Cerebral Fodder

June 2011


Gustav Mahler


a symphonist of multitudes


by Jayant Deshpande



Let’s begin with the obvious: there is a preponderance of brass in Gustav Mahler’s symphonies—it is his signature. And that signature is boldest in the third symphony. The strings and woodwinds do their part to heighten the tension and provide a subtle counterpoint to the dense, but delicate, texture of those brasses. Brooding string ostinatos set the mood, as in the opening of his first symphony. Then there’s the rhythmic design: a slow, steady, march-like movement across an uncharted landscape that’s romantic, but often forbidding, as the dark moments of the ninth symphony bear witness. Mahler can brood, tease with single, or a cluster of, notes from the winds; he can rhapsodize, but at the same time unleash raw energy. And his endings can be dramatic: a quick attack in the form of an orchestral tutti, followed immediately by the booming thud of the percussion. The full orchestral sound dies out, majestically—the silence that follows is almost too much to bear. The sonorities linger on. One sits in awe, satiated or not.


If Mahler-mania was a fad or fashion among classical audiences, then good reasons can be cited for it. Better this fad than one that fawns over lesser lights. Mahler was a serious composer who to this day attracts fans and critics alike. My engagement with Mahler was tentative at first. But I felt the pull, and kept going back to him. The bond became stronger, and more emotional as I listened, again and again. At times I felt that I was listening to a new work since I would hear material I didn’t catch before; an experience that bordered on serendipity. I still keep ‘discovering’ hidden gems; the mystery never really ends.


When Max Graf, one of the great German commentators of the first half of the last century, and author of the illuminating book Modern Music, asked Mahler what he thought of Richard Strauss, Mahler replied that he and Strauss approached the same romantic mountain, but from opposite sides. Mahler created music that fills the heart, the way it does a village girl’s as she sings and waltzes down the street on a summer evening anywhere. His music literally sparkles with tonal color, even as it takes on the big themes that are his forte.


To my ear, Mahler puts virtually all the romantics to shame. He makes many modern and so-called avant-garde efforts sound pale, contrived and sometimes downright pretentious. And pop music suddenly seems too spontaneous, too enamored of instant pleasure, too short to fully engage man’s aural capacity. The orchestral richness and complexity found in Mahler’s scores we can hear perhaps only from Stravinsky and Bartok, who came after him. But in sheer scale, Mahler reigns supreme—supremely classical in the true sense of that overwrought word. An heir to the symphonic legacy of Beethoven and Brahms, and a worthy mentor of sorts to Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, the serial composers who experimented with tone-rows, or compositions based not on any recognizable theme but on notes arranged in some abstract order. Mahler stands at the crossroads, on the cusp of radical change, as Debussy did before him, but in a different way. He seems poised between impressionism and what was to come after: atonality, the deliberate moving away from music that has a recognizable tonal center, or key. As though, subliminally, he were trying to blend the two.


I keep thinking to myself: Mahler needs no defense. Either you like him or you don’t. If you like him even a little, he starts to grow on you, and you learn to like him even more. His music doesn’t induce stupor in the listener, nor is it soporific. But the listener must be alert for the better part of an hour or more to take it all in. According to Graf, Mahler was not just a romantic but also a mystic, reaching for the spiritual and transcendental through his musical struggle.


Each symphony demands of a listener the utmost attention to detail, for each is an exploration, a journey of discovery. To me the folk element is strongest in the first, fourth and seventh symphonies. The melodies come cascading at you, buttressed by multiple, elaborate, harmonies. These are the seeds from which Mahler’s structures emerge and get intricately woven into a musical fabric. A fabric so evocative that I feel as though I’m in a vast meadow; in the middle of the woods; journeying into the hills; walking atop a mountain range in central Europe; deep down in a valley somewhere in rural Austria or Bavaria. And the celebratory element is ever present. Mahler exploits the resources of the orchestra to the fullest—the tone color of individual instruments, or a small combination of them, was essential to his writing, echoing that earlier master, Hector Berlioz.


I was captivated first by the fourth symphony, then the seventh, then the first. The third movement of the first, the second and third movement of the seventh, and the first movement of the fourth are palpably lyrical. They have in them joy, despair, rapture, melancholy and catharsis all at once. I was, and continue to be, moved to tears every time I listen to those passages. These symphonies prepared the way for me to tackle the more complex, longer, structured arguments of Symphonies 2, 3, 5, and 9.


Nowhere do I find the brass section more in evidence, and in the most sublime way, than the first movement of the third symphony, his longest. How incredibly bold and rich these passages are. The dramatic entry of the brasses in the opening bars commands our attention, and then their descending melodic line with minor notes creates for me a sense of brooding in a musical way; it is repeated again and again, and dominates the grand theme of the first movement. And when I listen to the final movement, R. Strauss’s Zarathustra (also the background score in Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey) comes immediately to mind. It literally soars, and is dramatic in a cosmic sense. I can see why Mahler felt an affinity for him when he spoke of that ‘romantic mountain’.


The ninth carries a sense of finality; it seems like a premonition of death: “The long passages on all the strings at the end, as close as music can come to express silence itself, I used to hear as Mahler’s idea of leave-taking at its best. But always, I have heard this music as a solitary, private listener, thinking about death,” wrote Lewis Thomas, the eminent scientist-essayist. The repeated phrase on faded strings, the vanishing violins—to him this symphony sounded ominously like the lull before a nuclear holocaust, before the end of humanity. For a few bars near the very end the cellos “sound in my mind like the opening of all the hatches and the instant before ignition.”


The voice occupies a prominent place in Mahler’s work. Indeed, Symphony No. 8, with its scoring almost entirely choral, seems like the symphonic dimension of Mahler’s lieder. Large choirs are employed to bring out its grandeur.


To be heard as intended, Mahler’s symphonies need, apart from very large orchestras, all the resources that modern sound technology has to offer: microphones placed strategically to capture the contapuntal brilliance (as the renowned classical pianist and leading Bach interpreter, and later a perceptive recordist and broadcaster, Glenn Gould, noted), surround sound effects, balanced mixing of multiple sound tracks and so on.


Mahler had conducted the New York Philharmonic late in his life. Leonard Bernstein, its Music Director(1958-69), was the first conductor to record the entire Mahler cycle. And he did it with different orchestras: his own New York Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, and the Vienna Philharmonic. But there are equally good recordings by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony. They are all of course now available on CD. These recordings, especially those released by Deutsche Gramophon, are, to my ear, the seminal, if not definitive, recordings of the Mahler Nine (He had worked on a tenth symphony, but it remained unfinished; the available score, though, has been recorded—the version I have is by Simon Rattle, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, on the EMI Classics label). All these are hard to get in India, but they’re the only ones that do justice to Mahler’s grand design.


The symphonies practically constitute Mahler’s oeuvre; he needed little else to make his mark. May they live forever, enlightening—and edifying—listeners and deepening their musical quest. Not for nothing do I call him a symphonist of multitudes, one who embraces the whole of life.




An excellent piece on Mahler in Manhattan:


Two interesting reviews of a book on Mahler:

BOOK: "Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World" by Norman Lebrecht.