INKPOT#92 CLASSICAL MUSIC FEATURE: MAHLER The Early Symphonies – An Inktroduction
Mahler and the Symphony
An Inktroduction by
It is difficult to summarise Mahler’s contribution to musical art as much as it is to describe with mere words the nature of his music. As with other great symphonists like Beethoven and Bruckner, he revitalized the symphony as an art form, heralding a time of stylistic transition from nineteenth- to twentieth-century music.
Even more so than any other composer, Mahler’s music is a deeply intimate reflection of his life and philosophy, his sense of disquiet from his Jewish roots and his lifelong introspection on personal beliefs, both spiritual and social. In a sense, his symphonic output became a diary of his life and times, even though it was not easy for everyone – let alone the average concert-goer – to fully grasp the implications of this statement.
When Mahler died on 18 May, 1911 at the age of fifty-one, he left behind a rich legacy of ten symphonies (of which the last was incomplete), innumerable lieder and arrangements of other composers’ music, most notably the Schumann symphonies. Ironically, for someone who was considered one of the greatest opera conductors of his time, with a distinguished tenure at the Vienna Court Opera for well over ten years, he did not produce any operatic works of his own.
Instead, all the drama, emotion and pathos that one might expect to find on the theatre stage were incarnated into his symphonic music. We may be able to draw some parallels here with another great symphonist – perhaps the greatest of them all – Beethoven, who also poured a great proportion of his creative energies into his symphonies. After all, Beethoven also only managed one opera in his lifetime, Leonore (a.k.a. Fidelio), and then only with great artistic struggle and anguish.
But what sets the Mahler symphonies apart from Beethoven’s are their egalitarian approach to everything. As Mahler himself exclaimed,
“The symphony is the world! The symphony must embrace everything!”
Encompassing all and sundry, from the sounds of nature to ringing of church bells, dances folkish and macabre, popular “street music” and grand cathedral sounds, from the trivial to the sublime, his symphonies are at the same time an outward extension of his personality and an inner exploration of his self – although one should also be heedful of reading too much into the literal association between music and life. In the final word, there is an unspoken unity in the grand scheme of his compositions, touched with a sense of irony, that is makes it uniquely Mahlerian.
Mahler as a young man
Gustav Mahler was born into a family of fourteen children in Kalischt (Bohemia), the second child and only one of six who survived childhood. By the age of six, he had already displayed a talent for music, and when he was fifteen, he went to Vienna for further studies. There, among other studies in philosophy and history, he also attended lectures by Anton Bruckner – another master symphonist – on harmony and counterpoint. He graduated in composition in 1878.
Thereafter, he embarked on a career as a conductor, first working in the provincial towns of Olomouc, Kassel and Lubljana, then his fame as an opera conductor grew, moved to the bigger cities of Prague, Leipzig and Budapest. After a six-year stint at Hamburg consolidating his reputation, Mahler finally returned to Vienna in 1897 to assume a position at the Court Opera, where he was to stay for the next ten years.
He was married, in 1902, to Alma Schindler, a lovely young lady and herself also a composer-musician, and they had two daughters, Maria (‘Putzi’) and Anna. When Putzi (left in picture) died tragically at the age of four, Mahler was inconsolable. He would later ask to be buried beside her in a Vienna suburb. This event also had the effect of worsening Mahler’s already poor physical condition: he was suffering from chronic heart trouble, although this would not be diagnosed until much later in 1907, which also saw his resignation from the Vienna Opera.
His last four years were spent between Europe and America, where he had been offered an engagement at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In February 1911, he collapsed during a rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic, but insisted on conducting the concert. Three months later, after returning to Vienna to recuperate, he finally succumbed to to a bacterial infection and died.
The Early Symphonies
The superstition of composers dying after completing nine symphonies did not escape Mahler. As Schenberg has written:
“It seems that the Ninth Symphony is a kind of magical border: who crosses it has to die. Perhaps the mysteries of the world would be solved, when someone who knows them would write a Tenth.”
After all, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Dvorak had all died after completing nine, and although Mahler managed to overcome his obsession with death to start on a Tenth Symphony, it could not prevent his physical deterioration and eventual demise.
Mahler, among other things, has also been remarked on for his “excesses” when it comes to orchestration. While it is true that Mahler did not shy from employing superlative musical forces when he deemed it necessary to do so, to simply criticise him for his extravagance is an act of ignorance. Mahler was no megalomaniac (unlike other composers who shall hitherto remain unnamed); above all, he sought clarity in his music that could only be provided by a sufficiently big array of instruments.
The First Symphony, nicknamed the “Titan” after a novel by Jean Paul, was first performed in Budapest in 1889. Mahler was then only twenty-nine and beginning his second season as director of the Budapest Opera, and the invitation to conduct a work of his own was a considerable honour for him. It is indicative of Mahler’s approach that he did not call this work a symphony at all, but a symphonic poem. The nickname came even later, as he explained:
At one time, my friends persuaded me to provide a kind of program for the D-major symphony in order to make it easier to understand. Therefore, I had thought up this title and explanatory material after the composition.
Even so, it was not entirely programmatic, despite the fact that each movement had its own character. The first movement, for example, depicted the awakening of nature from winter sleep, quoting the song “Ging heut’ Morgan bers Feld” (“I crossed the meadow at morn”) from the song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”), and the fourth a hunter’s funeral after the picture “How the Animals Bury the Hunter” from a popular Austrian children’s book, represented by the nursery tune Frre Jacques albeit in a minor key.
Much as any ground-breaking composer with something fresh to say has encountered, audiences were largely unimpressed, even baffled, by the bizarre orchestration (as it was back then) and the grotesqueries of the music. This, as everyone was to find out, was only the tip of the iceberg.
The next three symphonies, the Second, Third and Fourth, are sometimes known as the “Wunderhorn symphonies” because of their associations with Mahler’s settings of poems from Das Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”). For each of these symphonies, Mahler used songs from the Wunderhorn cycle as a thematic springboard from which to explore and conquer new musical territory.
The composition of the Second Symphony, in fact, had already been started before the First had been completed, although it would be more than six years separating the premieres of both works. In the Second, the tempestous Sturm und Drang of the extended first movement gives way to the interlude-like second and third movements, before the contralto enters in the fourth movement. singing a poem, O Rschen rot (“O red rose”), from the Wunderhorn collection.
This movement also serves as a truncated introduction to the final movement, which is an elaborate description of the Day of Judgement, impassioned cries for mercy and a setting of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode from which this symphony derives its nickname, “Resurrection”. This Ode had earlier so profoundly affected Mahler, attending the funeral of conductor Hans von Blow, that Mahler decided to incorporate the chorale into his composition.
As with the Second, the Third Symphony bestrides the boundaries between the classical symphony and the vocal. It includes a solo alto, a women’s chorus and a boy choir, in addition to oversized orchestra, to extol the glories of nature. In addition to Wunderhorn, Mahler also set to music text by Nietzsche: the Midnight Song from Also Sprach Zarathustra (“Thus Said Zarathustra”).
After a huge first movement portraying all the moods of nature from the violently volcanic to the serenely pastoral, the symphony’s middle three movements comprise a minuet (“What the flowers tell me”), a scherzo (“What the forest creatures tell me”) with a prominent posthorn solo in the trio section, and the contralto’s Midnight Song which leads into a heavenly paean of joy with the boy choir tolling “Bimm, bamm” against the women’s chorus, “Three angels sang a sweet song”. The conclusion is a noble chorus (“What love tells me”) that ends the work powerfully; it speaks not of the love between man and woman, but of that between man and God.
It was Mahler himself who wrote that the Fourth Symphony was more difficult than the Third. In a letter to Richard Strauss,
“When you are talking about the Fourth, you forget that this work takes three quarters of an hour and is easy, whereas my Third takes two hours and is difficult and unusual.”
Beginning with a child-like jingling of sleigh-bells, the Fourth is the most modest and endearing of Mahler’s symphonies, although by no means is it simplistic in its methods. Tinged with the occasional shade of darkness, the symphony draws its Weltanschauung from what Mahler originally intended as the finale of the Third Symphony, a Wunderhorn poem called Der Himmel hngt voll Geigen (“Heaven is full of violins”) telling of the pleasures of heavenly life as “St Peter in heaven looks on”.
Two heavenly visions in one symphony, apparently, were simply too much, even by Mahler’s standards. In his own description of the Fourth,
“In the first three movements, there reigns the serenity of a higher realm, a realm strange to us, oddly frightening, even terrifying. In the finale the child, which in its previous existence already belonged to this higher realm, tells us what it all means…”
Benjamin Chee does not confirm nor deny that he is a closet Mahlerian, and any inferences drawn from this reply are the reader’s own.