Mahler and the human condition

I suggested that Beethoven’s life was in his music – struggling to develop the traditional form he inherited against the spectrum of his unquiet life, the turbulence discernable in the music itself. Gustav Mahler(1860-1911) however claimed that for him his music comprehended the whole world . ‘To listen to a Mahler symphony’ writes Philip Barford ‘is to have not only a musical experience but to be profoundly stirred in psycho-spiritual inwardness by an emotionally highly-charged sound-pattern’.

Sixty years ago Mahler’s work was rarely performed and it may have been his raw emotion and spiritual searching that prevented general acceptance of his new vision. Now his symphonies and lieder are in every orchestral repertoire; indeed he is in danger of being over-played. Recognised in his day as a foremost conductor on the international scene, every summer he retreated to compose music that came out of his search for true musical expression.

His friend Bruno Walter (whom I saw conduct a concert in 1946) writes ‘I was struck by the explosiveness of his nature and a certain part wild, part droll humour that contrasted with a touchingly deep and clear tranquillity’.

I first heard one of his symphonies in performance in 1975 in Birmingham Town Hall. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur played the first Symphony. I was sitting in the choir stalls – just behind the percussion! The great motif which thunders out the climax of the last movement was one of the most visceral moments of my life. I was overwhelmed with such power and passion and leapt to my feet (alone I quickly realised, so sat down quite soon!). I had never heard music like it. The triumph in that conclusion is typical of Mahler’s art, but a sense of despair and loss is in all his music as well, as it was in his life.

In the symphonies you see the darkness of his soul – in the Sixth Symphony especially, but also as it turns to the light, such as in the glorious final choral movement of the Second.Deeply affected by the death of his elder daughter at the age of four and bitterly aware of a heart condition that was to cause his death at a comparatively early age, death became a recurrent theme in his music, but also resolution and hope. Reflecting on his popularity, the conductor Klaus Tennstedt (who recorded all the symphonies) said ‘Young people are searching for values that have been destroyed. Long after his death, Mahler fights on against a terrible world. He gives people back their sense of feeling, and fear, and outrage’.

Of another generation, his music belongs to and eloquently speaks to our’s.