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Essential Mahler

By Gary Barton

I once interviewed the conductor, Werner Torkanowsky. Among other things, we talked of Bruckner's Symphony No. 9. He said something to me that applies equally to all of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler: "Gary, for this symphony you must make time." Mahler's symphonies are deep, and each builds upon the other. In listening to them, some historical facts will offer insights to their content and greatly enhance your enjoyment of them.

Mahler's father was Bernhard Mahler, an innkeeper and later the owner of a distillery. In 1857, he married a soap maker's daughter who was ten years younger than he. Marie Herrmann Mahler felt she had married below her family in social class and it soon became evident that this was a relationship destined to fail. The couple nonetheless had 14 children, Gustav being the second. His oldest brother died in early infancy in an accident. Of the 12 following children, six died in childhood from diphtheria or similar diseases; Otto committed suicide; Justine had repeated death hallucinations and was often on the verge of nervous breakdown; and Alois had delusions of grandeur and led an unrealistically extravagant lifestyle. Mahler himself has been diagnosed as being "cyclothymic," like Berlioz and Schumann before him. "Individuals in this group fluctuate in their mood between states of high spiritual buoyancy and states of gloom and pessimism, each sustained for weeks or longer…It is uncertain whether the cyclothymic personality disorder lies on a continuum with manic depressive illness or is a different entity. Many gifted and creative individuals have personalities conforming to a cyclothymic pattern." (Merck Manual, 13th Edition, p. 1505)

In 1910, Mahler consulted Sigmund Freud and recounted to this illustrious doctor a particularly distressing conflict between his argumentative parents. As he fled the house in terror he heard an organ grinder playing O, du lieber Augustin. Mahler opined that thereafter the juxtaposition of high tragedy and light amusement were fixed in his mind.

Young Gustav had an orthodox Jewish education, but later in life became (initially for socio-political reasons) a Roman Catholic. Philip Barford writes in Mahler, Symphonies and Songs (one of the BBC series of music guides): "Although temperamentally drawn to liberal ideas, he was later deeply attracted by Christian mysticism. Basically, his philosophical and religious attitudes took him beyond conventional frameworks of belief; and to call him a humanist is to underestimate his spiritual vision. From some points of view he emerges as a devotee of the free spirit, the kind of man who must find his own way under the promptings of spiritual energies awakening his own soul." In Mahler's own words, "My beliefs? I am a musician. That says everything. The symphony is the world! The symphony must embrace everything."

It became evident early on that Gustav was inordinately attracted to sounds of all kinds, not only musical but from nature as well, from bird songs to thunderstorms. He was recognized as a prodigy at an early age and his proud parents saw to it that he had the best musical instruction to be found in the musical capital, Vienna. However, his general education was not neglected and as a result he had a rich foundation in natural sciences, literature, mathematics and philosophy. As he matured, he continued to pursue the best music education to be found.

From 1882 to 1888, Mahler held posts as theater conductor in the towns of Hall, Ljubljana, Olmutz, Vienna, Budapest and Hamburg. Finally, in 1897, he was offered the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, a position he held for ten years. In 1907, he assumed the directorship of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and in 1909 he was named director of the New York Philharmonic. (When he once visited Niagara Falls he was heard to exclaim "At last, fortissimo!!")

From 1888 on, Mahler used his vacations and free time (what little of this there was) to compose. He sought his inspiration away from the bustle of cities in a small hut in rural Austria. By 1911, he was spiritually exhausted. He led his last New York concert with a high fever, returning to Vienna in May, where he died of pneumonia at age 50.

The Essential Mahler

Mahler gave the movements of many of his symphonies titles which, taken as a whole, give us an idea of what his inspirations may have been and what to expect. (He later retracted most nearly all of them as he felt his music should be able to stand on it's own, as pure music, but they remain useful today.)

Symphony No. 1 is sometimes called "The Titan," after the novel by Jean Paul Richter. The first movement begins sublimely with a single sustained six-octave A, representing the darkness of night. It was first structured in five movements in two parts.

Part I, From the Days of Youth, was originally formed by three movements: "Spring With No End" (where Mahler uses the melody of "This morning I went out over the Field" from his Songs of a Wayfarer but with a happier ending), "Blumine" ("Flower Piece"), and "Under Full Sail" (you'll recognize "Frère Jacques" here).

Part II, The Human Comedy, is in two movements. The first is called "Funeral March after the Manner of Callo" and includes a parodistic funeral procession inspired by a children's book illustration in which the animals of the forest bear the hunter to the grave. The second, "Dall' Inferno al Paradiso" ("From Hell to the Paradise"), opens with an orchestral bolt of thunder and ultimately ends with a farewell to a world-view that once was.

Mahler eventually removed the second movement, "Blumine," to reduce the length of the work. It is most often omitted in performances today, but during his first year as Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Jésus Lopez-Cobos gave the audience the rare experience of hearing the whole work as originally conceived. "Blumine" is often performed as a separate entity.

I bought a recording of this symphony produced by Audite (95467) that features Raphael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a "live" recording. I also chose Michael Tilson Thomas's SACD hybrid recording in surround sound with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra that was recorded in 2001 (San Francisco Symphony 60002). Mahler's music is often so complex that it's instructive to hear it "wrapped around" you.

Symphony #2, "Resurrection" is seen by many to be the revivification of the "hero" of the Symphony No. 1. It begins with "funeral rites" and musically asks, "For what purpose have you lived?" Mahler called the second movement "A ray of sunshine on a day pure and cloudless." The third movement, Scherzo, presents a world "weird and distorted, as in a concave mirror." Movement four features a contralto soloist singing "Urlicht" ("Primordial Light"), a "Wunderhorn" poem. The fifth movement answers the question posed in the first with contralto, soprano and chorus singing Klopstock's "Resurrection," which Mahler heard at Hans Von Bulow's funeral and to which he added his own words, "Believe my heart, oh believe!"

I recommend three recordings. A must-have is Gilbert Kaplan's riveting performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Singverein, Latonia Moore and Nadja Michael. This definitive edition, available on hybrid SACD Deutsche Grammophon 000098902, has the backing of the International Gustav Mahler Society and is amazing, particularly as Kaplan is an "amateur" conductor. He is founder and publisher of the magazine Institutional Investor, and had to pay the orchestra, soloists and chorus out of pocket the first time he conducted this work. Since then he has conducted over 50 performances. There is also a fine performance, again with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra but with Zubin Mehta conducting and the State Opera Chorus, Ileana Cotrubas and Christa Ludwig (and the bonus of Franz Schmidt's heart wrenching Symphony No. 4) on London/Decca 440615. Ludwig also appears on Leonard Bernstein's recording of this work, with Barbara Hendricks, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Westminster Choir (Deutsche Grammophon 423395).

I needn't tell you about Mahler's Symphony No. 3 as there is a very approachable 35-minute discussion by conductor Benjamin Zander with musical illustrations and a complete performance of the work on Telarc Hybrid SACD 60599 with the Philharmonia Orchestra, mezzo Lilli Passikivi, the London Philharmonic Chorus and the Tiffen School Boys Chorus. (According to the Guiness' Book of Records it is the longest known symphony, running an hour and 40 minutes. Remember, for Mahler you must make time.)

Mahler's Symphony No. 4 is perhaps his most approachable. Its vocal finale, "The Heavenly Life," describes heaven through the eyes of a hungry child. It was originally planned as the last movement of Symphony No. 3. However, Mahler thought it would really make that piece too long so he used it instead as the acorn out of which the first three movements of the Symphony No. 4 grow. RCA 59413 has Cincinnatian James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and CCM graduate Judith Blegen as soprano soloist. An Intercord CD (860900) features past CSO Music Director Michael Gielen conducting the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra and Christine Whittlesey. (A bonus track is Franz Schrecker's haunting Prelude to a Drama, which Gielen did here during his tenure.) For a surround performance, I recommend Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Orchestra with Laura Claycomb (San Francisco Symphony 60004). Worth hunting for is out of print London/Decca 440315, my hand-down favorite, with Dawn Upshaw and the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph Von Dohnanyi conducting.

For the Symphony No. 5, Mahler returned to purely orchestral structure. In annotator Bernard Jacobson's words, "The Scherzo's tumultuous life affirmation is the pivot on which the whole work turns." I highly recommend Pentatone's Hybrid SACD 5186 004, another surround spectacular, with Hartmut Haenchen conducting the Netherlands Philharmonic. Also included are intelligent, interesting liner notes.

A sole suggestion for Symphony No. 6, "Tragic" is another recording with a fascinating musical discussion by Benjamin Zander, again with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Telarc SACD 60586). As with Symphony No. 3, the discussion is in "standard stereo," the performance in surround sound. A source at Telarc informed me that a similar discussion/performance of Symphony No. 1 is slated for future release.

For Symphony No. 7, Pierre Boulez, conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, brings lucidity to this sometimes-problematical work on Deutsche Grammphon 447756. This recording is highly recommended.

I chose Michael Gielen again for the Symphony No. 8, "Symphony of a Thousand." (Mahler actually had 1003 instrumentalists and singers at the work's premiere!) The Opera House and Museum Orchestras of Frankfurt are joined by a host of fine soloists and choirs (Sony 48281).

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jésus Lopez-Cobos on Telarc 80426, gives a great performance of Symphony No. 9. This 1996 recording is sort of a "half-way SACD." Telarc used Dolby Pro-Logic for surround (it will play on a regular CD player). As Richard Rodda writes in the notes, "A unique soaring between farewell sadness and a vision of heavenly light, it lifts the symphony into an atmosphere of heavenly bliss."

Then there is the sole movement of the uncompleted Symphony No. 10. There are many recordings, and I find them all too poignant to listen to.

For a truly bizarre experience you may want to try Winter & Winter 910004, titled Gustav Mahler/Uri Caine/Primal Light. It's a Weil-like pastiche of Mahler's symphonies that jazz musician Uri Caine arranged to accompany Franz Winter's silent movie about Mahler's life.

Please, make time for Mahler's symphonies. They will bring you to a deeper understanding of your self and the troubled world in which we live.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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