There are rainstorms, and then there are hurricanes.
There are symphonies, and then there is Gustav Mahler.
The Austrian composer is like nothing else in classical music, and his unique brand of emotional fury inspires a cultish following. You may love Mozart or Chopin, but if you’re a Mahler fan, you are in love. Devoted. An acolyte; it’s akin to religious conversion.
“I love all composers,” said the late music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky, “but the composer for whom I will make the greatest effort, or spend the most money, is Mahler. There is nothing in life that can replace what Mahler’s music does to and for me.”
It is almost an addiction.
The music hits closer to the experience of being alive than almost any other: deeper, more emotional, more direct. The Mahler addict measures a performance not so much by whether he leaves the hall whistling the tunes, as whether he has lost control of his lacrimal glands and has to hide his face as he leaves, so as not to show himself weeping in public. Mahler’s music is personal; it batters your heart.
He asks you the questions you think about only at the most extreme moments of your life: Why are we here? What is death? Love? How has the child become the man? It isn’t the intellectual answers he seeks, but the emotional landscape of the questions themselves.
There is nothing moderate in music or performance. Leonard Bernstein, often credited with starting the modern Mahler revival, was a particularly passionate exponent of the music.
“People are always saying that I exaggerate Mahler, which is so stupid,” he said, “because you cannot exaggerate Mahler enough! To play a Mahler symphony, you have to give it your whole heart and body and soul and everything.”
As William Blake said, “Enough or Too Much! Less than all cannot satisfy.”
‘3 times an outsider’
Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, one year before the American Civil War began, to a Jewish family in what now is the Czech Republic. He rose to prominence as a conductor in Vienna, where he was alternately lionized and vilified. By all accounts, he was one of the greatest conductors of his time, but a vicious element of anti-Semitism conspired against him, despite his careerist conversion to Roman Catholicism.
“I am three times an outsider,” he famously said, “as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout the world.”
He finished his first symphony in 1889, and he put into it much of his life up to that time. Every Mahler symphony is in some way autobiographical. It’s not just abstract music; the symphonies are his life.
Even in the First, the opening section depicts recollections of his childhood, of taking walks in the woods in Moravia with his father. So those high harmonics in the violins depict the wind blowing through the pine needles, and the clarinet depicts cuckoo calls, and then an offstage trumpet plays a fanfare because, in the woods they used to walk, there was a distant army barracks.
Mahler himself said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”
It must be made the musical version of D.H. Lawrence’s “bright book of life.”
Mahler presents an initial challenge to the newcomer, who is used to attending a concert for the purpose of hearing the great abstract artform left to us by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Copland, Prokofiev. But nothing in Mahler is merely abstract: It is all personal. All life. All extreme. The composer asks his audience not to enjoy his melodies, but to use the music to search their own lives for the return of serve he rockets into your court.
The Fourth Symphony is the best entry point for the neophyte: Mahler’s shortest symphony, filled with all the things that make the composer so compelling. There are great tunes, inspired orchestration, a vocal part and many of the deeper themes that pervade all his symphonies: Nature, nostalgia, tragedy, death and innocence.
From there, you can move on to his more intense symphonies, where he feels compelled to throw at you everything he knows, everything he’s ever felt.
For him, that meant adding to his already huge orchestra such things as sleigh bells (which open the Fourth Symphony), cowbells, mandolins and — in his tragic Sixth Symphony, hammer blows that “fell a man like an ax cutting a tree.” The First Symphony has everything from klezmer bands to military marches.
He was trying to make a world, and that world is as much marching bands, elegant waltzes and earthy landlers as it is soaring, breathless melodies.
There is Mahler counterpoint, too: layers of tunes and snippets of tunes, less like the long line of a Bach fugue, and more like a Picasso collage, with torn fragments overlapped.
That mixture of high and low is both the hallmark of Mahler’s world view and our own Postmodern world. Perhaps that is why Mahler feels so contemporary to us. For Mahler’s contemporaries, his symphonies too often seemed to be infected by the worst sort of vulgarity. They had come to hear hochste deutsche Kunst — high German art — and got tin whistles and banjos thrown in in the bargain.
The “unmedicated” Mahler
If Mahler is about anything, it is about these extremes: sublimity and camp, aspiration and despair, irony and sentimentality.
In his famous essay about the composer, Bernstein wrote: “Think of it, Mahler the creator vs. Mahler the performer; the Jew vs. the Christian; the believer vs. the doubter; the naif vs. the sophisticate; the provincial Bohemian vs. the Viennese homme du monde; the Faustian philosopher vs. the Oriental mystic; the operatic symphonist who never wrote an opera.”
Mahler can whip you around these opposites, turning his music on a dime, snapping your emotions back and forth like a pennant in a Wrigley Field bluster. Not only between movements, but he can be ecstatic for three bars, and, suddenly, you’re in the deepest depression for six, only to snap to attention with 12 bars so alert that they seem electrified.
If he were alive today, he’d probably be on medication.
The slow movement of the Fourth Symphony is that way: It is a theme and variations on two themes, one elevated and serene, the other devilish and taunting. The two themes merge in variations, finally both stopping as the orchestra bellows a loud cry — for some, it is the gates of heaven opening. Time, and the music’s forward motion, stop dead in glory.
All that is followed in the finale by a song sung by a soprano, directed to sing in a childlike, innocent way, about the wonders of that heaven, imagined by a child, where “the angels bake the bread.” From the sublime to the ridiculous in one easy step.
Exhausting pinnacle of art
You can leave a concert humming Mozart’s tunes or inspired by Beethoven’s nobility, but after Mahler, you are simply spent. You’ve been “rode hard and put up wet.” He has dragged you from pillar to emotional post, pounded your deepest fears, pointed with your most fervent hopes. Mahler exhausts.
For those who are up to it, it is the pinnacle of art. For those who ask for something less exaggerated from their music, Mahler can be interminable and exasperating.
The symphonies are long — some single movements are longer than whole Beethoven symphonies. Mahler is an acquired taste.
Yet, while they are sonically splendorous, they are spiritually deep, and if music is an expression of the human spirit, Mahler is exploring its deepest depths.
For Drobatschewsky, it is summed up in the Mahler Ninth that he heard conducted by Claudio Abbado in Amsterdam.
“I am not a religious man, but what other people get out of religion, I get out of Mahler: solace, joy, every feeling that’s known to man.
“All out of Mahler’s music.”
NAG NAG NAG: An ADDENDUM
Gustav Mahler was a control freak.
Look at a Mahler symphony score and you see enough writing to fill a book. He was a micromanager.
The Dover miniature score for his Fifth Symphony, for instance, has four pages of small-print glossary to translate Mahler’s German instructions. Hardly a bar goes by without some nudge by the composer.
In the first four bars alone of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, he asks the orchestra to play “Moderately, not rushed,” and with “Grace notes very short,” “staccato” and “piano” (“quietly”), followed by “sempre piano” (“always quiet”), followed immediately by a diminuendo (“get quieter) — which would seem to contradict the sempre piano by asking the orchestra to change. Meanwhile, he asks that the music be played “grazioso” (gracefully), while also asking for a “poco ritardando” (“slow down a little”).
That’s in three bars. In the fourth, he asks for a return to the original tempo, but it should also now be “comfortable.” Meanwhile, he throws in a reminder: “Expressively.”
That’s only four bars out of an hourlong symphony.
You have to give yourself over to Mahler’s intentions, perhaps more than for any other composer, due to the sheer volume of specific instructions he has left us.
The markings can be difficult to interpret, however. The very first instruction Mahler gives for his “Songs of a Wayfarer,” before he says anything else, is “Faster.” Faster than what? That is followed by “Slower” and, two bars later, “Faster,” and back and forth until he gets to “Smoothly agitated.”
Most conductors mark up their scores with little notes to themselves to remember this or that detail in the music. Mahler was a conductor, too, and has given the performer the benefit of his own marking up.
Basically, Mahler was a backseat driver.