The Amazing Mahler

The Amazing Mahler

These days, Gustav Mahler is perhaps the most frequently played composer at symphony concerts. Usually performed are one of his nine symphonies, his unfinished tenth symphony, or his symphonic Song of the Earth.

This fact is remarkable for at least two reasons: Mahler’s music has only recently become popular; and these often huge, complex symphonies are among the only pieces he ever wrote.

When I was a young trumpet player, Mahler’s music was just being introduced into the concert hall, along with that of Mahler’s near-contemporary, Anton Bruckner. My musical friends and I loved both, because they featured great brass parts. 

At that time, performances were somewhat rare, with concerts featuring classical and romantic composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. Gradually, though, Mahler has overtaken these composers (as well as Bruckner) to become staples of every orchestra’s season.

The reason? It’s hard to say, but my guess is that Mahler’s music—roiling, upsetting, ethereal, triumphant—is a good fit for our troubled times. And it would be difficult to think of another composer whose music better showcases the forces of the orchestra.

It’s hard to imagine that these popular symphonies are among a small, select group of pieces that Mahler ever wrote. Unlike virtually every other well-known composer, whose works include hundreds of shorter and simpler pieces, Mahler’s catalog is mostly symphonies.

Perhaps we can begin to understand if we remember that, during his lifetime, Mahler was known as a conductor, not a composer. His schedule was so busy that virtually the only time he had to write was during the summers, when the conducting season was over and he was able to spend time in one of his music huts, writing.

During these breaks, he started off composing a few songs, song cycles, and other modest works, but soon, apparently impatient to get to the good stuff, he dove into symphonies. He would emerge most years with a new symphony, usually of inspiring and mind-boggling proportions.

How did he do it? What’s a genius?

I would have loved to hear music conducted by Gustav Mahler. More than that, I would have cherished the chance to sit at his shoulder in one of those music huts, watching and listening as he created his glorious symphonies.


Blog: Music