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Mahlermania 150 years later

I didn’t like Mahler when I first heard his music. Actually, that’s an understatement. I remember staring up at the American conductor Neeme Jarvi from my seat in Glasgow’s City Halls and, in an exquisite torture of boredom and frustration, offering up a 12-year-old’s prayer to make him and the Scottish National Orchestra stop the appalling racket of the First Symphony.

What was this music trying to do? Why was it so static and then suddenly so violent, so tragic and then so sentimental? Why did it include silly little tunes such as Frère Jacques (ludicrously given to a solo double bass) and then melodies for a vulgar, souped-up wind band? And when would this gigantically noisy, then tediously slow and quiet, and seemingly interminable final movement actually finish? The orchestra’s principal flautist, a family friend, promised me afterwards that in a few years’ time I would end up enjoying Mahler. I doubted it.

But he was right. Mahler is now an essential composer for me, just as he is for music lovers all over the world. A generation ago, you couldn’t escape cycles of symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky on concert programmes, everywhere from the South Bank in London to Carnegie Hall in New York; now it’s Mahler’s nine-and-a-bit symphonies (a 10th was unfinished at his death) that orchestras most want to play, that conductors most want to conduct and that audiences most want to hear.

This year marks the first of two consecutive Mahler anniversary years (it is 150 years since Mahler’s birth in Kalist, now in the Czech Republic; next year will be a century after his premature death, aged just 50), an excuse for the classical music world to indulge in Mahlermania with a superglut of memorials all over the world. In Manchester the BBC Philharmonic and the Halle orchestras will embark on a six-month cycle of his symphonies; orchestras and record companies from New York to Budapest will be releasing the latest instalments of their own Mahler cycles. Mahler’s own prediction about his music — that its time would come after his death — has come true. And how.

When did Mahler become so popular? How did his huge symphonies (including the Eighth, which needed more than 1000 performers when Mahler first conducted it in Munich in 1910, and the Third, still the longest symphony ever written) move from the margins of the repertoire to the centre? How did these musically complex, emotionally and psychologically demanding pieces make the leap from audience incomprehension and critical opprobrium to worldwide adulation?

To find out, we have to understand why Mahler’s music has divided opinion so violently. As a Mahler-resistant 12-year-old, I was in good company: Vaughan Williams called him a “tolerable imitation of a composer”, Yehudi Menuhin thought of him as the last, overripe burgeoning of self-indulgent late Romanticism.

Historically speaking, Menuhin does have point. Mahler was at the heart of the cultural life of the Austro-Hungarian empire at its peak, as director of the Vienna State Opera from 1897 to 1907. His appointment was the culmination of his career as a conductor, a position he had long coveted in his years as a student in the city and subsequently as an opera conductor everywhere from Kassel to Budapest, where the First Symphony was premiered.

Menuhin and Vaughan Williams were reacting against what they heard as Mahler’s tortured subjectivity. And although it’s a cliché of Mahler criticism to describe him as a divided character, there is some truth in it. He was one of the most important composers, yet he wrote music only in his summer holidays, during brief breaks from his conducting duties; he was a non-observant Jew who converted to Catholicism to ease his Vienna appointment and, though a self-assured, uncompromising character in his professional life, he was torn apart by the jealousies that followed his marriage to Alma Schindler.

It was precisely these dichotomies that were so disturbing to Mahler’s critics. Writing about a performance of the Third Symphony in Vienna in 1909, the Austrian critic Robert Hirschfeld said: “It is necessary to resist the Mahlerian impulse, because it contains something that is potentially dangerous … Our epoch reveals itself as playful, doll-like and powerless in Mahler’s symphonies, with their cowbells, large and small chimes, wooden clapper, birch brush, and the clownish trick of the echo and the sounds heard from a distance … For this reason, the jeering funeral marches, the pensive jodler [yodels], the ironic sixpenny dances and the philosophical posthorn are simply not convincing.”

Hirschfeld was right to hear Mahler as “dangerous”. His music is defiantly and definitively connected to his life story and to the sounds of the world around him. The manuscripts and sketches of that last, unfinished symphony are a palimp-sest of the most emotionally devastating time of his life: his discovery in the summer of 1910 of Alma’s affair with the young architect Walter Gropius.

Whether by accident or design, Gropius addressed the envelope of one of his Alma-obsessed love letters to Gustav, who opened it at his summer composing retreat in Toblach in the Tyrol. The effect was shattering and Mahler poured out his insecurities and grief in the new symphony, veering from almost suicidal depression, writhing on the floor of his composition hut, to heights of ecstasy in the fleeting moments when he imagined he had won Alma back.

Mahler also wrote the sounds he heard in the Alps into his symphonies, as well as the popular music that he remembered from childhood: those sixpenny dances, military fanfares and cowbells. In 1907 Mahler met Jean Sibelius, whose symphonies are the polar opposite of Mahler’s: compressed, distilled, self-referential. The composers discussed the meaning of the symphony. Sibelius admired its “profound logic and inner connection”. Mahler completely disagreed: “A symphony must be like the world,” he said. “It must embrace everything.”

Mahler’s embracing of musical and cultural difference marks him out not as the last gasp of Romanticism, but rather as a composer of the 20th and 21st centuries. He didn’t just prefigure musical moderns, such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, he was thinking and composing like an avant-garde composer.

The piece that made a Mahlerian of me was the Ninth Symphony, thanks to the way Leonard Bernstein talked about it in his televised Norton Lectures (first broadcast in 1973), and the way Otto Klemperer conducted it on the recording I bought. However well you think you know the piece, there is always more to hear in it. And in discovering more about the music and Mahler, you learn more about yourself.

The end of the Ninth is one of the scariest, most confronting places you can be as a listener or a performer — a few halting phrases that carry this huge, 80-minute symphony over the threshold of audibility into silence. For Bernstein, this passage is “terrifying, and paralysing, as the strands of sound disintegrate … it is the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying, of giving it all up”.

For one page of music to be able to communicate such completely different experiences is the special quality of Mahler’s work — and testament to how much of ourselves we continue to read into him. There are thousands of such moments in each of his symphonies or song cycles. A Mahler symphony is an experience that should be as disturbing as it is life-affirming. That’s what we need to remember in the next few years as we all immerse ourselves in thrilling, terrifying, dangerous and occasionally consoling Mahlermania. — © Guardian News & Media 2010

Must have Mahler

Second Symphony
Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (1987, EMI).
The piece that made Rattle want to be a conductor. This scintillating recording put him firmly on the Mahlerian map.

Fifth Symphony
Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1988, DG).
Impassioned, electrifying music-making that grips from the very first bar and doesn’t let go for 75 minutes.

Seventh Symphony
Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (2002, DG).
The Seventh is still the least performed of the cycle, but Abbado’s recording reveals its visionary, colouristic genius.

Eighth Symphony
Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1972, Decca).
A cosmic sonic spectacular. After nearly 40 years, it can still blow up your speakers with its sheer intensity and energy.

Ninth Symphony
Otto Klemperer, New Philharmonia Orchestra (1967, EMI).
Klemperer knew Mahler personally, but this Ninth is the least sentimental performance on disc — and also, paradoxically, one of the most moving. — © Guardian News & Media 2010

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