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Get Mahlered: Musings On The Life & Music of Gustav Mahler

by John Bloner, Jr.

You've heard of the Mozart-effect; the belief--since debunked--that if you expose your child to the music of Mozart, it will unlock the genius within them.  Born about 100 years after Mozart in 1860, the Austrian Jew conductor and composer Gustav Mahler created songs and symphonies that may never be played in a nursery. His Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children") are not material for mothers to sing with babies at their breasts, and the hammer blows that end his Sixth Symphony may not only wake the very young but induce heart attacks in those unaware of his work, no matter their age.

Mahler's music need not be frightening; his symphonies ache with tenderness, culled from the composer's love of nature, his childhood in the city of Iglau, Moravia (now Jihlava in the Czech Republic, see photo below) when he was exposed to the thump and call of marching bands from the town square, the bleating of a horn from the postman, heralding his arrival on horseback, and the rasp of an organ grinder, bleating out the Viennese folk melody of "Ach, du Lieber, Augustin." 

Jihlava, Czech Republic, formerly Iglau, Moravia (photo by Reinhold Behringer)
Mahler made his reputation as a conductor, overseeing the Budapest and Hamburg Operas, as well as the Imperial Opera in Vienna. Late in his life, he emigrated to the United States, where he conducted the New York Philharmonic. Even if he never composed a note, his reputation would forever be held in the highest regard in the world of classical music. According to Norman Lebrecht, author of "Why Mahler?", an admirer in 1896 wrote:

"To hear Mahler conduct, feels like you have never heard music played before." 

During summer months, when the opera houses were silent, Mahler escaped into nature and wrote his symphonies. While other great composers are also known for their piano sonatas, string quartets and concertos, Mahler's focus was on songs and ten glorious symphonic works. There is nothing that plumbs their depths and soars to their heights. Each achieve a glorious ache in their own inimitable way.

Listening to the first movement of the Ninth, for example, with its cascade of sighs, it breaks through any defenses. Each time I hear it, I hear it as if for the first time. I can only describe it further by sharing something that Coleman Barks said to Bill Moyers about witnessing the gold-colored light that comes at the end of the day. 

"That gold time, well, I could hardly stand it as a child," Barks said. "I would lie down on the floor and hug myself . . . and I'd say, 'Mama, I've got that full feeling again,' and she'd say, 'I know you do, honey."

I get a full feeling each time I hear the music of Gustav Mahler.

Michael Tilson Thomas views Mahler's summer home on Lake W├Ârthersee
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, has created several documentaries on 19th and 20th century composers, including Mahler, in his "Keeping Score" series. The documentary focuses on Mahler's First Symphony, including its infamous third movement in which the children's song, Frere Jacques, is played in a minor key, as if the orchestra was at a funeral. "Solid and measured without dragging," wrote the composer in his score. The movement turns with the swaying sound of an oboe, before music that would not be out of place in "Fiddler On The Roof" takes over...at least for the moment. There always seems be diametric forces at work, no matter the symphony, pushing and pulling with either side ready to cry out for victory or their own defeat, but never achieving total triumph or complete failure.

To understand Mahler's music you may consider the art of sunlight on a mostly cloudy day. The light peaks through here and there, raking its fingers from heaven to earth.

"Keeping Score" is just one of many marvelous documentaries on the composer. Michael Tilson Thomas is an expert guide. His love of Mahler radiates from the screen.

Norman Lebrecht, author of "Why Mahler?", addresses the figure of Mahler as a contemporary.  "If  Bach were to come knocking at your door," he says in the following video presentation. "You wouldn't know what to say."

"Mozart?" he adds, "You would send him away. Beethoven come knocking at your door? You'd go and dive under the bed."

Conversely, Mahler comes to us naked. To hear his music is to hear the story of a man's life and hear it echo within your own. His loss and sorrow become our own. His love of the land, which includes the Austrian and Italian lakes, meadows and mountains, has a mirror image in whatever we may adore.

It may sound like hyperbole, but to listen to Mahler's symphonies is to hear more than music; you are encountering life itself.

I owe my love of Mahler's music to Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, whose spirited talk, "The Transformative Power of Classical Music" for TED.com earned over six million hits on that website. In that program, as well as in Zander's book, "The Art of Possibility," Zander not only teaches viewers and listeners how to listen to music, but how to engage in their daily lives. He calls this approach, "one-buttock playing."

The Daily Californian's blog offers a succinct description of "one-buttock playing" in its article on Zander's TED Talk. "Great pianist are moved by the music they play," Griffin Mori-Tornheim writes. If you're not moved, you are sitting on your haunches. If you become excited, you may lean a little to the left or right. The law of gravity seems to break down, at least in the region of your derriere. "Whether you are studying Bach or biochemistry," the author continues. "Let your passions move you."

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Passions move conductors, musicians and their audience whenever Mahler's music is performed. Martin Chalifour, concertmaster for the Los Angeles Philharmonic told Lori Niles at violinist.com:

"The basic feeling I come away with after performing a Mahler symphony is that you've gone through an entire life story, or an entire great book, and you are changed by that book, by that experience. Basically they are thought-altering experiences, each of these symphonies."

Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan-born conductor for this same orchestra (featured on the banner in the photo above and on the record cover at left) released  a recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony--the composer's final, completed, symphony--in early 2013.  Bruno Walter was the first conductor to tackle this score and many have followed and many more--Ricardo Chailly, Simon Rattle, Herbert Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, among others--have caressed the air and the music moving through it with their batons.

The first movement of this symphony, by itself, qualifies for one of the greatest gestures of love by an artist to the world. To hear the total work of Gustav Mahler can be overwhelming. Is the human heart capable of holding this much sadness and this much joy? In the video below, Gustavo Dudamel rehearses with his orchestra for their performance of the Ninth Symphony and then visits in an interview to share his thoughts on the music, the interpretations of Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein to the Ninth, and what Mahler might have been thinking when giving this work to music lovers for generations to come.

Author Norman Lebrecht posits in "Why Mahler?" that the composer has influenced Hollywood music, particularly John Williams' score for "Star Wars", as he has also had an influence on pop musicians. A memorable use of Mahler's own music was in the film, Death In Venice, a 1971 Italian-French drama that is soaked in the romantic dark tones of the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony.

While music plays a critical role in the films of Jim Jarmusch ("Dead Man," "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai," "Broken Flowers" and more), I never expected to encounter Mahler in one of Jarmusch's movies. At the end of the highly-underrated picture, "Cigarettes and Coffee", two janitors on a break talk about Mahler and the piece, "Ich bin der Welt verhanden gekommen" (I Have Lost Touch With The World). The song wafts through the dark armory, while afterward the men wax on Nikola Telsa, New York in the late 1970s, and compare the working man's champagne in a cup of coffee to the real thing.

The short subject's ending has stayed with me longer than hundreds of other features, just as Mahler's music stays with me.

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena
There is no better way to conclude this article than to share a video of the late Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, leading an orchestra in performance of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," in which the Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena lends her beauty of voice and spirit.

The New York Times called Abbado "a particularly lyrical interpreter of Mahler, whose richly emotional language he had absorbed as a student in Vienna."

A final thought: to lose touch with the world; is this a bad thing or is it liberation?