Mahler on My Mind

Gustav Mahler, at the time of his First Symphony.(Photo: Leonhard Berlin-Bieber)
Gustav Mahler, at the time of his First Symphony.(Photo: Leonhard Berlin-Bieber)

If you Listen to Symphony at 7 on weekday evenings on WOSU-89.7, you know there’s a lot of Gustav Mahler going on. This past week (July, 7) marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of this great Late-Romantic composer, and we’re presenting all of the numbered symphonies. Seeing Beverley Irvine’s recent blog post, “Help Create the ‘Dream’ Mahler Box Set,” got me to reflect on why we listen to such long, involved works in this day and age of sound-bites and shortened attention spans.

The shortest symphony (No.1) can run for almost an hour in some performances, while the longest one (No. 3) can last over an hour and forty minutes. It takes a commitment to sit through and really listen to such long pieces and not just have them on as background music, which would, I think, be a bit too distracting with all the sudden changes in dynamics, tempos and moods. I think possibly some listeners who aren’t immediately drawn to it, but gradually come to appreciate Mahler’s symphonies, sense that something significant is being expressed, and that the length of these works is integral to that significance. The meaning is in the journey, no shortcuts.

Apparently, many people are willing to make that journey. It is remarkable how many recordings there are now of Mahler symphonies (and continue to be made) and how many orchestras around the world program his symphonies (and usually draw pretty good crowds). Mahler expanded the boundaries of the symphony between the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th the way Ludwig van Beethoven did almost a hundred year earlier (though there were important individual exceptions, such as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, 1830), and the symphonies of Anton Bruckner (d. 1896). There is something unique in Mahler about the way disparate elements swirl around, jostle each other, and sometimes crash together. A beautiful theme may be rudely interrupted by a vulgar parody of a waltz, long chamber ensemble-like sections give way to unusual instrumental sounds for a symphony, including a guitar, mandolin, or distant cowbells, evoking a long-lost world of pastoral dreams, and sometimes nightmares.

Mahler was writing his music at the end of an era. The elegant Vienna of Johann Strauss was changing into the more anxious early 20th century Vienna of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Klimt. The long suppressed darker impulses of the unconscious, that were always there, were now being exposed and explored in thought and art in a new and more direct way. Mahler himself sought counseling once from Freud. In painting, the softer visual impressionism of Monet was making way for the more troubled internal personal world of expressionism of Edvard Munch (think: “The Scream”). In Mahler’s symphonies the beautiful and the grotesque sit side by side, the banal and the profound rub shoulders, but usually the results move toward the sublime because of the intense longing for peace and something transcendent. His music was controversial at the time, although Mahler’s reputation as a conductor and interpreter of other composers’ music was unquestioned.

In the 1960′s, when the Mahler revival began in America (and never really stopped), it was Leonard Bernstein who said, “Mahler’s time has come,” and helped explain why so many people continue to be moved by these huge, sprawling works that put us through an emotional wringer. This was music for an “Age of Anxiety,” and if not that many people people were willing to look at it directly in Mahler’s day as European empires were beginning to crumble and the First World War approached, closer to our own time more people were. The Cold War with its threat of nuclear annihilation, the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and the Youth Movement produced cultural seismic shifts that shattered old certainties (some of which were more imagined than real anyway).

Fast forward to today. Read the papers, listen to the news, and you know there’s still a lot to be anxious about. Great art always tells us something about ourselves. It can help us see who we are, what feelings we might be hiding from ourselves as well as from others, and also what we might be and who we might become. A Mahler symphony can be a cathartic experience, in some ways like watching a great Shakespeare tragedy like King Lear or Hamlet. But there are also lighter moments of peace, joy, and reflection as in The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mahler creates a world in each one of his symphonies, and we certainly don,t have to enter it if we feel we’re just not up to it right now (I have heard the expression, “getting Mahlered,” which sounds a lot like getting clobbered). Some days it’s just better to listen to Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, but if you are up for a musical expression of the inner struggle against uncertainties and fears, but also the realization of joy and hope and visions of the sublime, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler may be worth the time you can spend with them.

 

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