May 18, 2011 marks the centennial of Gustav Mahler's death, closely following the sesquicentennial of his birth, which was celebrated on July 7, 2010. With so much attention being paid to this singular composer -- particularly through concerts, new recordings, special box sets, and reissues of historic performances -- the adulation may appear a bit excessive to people who aren't already Mahler devotees.
Beyond the expected coverage due any great artist, does Mahler deserve all the extra attention during these anniversaries? On one level, his music can be viewed as crucially important for being widely influential, notably in shaping the language of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Shostakovich, and Britten, among many others, while being a summation of Romanticism. On another, his symphonies are sometimes discounted for being overly long, histrionic, cryptic, and grandiose, representing perhaps the worst aspects of Romantic egotism since the time of Beethoven. Yet one fact is obvious: Mahler is here to stay.
In 2010, critic Norman Lebrecht published Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World (Pantheon) as his homage to the composer, and offered a strongly opinionated and outlandish interpretation of his place in modern culture. It is not enough for Lebrecht that Mahler was probably the most innovative composer of the post-Romantic period, or that his once obscure symphonies spurred one of the most exciting revivals of the 20th century. Beyond these facts, Lebrecht exaggerates the significance of Mahler to a point bordering nearly on the supernatural, and dares to suggest that many significant historical events and later musical developments were anticipated in his works. Furthermore, he speculates on Mahler's inner life in ways no serious biographer could tolerate, and no reader should trust. All this was intended, apparently, to make Mahler relevant and interesting to a new audience in this ten-month period of musical celebration and commercial promotion.
Reception of Lebrecht's views has been largely dismissive, and some reviewers complain that his own fanciful and contentious personality gets in the way of his subject. (Philip Kennicott's review for The New Republic is one of the most thorough and thoughtful critiques.) Yet the title of Lebrecht's book suggests a defensive posture, perhaps felt in the face of a challenge or an imagined slight, as if at this late date, Mahler requires special pleading.
Far from it. Mahler certainly doesn't need fantasies concocted about his life to make him more interesting or to win converts to his music. Since the 1960s, the Mahler revival has solidified its gains, and the ten symphonies have become as secure in the repertoire as Beethoven's cycle and exceed his in popularity in some quarters. Any fan of the symphonies knows that the music is fun and fascinating enough in its own right to bear repeated, even obsessive, listening. Furthermore, the scope of Mahler's best music, in the symphonies and the song cycles, is wide enough to encompass a variety of tastes, so there are many ways to gain entry. What doesn't seem to help is the lavish mythologizing and inflation of Mahler's place in music history. Mahler's music is approachable without hype.
If you're a newcomer to Mahler's symphonies and need a few friendly tips to begin appreciating them, consider taking a somewhat circuitous route in listening, rather than strictly following the numerical order. Some people have started at the beginning and successfully worked their way through all ten, but that's not really required to appreciate Mahler's symphonic language. In fact, by listening to the symphonies somewhat out of sequence, but according to accessibility, it's possible to become familiar with Mahler's most approachable music first, which certainly comes in handy when tackling the larger and harder symphonies.
The best place to begin is with Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major, easily the lightest, the shortest (even at an average performance time of 55 minutes!), and the most user-friendly of all the symphonies. This cheerful piece is buoyant in mood, and the orchestra Mahler used is the leanest in sound, as it is scaled down from the big post-Romantic ensemble he normally used, to a group that is almost Classical in size. Learning the Fourth will acquaint you with Mahler's humor and lyricism, both in ample supply, as well as his childlike wonderment, so warmly communicated in the serene finale for soprano and orchestra.
Moving on to the next most accessible of the symphonies, explore the Symphony No. 1 in D major, "Titan," which originally started out as a tone poem. Mahler's earliest version of the piece is seldom played, and most performances of the symphony are the revised version in four movements; though some conductors occasionally insert the sentimental movement entitled "Blumine," which Mahler ultimately rejected. Putting to one side the merits or problems associated with performing the different versions, this symphony is only a little longer than the Fourth, and has a similar approachability. Note the sardonic use of "Frére Jacques" in the third movement.
Having considered these two works as suitable introductions to Mahler's colorful style, the next works on our list demand a little more patience for their greater length, increasing complexity, and increasingly enigmatic moods. The middle three symphonies -- the Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor, the Symphony No. 6 in A minor, "Tragic," and the Symphony No. 7 in B minor, nicknamed "The Song of the Night" -- are purely instrumental works with extreme mood swings and dramatic contrasts; they are cast in the most varied and expansive symphonic forms since the symphonies of Brahmsand Bruckner. In these three symphonies, which some regard as a trilogy, Mahler gives us interesting insights into his life: each of these works provides a view of the composer that borders on the autobiographical. Understood in the broadest way, the Fifth portrays Mahler's journey from heroic suffering in solitude to his discovery of love with his new wife, Alma; the Sixth serves as a premonition of tragedies to come in his life (oddly enough, as foreseen during one of Mahler's happiest periods); and the Seventh captures the composer facing his future with a strange mixture of puzzlement and optimism.
The two massively scored choral symphonies are extroverted and focused on humanity and salvation; both could be considered Mahler's great theological statements. The Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection" and the Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, unofficially dubbed "Symphony of a Thousand" are structured quite differently, though many listeners will find the two works similarly uplifting and inspirational. Oddly enough, the extraordinarily long Symphony No. 3 in D minor -- at approximately an hour and 40 minutes, it is a Guinness record holder as the longest regularly programmed symphony -- is easier to appreciate after hearing the Second and the Eighth, because it is much less ponderous in its implications and less crushing in its grandeur. Yes, there is singing in this symphony, too, but it is on a much smaller scale, but Mahler's approach is altogether lighter than in the mystical Second, and more down-to-earth and humanistic than in the heaven-storming Eighth.
The unnumbered vocal symphony Das Lied von der Erde, the Symphony No. 9 in D major, and the unfinished Symphony No. 10 in F sharp major should be heard last of all, not merely because they come towards the end of the composer's life and are often regarded as farewells, but mostly because they represent a sudden change in Mahler's musical language. These last three masterpieces are as close to modernism as Mahler ever got: his late style is strikingly expressionistic in the edginess of his angular melodies, the brittleness of his orchestral sonorities, and the occasional harshness of his dissonances.
Not to be overlooked are the song cycles and collections, which contain some of Mahler's most original ideas. So fertile were Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Das Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler incorporated some of their material into the first four symphonies. Beyond this, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder has clear affinities with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.
A closing word of advice: When learning these impressive works, don't expect the music to give up all its secrets on the first, second, or even third hearings. Mahler's symphonies are incredibly deep and complex, and can be daunting to beginners because they contain so much. But they become easier to follow and more enjoyable over time, and are endlessly rewarding on repeated listening. So relax with each of these works, relish them, and let them become the soundtrack of your life: you will find that each of these masterworks pays equally great dividends.