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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Essential Works: Gustav Mahler

The mighty symphonies and heart-rending songs of Mahler continue to speak to us 100 years after his death. Continuing the celebration of his 150th birthday (which was last week) we look at five works that the budding Mahlerite should start a collection with. As usual, titles link to recording recommendations.

A cartoon depicting the eternal struggle: Mahler vs. Orchestra.
Symphony No. 1 "Titan"
On the surface, this is Mahler's most conventional symphony, with its four-movement structure and funeral march. However, one movement ("Blumine" was dropped right before the premiere. The symphony moves from a bucolic opening into a charging, heroic theme. When the hero, a hunter is felled, his funeral is depicted as the animals in the forest carrying his corpse to the theme of "Frere Jacques." The orchestra then lurches into celebratory music that you might hear at a Jewish wedding--or a particularly raucous funeral.

Symphony No. 3
The 'big enchilada' among Mahler symphonies. Number Three is a six-movement epic which finds Mahler attempting to depict all the world in 100 minutes, from the mountains bursting out of the earth, to the flowers in the meadow, the beasts in the forest, mankind and the angels above. It's all very Nietzschean and requires a tremendous commitment from orchestra, conductor, and audience. But it's worth it. The Third originally bore the title "My Happy Science" after Nietzsche. A seventh movement ("What the Child Tells Me") was also dropped: it became the finale of Mahler's Fourth.

Symphony No. 6. "Tragic"
The Sixth is a muscular four-movement symphony depicting the downfall of an unidentified hero. The work starts out with a sturdy march, and moves on through some of the loudest passages Mahler ever wrote. This is the one to leave on in the house when you go out if you don't like your neighbors. In the finale, the hero is felled by a series of great hammer-blows in the percussion. And yes, this effect is achieved with a gigantic wooden mallet, most often hitting a wooden box.

Symphony No. 7 "The Song of the Night"
This is deep-end Mahler. Five movements. The first four evoke nocturnal activities and journeys in the dark. A noble theme depicting the fall of evening. A walk through the Austrian countryside at night. A shadowy nightmare. Tender love music with mandolin and guitar. But in the finale, the night music gives way to clattering, brassy daylight as the orchestra roars through a theme borrowed from the more pompous pages of Die Meistersinger. Mahler satirizing Wagner? We can only speculate.

Das Lied von der Erde
A symphony in all but name, the "Song of the Earth" is Mahler's setting of a book of Chinese folk songs. Tragic and contemplative, it is one of Mahler's finest intersections of voice and orchestra. Mahler originally planned to make this his Ninth Symphony, but changed the title in order to beat the "Beethoven Curse" that plagued composers in the 19th century who struggled to write a Tenth Symphony. Mahler then wrote his Ninth proper, but died while working on his Tenth, fulfilling the curse.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats