Even in the 150th year of his birth, Gustav Mahler continues to inspire a generation. Let's rewind the Mahler phenomenon.
The late romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is today at the pinnacle of popularity next only to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Mahler concerts are sold out and his recordings sell like hot cakes. This is indeed a phenomenal achievement for a composer who in his lifetime was known as a conductor and composed in secret.
No one wanted to listen to his music; only his pupils Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter knew his music. Mahler himself tried to conduct some of the symphonies but he was ignored. When he died exhausted through carrying out the dual role of a conductor and composer his words echoed “My time will come”. How right he was.
The rise and rise of Gustav Mahler began with his birth centenary in 1960 when some conductors like Klemperer, Karajan, Walter and Barbirolli helped by the early LP recordings started a Mahler resurrection. Their efforts influenced the next generation of conductors like Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink, Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle. Without a Mahler cycle no conductor was worth his baton. Now the two back-to-back centenaries, 150th year of his birth (2010) and centenary of his death (2011) will take the Mahler reputation to a fever pitch which very few composers have achieved.
Gustav Mahler was born into a Jewish family and had many brothers and sisters. Most of them died and death was a lifetime companion with Mahler. In his childhood he sat beside the deathbed of a dear brother and after marriage he lost several children. It is not surprising that the slow movement of his Fourth symphony depicts a walk through the graveyard of children.
The curse of nine
The sound world of Mahler's nine symphonies (like Beethoven he completed nine and left a tenth unfinished), is awesome and ideally suited to the age of the hi-fi. No wonder young people love Mahler. The amazing philigree of sound Mahler draws from the instruments makes listening to him addictive. His massive orchestras with their gargantuan length somehow make them hypnotic. Listening to Mahler is like going on a trip.
Mahler is close to our age because his sound world depicts angst and terror. This is autobiographical. Mahler always felt alienated as a Semitic. He once wrote, “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian amongst Germans, as a Jew throughout the world. Always an intruder, never welcome.” He was always restless and his music communicates a world in perpetual flux. He married the beautiful Alma Schiendler a Viennese socialite. She made Mahler feel inadequate and forced him to consult the great Sigmund Freud. Their talks were not a help. But amidst all the pain of an incurable heart disease and the trauma of having a dissatisfied wife (one of her many lovers was the famous artist Gustav Klimt), Mahler continued to compose some of the most exquisite symphonies in the repertoire. They are decorative and full of sonic patterns like a Persian carpet.
Mahler was very skilled in using the voice and his song cycles are like extended symphonies. The first symphony (Titan) is arguably the finest first symphony by any composer. His second is titled “Resurrection” and has wonderful voice parts. The Third can be termed Mahler's “Pastoral”. The seven movements are titled with pastoral thoughts “Summer comes in, what the meadow flowers tell me andwhat the night tells me” and so on. It is one of the longest symphonies ever composed with voices singing a nonsensical song which is very enjoyable.
The fourth is his shortest and has the children's graveyard movement and a walk in paradise with the soprano. The fifth, sixth and seventh are his instrumental trilogy. The adagietto movement from the fifth has been used in many films as background score. The eighth is called “A symphony of the thousand” and is purely vocal. It is a mind boggling work and the effect is staggering. The ninth is Mahler's farewell from the earth and is purely instrumental. Actually there is a strange story attached to it. This is the superstition of the “Ninth”. After Beethoven died completing nine symphonies, composers began to believe that no one could go beyond the “ninth”. Bruckner another composer of symphonies died leaving the ninth incomplete. Mahler believed in this story and tried to escape the occult by composing a song cycle “Song of the earth” (Das Lied von der Erde) which he insisted was his ninth symphony and the ninth as we know it now was the tenth. But Mahler too could not escape. Of course, Shostakovich whose symphonies owe a debt to Mahler completed 15 symphonies. So much for the voodoo!
Mahler's world is more than fascinating it is awe inspiring and at times sublime. What is a phenomenon is that he in his lifetime hundred years ago was a voice in the wilderness. Today he is the voice of the younger generation and music enthusiasts throughout the world. Indeed tomorrow belongs to Gustav Mahler.