opera. He ruled over that organization with a fiery, dictatorial zeal, micromanaging nearly every detail. A later experiment with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and then the New York Philharmonic, ended poorly and Mahler had to return to Europe. By this time his health was failing.
By all accounts Gustav Mahler was a difficult person with few social graces, so it can be hard to square the coldness of the man with the depth of feeling in his music, some of which is filled with warmth. Mahler seems to have had no outlet for his deep emotion other than his music.
David Dubal writes:
Mahler’s music seems to encompass the total range of human emotions. For countless numbers of people, it has become their Bible of sounded emotion. They feel Mahler’s elation, rejection, panic, terror, sentimentality, and drunkenness as their own. In short, the music expresses dozens of sensations so pointedly that the true Mahlerite surrenders himself completely, becoming, it seems, at one with the composer’s inner world.
The Symphony No. 1 opens mysteriously, like a dawn on an uncertain day, and descending motifs are heard in a kind of call-and-answer until we arrive at the main melody of the movement which is suddenly warm and genial. The entire first movement is filled with pastoral pleasure, even in a few stormy passages which lead to pleasing fanfares. The entire movement closes in a burst of rhythmic energy that leaves one smiling.
In the second movement we have not a traditional scherzo but a tune that sounds like a Landler, which is an Austrian folk dance that preceded the more famous waltzes to come. This dance is lumbering and forceful, but it too is laced with moments of genuine tenderness. The mood darkens further in the third movement, where Mahler’s masterstroke is a minor-key rendition of the tune “Frere Jacques” in a funereal procession. Mahler’s lyricism shows up here as well, and the verdant warmth of the first movement is mostly forgotten at this point.
Then we get to the finale, where all is storm and passion. A mighty cymbal crash ignites the fire which bursts forth in a torrent, and this long movement goes from violence to lyrical torture to violence again…but there are hints along the way of a triumph to come, when we hear a very soft passage of hope in the brass midway through. This is heard again a bit later, more loudly, and then at the end–after Mahler finally returns to the mysterious sounds of the symphony’s opening pages–the triumph is complete. The symphony closes in tremendous, victorious light and the sense that a true journey has just been completed.
And that’s in a little under an hour. Mahler’s second symphony will take another thirty minutes, and his third will take even longer than that.
Here is Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
Next week: Hopefully, the Mahler Second. I will likely not be doing all of Mahler’s symphonies in consecutive weeks, because I need to give them the hearing they deserve before I write about them. I’ll probably alternate my way through them over the next couple of months.