He was one of us.
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), a certifiable tortured soul, largely dismissed as a composer in his own time, somehow became an indispensable part of twentieth-century concert life by the time the century was over. How could that have happened? Simple: he was one of us.
Mahler saw the modern era coming, and he knew that humans would hang onto their age-old fears and hopes in spite of it. He wrapped his music in the comforting, comprehensible language of the nineteenth century but topped it off with bracing doses of alienation and despair. Yes, you read that right. Both the romanticism and the angst endear him to us.
Here is what he said:
To write a symphony is, for me, to construct a world.
What is best in music is not to be found in the notes.
When my mind and spirit are at rest I can compose nothing.
Mahler’s effort to breathe life into the decaying Romantic world gives his music a special quality, a combination of feverish unrest and intense nostalgia. He revisited all the old themes many times: nature, folklore, love of humanity, faith in God, the sorrow of human destiny, the loneliness of death. He knew about longing, both romantic and spiritual. To all these concerns he added an interest in the banal and popular, giving his ironic idealism a familiar, homey face while also keeping it somewhat at arm’s length. If that sounds paradoxical, well, there you go. Welcome to Mahler 101.
If you are a newcomer to Mahler’s world, you could do worse than to start out with his songs. In them you can find most of what makes Mahler distinctive. Among his earliest surviving works are the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). They began life as the artistic outcome of a youthful love affair: Mahler was just twenty-three, getting his career underway as the assistant opera conductor in Kassel, and he was deeply smitten with Johanna Richter, a soprano in the company. Their relationship was stormy and did not endure. But during one of its low points, Mahler knocked out six songs in her honor, constructed, as he wrote to a friend, “as though a traveling journeyman who has suffered some sort of fate sets out into the world and wanders musingly and alone.”
Sounds a lot like Schubert’s two great song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, both of which feature travelers, the first a naïve young man hoping to find love, the second a rejected lover whose grief leads him toward a psychotic break. Mahler’s Wayfarer songs embrace both the naïveté and the grief. He wrote the poems himself, although they reflect the influence of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poetry he had recently discovered. Mahler didn’t get around to revising and orchestrating the Wayfarer songs until 1896, by which time he had composed two symphonies and was working on a third. So the orchestral clothing in which he finally draped these early songs came from someone who had gained crucial experience with the subtleties of instrumentation. Let’s sample the second song in the revised cycle, “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld.” In it, the poet walks across a field, and nature speaks to him. The finch says good morning, and isn’t it a lovely day? The bluebells in the meadow seem to ring out merrily. In the sunshine, everything sparkles.
That’s a harp you hear, plucking out – among other things – the low notes that anchor the accompaniment. Marvelous, chamber-like instrumentation. Horns, muted trumpets and flute also make nice contributions.
Ah, but then. In the last stanza the poet asks, “Now, surely my happiness will also begin?” But the answer comes back “No. No. What I love can never bloom for me.” And as this sinks in, the music wanders slowly away from sunny D major and into a more remote F-sharp, still major but (as the timpani begins its soft but ominous roll beneath) now tenderly sad:
Mahler ended up using that song melody in his First Symphony, minus the sad ending. There it became his “hero,” setting out in the world with gradually increasing energy, drawing power from the natural world around it (hear those cuckoos?):
Mahler used a lot of his songs in his symphonies. Another Wayfarer song, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of My Sweetheart”) finds its way into the third section of the First Symphony’s third movement, which is styled as a funeral march. (Mahler wrote a lot of funeral marches, too.) That third movement actually begins with a different song, however:
Undoubtedly you recognized “Frère Jacques” in there, groaned out at first by a solo bass viol, and in minor mode at that. Mahler’s idea of humor. Apparently he had seen Moritz von Schwind’s engraving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, and that inspired him. The engraving shows a crowd of grieving animals, arrayed in formal mourning outfits, bearing a dead hunter out of the forest as they shed copious tears. Crocodile tears, perhaps. You’d have to ask Moritz.
When we turn to Mahler’s settings of Knaben Wunderhorn poetry itself, the range of expression becomes wider. He composed these songs mainly between 1892 and 1896, although the last two in the collection didn’t come along until 1900 or 1901. Whereas the earlier songs were created as songs and then found their way into symphonies he was writing at the time, that final pair seem to have emerged from his symphonic work and only afterward took shape as separate songs. I guess that’s proof of how closely intertwined the texted vocal impulse and the “abstractions” of the symphony were for someone like Mahler.
The songs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn sort themselves into three groups. First there are the marches or military-themed songs, like “Revelge” (Reveille), which opens the set:
The orchestral accompaniment adds an almost cinematic realism to these songs—at once we are transported to the scene, the field drums and brass fanfares thrusting into those ranks of marching soldiers. “At break of day, we must march, tra-la-li, must march in the face of death! Goodbye, little sweetheart!”
From the very first stanza, the grim truth about warfare is also present. “Ach, Brüder, jetzt bin ich geschossen,” a voice calls out: “Oh, brothers, now I’ve been shot.” He begs his comrades for help. His camp is close by, he says, can’t someone carry him back to his quarters? But—as the music turns more proudly assertive—his fellows ignore him and march on. Eventually, though, the song materials acknowledge grisly circumstance:
As the dead “lie round in heaps” and “comrade by comrade sleeps,” Death himself sounds reveille, “strikes the drum up and down,” and a ghostly battalion of corpses reassembles itself, marches back to its camp, back to those sweethearts’ homes. “Die Trommel steht voran, dass sie ihn sehen kann, tral-la-li”—“the drummer heads the train, that she may see her swain.” All of this is presented viscerally, straightforwardly. Mahler’s biographer Donald Mitchell is quite perceptive on this point:
Mahler’s approach was stubbornly independent of romantic indulgence, of nostalgic yearning after the lost innocence of a remote past. He eschewed all false medievalism and self-conscious “folkiness.” . . . Mahler set the texts as if they were of the present moment.
Exactly. He became one of them. And that makes this music and the complex feelings it evokes available to us, persuasive for us, as well.
Des Knaben Wunderhorn also contains some love songs and some humor. I like the lovely, rather suave “Rheinlegendchen” (Little Rhine Legend), in which a maiden wishes for a lover more energetically devoted to her than the fickle men she puts up with. “What good is a sickle that cuts not the corn? What good is a sweetheart who leaves me forlorn?”
Tops in the humor department would be “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” the story of St. Anthony and the fish. Seems that poor St. Anthony, having prepared a fine sermon for Sunday morning Mass, finds the church deserted, and so he elects to deliver his homily to the fish in the river instead. They seem to enjoy it; at least they swim around, dive and splash, cavort with special enthusiasm. “Fish greater, fish lesser, approach the confessor. / They look and they listen like creatures with reason.” Alas, they revert to their fishy ways the moment the sermon’s over. “The crabs still go backward, the cod’s fat and awkward / The carp’s still a glutton, the sermon forgotten, forgotten.”
Alert Mahlerians will recognize this tune from the Second Symphony, where it becomes the basis of an ironic scherzo movement. Mahler wisely retained the nervous, constantly wriggling motion of the accompaniment and the many repetitions in the melody. In symphonic context these details no longer seem purely fishy or folky; instead they take on a more obvious human connotation.
If you want to hear another wise musician’s ultimate treatment of that Mahler tune, you should really check out a symphonic work from 1968, Sinfonia by Luciano Berio. Berio took virtually all of Mahler’s scherzo, added snippets of Beethoven, Debussy, Strauss, and other composers, a sung and spoken text from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable and other sources (e.g., “mein junges Leben hat ein End”) and spilled/spelled it out for us in unforgettable post-modern terms. Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic premiered it, but it has gotten many performances since then:
Although we’re running out of time and space here, I have to mention two more songs. One is “Nun will die Sonn so hell aufgehn” (Now the sun will rise as brightly as ever) from Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children), composed between 1904 and 1907. These texts are from the prolific German Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert, and their subject matter is such that one cannot help wonder why Mahler—even Mahler, who was obviously drawn to extremes of feeling and experience—would have chosen to set them. He must have detected a kindred spirit in Rückert, whose verse has an odd way of mixing florid, rather stilted language with sudden bursts of raw emotion. Consider the text of “Nun will die Sonn”:
Now the sun will rise as brightly
As though no misfortune had befallen in the night!
Misfortune came to me alone,
But the sun shines on everyone!
You must not enfold the night within you,
But bathe your grief in eternal light.
A little lamp has been extinguished in my tent:
Hail to the light that gladdens the world!
Rückert offers extraordinary insight into the agonized thoughts of a newly grieving parent, careening between cold reality and whatever may remain of mercy or justice in the universe. Mahler employs musical dualisms to echo that parent’s fruitless search. Harmonically, his setting constantly “darkens” or “lightens” by switching from minor to major and back again. Melodically, he alternates a series of numbing, barely moving half-step motives—the sound of emotional paralysis, of mechanical rocking in place—with naïve folk-like phrases that end in a sort of triadic yodel. They evoke a childlike state beyond innocence. You can hear both effects in this excerpt:
The other song you need to hear—right now, this moment—is “Urlicht” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Unlike the rest of that collection, it’s not a march or a love song, and it’s not even remotely humorous. No wonder Mahler saved it for the conclusion of the cycle. The poem speaks of ultimate concerns: “Oh rose so red! Man lies in the greatest need, lies in the greatest pain!” And yet the message is hopeful. “My soul is of God and to God would return. . . . The loving God will give me a tiny light to guide me . . .” Here is the setting as it appears in Mahler’s Second Symphony, where it follows the “St. Anthony” scherzo and foreshadows the breakthrough of the finale:
Not for nothing is the Second Symphony nicknamed “Resurrection.” We will explore this work, and more, in another installment. Call it Mahler 102.
You have been listening to performances by these artists:
Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Christopher Maltman, baritone; Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor. Telarc SACD-60628 / CD-80628, 2006. Includes Symphony No. 1.
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Maureen Forrester, contralto; Heinz Rehfuss, baritone; Vienna Symphony, Felix Prohaska, conductor. Vanguard Classics OVC 4045, 1963/1991. LP originally issued as Vanguard VSD-2154.
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder. Thomas Hampson, baritone; Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conductor. Deutsche Grammophon 427 698-2, 1989. Includes Symphony No. 6.
Of the making of Mahler discs there is no end. Nor is anyone shy about compiling and publishing his or her list of recommended favorites; you can find dozens of them online. Here I’m just going to call attention to a couple of semi-new items:
(1) The very fine Mahler cycle from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony is now available on LPs in a limited edition. If you hurry you might still be able to grab a set.
(2) Naxos, having bowed out of hi-rez digital several years ago after experiments with SACD and DVD-Audio, are back with Blu-Ray audio discs at budget prices. Try their Blu-Ray reissue of the monumental Mahler Symphony No. 8. It includes both a 24/96 PCM stereo track and a 5.0 dts-Master surround mix. The stereo is terrific, bringing new impact and detail to an already outstanding performance, originally recorded in 2005 by Polish conductor Antoni Wit. The surround mix doesn’t fare as well. Video provides a running translation of the text, which is a useful option. It’d also be nice if they offered the 24/96 version as a download.