Friday, 27 August 2010

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler
This year it is 150 years since Mahler was born. Next year it will be a century since he died at the age of 50.
When Gustav Mahler died, the Great War was just three years away. Vienna, after that war, would no longer be the cultural capital of Europe, but a large city in a tiny country, like an empty emporium in a district whose residents have moved away.
Mahler came in the long line of great Viennese symphonists – JC Bach (son of JS), Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner - but Mahler would be the last.
In the course of this progression, orchestras became larger and larger, and Mahler's music is written for large late romantic orchestras - sometimes even immense orchestras, as with the 8th symphony ("the symphony of a thousand").

In his own day he was renowned as the world’s greatest conductor (he was chief conductor of both the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic). In that capacity he conducted the New York Philharmonic when the young pianist Sergei Rachmaninov played the solo part in his new piano concerto no 2.
But in his summer holidays Mahler composed. He completed nine symphonies, and left his 10th symphony able to be realised by others after his death. He also wrote several song cycles, including "Das Lied von der Erde" ("the Song of the Earth") which is almost a symphony in its own right.
For me, Mahler’s music is the culmination of the entire classical tradition. It is music of immense spiritual depth, enormous technical facility, and reaches new dimensions of emotion. It is as if the whole classical tradition were striving to this fulfilment.
It is true that great composers continued to write after he had gone (and after the Great War) but wonderful though their work was, they were outlying islands from the lands’ end reached with Mahler. With the Great War, the rise of African music, mediated through North America, led to the new musical forms of jazz, the blues, rock and pop.
Mahler’s music is not background music. But it is music that can transport the soul.
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