The Meaning of Mahler

In May 1911, Gustav Mahler, the most famous conductor in the world and an important but controversial composer, was dying of a bacterial infection of the heart. As he passed in and out of consciousness, he was heard to murmur “Mozartl”—an affectionate diminutive of the composer’s name—and “Who’ll take care of Schoenberg now?”
The words encapsulate Mahler’s Janus-like position, perched at the turn of the last century. His essential sound is unmistakably nineteenth-century and places him at the end of the great line of Viennese symphonists—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner. At the same time, his sensibility and his determination to push the symphonic form to its breaking point make him a kind of proto-modernist. The seminal atonal works of the following Viennese generation—Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern—sound nothing like Mahler’s, but these composers worshiped him and were deeply influenced by his example. He in turn worked hard to encourage them, in Schoenberg’s case providing significant financial assistance.
Still, in the decades after his death, Mahler’s music was overshadowed by the flourishing of modernism as well as by his much-longer-lived contemporary Richard Strauss. The story of Mahler’s neglect and rediscovery has become an unavoidable part of any discussion of his work. The symphonies were dismissed as Kapellmeistermusik, the kind of music that conductors often produce—deftly orchestrated but lacking a voice of its own. It didn’t help that Mahler was Jewish; an anti-Semitic strain in criticism of his work was already well established in his lifetime and under the Nazis his work became unperformable in Germany and Austria.
But around 1960, things started to change. Conductors championed him, notably Leonard Bernstein, and the advent of the LP record enabled listeners to assimilate these gargantuan pieces through repeated listening. Then, too, in the postwar era, the music came to speak for a vanished Europe. Theodor Adorno even claimed that it was possible to hear that “the Jew Mahler scented Fascism decades ahead.” Adorno’s monograph on Mahler, published in 1960, was vastly influential. Before it, critics could be divided into those who saw Mahler as squarely carrying on the symphonic tradition and those who found his music blemished by trite material, overblown handling, and a neurotic vacillation between irony and sentimentality. Adorno, ingeniously, played the two views off against each other. He claimed that Mahler was subverting tradition from the inside, deliberately showing up the limitations of the materials and procedures he had inherited. Mahler, like a good Marxist, was heightening the contradictions. (Mahler did in fact harbor lifelong sympathy for socialism but was not politically active.)
ter Adorno’s essay, Mahler’s overreaching maximalism and his fondness for banal melodies stopped being an embarrassment and became instead his core achievement. He emerged as a far more sophisticated artist: the works, tuneful enough to please the average concertgoer, were now also difficult and ambiguous enough to absorb the cognoscenti.
Mahler advocates before Adorno had to adopt a proselytizing tone. A recently republished volume contains two works of this kind: a reverent appreciation from 1936 by the conductor Bruno Walter, an acolyte of Mahler’s, who premiered the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony after his death; and an essay from 1941 by the composer Ernst Křenek. Křenek was briefly married to Mahler’s daughter Anna, and worked on completing two movements from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, left unfinished at his death. His essay is brilliantly perceptive and anticipates Adorno. Mahler’s symphonic edifices are old-fashioned, he writes, but “the cracks in the structure herald the future.”
Today Mahler is no longer a cause and critics must seek out unexplored aspects of a composer who has become a fixture of the musical landscape. Two recent academic studies, by Thomas Peattie and Seth Monahan, are complementary opposites: Peattie focuses on evocative moments of orchestral writing, Monahan on the long-range narratives created by Mahler’s use of sonata form.
Among composers, Mahler was never fully eclipsed: Britten’s Spring Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony show an obvious debt to the way he grafted the cantata and the song cycle onto the symphony. And his example was particularly important to composers of the postwar avant-garde. Karlheinz Stockhausen, in a preface to the first volume of Henry-Louis de la Grange’s mammoth Mahler biography in 1973, expressed the mystical view that “should a higher being from a distant star wish to investigate the nature of earthlings in a most concentrated moment, he could not afford to bypass Mahler’s music.” The famous third movement of Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” (1968–1969) takes the entire scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony and fills it with a cacophonous array of spoken text and musical quotations from Bach to Boulez. The collage-like homage is apt, because Mahler’s works are themselves so compulsively capacious. “The symphony must be like the world,” Mahler told Sibelius in 1907. “It must be all-embracing.”
Contemplating the popularity of Richard Strauss in 1902, Mahler wrote, “My time will come.” Because he was right in the long run the words now sound quietly confident, but at the time his self-belief was compromised by doubt and by frustration with the course his career had taken. His outlook was closer to that of the imagined protagonist of his First Symphony who, he said, “as often as he lifts his head above the billows of life, is again and again dealt a blow by fate and sinks down anew.” Mahler’s anxiety about his reputation and legacy is written into the music, which—in its extremes of emotion, volume, and sheer duration—is determined to assert itself in spite of everything.
Born in 1860, Mahler grew up about halfway between Prague and Brno, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a distiller and innkeeper, and Mahler grew up loving the sound of village bands and other popular music. His talent was recognized early. At four, he could play on the accordion folk songs he heard Czech servants singing. At six he composed a polka that had a funeral march as an introduction, a foretaste of incongruities to come. Synagogue chants and other Jewish music quite probably left a mark too, though specific influences are elusive. Adorno argued that “what is Jewish in Mahler does not participate directly in the folk element, but speaks through all its mediation as an intellectual voice”—a sense of instability and otherness permeating the work.
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