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Music / Gustav Mahler

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Photographed at the end of his period as director of the Vienna Hofoper by Moritz Nähr in 1907.

"I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed."
Gustav Mahler, recounted by his wife Alma Mahler in Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters

Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) was an Austro-Bohemian composer and conductor, one of the last of the Romantic era.

He mostly restricted his output to symphonies and song cycles. Mahler once remarked that "the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything." No wonder then that his symphonies work on a larger scale than anything previously conceived: some of them have elaborate philosophical programs, like his Symphony No. 3 which, like Richard Strauss' tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, is based on Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra. Mahler continually specified larger orchestras and more esoteric instruments; the culmination of this is his Symphony No. 8, which requires a ridiculously large number of musicians: double orchestra, an organist, eight vocal soloists, and three choirs. Not surprisingly, then, it is often called the "Symphony of a Thousand."

He seems to have been fond of complaining that people did not understand his angst, and his works can sometimes be a little obtuse.

Nonetheless, they are still considered powerful and emotionally affecting pieces of music. Many of his works, such as his Second and Fifth Symphonies, start out with a despairing, anguished tone that darkens even further throughout the work, only to work their way to a profoundly triumphant and joyous ending.

He is sometimes viewed as a transitional figure between the romantic era and the early modern era of classical music (particularly German Expressionism), much the way that Beethoven can be viewed as a transition between the classical and romantic eras. Mahler was a major influence for Arnold Schoenberg and his students. In particular, the way that Mahler begins to dissect tonality in his 9th symphony and the parts of the 10th that he did manage to finish — this leads directly to the 12-tone system that Arnold Schoenberg pioneered.

Mahler was one of the most celebrated conductors of his time, holding musical directorships at the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic (where his tenure was cut short by his sudden death). He was known for his exacting standards and involvement with all aspects of an opera production, not just the music. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky pronounced Mahler "a genius" after hearing him conduct the German premiere of his opera Eugene Onegin.

Mahler died before he could complete his 10th Symphony. Interestingly, he had feared exactly this: he believed in the "Curse of the Ninth", which states that a composer has to die either while working on or after completing his/her ninth symphony, as had happened to Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubertnote , Anton Brucknernote , and Antonín Dvořáknote , and as later happened to Alexander Glazunov and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Mahler tried to subvert the Curse by not numbering Das Lied von der Erde ("Song of Earth"). This would have been his ninth symphonynote , making the Ninth his actual 10th. It seems the Curse of the Ninth only goes after numbered symphonies. That being said, Dmitri Shostakovich managed to write fifteen symphonies, although he had other things to worry about.

Fans of Tom Lehrer will recognize him as the first husband of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel.

Mahler’s music and life provide examples of:

  • A Cappella: Both the Second and Eighth Symphonies contain a capella choral entrances, with considerable dramatic effect.
  • Angst: He is one of the most famous composers who expressed this feeling in his music.
  • Bigger Is Better: His symphonies became gradually larger in scale, peaking in the "Symphony of a Thousand", his 8th.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Symphony No. 9 simply fades out, interpreted as a farewell from the composer.
  • Black Comedy: Mahler enjoyed using this trope. Examples include the scherzo of his Symphony No. 4 in G major, a grotesque dance-of-death scherzo featuring a solo violin with retuned strings, and the forced optimism of the finale to his Symphony No. 7 in E minor.
  • Boléro Effect: Symphony No. 1 (Titan), has this in its third movement on the tune of "Frère Jacques".
  • Bookends: Symphony No. 8 begins and ends with a huge E-flat major chord.
  • Bookworm: Famously read all the time. He actually started the day with Goethe instead of newspapers.
  • Break the Badass: The whole point of the fourth movement of Symphony No. 6 ("Tragic") is to send the ridiculously large orchestra through a series of twists of fate represented by hammer strokes until it gives up after the third one.
  • Call-Back: Some material from earlier symphonies can be heard in later ones. For example, a horn call from Symphony No. 5 returns in Symphony No. 6.
  • Cradle of Loneliness: Das Lied Von Der Erde ("Song of the Earth") has a movement called "Der Einsame im Herbst" ("The Lonely One in Autumn").
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Mahler didn't think much of his critics.
      Critic: I trust you weren't offended by my negative critique of your recent symphony.
      Mahler: You just don't understand my music.
      Critic: You weren't of the same opinion when I praised your previous work.
      Mahler: You are quite mistaken. You didn't understand me when you praised me, either.
    • When challenged to a duel, he declined with the words: "I do not believe in the healing powers of dueling."
  • Death of a Child: The theme of Kindertotenlieder (meaning "Songs on the Death of Children".) Each song explores a different aspect of the grief that follows losing a child.
  • Downer Ending: Symphony No. 6 ("Tragic") ends with a massive dissonant tutti burst just to be silenced by a lonely pianissimo, representing the loss of hope.
  • Dramatic Timpani:
    • Used very quietly in the third movement of his 1st symphony (emphasizing the motif of the descending fourth interval that ties the four movements together) and to accompany the fanfares in the fourth movement.
    • In the 2nd symphony, after the soft pizzicato chords at the end of the second movement, the audience is jolted back to attention by a sudden BA-DUM! from the timpani to introduce the third movement.
    • Played very slowly at the end of Symphony No. 3.
    • Also in the 6th symphony, in the first movement just before A major-minor chord. The same rhythm comes back over the final chord.
  • Drunken Song: His Das Lied Von Der Erde ("Song of the Earth") has a drinking song, but it's one for "Earth's Misery": "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde." Another one is called "Der Trunkene im Frühling" ("The Drunken Man in Spring").
  • Escaped from Hell:
    • Symphony No. 1 details the life of a hero, including his funeral in the third movement. The final movement is him fighting his way out of Hell to ascend to Heaven.
    • Symphony No. 2 opens once again with the funeral rites of the hero from the previous symphony, while the finale is a depiction of the Last Judgement. The first ten minutes depict the angelic summons (Mahler subtitled the initial offstage horn call "a voice calling in the wilderness"), then a thundering drum roll represents the ground tearing wide open as the dead rise from their graves and march off to be judged. The triumphant final minutes suggest that even the condemned souls have been redeemed and restored by The Power of Love.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The infamous Mahlerhammer in Symphony No. 6 is a large wooden hammer slammed against a wooden platform or box, used as a percussive instrument. Also needs more cowbell in the finale.
  • Expy: Gustav von Aschenbach of Death in Venice is closely modeled after Mahler. Even more so in the Film of the Book where Aschenbach is a conductor and composer instead of a writer. Movie-Aschenbach is Mahler with a mustache, really, except Aschenbach is depicted as gay, which Mahler wasn't. Even Aschenbach's wife looks exactly like Alma. The soundtrack to said film also consists of Mahler.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Mahler had a sister, Justine. Mahler's wife Alma hated her and accused her of being exploitative of her brother's naivete.
  • Friendly Rivalry: With Richard Strauss. Mahler said they were digging towards the same summit from different sides of a mountain.
  • Germanic Depressives: His music is sometimes dark, moody, and brooding. One of his oldest works was Das Klagende Lied ("The Song of Lament") and Kindertotenlieder is also not exactly on the happiest of subjects. Das Lied Von Der Erde ("Song of the Earth") also deals with tragic themes. And of course, his 6th symphony is referred to as "Tragische" ("Tragic").
  • Holy Pipe Organ: The final restatement of the chorus in the 2nd Symphony (Aufersteh'n! Ja, aufersteh'n wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!) is accompanied by a pipe organ, saved just for that moment. By contrast, the 8th Symphony brings the organ in on the very first note (Veni! Veni, Creator Spiritus!).
  • It Will Never Catch On: Reaction to his symphonies in his lifetime was all over the place. His First was denounced as dull, his Second was a big hit, his Third prompted one Viennese critic to state "Anyone who has committed such a deed deserves a couple of years in prison". Reaction to the Fourth Symphony was somehow even worse, with near-universal dislike that in some cases bordered on hatred. His association with Richard Wagner was a strike against him for many people (being an opera conductor, Mahler became the foremost interpreter of Wagner in his day), as was his Jewish heritage, earning condemnation from anti-semites then and later. His Eighth Symphony was met with a half-hour of applause, though, and he remained highly sought after as a conductor.
  • Kavorka Man: Described as this by Alma Mahler-Werfel. Also had the (unjust) reputation of being The Casanova.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The 6th ends with a massive dissonant tutti.
  • Lighter and Softer: The eighth symphony, the biggest popular success Mahler had in his lifetime, sets two optimistic texts (the hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus" and the finale of Goethe's Faust) and has little of the irony or ambiguous tonality of Mahler's other work.
  • The Mentor: To Arnold Schoenberg and like-minded avant-garde composers. He actually was friends with Schoenberg. But since Mahler had shades of Drill Sergeant Nasty, they had hot-headed arguments. According to Alma, Mahler was Genre Savvy enough to know that Schoenberg would eventually build on Mahler's innovations and herald a new age of classical music. During Schoenberg's "Skandalkonzerte" he always defended his friend. Keep in mind, these arguments sometimes ended in fistfights of pro and contra-Schoenberg.
  • Mood-Swinger: He himself was one, and his symphonies reflect that.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: He often incorporated popular melodies and ironic elements into his music, such as "Frère Jacques" into his first symphony.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The theme of Kindertotenlieder, mentioned above. Mahler's wife Alma was upset that he would write on this subject, believing it to be Tempting Fate. Tragically, her fears proved prescient a few years laterinvoked when the couple lost their own four-year-old daughter to scarlet fever.
  • The Perfectionist: Mahler was meticulous in marking the scores of his symphonies with precise performance instructions for both the musicians and the conductor; he was adamant that the performance should reflect the vision in his mind to the letter.


Mahler Symphony No. 3

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra

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