Why Mahler? Why Not?

Thursday, July 08, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Gustav Mahler was born 150 years ago this week and we're celebrating with a week-long "Mahlerfest" on WQXR.org.  Check it out!

To celebrate the Mahler anniversary, British music commentator Norman Lebrecht has published a book called Why Mahler? (due out in the U.S. this October). A surprising number of music-lovers ask that question with disdain, rather than love, in their voices.

I have a friend--a serious concert-goer, with symphony, opera and chamber music subscriptions--who avoids any program that contains Mahler.  When I asked why, he said he finds Mahler’s music “unemotional, with wild discord and no interesting theme; a jumble of tunes where nothing comes out right.” 

I have exactly the opposite reaction to Mahler: I love hearing all the melodies from Mahler songs that pop up in his symphonies, which move me deeply. And as a singer, I love performing his music. 

How about you? When it comes to Mahler, which camp do you fall into?


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Comments [23]

Michael Meltzer

During your week of "Mahler-go-round," an artist (and a recording) that fell through the cracks was Kirsten Flagstad, who recorded the Kindertotenlieder and the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen, I think with Sir Adrian Boult.
Even in recording, that incredible voice set everything in your room into vibration, including your wrist watch and keys, and gave a new definition to the word "singing." The performance was intensely and profoundly moving, particularly the Kindertotenlieder with its dread subject matter.
It MUST be in the WQXR archive, do look for it.

Aug. 01 2010 04:06 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

We are now celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Mahler. Beyond his composing genius, he was, perhaps, the single most dynamic force at his time in turning around the attitudes of instrumentalists and opera singers. At the Imperial Opera, now named simply, the Vienna State Opera, he insisted that the performers ACT not merely just stand and sing or just prance about the stage. He was also "instrumental," as the chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic in getting the discipline necessary to properly perform the new works. In a sense, he inspired the instrumentalists like Wagner earlier and Toscanini later, to higher goals and greater technical proficiency.

Jul. 20 2010 03:14 PM
Rose from Ardsley


You mentioned Tom Lehrer last week and his "New Math" song. Well...do you remember his song called "Alma" about Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel? The first verse is a hoot:

The first one she married was Mahler
Whose buddies all knew him as Gustav
And each time he saw he'd holler,
"Ach das ist de fraulein I moost haf!"

Their marriage however was murder.
He'd scream to the heavens above,
"I'm writing 'Das Leid von der Erde'
And she only wants to make love!"

Music (a waltz..what else?), lyrics, piano and vocal by the great Lehrer himself. A classic!

Jul. 13 2010 05:54 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Of course, it is easier for a composer to recognize and comprehend the "architectural" elements of a composition, than it would be for the average music lover. MAHLER's music is, I repeat, for a composer easily identified, and his signature in terms of mood or emotion, if you will concede, is a matter of personal "chemistry."

Jul. 12 2010 03:35 PM

"This how I want music to sound", that's what I thought when I heard the Mahler Fifth Symphony. Then I got to know them all and each has greatness in it. The Ninth is my personal favorite because of the Andante Comodo, Mahler's greatest single moment, nearly a symphony in itself, music of breathtaking beauty and expressiveness. As an old record-store customer of mine once said when asked about Fisher-Diekau singing Schubert: "What's not to like?"

Jul. 11 2010 05:30 PM
Michael Meltzer

I envy the people who get things right from the very outset, when they're young. I didn't, my first Mahler experience was his 5th Symphony under Dmitri Mitropoulos at Carnegie Hall. I was overwhelmed, confused and impatient. I couldn't wait for Mahler to get to the point and to get out to the street.
In Mahler as in life, the concept of stopping to smell the roses may come later rather than sooner, and his architecture is that of the Gothic Cathedral. You have to absorb all the detail you can, then step back a bit until you can see to the top. It was the magnificent Maurice Abravanel recordings that opened my ears, I recommend them to everyone.
So, if Mahler is a turnoff, keep on trucking but make a Mahler pit stop from time to time, and one day a revelation is sure to come. Every time I hear a Mahler Symphony now, no matter how many times I've heard it before, it's full of discovery.

Jul. 11 2010 12:43 PM

I dont care for Mahler because he isn't Tchaikovsky......

Jul. 11 2010 11:06 AM
Annette Shandolow-Hassell from North Bergen

Ahhh, Mahler. What a treat to listen to his music. Of course, one has to be in the mood to appreciate the intensity.

On the other hand, my first experience with Mahler was really quite funny. I had received a copy of his "Titan" symphony when I was about 12. My father was recovering from surgery, and we were at home, during Hanukah, eating spare ribs, when our rabbi called to see if he could visit.

We opened every window in the house, used every kind of air freshener, and then Dad grabbed my Mahler First to put on the stereo.


We had a great time. We were cold, but we had a great time.

Who says it's dull?

Jul. 10 2010 12:35 AM
C. Rothman from New York

I have attended performances of several of Mahler symphonies, which I did not enjoy.
The music seems to be so unfocused and episodic that all I could think of was: movie music.
That does not deny beautiful moments, but overall, a disconcerting (no pun intended) experience.

Jul. 09 2010 04:17 PM
Alan Polinsky

With one exception, I can say I'd listen to Mahler until the cows come home. They arrive with the 8th. I've seen it live once, and heard at least a dozen recordings of it. I've always found it quite hard to completely enjoy. The massive choruses are a revelation but ultimately intimidating to me. I guess the old Georg Solti recording with the Chicago was the one I like most, but even that one is somewhat problematic, at least to my ears.

Jul. 09 2010 03:55 PM
Michael Meltzer

Before this week, WQXR generally limited Mahler to late-night, and to one conductor (Bernstein).
This project, with its variety of interpreters and its round-the-clock programming is possibly the the most important you've undertaken since your October Revolution.

Jul. 09 2010 12:29 PM
Marta cipriani from Astoria queens-N.Y

I knew about Mahler in my country Argentina long time ago I do not see the movies about his life but something happen with me when I so his photo out side the cinema ,years later when I was in Madrid I start to listener .I hope the music it about feeling

Jul. 09 2010 12:13 PM
Ken Thompson from New York City

I have been a Mahler fan since I was a teenager. I love the emotional journeys that comprise his symphonies and song cycles. One of the most magical experiences of my life was hearing Leonard Bernstein conduct the BSO in the "Resurrection" Symphony at Tanglewood in 1970, with the divine Christa Ludwig as the alto soloist. During her entrance in "Urlicht" Ludwig's voice seemed to materialize in the air between Lenny's hands. Even the birds were in rapture at that moment!

Jul. 09 2010 09:33 AM
Gev from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Mahler wrote novels with notes instead of words. The layers are astonishing, You've got to listen between the lines.

Jul. 09 2010 06:57 AM
Michael Meltzer

I've posted this to the Maureen Forrester "Knaben Wunderhorn/Urlicht" selection site, but thought others might enjoy it too:
Sometime in the 1960's, whenever it was that she was residing in Pennsylvania, in the course of the sheet music business, I was on the receiving end of a telephone order from Maureen Forrester. In addition to her great singing talent, she happened to have the most extraordinarily beautiful telephone voice that I or probably anyone else had ever heard.
I found myself listening so raptly to the sound of her voice that I kept forgetting what she had just said and had to ask her to repeat almost everything. I'm pretty sure she thought I was stupid.
She is absolutely unforgettable. I hope WQXR will continue to air her recorded legacy.

Jul. 08 2010 06:53 PM
Antonia Wechsler from Manhattan

I enjoyed conversation earlier about Mahler's music and who, like Wagner, seems to divide people into 'love it' or hate it' camps.

Personally I can't remember a time when I didn't love Mahler's music.My parents introduced me to classical music very early on. I do remember when I was younger people saying how Wagner was an "acquired taste" (although I loved his music already as a teenager).

Perhaps that applies to Mahler too. His music isn't "easy listening" in the sense that it is so complex and powerful, one has to participate in it. He broke new ground, as did Wagner, and expanded the boundaries of classical music, and especially in his later works, really could be considered the precursor of atonal and other 'modern' music.

But while I (and my mother who claims that I introduced HER to the composer) are die hard Mahler fans (and we are SO glad that WQXR is celebrating this 150th anniversary with so much great music and commentary!)
there are composers that we are just not fond of such as,ironically Schoenberg and Berg, who worshiped Mahler.

I think when composers push the envelope in what is considered the format of the era in which they live, there will be people who just don't relate to these new and sometimes shocking breakthroughs. But for some people their music is a revelation and they instantly connect with it.

Ultimately I think the question is best answered by a French saying I was taught:
"En ne dispute pas les gouttes ni les couleurs" ,which roughly means , 'One cannot argue about tastes and colors'.

I think comes down to whether Mahler or any composer's music connects with a listener on a visceral level.It is purely a subjective experience.Some music may grow on people perhaps during different points in their lives.
I don't think you can rationally convince anyone to like a certain kind of music. You feel it or you don't.

Jul. 08 2010 04:20 PM
Robert Elden from NYC, Manhattan

My very first experience of Mahler was on a very hot Sunday afternoon in the Tanglewood shed. It was 1963, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Erich Leinsdorf conducting, Mahler's symphony No.1, "The Titan." It was magical - birds in the rafters answering the flutes, etc. I've been hooked ever since.

Jul. 08 2010 03:51 PM
Martin Yu from Yonkers, NY

I have some mixed feelings about Mahler's music. His music is achingly beautiful and deeply personal. No adagio can be more beautiful and melancholy than the fourth movement of his Fifth Sympathy. Luchino Visconti made it so famous by using it in his "Death in Venice." And not surprisingly, Ken Russell made a spoof of it in his 1974 film "Mahler." I find Mahler's music tinged with fin-de-siecle anxiety that sometimes borderlines neurotic. That "wild discord" (as Naomi's friend puts it) can be refreshing or disturbing, depending on your mood. Mahler is definitely one of the greatest classical composers of all time. However, I can't listen to his music all the time. For better or for worse, his music is reserved for that special mood and occasion.

Jul. 08 2010 03:38 PM
Ken from Clifton NJ

Its July 8th I must say I really loved the woman who covered for Jeff Spurgeaon today she was great! I hope she will be on the air more often, She had a wonderful delivery and played some very cool stuff. and Midge I love that your playing clasic performances . hey are educational. I'm tird of ere the same versions of the same works. Lets keep it going!!!!

Jul. 08 2010 02:22 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Of course, it is easier for a composer to recognize and comprehend the "architectural" elements of a composition, than it would be for the average music lover. Mahler's music is, I repeat, for a composer easily identified, and his signature in terms of mood or emotion, if you will concede, is a matter of personal "chemistry."

Jul. 08 2010 01:32 PM
Ivan Gepner from Long Branch, New Jersey

It was interesting to read the comment that Mahler has no compositional "signature". I could not disagree more - I could identify a Mahler piece, even if I had not heard it before, in no more than 30 seconds. I heard my first Mahler symphony when I was 10 years old (I'm now 64 so I was ahead of the curve) and I was hooked for life (Liensdorf and the Boston doing the 1st). No other composer resonates so completely in my psyche. I try to hear one live Mahler concert a year and this year it is difficult to choose because of the abundance of offerings. Thanks for the marathon.

Jul. 08 2010 08:31 AM
Larry LaFata from Jersey

Tell you the truth, I'm not as familiar with Mahler as other composers.

He has such a wide range of compositions, that his compositional "signature" doesn't stick out in my mind like a Beethoven or Stravinsky might.

However, enjoying getting to know his works more here on WQXR!

Terrence had a quote of Mahlers tonight that reminds a lot of what Keith Richards (guitarist/song writer for the Rolling Stones) said recently: "I don't write the music, it writes itself."

Truly, the greats have that "inspiration thing."

Jul. 07 2010 08:12 PM
Daniel Rutkowski from New York City

I deeply adore all of Gustav Mahler's music and believe me, I have heard it all.

Jul. 07 2010 06:34 PM

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