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The Music of Mahler

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Gustav Mahler was an Austrian conductor and composer who lived from 1860 to 1911. He was most famous during his lifetime as a conductor, but spent his spare time composing massive orchestral works. It is for these that he is now remembered. Mahler's work is loud and full of emotion, making it very popular with the concert-going public these days. Concerts of Mahler's work are usually packed out.

Mahler's Early Life

Mahler grew up in Bohemia, which was at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The people of Bohemia were mainly Czech speaking and there was a strong movement towards independence from Austria. As a German-speaking Jew in this region, Mahler felt very much an outcast. His family home was near a military barracks and the young Mahler used to listen to the military band playing. Snippets of band music appear in many of his symphonies and many movements are based on march rhythms. Mahler's family had its share of misfortune with family deaths and a suicide. It may be these that gave Mahler his fear of death.

Mahler the Conductor

Mahler worked as a conductor, taking charge of the Vienna Opera at the age of 37. He kept this post for ten years, and then moved to New York, America, where he conducted both the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic Society orchestra (later known as the New York Philharmonic).

He was considered a genius and a tyrant, ruling the orchestra with a rod of iron. Although one of the world's greatest conductors, he did not get as far as he would have liked, because he was a Jew, and the world was heavily biased at that time against Jews.

Mahler the Composer

During his summer holidays, Mahler went to the mountains. He devoted all his time there to composing huge works. Here his tyrannical streak came to the fore again. Nothing was allowed disturb the master while he was at work. The cows in the valley had their cowbells removed so that the noise would not disturb Herr Mahler (the same cowbells make an appearance in his 6th symphony). Mahler wrote only symphonies and song cycles; he did not write anything else - no concertos, operas, or piano music. Time was too short and he thought that these two musical forms best conveyed what he wanted to say.

Although Mahler's works were performed during his lifetime, they were looked upon as amusing oddities. It was only in the latter half of the 20th Century that Mahler's music became popular, with him eventually reaching the status of one of the major composers of all time.

The Symphonies

Mahler wrote nine symphonies as well as one major work, Das Lied Von Der Erde, which has a symphonic structure and could be considered a symphony. He was also working on his 10th symphony when he died and had a fair amount of it sketched out.

The symphonies are massive affairs, with the exception of the 4th, which is a bit of light relief. They require very large orchestras and are usually fairly long, ranging from about an hour to about two hours. Some of them feature singers: a single soprano in the 4th, a chorus of 750 singers in the 8th.

The symphonies are full of emotion, with sublime pastoral melodies, grotesque marches, cries of despair and glorious triumphant finales. They can be seen as a battle between good and evil, between despair and triumph, between life and death. In the early symphonies, good always wins out. Only in some of the later ones does Mahler appear to despair.

Much is made in commentaries on Mahler's music of the various incidents in his life and how they are reflected in the music. It is not necessary, however, to know the biographical details. The music is intended not as a statement about Mahler but as a statement about life in general, and can be appreciated in itself.

The best of the symphonies are probably the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 9th. All have a lot to offer but these four appear to be the most popular. It is best to listen to them in the order they were written, as they grow progressively more daring with tonality and dissonance.

Symphony 1 - The Titan

This symphony is an evocation of the wonder of life. It starts with a slow introduction which suggests life awakening in spring after the long winter, then progresses into some beautiful melodies. Many of the themes are borrowed from the song cycle 'Songs of a Wayfarer'. Beethoven was the first composer to call his third movement scherzo, a joke, but Mahler carries the joke further than most, with a mournful funeral march based on 'Frère Jacques' transformed into a minor key. The fourth movement starts with a huge cymbal clash and a 'cry of despair' from the orchestra, which gradually develops into more cheerful music, ending in a triumphant finale with snatches of Handel's 'And He Shall Reign Forever'. This often has audiences cheering in their seats.

Symphonies 2, 3, 4

These three symphonies are known as the 'Wonderhorn' symphonies because they borrow material from his song cycle 'The Youth's Wonderhorn'. All of them feature singing of some sort.

The 2nd symphony is known as the 'Resurrection', with a choir in the last movement, singing a hymn to Resurrection. The 3rd is one of the longest symphonies ever written and is a bit of a mish-mash of different styles. It starts off with a huge march. One movement has a solo alto singer while another has a children's chorus. The final movement is a purely orchestral slow movement which starts quietly and gradually builds to an enormous climax which is extremely characteristic of Mahler. The 4th symphony is a piece of light relief considering the size of the preceding three symphonies and features a soprano soloist singing about a child's view of heaven.

Symphonies 5, 6 and 7

These three symphonies are the intermediate symphonies and they have no singing, being purely orchestral. The 5th is the most popular, featuring a wonderful slow movement called 'Adagietto' which is played entirely on strings. It was used in Visconti's film, Death in Venice. The 6th symphony is often known as the 'tragic'. It ends with hammering chords which are said to represent a coffin being hammered shut. The 7th symphony is a difficult work and not very popular; it appears to be a collection of unrelated movements, each very good in itself but lacking in a cohesive structure.

Symphony 8 - the Symphony of a Thousand

Mahler did not choose the name for this, but it is well deserved. An orchestra of 250 and a chorus of 750 are required. This long work is in two parts. The first is a hymn to the creator in Latin. The second is much longer. It uses words from Goethe's Faust (in German) showing man's eventual ascent to higher things.

Das Lied Von Der Erde - the Song of the Earth

This is a cycle of 6 songs, three for tenor and three for alto or mezzo-soprano. The overall structure of the work is that of a symphony, with heavy orchestration and with the last movement lasting more than half an hour. The six songs are originally Chinese so Mahler attempts to make the work sound vaguely oriental, but not with any great success. The subject of the songs is the fading beauty of the world, which we all of us must soon leave.

It is said that Mahler was scared of dying and didn't want to call this his 9th symphony because so many other composers had died after writing a ninth symphony.

Symphony 9

This was Mahler's last completed symphony and he died before it was ever performed. It is a purely orchestral work and it sounds like a descent into chaos. The joke of the third movement scherzo has become the sick joke that life has played on the composer by giving him a terminal illness.

But it doesn't end in despair. After a wail of anguish, the music transforms into a quiet acceptance and ends sadly but peacefully.

Symphony 10

Mahler died while still sketching this symphony out having completed the first movement. This completed movement is often included on CDs as a filler along with other symphonies. The rest of the 10th is much more speculative. Mahler had laid out all the plan for the movements and tunes he was going to use, but he hadn't got as far as the orchestration. A number of 'completed' versions are available, the most notable being that by Deryck Cooke, but these are 'performing drafts' and there is no doubt that Mahler would have done far more if he had lived.

The Song Cycles

Mahler wrote a number of song cycles; collections of songs to be sung by a soloist with orchestral accompaniment. There are five main song cycles, as well as Das Lied von der Erde, which is more like a symphony. (Technically Das Klagende Lied is a 'dramatic cantata', but it fits in well enough here).

  • The Youth's Wonderhorn (Das Knaben Wunderhorn)
  • Songs of a Wayfarer (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen)
  • Songs by Rückert (Rückertlieder)
  • Songs on the death of children (Kindertotenlieder)
  • The Song of Lament (Das Klagende Lied)

These are harder to approach than the symphonies because more of the emotion is carried in the words than in the music. Unless you are a fluent German speaker, you will lose a lot in reading a translation while listening to them.

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