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Exploring Music: Mahler--A Painter of Sounds

The MHS Review 236 Vol. 3, No. 2 March 5, 1979

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by David M. Greene

Mahler has, of course, had his share of detractors, He has been accused of prolixity, hysteria, formlessness, sentimentality, and vulgarity. Few major composers haven't. Little old ladies consider him too loud.


Symphony No, 5 in C Sharp Minor
Symphony No. 10 (Adagio)

Kiril Kondrashin, USSR Symphony Orchestra (Sym. No. 5)
Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra

David tries to figure out Mahler's 5th Symphony. Also, you need to ask yourself "What DO Russians have to do with Mahler?"

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I am strongly tempted to say that Mahler's present high level of popularity is owing to the phonograph, but this is not strictly true. To be sure, the proponents of avant-gardism in music love to hold him up as the classic Instance of the great composer who was not understood for fifty years. But the facts are that in his lifetime he had a enormous following and that in central Europe his music was pretty well established in the repertoire from about 1920 on. In America, however, he remained almost wholly unknown (except as conductor) until the 1940's. Bruno Walter, his friend and apostle, thought this to be because Sibelius was so firmly entrenched here as the great 20th-century symphonist, but surely it also had to do with the expense of mounting most of his vast works and the resultant timidity of musical entrepreneurs to risk a whole evening on "novelty." Moreover, as far as I can, ascertain, Mahler was represented in domestic record catalogues (except by snippits) only by a performance of the Second Symphony, the product of a daring concert by the Minneapolis Symphony under young Eugene Ormandy. Though I lived and worked and frequented record shops in a major American city in the late '30's, I never laid eyes on this set. My first encounter with Mahler (on records, or anywhere else for that matter) was with the orchestral song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde in its first version under Bruno Walter. I was managing a record department, though I had not yet attained my majority, and was determined to bring the city of Washington up to date, so I stocked Columbia M300. When it came in, I took it into the listening booth and, being in my Schubert period at the time, was at first appalled at its modernity. But every soon it began to get to me, and became one of the touchstones of my musical experience. (Only a year or so later I heard Hans Kindler conduct the National Symphony in it "live;" the soloists were Suzanne Sten and Hardesty Johnson, in case anyone out there recalls them.) After that Walter recorded the ninth, fourth, and fifth symphonies, in that order, and Mitropoulos recorded the first, and the push that has led to no fewer than four "Integral" recordings (with others in progress) was on.

MHS Review 236 spends a LOT of time discussing Mahler, ostensibly reviewing a recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. This essay and "The Last of the Romantic Symphonists" written by the illustrious Joseph Braunstein (witness to Mahler history, in fact) reveals that sometimes writers forget what their editors asked and they produce wonderful essays about something tangentially related. DMG's essay is more off-point, Braunstein's essay contains quite a bit about the 5th Symphony and the 10th Symphony. DMG's essay is funnier and picks on old ladies at the concert hall, which we do NOT approve of (but we do acknowledge is pretty darn funny).

So your concierge, tasked with giving you a sense of what to listen to again reminds you that Russian recordings are licensed to anyone with cash, so there are several versions of the 5th symphony on streaming services and available on CD. We put together a list to augment Braunstein's essay. We've included a few more here, focusing on some slightly younger conductors.

Mahler has, of course, had his share of detractors, He has been accused of prolixity, hysteria, formlessness, sentimentality, and vulgarity. Few major composers haven't. Little old ladies consider him too loud. (One of them behind me at last Saturday's Tosca told anyone who would listen that Mr. Conlon was making the orchestra play "too loud" so that the singers had to "screech.") For such people, music is too loud when they can't be heard over it. But it is also assumed that because Mahler calls for a huge orchestra he aims for volume, whereas, in actuality, he mixes his colors with the greatest delicacy. (He wasn't named Mahler--Painter--for nothing!) And then his name has been linked inextricably (it would seem) with Bruckner's. It is true that Mahler knew and liked the old gentleman and saw to it that his music got played, but in a 1904 letter to his wife, Alma, he called Bruckner and Brahms "an odd pair of second-raters" which shows you that he had as exquisite taste as Benjamin Britten and Bernard Shaw. (Mahler also espoused the cause of young Arnold Schoenberg, though he confessed to Alma that he hadn't the faintest idea what Schoenberg was trying to do.)

Two other aspects of Mahler's music seem to put people off. One is its simplicity. It is full of peasant dances and village bands and ceremonial marches and bugle-calls and horseplay on the one hand ("vulgarity") and of ethereal visions on the other ("sentimen­tality"). Too much has been made of Mahler's conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, it being said that in his "Christian" moments he doth protest too much. Mahler was, in practice, not a notably religious man. If he had any strong faith, it seems to have been in a sort of pantheism, but matters like the meaning of human existence and the hereafter greatly troubled him, and his "religious" music has the crystalline transparency of such mystics as William Blake. (An ancient lady, feeling she had little earthly time left, once summoned Mahler to tell her the real truth about heaven!) The other off-putting aspect of his music is its "meaning." Many people will simply not accept the fact that music is an emotional, not a cognitive, language and assume that it somehow embodies some philosophy or, at the very least, some story. A symphony (the Fifth) that begins with a funeral march is very tempting in this regard. Mahler himself did not believe in representational music and detested the attempts by critics to derive "plots" from his works. But that did not stop them. One annotator is sure that the Fifth Symphony is all about an artist who, having failed to live up to his expectations, is about to chuck his career until he is revitalized by "the harmless play of life and nature" and so ascends to Everestian heights of creativity undreamt of by the human mind, Excelsior! Another offers the following schema: 1. Mourning and pain 2. Fighting and wounds 3. Irony, shadowy insecurity, and forced gaiety 4. Interlude(!) 5. Daily work and haste (!!)In Mahler's own time he had an admirer, a Herr Nodnagel, who insisted on working out detailed programmes for the symphon­ies; that for the Fifth took 23 printed pages, and you could buy it for 30 pfennigs. It turned Mahler magenta with rage.

The fifth symphony was written {like most of his music) when Mahler was on his summer vacation--specifically in Carinthia (Karnten) in South Austria--escaping from the backbreaking demands of his job as director of the Imperial Opera. (He later conducted the German repertoire at the Met, and was, from 1909 to 1911, conductor of the New York Philharmonic.) This vacation was 1902 and he and his new bride were living beside a mountain lake in, as she puts it, "splendid isolation." His studio was a spartan little hut on the mountainside above the house. He got up at six, threw on "his oldest rags," ordered his breakfast sent up, and went immediately to work. Breakfast, when it arrived, was coffee, bread, and preserves. He worked every day until noon, went for a swin, had lunch at one, and then went with Alma on a long walk, sometimes resting to note down musical ideas. He worked with the obsessive intensity he brought to all his professional life, and brooked no interruption of any kind. (Men were men in those days!) Alma copied out the score and offered suggestions. (After hearing an initial rehearsal of the first movement back in Vienna she was so distressed by the enormous amount of percussion that Mahler crossed much of it out (Hail to thee, 0 Alma Mahler!) The work was first publicly performed by the Gurzenich Orchestra in Cologne on October 18, 1904. Mahler had strong misgivings about how the audience might take it. In the event, there were not many hisses--but there was not much applause either. Bruno Walter, who was there, said that he was frankly disappointed in the piece.

So was Mahler. The Fifth was something new for him. In the first place it was his first symphony that did not involve song. (To be sure, No. 1 has no vocal part, but it draws from Mahler's own songs for some of its themes.) In the second Mahler was aware that the old tonal-harmonic concept that had underlain the symphony since its inception was breaking down: he was in a no-man's land between the chromaticism of Wagner and the atonality of Schoenberg. The approach he took was a new one to counterpoint (culminating in the triple fugue of the final movement). But the orchestration got in the way of the contrapuntal effects. As a result, Mahler tinkered with it until he finally re-orchestrated the whole piece in 1911--the year he succcumbed at fifty-one to pneumonia, heart disease, and exhaustion. The Fifth is regarded by many as the first element of a vast trilogy that includes the other two middle-period instrumental sym­phonies, the Sixth and Seventh.

At the end of his life Mahler was working on a tenth symphony. Though it has cleverly been "reconstructed" by Deryck Cooke, and recorded in his version, what is played here is the opening Adagio, completed in full score by the composer.

Many people will recall conductor Kyril Kondrashin as the fellow who accompanied Van Cliburn in his Moscow triumph twenty years ago (2023 editor's note: 1958), though others will know him from his innumerable fine recordings. If you ask What have Russians to do with Mahler? You might recall that he was a powerful influence on Shostakovitch.

If one wishes to make music, one should not paint or write poetry or desire to describe anything. But what one makes music out of is still the whole--that is the feeling, thinking, breathing, suffering human being.

Gustav Mahler, Letter to Bruno Walter, 1906

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