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Learning to love Gustav Mahler

The composer's works have moved past the controversy to be ubiquitous and vital.

March 14, 2010|By Richard S. Ginell
  • Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma.
Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma. (The New York Philharmonic…)

One evening in 1966, not long after the Los Angeles Philharmonic moved into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, concertgoers were surprised to find a picket line in front of the hall on opening night. Though picket lines were a dime a dozen in the '60s, this one was unusual, for these young music lovers were protesting the shortage of works by Gustav Mahler on the philharmonic's agenda. The protest received radio coverage, and it had the effect of launching the local Gustav Mahler Society.

Can you imagine such a scene today? The composer who ruefully called himself "thrice homeless" -- a Bohemian among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew throughout the world -- is as indelible a presence in the classical music universe as Beethoven or Brahms in 2010, the year of Mahler's 150th birthday, and leading into 2011, the 100th anniversary of his death.

It is hard to think of another great composer who blasted his way from near-oblivion into the basic repertoire with such force in the last third of the 20th century.

And he has stayed there with undiminished popularity. When young conductors make their first big splash these days, they often do so with one of Mahler's massive, all-embracing 10 symphonies.

Two cases in point: Gustavo Dudamel attracted early attention with his precocious mastery of the Second and Fifth symphonies and launched his term as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the First (which he will be reprising at Walt Disney Concert Hall on April 25). His predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, came out of nowhere to sub for Michael Tilson Thomas in Mahler's Third with London's Philharmonia Orchestra and later made his debut as music director here with the same piece.

Defying the fading classical CD market, Mahler symphony cycles keep pouring out; more than 20 are available with more coming soon.

David Zinman is up to the Seventh in his straight-forward cycle from Zurich; most of Valery Gergiev's demonic London cycle is now out, with only the Fifth and Ninth awaiting release. Tilson Thomas recently completed his own set of the symphonies with the mighty Eighth, which gathered a triple crown of Grammy Awards in January -- and he and the San Francisco Symphony will be playing four of Mahler's symphonies in Europe next season.

"I have been very much transformed by Mahler's message," Tilson Thomas said by phone.

"I'm sitting here looking out at San Francisco Bay -- and it's a misty, foggy day -- and somehow my whole experience of taking this in is shaped by some of the landscapes I've experienced in passages of the Ninth Symphony. No one since Schubert has been as involved with the act of walking [in nature], of interacting with the people. What Mahler did was succeed in fulfilling Schubert's ambitions using Wagner's methods."

In his own time, Mahler was much more famous as a conductor, an object of gossip like any celebrity; indeed, Vienna was abuzz when his marriage to the beautiful, intelligent Alma Schindler (he was 41, she only 22) became known. He kept up a hectic, workaholic pace, running the Vienna Court Opera and later the New York Philharmonic, with only a few weeks each summer devoted to composing. He wanted to be remembered as a composer, first and foremost, but such recognition eluded him during his lifetime and for decades afterward.

The past 50 years

One only has to go back to 1960, the year of the Mahler centennial, to marvel at how scarce his music was then and how much his stock has rocketed since. Little by little, Mahler was gaining attention, thanks to championing by a handful of surviving Mahler disciples ( Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter) and a few mavericks ( Dimitri Mitropoulos, Hermann Scherchen), but he was still relegated to the fringes of the repertoire.

The unfinished Tenth Symphony was just a fragment consisting of one or sometimes two movements, the sketches still awaiting a full performing version. All nine completed symphonies had finally been made available on records by 1953, but the pickings were still scarce; the Third, Seventh and Eighth had only one version each in print, and the first cycle by a sole conductor, Leonard Bernstein, was seven years away.

The same old excuses about Mahler's music were still being casually thrown about: too long, too difficult, too morbid, too bombastic, too derivative, too vulgar and, unfortunately, in some unrepentant circles, too Jewish.

Interestingly, according to Henry-Louis de La Grange's decades-in-the-making, four-volume biography of Mahler -- which, like a Mahler symphony, is huge, all-encompassing and immediately gripping -- the composer's music could make a big impression upon audiences of his time, particularly his longest and most discursive symphony of all, the Third.

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