What’s So Great About Mahler?

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Benjamin Zander is giving us the maestro’s tour around Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, an epic novel without words, the musical match of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, except that Mahler 9 is about Life and Death. It’s the only work of art you can think of in which the author and the audience have the experience of giving up the ghost, together. It stretches the sounds of silence, and every other form and mood – waltzes, marches, fanfares, folk tunes. It’s so full of ideas and one man’s emotions you can forget that he’s repeating himself over and over. It’s the last pinnacle of Vienna’s orchestral history, the first masterpiece of Hollywood music before there were movies. It lives on near the center of the concert repertoire as a heart-rending farewell to life and a foretaste of a century of breakdown and trouble ahead, starting with World War I. This is the symphony that opens with music that’s close to silence, and closes an hour and a half later with a more extended, almost endless hush of strings.

If you need a refresher, watch Philharmonia‘s short guide to the symphony:

And see Ben Zander’s TED talk on bringing classical music to the general public:


More Reading

• Alex Ross’s piece on Gustav Mahler in the London Review of Books;

• Lewis Thomas’s full essay, “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony”;

• “Four Ways to Say Farewell,” a short documentary featuring Leonard Bernstein on the Ninth Symphony;

• and our own take on the video, with four endings to Mahler’s 9th cut together:

Related Content

  • IlikeMahler

    Mahler tears open the cocoon we put our souls in -for everyday protection, or because of laziness or pain- so we can experience the vastness of it again. He does so by showing us how closely related emotions are, the ones we feel comfortable with, and the ones we ignore, push away, hide, avoid or deny. And he does this without morality, just like nature itself, thus making his music a force of nature.

    • Kunal Jasty

      This is a wonderful response! We’d love for you to leave us a voicemail using the link above

  • Kunal Jasty

    We took the question to reddit, and here are some of my favorite responses.

    From user leton98609:
    “The Ninth is a symphony that opens with one of the grandest single movements in the history of symphonic movements. From a kind of confused, stumbling, misty sound world, great themes and melodies arise, and then are torn apart and destroyed by three violent climaxes. The sheer amount of material and complexity of form in the first movement defies most analysis: but a variety of motifs, such as the trumpet that ends the initial outburst of the “sighing” violin theme dominate the music. The initial four notes on the harp are echoed in the timpani in a funeral march near the close of the movement. And in the end, you realize that much of this thematic material is actually derived from one another despite their seeming differences. The violent, dissonant trumpet theme is reconciled with the “sighs” in the end of the movement after an eerie horn-flute duet.
    The second movement shows one of the great juxtapositions that I talked about. One of the most simple and elegant dances, a Landler, or the less educated rural brother of the waltz, starting the movement, is abruptly shot out of place by its vicious urban counterpart. Through the movement, these two dances are subjected to greater and greater violence, until the end, when the Landler from the beginning returns stripped of something vital.
    The third movement is violent, dark, brooding, and a triumph of compositional mastery. Through some of the most complex counterpoint Mahler composed (supposedly to address some of his critics) violent, clashing brass dominate the movement. Until the middle section: one that turns strangely plaintive and almost melancholy. There is a final, belligerent return to the the “A” theme of the movement, finally shot apart and ending with a savage flurry on the trumpets.
    The fourth movement takes the thematic material first introduced in the mysteriously out of place middle section of the third movement and from it transforms an entire movement. This final movement, set in the most resonant of keys, D-flat Major, immerses the listener in a world of absolute beauty and profound sadness. The two themes that are subject to variation through the movement climax in the middle with the transfer of the opening theme to the horns, seemingly the final emotional breakthrough and moment of catharsis the listener has been waiting for. But, wait, there is more! The instruments slowly fade away, until only a few are left playing almost meaningless notes. The silence in between begins to dominate rather than the music, until the music finally completely fades away. What is this, farewell, acceptance, a portrayal of death as Bernstein claimed? In my opinion, it’s probably a mixture of all three with less emphasis on the death.
    And that is the culmination, more or less, of my two and a half years of listening to the symphony. I’ve heard many interpretations and come to my own after a study of all of those: it is my hope that I buy a score to the symphony soon as I’ve already done with one of Mahler’s other late works (Das Lied von Der Erde) so that I can gain a truly complete understanding of the symphony.”

    From user down_my_banana:
    “What I enjoy most about Mahler is his amalgam of so many different styles and moods. He moves in a very satisfying narrative between dance, march, song, fanfare, folk, atmosphere, pastoral etc often at breakneck speed, and it all still makes sense. I think hearing the different styles is harder for modern ears since we are used to having endless amounts of variety, but the contrast within a phrase is really amazing. He’s like an Austrian version of Charles Ives, with the difference of hanging on to the tonal thread.
    Specifically with the 9th he moves so deftly between a very relaxed and serene beauty and violent anger. The delight of life coexists with the frustration of its eventual loss. I think in this way Mahler captures the paradox of existence, of that human capacity to hold on to contradiction and the enjoyment of uncomfortable irony.
    I think that Mahler, for listeners, is the essential 20th century composer. Nothing in the last hundred years makes sense without him, and I’ve always thought that theorists and historians were too occupied with the “inside baseball” to recognize that he was to the late 20th century what Beethoven was to the 19th. Schoenberg was more like its Berlioz, Boulez, it’s Wagner, Cage was, well Cage. As pivotal as they were intellectually, people would still rather hear Mahler. The style of the orchestral music that the broad public hears on a regular basis (eg film music) is more like Mahler than any other 20th century composer.
    Again, I’m speaking from the POV of a listener, not the academic, because I know what I said is pure rubbish, but so are the dominant narratives of 20th c musical scholarship, esp that it exists in a vacuum insulated from the base interests of listeners and popular culture. But I’ll say it again: Mahler is the most important 20th century composer as far as the audience is concerned. Also he was postmodern before it was cool.”

    From user brocket66:
    “What do I love about Mahler so much? Well, his symphonies are practically operatic in scope and ambition. Mahler once said that the “symphony must be like the world,” and he meant it — his symphonies are long but they’re so jam-packed with original musical ideas that you never feel he’s being at all repetitive.
    As for the Symphony No. 9, I think it’s a devastating piece about confronting death, which is actually what a lot of Mahler pieces are about — the majority of his symphonies incorporate a funeral march of some kind, after all.
    The 9th, ironically enough, doesn’t have a funeral march. But it does have a final movement that gets slowly more and more quiet toward the end until you can barely hear the strings being played. It’s a wee bit like Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony where all of the orchestral instruments except for the strings slowly exit, except in this case the “farewell” is of a much more permanent nature.
    I cannot think of a piece of music that emotionally affects me the way the last movement of the 9th does. Mahler wrote it at the end of his life and, even though he had another symphony planned after it, it sounds like he wrote it with the end in mind.”

    From user IplayTrombone:
    “I can’t put how I feel about Mahler in to words. And I can’t write enough. But Mahler to me is like a poem. A huge poem. There’s so much in it you can’t just read our hear it once. You need to do it several times. You need to hear it done by a bunch of people before you get it. You need to hear it at different times in the day, in different moods, at different points in life. And it will always speak to you. From the first trembling confused listen to when you know every note and nook and cranny and breath. It always shows me new things. The symphonies are all encompassing. Hugely programmatic and soulful. To me, more than any other music. Mahler was the last of the true romantic composers. His tenth crossing into serial composition. To me the romantic era died with him. So to me there is no other composer who was as open hearted, free feeling, and over spilling with emotion. As far as I am concerned music climaxed with him. I hear past masters influencing him like Bach, Beethoven as well as his contemporaries, as well as a pave way for the future. His music had wild effects and journals dedicated to his conducting, directing, compositions, and life. He swayed the will of kings and cities, people and societies. He set standards we have today in the concert and opera hall and set a precedent for music as a high art form. I don’t know what else to say. He is simply the best.”

  • Bert Barth

    Bruno Walter said it so well: Mahler’s musical journeys take neurotic misery and turn it into “pure gold”, ecstatic reconciliation and release. [Thankful, too, that my old haunt at WBUR remains a serious music home.]

  • Kunal Jasty

    Leonard Bernstein’s face at 1:17:47 in this video explains it all imo. Sweat pouring off his face, completely captivated by the fading music at the end of the 4th movement


  • Robert J Keenen

    Thank you so much for tonight’s program. It was 1931, my Grandmother took me to the BSO to hear Serge Koussevitzky, conduct Mahler’s 9th Symphony. My life changed that day and I finally understood what music was about.

  • chris

    I’ve been Mahlerized, somewhat against my Brahmsian better judgment. I’ve been listening all day to Herbert Von Karajan’s and Gustavo Dudamel’s takes on Mahler 9 — and feeling Mahler’s own grip on heart and mind. Is this disloyalty to the man I think of as the Henry James of music? Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) was the great old lion of Vienna, among the first to certify young Mahler’s genius as an up-and-coming conductor; but he was also dismissable as a fuddy-duddy by the time Mahler’s career as a composer came into full glory. For nobility of architecture, harmonic originality, complex and still ravishing melodies, Brahms is my grand master. But oh, this Mahler and Ben Zander’s reading of the love and longing, the rough and ragged edges in the 9th Symphony are getting to me.

    Maybe the best fun of last evening came in the WBUR studio after 10 p.m. when the Open Source gang and Ben’s let fly with all the distasteful reservations about Mahler that everybody knows are out there: that he’s over-the-top schmaltzy, self-absorbed, careless of the border between sentiment and sentimentality. “I hate Mahler with a passion,” one of the reading world’s beloved musicophiles had said to me earlier in the day, declining to join our radio conversation, for all those familiar reasons about the self, self, self in Mahler’s music. It was Ben Zander’s suggestion that the Mahler doubters must first free their ears from a lot of wrong recordings. To my mind the single best course of instruction in Mahler 9 is Leonard Bernstein’s account from deep inside the piece in Four Ways to Say Farewell. And still a good argument was made in our post-game last night that the myth of Mahler’s self-indulgence is in truth a reflection of Bernstein’s own self on naked display in all those recordings and videos. Listening again today I’m testing the thought that the Karajan Mahler has smoothed and prettified the anti-idyll of the 9th Symphony; that the Dudamel version is overbright, almost triumphant in all the wrong places. Ben Zander’s own recording with the Philharmonia in London accentuates the dark dissonances in the piece; I give him a lot of credit for sticking with his own reading, and I can’t wait to hear in Symphony Hall tonight how it’s evolved.

  • Hey Chris,
    We WBUR listeners are incredibly lucky to have you back on the air! Thanks so much for giving this incredible piece, Ben and the BPO the gift of your attention. I am delighted to help Mahlerize a fellow Brahmsian. For 90 minutes last night, we all experienced something powerful together, despite the noise I hope that we all ended up enlightened by the radiance of peace Mahler left us to bathe in at the conclusion. Best wishes.

    • chris

      Dear Eric, principal trumpet among the towering soloists in the BPO: What a night that was, and what a thrill to get your greeting this morning! In mind, body and spirit, we were all better people leaving that hall than entering it: humbler and stronger for the tears, exalted by the genius in those horns, challenged by the expressive power in the cello and viola sections, and in all those (as promised!) individual voices standing out on clarinets, flutes and solo violin, and in the astonishing collective intelligence and drive of the BPO. Still puzzling, Eric: how do we describe our own relation with Maestro Mahler and his music. I’m wary from the notion that Mahler 9 “is us,” or “is about us.” But can’t we say for sure that Gustav Mahler knows us completely?

  • Benjamin Zander mentions in passing Stephan Zweig’s masterpiece “The World of Yesterday.” ROS listeners and comment readers will know Stephan Zweig from the current Wes Anderson movie “Grand Budapest Hotel” based on various of Zweig’s writings, as well as Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”, (based on Zweig), etc. Zweig was Richard Strauss’s librettist.

    Zweig writes in this book:

    “It was wonderful to be the darling of Vienna, but it was not easy to remain so…
    He who in the opera knew Gustav Mahler’s iron discipline, which extended to the minutest detail, or realized the Philharmonic’s matter-of-fact energetic exactitude, today is rarely satisfied by any musical or theatrical performance.” (“World of Yesterday”, University of Nebraska paperback, 1964, page 19)

    A man of thirty was also regarded as an unfledged person and even one of forty was not yet considered ripe for a position of responsibility. Once, when a surprising exception occurred and Gustav Mahler was appointed Director of the Imperial Opera at thirty-eight, the frightened whisper and astonished murmur went through Vienna that the first artistic institution had been entrusted to “so young a man.”

    To have seen Gustav Mahler on the street was an event that we proudly reported to our comrades the next morning as a personal triumph….
    I could tell of great premieres, those of Gustav Mahler’s Tenth Symphony in Munich, the Rosenkavalier in Dresden….” (“World of Yesterday”)

    Without wanting to sound “bloviational”, I try to thematize Mahler’s Ninth in this way:

    1. The death and mortality bring to mind “Thanatopsis” (William Cullen
    Bryant poem and the Asher Durand painting)
    Death as repose makes me think of Goethe’s poem in “Faust”:
    Beyond all peaks is rest
    Over all treetops you fall hardly a breath.
    Wait a bit, you’ll rest too.
    Death as assault make me think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gently…”

    2. Ominous or menacing aspects of the coming future world make me think of the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, “Earth’s Holocaust.”
    3. Silence brings to mind Hamlet’s “the rest is silence.”
    4. The interlaced nature of life and death bring one of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” to mind:
    Only he who has also raised
    his lyre among shadows
    may find his way back
    to infinite praise.
    Only he who has eaten with the dead
    from their stores of poppy
    will never again lose
    the softest chord.
    And though the pool’s reflection
    often blurs before us:
    Know the image.
    Only in the double realm
    do the voices become
    eternal and mild.
    — Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke
    Lastly, Mahler, like Darwin (who never quite recovered from the early death of his beloved daughter Annie) and Descartes (who also lost a young daughter and escaped into his Cartesian thoughts) lost his daughter Putzi to diptheria in 1907 and this might well have exacerbated his endocarditis and hastened his death.

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  • Chris Lovett

    Always liked those murky depths in the Andante Comodo, groping textures rather than melodic statements. It later struck me this was a reprocessing of similar passages in the 3rd Symphony (beginning of the 4th movement) and in “Der Abschied” (so much of this a music of place, the space in which a brook sings or, Rilke puts it in Der Tod des Dichters, “diese ganze Weite.”

    When I was a teen growing up in Boston, I used to go over the orchestral score that I checked out from the BPL, sometimes playing passages on my cello. That helped me grasp the structure first movement–which at first seemed such a jumble–as a wonder of basic sonata form, with one of Mahler’s pseudo exposition repeats, plus all that continuing variation (and a minimum of literal repetition). In the second movement, the variations get more and more grotesque, though I can’t escape thinking of different instruments as characters at a party I’ve been at too many times before. At the end, the horn is the slobbering fool helped outside by by the bassoon and high winds.

    The first time I heard the symphony performed live was at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. There was barely enough room for all members of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony to fit on stage, but the acoustics were actually pretty good. That especially seemed the case in the coda of the last movement, which sounded unexpectedly like something cut adrift into space. For me, the ending doesn’t feel slow as much as weightless–in a way that neither heaviness nor lightness have meaning. Rather than a space of a large bounded dimension, it’s “diese ganze Weite” to the next power.

    I did eventually hear the 9th performed by the BSO at Symphony Hall, but that took two tries. On the first try, I waited the usual hour-plus for a rush ticket. When my turn came, they had only one ticket. I led the woman behind me get it. For some reason, I thought it would have been nice to let someone enjoy something I’d already experienced (barring all impossibility of literal repetition).

    BTW, some intriguing references to the symphony and Das Lied in Teju Cole’s first novel, “Open City.”