Gustav Mahler

1860-1911)

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Musicologists generally divide Mahler's output into three "periods". Symphonies 1-4 correspond to the "Wunderhorn" Period, during which Mahler borrowed extensively from his songs and song cycles. In the "Middle Period", which encompasses Symphonies 5-7, we find purely instrumental works with no voice and very little reference back to the early songs. The 8th Symphony ("Symphony of a Thousand") stands apart from any classification scheme. His last three works, "Das Lied von der Erde", Symphony no. 9, and Symphony no. 10 (unfinished) constitute his "Late Period". Offered for your listening and viewing pleasure below are examples from each period with commentary on the characteristics of each period.

Symphony no. 1 (1888)

PROGRAM NOTES


"To write a symphony means, to me, to construct a world with all the tools of the available technique," wrote Gustav Mahler. The World in a Symphony-the experiences, qualities and meaning of life enfolded in tone. Mahler, the most ardent of the Romantics in his belief in the bond between human existence and music, spent his career pursuing this lofty aim. He once said, "My whole life is contained in them [i.e., the first two symphonies]: I have set down in them my experience and my suffering....To anyone who knows how to listen, my whole life will become clear, for my creative works and my existence are so closely interwoven that, if my life flowed as peacefully as a stream through a meadow, I believe I would no longer be able to compose anything."

An Annotated Video Guide to Mahler


Presented here for your enjoyment and edification, a play-by-play guide to the third movement (Funeral March) of Mahler's Symphony no. 1, with Mahler's own comments as the music proceeds. NEW!

MAHLER ON MUSIC

Here are some famous and not-so-famous quotes by the composer, giving an idea of his views on music, with special emphasis on his symphonies.


Major Works of Mahler

SYMPHONIES

     •     Symphony no. 1 (1888)

     •     Symphony no. 2 (1894)

     •     Symphony no. 3 (1896)

          Symphony no. 4 (1900)

     •     Symphony no. 5 (1902)

          Symphony no. 6 (1904)

     •     Symphony no. 7 (1905)

     •     Symphony no. 8 (1906)

  •     Das Lied von der Erde (1909)

     •     Symphony no. 9 (1909-10)

     •     Symphony no. 10 (unfinished at death)

SONG CYCLES

  •     Songs of a Wayfarer (1885)

  •     The Youth's Magic Horn (1895-1901)  

  •     Rückert Lieder (1902)

  •     Kindertotenlieder (1904)






















Songs of a Wayfarer (1885)

This was one of Mahler's first song cycles, completed in 1885. In each of his first four symphonies, Mahler made liberal use of pre-existing songs, transforming them into purely instrumental ideas. As you listen to this wonderful, lilting tune, notice that it finds its way into the main theme of the Symphony no. 1, in our next example below: NOTE FOR NOTE! It is even in the same key!


Symphony no. 1 (1888)

Mahler's Symphony no. 1 seems very accessible and highly romantic to our modern ears, but this certainly was not the case when it was first performed in Budapest in 1889. The audience was baffled, and critics savaged the work. Mahler himself wrote "In Budapest, where I performed it for the first time, my friends bashfully avoided me afterward; nobody dared talk to me about the performance and my work, and I went around like a sick person or an outcast." When a conductor asked Mahler (late in Mahler's life) which symphony he should perform, Mahler told him: "By no means do I suggest the First: that one is very difficult to understand."


Symphony no. 2 (1894)

For most of Mahler's life, the Symphony no. 2, subtitled "Resurrection", was his most popular and most often-performed work. This truly colossal work was composed for vast forces, including choir and solo singers, as well a a monumentally large orchestra. Here is a beautiful rendition of the thrilling final moments of the symphony: guaranteed to give you goosebumps!


Symphony no. 3 (1896)

If Mahler's Resurrection Symphony is gigantic, his Symphony no. 3 is even more colossal. This work is the longest of all ten Mahler symphonies and requires enormous forces to perform. The first movement alone lasts over 35 minutes in length: longer than most complete symphonies of Beethoven! In this symphony we find the trademark Mahler use of the sublime versus the trite/banal /commonplace in close proximity, which can be heard in this short segment from the final moments of the first movement. This is a superb performance conducted by the champion of Mahler and the moving force behind the "Mahler Revival" of the second half of the 20th century: Leonard Bernstein.


Symphony no. 4 (1900)

Nothing can prepare the listener for Mahler's 4th Symphony after having listened to the first three symphonies. Mahler's quote that the 4th Symphony was "basically different from my other symphonies" is quite the understatement. And yet, the first four symphonies belong together and are considered to be a tetralogy. They are all based on pre-existing songs by the composer, and three out of four actually make use of the human voice. Further, they are all connected in terms of underlying non-musical programs. The first symphony deals with the trials and triumphs of life, and the second symphony asks the question "Why have we lived-where are we going-what is life, and what is death?" The third symphony goes even further and concerns itself with the hierarchy of the entire world and depicts a tiered or hierarchical arrangement of creation. The fourth symphony was initial referred to by Mahler as "The Heavenly Life" and, according to Mahler, deals "exclusively with the emotions of the soul freed from all earthly bonds". The beginning of the symphony is offered here, conducted by the late great Claudio Abbado.


Symphony no. 5 (1902)

The middle "period" of Mahler commences with the Symphony no. 5 from 1902. His middle symphonies (numbers 5,6, and 7) would dispense with the human voice altogether and be purely instrumental works. Further, they are not based on vocal models or pre-existing songs, as the first four symphonies were. Lastly, Mahler completely changes his style beginning with the 5th Symphony: counterpoint becomes incredibly important (and complex!), including his use of what is called "orchestral counterpoint", whereby snippets of thematic material are passed back and forth between different sections of the orchestra in rapid fashion. In these middle symphonies, Mahler also completely disavows the use of programs or extra-musical suggestions: these works are "absolute" music. The difference in style can be heard immediately in the first movement, the beginning of which is heard here.


Symphony no. 6 (1904)

The Sixth Symphony marks yet another turning point in the output of Gustav Mahler. This work is often referred to as the "Tragic" Symphony, and it is the first of his symphonic works to end in a non-triumphant or non-positive mode. This work is definitely dark and stormy, and ends in a very bleak manner. Mahler employs one of his favorite devices yet again (as he did in symphonies 1,2, and 5) -- the funeral march. The work opens with the march idea: relentless and forbidding, although at a quicker pace than the funeral marches in the preceding symphonies. This gives way to the famous "Alma" theme, depicting his wife and his ardor for her.

Symphony no. 8 (1906)

The Symphony of a Thousand, as this work is known, is the largest of any of Mahler's compositions: composed for truly gargantuan forces including chorus and soloists, and lasting roughly 1.5 hours. Mahler considered this his greatest achievement, and its first performance in 1910, the year before his untimely death, was the culmination of his life's work and a tremendous success. Here is the hair-raising final three minutes of this colossal work. Guaranteed to to move the listener!


Symphony no. 9 (1909-10)

The year 1907 marked a fateful turning point in the life of Gustav Mahler. Three events turned his world upside down in that year: he resigned from the Directorship of the Vienna State Opera, his daughter Maria Anna died from scarlet fever/diphtheria, and Mahler himself was diagnosed with a grave heart condition and told that his life might be in serious danger. These events in turn ushered in the final, last period of Mahler's creative output. There are only three major works from this late period: Das Lied von der Erde, Symphony no. 9, and the unfinished Symphony no. 10. These works are quite different than all earlier symphonies. They are world-weary, written in a chamber style generally avoiding the massive use of orchestra in his earlier symphonies, and they die away quietly without any sense of triumph. They are profoundly moving works of resignation which deal with the the theme of the mortality of mankind. The opening of the final movement of the 9th Symphony, heard here, is a prime example of his late style.


Symphony no. 10  (Unfinished)

In what direction was Mahler heading at the time of his tragic early death at the age of 51? What would his music have sounded like had he lived to the age of 84 like his friend Richard Strauss? Some glimpse can be offered here by study of his unfinished Symphony no. 10. In the amazing passage heard here, which is the final minutes of the only completed movement (the first movement), Mahler employs some very advanced harmony (including the famous 9-note chord which is hard to miss....), and the breakup of the melodic line continues as it had in his earlier works. I have always found this passage one of the most supremely beautiful moments in all of Mahler. Enjoy!!

CYS Performance History:

Works by Gustav Mahler


    • Symphony no. 1 (1995, 2004, 2019)

    • Symphony no. 5 (2001, 2012)

  

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A MAHLER PHOTO ALBUM

A selection of photos and caricatures spanning the entire career of Gustav Mahler, replete with fascinating biographical information on the composer.

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