About this Recording
8.501502 - MAHLER, G.: Symphonies (Complete) (15CD Box Set)

Mahler the Symphonist
by David Nice


Two epigraphs ought to stand at the beginning of the strange and rich adventure that is a journey through Mahler’s symphonies—perhaps the most extraordinary and consistent journey in music. One is the Latin author Terence’s ‘I am a man; nothing human is alien to me’ (it sounds even better in Mahler’s native tongue—‘Ein Mensch bin ich, nichts Menschliches ist mir fremd’—given that ‘Mensch’ means being a truly wise and compassionate human being). The other is the composer’s own best-known pronouncement, handed down to us by another great but very different symphonist fi ve years Mahler’s junior, Jean Sibelius. During one of their meetings in Helsinki in the autumn of 1907, Sibelius said he liked the symphony for its ‘severity of form, and the profound logic that creates an inner connection between the motifs’. Mahler retorted: ‘No! Th e symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’

Like the world, certainly, and often a brave new world with such humanity in it; but the essential vision came from Mahler’s own milieu, and it was one he had known from his earliest years. As he eventually came to realise, each symphony he composed was a new edifice built with the same stones: ‘From childhood—the only time one gathers and assimilates—the stones are all there waiting to be used’. From Das Klagende Lied (‘The Song of Lamentation’), the student cantata of 1880 in which he later acknowledged he had ‘really come into my own as “Mahler”’ for the first time’ and which he accordingly called his Opus One, to the mortal struggle of the Tenth Symphony left unfinished at his death over 30 years later, there is no mistaking what kind of stones he preferred to use. Spending most of his childhood in the Austrian Empire’s Moravian outpost town of Iglau (now Jihlava in the Czech republic), he could pick out on his small accordion the entire repertoire of the local regimental band at an early age. Dances for weddings, marches for funerals, and distant calls from the barracks were all grist to the creative mill; only Mahler could have begun his composing life aged six with a piece entitled Polka with Introductory Funeral March. Ken Russell was unusually perceptive in his biopic of the composer when he gave strong visual images to these strands, along with the essence of natural panic experienced in the surrounding woods.

Music for the masses seems to have been associated with personal suffering from an early age. Mahler told Sigmund Freud, in another auspicious meeting towards the end of his life, that he had fled from a particularly vicious quarrel between his parents to find an organ-grinder in the street outside playing a popular song, Ach, du lieber Augustin. The funereal, lower-register and minor-key treatment of the traditional tune we know as Frère Jacques in the First Symphony’s slow movement is the first of many such action-replays in the symphonies linking the banal and the tragic. Mahler’s father, a tenacious Jewish businessman who made a success of a distillery in Iglau, was piously orthodox, intellectually curious and an insanely cruel husband to the mother whose patient suffering Mahler elevated, Freud thought, into a Holy Mary complex. Certainly he equated the ‘smile of Saint Ursula’ represented in a very different slow movement, the heart of the Fourth Symphony, with his mother’s ‘infinitely sad face…smiling through her tears’. His own religious sensibilities verged on the mystical—especially in the ‘Nirvana’ conclusion of the Second Symphony—and he believed in a divine order; but his conversion to Catholicism in 1897 was purely a matter of securing the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera against anti-Semitic opposition.

Vienna, for all its spirit of intrigue and bigotry, became his home—and conducting at the Opera his goal—not long after he set foot in it as a gifted fifteen-year-old student at the Conservatoire, where he soon made friends with influential figures at the University. In those days, he worshipped Wagner above all, and Bruckner more cautiously; as a conductor, he was to revere Wagner’s music dramas as the heights, but in later life his attitude to the symphonist from Linz became more critical.

Cast into the world to eke out a living, Mahler increasingly turned for solace to nature, that other childhood comfort which was to leave its mark on all his works. Nature, a background to the sensitive soul in his earliest song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’) and its programmatic connotations in his First Symphony, was always to stand in total contrast to the treadmill of the opera-house world by which he soon found himself consumed. The repertoire he covered, from Offenbach operettas in the summer spa town of Bad Hall and Italian masterpieces in Budapest and Hamburg to the masterpieces of his contemporary Richard Strauss in Vienna, all left their mark on the symphonies, usually in transfigured mode. As arguably the finest composer-conductor of his age (Rachmaninov and Strauss also have strong claims to the title) he was a quirky perfectionist, modifying many of the revered masters’ tempi and reorchestrating on the grounds that composers like Beethoven, another major influence on his symphonic forms, would have been delighted by developing orchestral possibilities.

As for performances of his own works, the bitter disillusionment of early years was not to last. Mahler was blessed with a supreme assurance that his music’s time would come; and as the new century dawned, he had more than a few isolated assurances of success as both his own interpretations and those of other admirers such as Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter began to achieve the recognition they deserved.

In his intensely public civic life, Mahler was far from the tortured neurotic many have deduced from his music. Until the last four years of his life, he was physically robust and possessed of tremendous willpower; no shrinking violet could have survived the vitriolic, sometimes blatantly anti-Semitic attacks of the Viennese press for so long. Summers in the Alps, though, were vital to restore his energies, and offered the only time for creative work. This would, in the case of many of the symphonies, be split over several summers, sometimes with no inkling at first of where the symphonic ground-plan would lead. Only take the unexpected journey of the Fifth Symphony, begun in the summer of 1900 but radically charged by the forty-one-year-old composer’s meeting with, and engagement to, the strong-willed twenty-three-year-old Alma Schindler before its completion in 1901. Reading the correspondence in which he expects the creative and musical Alma to subordinate her artistic activity to his, one can still be shocked by Mahler’s egotism; but at least he knew his worth. As Alma later wrote, ‘he was utterly self-centred by nature, and yet he never thought of himself. His work was all in all.’

Their marriage, which took place the following year, was shaken by a series of misfortunes. In 1907 the eldest of their two daughters, Maria, died of diphtheria, another victim of the infant mortality which had struck down so many of Mahler’s own brothers and sisters. Shortly afterwards, Mahler learned from his doctor of a potentially fatal valvular lesion in his heart. The knowledge of it put a stop to most of the country exercise which came as naturally as breathing to him, and he told Bruno Walter, ‘at a blow I have simply lost all the clarity and quietude I have ever achieved’. Yet he soon found himself ‘thirstier for life than ever before’, and it is this spirit, rather than an existence under the shadow of death, which permeates the last works.

The death of Maria and the diagnosis, then, were two of the three ‘hammer-blows of fate’ which Alma believed her husband had predicted in the finale of the Sixth Symphony. In all likelihood, Mahler himself would not have regarded his departure from the Vienna Opera, also in 1907, as the third fatal stroke. His new tenure at New York’s Metropolitan Opera fell victim to administrative politics, though his subsequent work with the reformed New York Philharmonic was not without its pleasures. Surely the real final blow, while it lasted, was an anguished struggle to save his marriage. In 1910 Alma, frustrated by the mainly spiritual plane on which the relationship was conducted, took the young architect Walter Gropius as her lover and the subsequent crisis resulted in a ‘him or me’ ultimatum.

The Tenth Symphony in all the glory of its bold outline speaks of a final reconciliation. While the Ninth Symphony and the symphonic song-cycle that Mahler had superstitiously refrained from labelling the Tenth, Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’), had faced up to the final curtain in very different ways, the manuscript of the actual Tenth, with which any responsible cycle has to end in one version or another, has the words ‘to live for you, to die for you’ above the strings’ huge final leap of affirmation. Underneath is one word: ‘Almschi’. For this most questing of souls human love ultimately proved more important than metaphysical speculation.


See also About this Recording for each of the individual albums:

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 1, ‘Titan’ 8.550522

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’ 8.550523–24

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 3 in D minor 8.550525–26

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 4 in G major 8.550527

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor 8.550528

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’ 8.550529–30

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 7 in E minor 8.550531

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 8 ‘Symphony of a  Thousand’ 8.550533-34

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 9 in D major 8.550535–36

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 10 (Wheeler version, 1966, ed. Robert Olson) 8.554811

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