Mahler--Creating a Symphonic Universe


“The symphony is the world! The symphony must embrace everything!” Those words were shouted out by Gustav Mahler during a visit with Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius. The year was 1907, a time when the symphony was falling on hard times. After Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, audiences had had enough. But not Mahler. The Austrian composer and conductor created gigantic symphonies, some lasting way over an hour. This stirring music serves as the soundtrack of an Active Minds program tracing the tumultuous, tragic life of a diminutive man with grand ideas.


The music of Gustav Mahler is bigger than life – much like the man himself. Born in 1860 in a small Czech community, he soon was drawn to music, and seemed to know from the start where he would devote his energies and his vivid imagination. But the idea of dealing with small ensembles or small ideas just never appealed to him. He was to become one of Europe's leading conductors, specializing in opera, but remaining fixated on the potential of the ever-expanding symphony orchestra. Composers such as Richard Strauss were demanding huge orchestral forces in the latter part of the 19th Century as they re-defined music and opera. No longer would it be the sweet melodies and brief symphonies in the style of Schubert and Mozart, or the oom-pah arias of Verdi and Rossini. The world had changed: Newly established cultural ideals had stretched the intellects of Europe's creative leaders. Philosophers were tackling Big Ideas, questioning the existence of God, examining Man's place in the world. No wonder that Mahler allowed his deeply felt passions to guide him as he began writing music. Early on, he was attracted to the idea of the orchestral song, a challenging concept, since it pitted a lone singer against the accompaniment of a large orchestra rather than a single piano. Even a little poem set to music was now viewed in grand terms. He admired the chamber music of Beethoven and Schubert – but chose to arrange their intimate string quartets for a string orchestra. His first symphony lasted more than an hour. Clearly, the man was thinking big. No surprise that much of his sprawling symphonies were met with annoyance or blank stares by critics and concert-goers. “My time will come,” he replied defiantly. And it has, thanks to the long-playing stereo records of the 1960s. Leonard Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic were the first to release the complete symphonies, and the Mahler revival began. Whether it's an extended orchestral march, as in the opening of his Third Symphony or the charming innocence of childhood, as in the finale of his Fourth, audiences now revel in the sweep, the excitement and the intimate introspections of a Mahler symphony. Behind these sprawling masterpieces is the life of a man endlessly dealing with tragedy, death, love gained and lost, and the dark shadow of antisemitism. He knew his time was short – an untreatable heart ailment finally took him at age 51. He knew his beloved wife Alma was unfaithful. And, deep inside, he knew that his public's contempt for him and his music was temporary. He knew his time would come. If only he could have lived to witness it.

Exploration Questions

  • What is “The Youth's Magic Horn,” and why was it important to Mahler?
  • Who were Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel?
  • Where did Mahler compose his Second and Third Symphonies?

Reflective Questions

  • Known as a brilliant opera conductor, Mahler never wrote one. Why?
  • Mahler was captivated by the notion of irony. Where can you find that in his music?
  • Do you prefer Mahler's accessible tunefulness or his enigmatic passages?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Carr, Jonathan. Mahler: A Life. Overlook Press. 2011. 272 pages. Scrupulously researched, but highly readable, this biography offers a fine introduction to the man and his music.
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  • Lebrecht, Norman. Mahler Remembered. WW Norton & Co Inc. 1988. 322 pages. Through words of reminiscence by friends and colleagues, augmented by a fine assortment of photographs, we feel remarkably close to the man.
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