Jonathan Carr's biography, Mahler, helped me understand why I've been so fascinated from college days to the present with Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). I'm not sure who introduced me to Mahler. I think it might have been my vocal instructor, Edward Anderson, who gave me a shot at "Songs of a Wayfarer," a collection of folk songs, when I was nearing my last days as a music major at Colorado State University. I remember subsequently buying a recording of one of the Mahler symphonies; it had to have been the 1st or 3rd because these are among the most artistically and emotional accessible. I've come back to Mahler at several times in my listening life but he seeped into my musical obsession about ten years ago.
You can always recognize one of Mahler's compositions; they are far too distinctive to miss. Aside from the musical coherence of his work (even though his experimentation developed, pushed, and brought 20th century music into being), his emotional focus is almost the same from beginning to end. He repeatedly searched to understand the purpose of life, the cause and inspiration of pain, and sought the transcendent assurance that his life was worthwhile. Although his life and music were profoundly influenced by tragedy, so many of his compositions reflect the striving and the occasional victory echoed in the last phrase of his 8th Symphony, "Was du geschlagen Zu Gott wird es dich tragen" (What thou hast fought for shall lead thee to God).
Although risking the ire of anti-Mahlerians or those who embrace Mahler but reject his 8th Symphony, I have to own that it is one of my favorites! It is the "Symphony of a Thousand," a name likely coined by the promoters who wanted its premiere to draw a crowd. The chilling and shimmering quiet at the beginning of the last movement never ceases to stand every hair on my body on end. It then goes on to declare hope in love and what it can teach us about living life to its fullest. Declared in his own handwriting on the score of the 8th, "To live for you! To die for you!" to Alma who almost simultaneously was betraying his love. The tragedy of this infidelity was momentarily silenced the evening of September 12, 1910, when the crowd of 3,200 at the Neue Musikfesthalle in Munich came to their feet, first in reverent silence and then in thundering applause, as Mahler strode to the podium. The ovation after the performance would last a full one-half hour, marking this as one of the last great European premieres to precede the darkness of WWI which would follow four years later.
Mahler has increasingly grown in popularity, although there are those who still have not heard or do not embrace his compositional style. Even those devoted to him have individual symphonies with which they struggle. For some the 1st is too Romantic, for others the 2nd is over the top, the 3rd too short, the 6th too tragic, the 7th too confusing, the 8th a departure from his push toward 20th century angst. Leonard Bernstein, who was partially responsible for returning Mahler to wide popularity in the late 1960s, explained the ambivalence that contemporaries felt in the late 19th and early 20th century - Mahler's music reflected the growing disillusionment of those years and thus could not be embraced until the middle of the 20th century when the "age of anxiety" took its full grip on the globe.
Mahler endured being Jewish during the rise of anti-Judaism, sought acceptance and opportunity by converting to Christianity, suffered the loss of a beloved daughter, accepted the infidelity of his wife, and bore the intolerance of those who could not understand this complex and mysterious genius. Yet his music can stir us to consider our purposes in life and challenge us to consider carefully how we might be able to make our days on earth count.
I made the commitment to court Mahler lovingly and it has brought me incredible pleasure. And I'm searching for the best place in the world to hear Mahler's 8th Symphony on the 100th anniversary of its premiere on September 12, 2010.