a personal introduction to mahler

When "Gustav Mahler" is mentioned, its near impossible not to think of one of his massive orchestral works. With last year being the centennial of his death (and the year prior being his 150th birthday), Gustav's musical legacy has been getting its fair share of time in the concert hall. Even better, many orchestras across the country (and world) programmed the full cycle of Mahler's work in celebration. Over the course of a year, you could hear all nine symphonies (as well as the Tenth to varying degrees of completion) and see his musical journey over the course of his life much clearer than if you only heard one on a semi-annual basis. Tons of recordings (especially big boxed sets) erupted out of the woodwork and universities capitalized on this by scheduling classes that focused on Mahler. I was a senior at the time and my music department scheduled a special topics history class that delved into all ten of Mahler's symphonies as well as Das Lied von der Erde.

I was so thankful that the rotating topic wasn't opera that year (which it had been for the three previous ones) that I didn't stop to think about how much material that actually covers. When you think about how many songs Schubert wrote (600+) or all the symphonies Haydn composed (104), a class covering just nine and a half symphonies plus song cycle can't be that demanding, right? I obviously had no idea what I had gotten myself into and then the five-month marathon began. Replaying the melodies until I could sing all the different themes from memory, exploring all the thematic unity and transformations between movements, observing all the musical borrowing from his other works as well as other composers, probing his personal life and highlighting my scores until they looked like flags at Pride. One of the most over-cited of Mahler's quotes is "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything," and while it makes me want to pull out my own hair to incorporate it into my own writing…those words are one of the best ways (if not THE best) to describe what he filled his symphonies with. Apart from their planetary size, they contain so many varied melodies, sounds, unique percussive instruments (cowbells, bundles of sticks, etc), haunting musical effects and a vast array of dynamic and emotional states.

To run with the outer-space metaphor, Mahler's music is a black hole, but I mean that in the most affectionate of ways. Yes, it will rip you apart as they pull you into its unknowable abyss and there is no escape once you are caught in its grasp, but at the same time, you are almost grateful that you were caught because you don't want to return to a point where his music was not a part of your human experience. You give in and let yourself to succumb to its magnificent power, lush romanticism and at times its soul-chilling beauty. Maybe if you're lucky you can sit though a symphony without being brought to tears by the end…and that's ONLY if you're lucky.

As I'm sure it is apparent by now, I have been forever changed by that course about Mahler…and this dedication to his music in the "Mahler Symphonic Guide" section is a hope to share that joy with others. Maybe you're a person who's boy/girlfriend is dragging you to a symphony concert and you learn a few interesting facts to impress them with before you go. Maybe you are a music student who is in a class where you have to learn all the different themes for a test and the audio guide helps you out. Maybe you are just a person who heard a Mahler symphony this past year and want to know more. Whatever your reason for ending up here, I hope you get something out of it and grow to love it like I have. I'd be lying if I said I loved everything he wrote (I'm still not sold on the first movement of Symphony 3 or any of Symphony 8) but I'll try to provide as fair and balanced a coverage as I can. It will not be super in-depth either (my blog will not be a substitute for reading any of those great books in the Book List) and I will cite where appropriate so you can know where to look to find out more.

Happy listening (and playing), fellow music lovers.

-Jack