What Mahler Tells Me

Today is Gustav Mahler’s 150th birthday.

My first encounter with Mahler was playing the bass trombone part in a performance of the First Symphony in North Carolina in the mid-1970s. The Symphony, with its themes of the newness of life, discovery, and triumph, was a perfect introduction for me at about 20 and at the very beginning of finding my way as a musician, composer, and human being.

To learn this piece from the inside, as it were, embedded in me just how entwined composing and performing are. It was the first time I had ever played in such a big, complex piece. So much of what I learned from it has been with me since then that it’s hard to say specifically what happened. But something did—something clicked.

I’ve probably heard the Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) performed more than any other piece of music (with Cage’s 4’33” a close second), and it’s always very moving, even when the performance doesn’t quite make it. The striving of an ensemble playing and singing near or even a little beyond its limits embodies part of Mahler’s poetic vision for this piece.

My favorite Mahler symphony is the Sixth, with its clear, rigorous form and content that strains at that form. Mahler’s was at his height as an orchestrator in the Sixth, and every page yields a revelation of orchestration and/or counterpoint. Many of the Symphony’s most effective passages are a result of the composer’s deft, imaginative orchestration of simple counterpoint, sometimes with as few as two voices. That such dark expression can come from such simple, clear means has always struck me as one of the mysteries of art.

“The symphony is the world; it must contain everything.” Mahler’s famous dictum* applies to his entire output even more than it does to individual works. Without drawing too fine a point on it, his symphonies and songs sketch out an artistic biography moving from the impetuosity of youth in the early pieces, through a thoughtfully fervent maturity, finally to the resignation and acceptance embodied in the last works, Das Lied von der Erde (“Song of the Earth”) and the Ninth Symphony.

The orchestras are as big in these last works as they were in the earlier symphonies, but here Mahler has reduced his art to its essential elements. The effects and climaxes are as stunning and as moving as ever, but the means are smaller, the brushstrokes finer. The emotions are raw, but expressed without histrionics. What we get from Mahler at the end, something he never had in his tumultuous life, is peace.

* A word on dicta. When an artist makes a statement like Mahler’s, he’s really just speaking for himself. He may want you to think he is prescribing an approach for everybody, but he isn’t; he’s describing his own, and hoping you’ll take it seriously. If you take these dicta too seriously, you end up with a headache, and a bad case of style wars.

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