Mahler – but don’t panic!

Whether you are a newcomer to classical music or not, the chances are that there are a few composers whose very names have the potential to spook.

Just from my own experience, I suspect that Gustav Mahler may be one: it took me ages to be brave enough to listen to a whole symphony (of which there are ten), not least because they are big pieces, some of them so long that I think it was Richard Ingrams of Private Eye who gave them nicknames along the lines of ‘Interminable’ and ‘Insufferable’. I confess I go through phases with this man; but if, like me, you occasionally like or want a really loud sound, and I mean tumultuous, then this guy is for you.

Noone before him, and I suggest very few since, has been able to combine melody and weight quite like this. Today I am going to demonstrate this with only the last three minutes of his first symphony, a piece nearly an hour long, known as ‘The Titan.’

Mahler was an Austrian composer whose life (1860-1911) bridged the late romantic tradition and modernism. One of fourteen children, of whom eight died in infancy, he was of humble origins, and during his life was better acclaimed as a conductor than composer. Barely five foot tall, he had some spectacular rifts with a number of orchestras, falling out with many, because his exacting standards were so demanding that players just landed up fearing him; but he was probably the first conductor anywhere to be so universally admired for the results, especially in opera.

As a German-speaking Jew, his own music, which was almost all symphony and song focused, was banned in much of Europe, only coming to prominence in the second half of the last century; and my hunch is that his music is received today in much the same way as it was in his own lifetime – with a mixture of huge enthusiasm and utter disdain. His output was not enormous, but it is nevertheless  firmly established in the concert reportoire, so you can take it or leave it.

But not without trying first!

He won’t be completely alien to you, anyway, because almost everyone is familiar with the slow movement of his fifth symphony, made famous as the music used in the film ‘Death in Venice’, a passage which we all now associate with gloom and melancholy; although it was actually composed as a love letter for his very beautiful wife, Alma Schindler. (It does, of course, have an element of sadness in it, but that has been ridiculously exaggerated by the length of time some conductors take to play it – sometimes up to quarter of an hour, which is twice as long Mahler intended it!)

I remember thinking for a while (apologies, Mahler-nuts!) that he really shouldn’t have bothered with anything else after this first symphony, since, with few exceptions, it doesn’t for me get much better; and then I recently chanced upon a theory that this may even have been written later than some of the subsequently published symphonies, so maybe it’s not such a flippant observation after all.

Anyway, here we go with the closing moments. Imagine turning up to a concert hall in 1889 to hear this for the first time to be confronted with a huge orchestra of 100 players or more, nearly twice what people had been used to.(It wasn’t a success, as it happens.) There are ten horns playing in these final bars, Mahler expressly requiring them to stand for maximum effect. What a jubilant, thunderous sound this is!

Mahler was truly a man for scale, the large canvas, the really big moments – go and hear it in a live performance if you can. (I see the Proms have it scheduled for 8th August) He may not be indispensable for everyone, but there are times when you just want to wind the window down in the car, crank up the volume and scream for the sheer joy of life. In its entirety, this last movement epitomises exactly that: for now, just relish these few minutes – I bet you play it more than once!






4 thoughts on “Mahler – but don’t panic!”

  1. one summer I flew from London to Detroit (a journey due to weather conditions was unusually long 10 hours). How to occupy the time? Turning onto a radio station they announced a complete run of all Mahler’s symphonies. So I settled down to that. Arriving in Detroit I had flown the Atlantic but emotionally had gone around the world 9 times. Took me days to recover. I am flying to Detroit again this summer but will be going easy on the Mahler.


    1. Wow, that is quite a feat, and one I’m certain I could never do – I think I’d rather sit through all of Haydn’s 106 than do that! Not surprised you’ll be giving Mahler a bit of a rest, that was super brave!


  2. Dear Nick I am probably the only reader of your new piece old enough to remember where those Mahler symphonies the Interminable, the Insufferable and the Unendurable came from – it was the Peter Simple column (written by Michael Wharton)in the Daily Telegraph very many years ago. Lovely pictures of the gleaming instruments in the extract of music you chose, best wishes Bridget


    1. Thank you so much for your helpful recollection on this, I knew my memory wasn’t quite spot on, but it’s good know I wasn’t imagining it! Yes, the pictures are good aren’t they, with the hairbrushless Simon Rattle in the midst of them all! Bws, Nick


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