April 24, 2014

What’s So Great About Mahler?

This week we're taking on Gustav Mahler, and his farewell Ninth Symphony. The irresistible, inexhaustible Ninth has inspired the admiration of musicians, writers, and composers for more than a century. Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, is one of Gustav Mahler's great conductors and champions. He's the one taking us inside the music tonight.
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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: